Libraries, licences and university presses: An interview with Martin Wolf

One of the obvious benefits of being a university press is the close proximity to university life. LUP is fortunate to benefit from regular dialogue with academic staff, students and librarians. Among this final category the University of Liverpool’s Research Support Lead, Martin Wolf, has proved a valuable interlocutor over the years, never afraid to robustly question our practice as publishers. It is this kind of dialogue that helps to ensure a university press maximises its most obvious advantage in being of and for universities.

AC: I remember a few years ago we sat at a rather polarised conference on Open Access at the British Library and you said to me, ‘can’t we all just get along?’ but your recent foray into the comments section of a Scholarly Kitchen article on the UK Scholarly Communications Licence was much more combative. Why do you value the UK-SCL so highly and can you explain what it hopes to achieve?

MW: I don’t think I’m feeling that much more combative than since the conference you mention, although I (and many, many others) have been frustrated at the glacial pace of change and the way in which most publisher moves towards more open access have been piecemeal and very much based on “how can we protect what we’ve already got?”, rather than “how can we transform what we’ve got into something more useful for academic and wider society?”.

As to your specific questions about what I see as the potential value of the UK-SCL going forward is that it’s addressing the hideously complex mish-mash of policies that academic staff are being faced with. I’m not sure that publishers really understand just how many different, similar-in-some-ways-but-conflicting-in-others policies that academic researchers have to contend with in all their efforts, not just in publishing. Publishers are a big part of that problem, in that publishers too also have many different, similar-in-some-ways-but-conflicting-in-others policies about what researchers can and cannot do with their outputs – different embargo periods for different funders, utterly nonsensical policies that allow self-archiving with no embargo where the author is not mandated to do so but self-archiving policies with embargoes where the author is mandated to self-archive, different embargo periods for different countries, and, a real bone of contention for me, only offering certain CC licences for gold to authors funded by certain bodies and not others.

Publishers aren’t the only ones at fault, though – uncertainty about some of the funder policies, and in particular the still not sorted decision on whether compliance with the UK’s Research Excellence framework is going to key off deposit within three months of acceptance or three months of publication is also causing confusion.

A successfully implemented UK-SCL would cut through all of that. It’s a way of saying to busy researchers “just do this one thing and you don’t need to worry about all the other stuff.”

AC: I can see the logic in trying to find an efficient way forward but the range across different disciplines and different stakeholders must surely make that a near impossible task. One of the criticisms of the UK-SCL has been the omission of publishers from its early discussion. Publishers are wary of the unintended consequences of SCL implementation and look set to request blanket waivers. The Publishers Association lists four key concerns from publishers: 

  1. that it would impose a very significant administrative burden on researchers, their institutions and publishers through waivers required for 90,000 – 100,000 journal articles per year,
  2. that it conflicts with UK policy on open access, putting green open access before gold, even where funding is available for gold, and undermining the sustainability of green by removing any embargo period,
  3. that it seeks immediate non-commercial re-use rights for all UK research outputs, thus  undermining the ability of publishers to earn back their investment in editorial services and journal development
  4. that it potentially limits the choice of researchers in where they publish their research.

Do you perceive a way forward?

MW: Where the bodies funding and carrying out the research want the outputs to be openly accessible I think it’s indefensible to require a waiver. Building on this, though the Publishers Association keeps on pushing this line about requiring waivers I have yet to see a strong argument as to why they would require those waivers. What do you think is behind this perceived need for waivers?

AC: A common complaint is that the UK-SCL fails to recognize that publishers add significant value – in the peer review process for instance — and any OA model for journals must accommodate this. The UK-SCL does not appear to at present. I can’t help thinking that both publishers and more academics should be involved and consulted about the UK-SCL if its architects hope to see it more widely adopted. It isn’t unique to UK-SCL, by the way: too much of the debate around OA in general has been siloed, and perhaps above all not enough done to listen to the voice of those for whom the scholarly communication system ultimately exists – academics.

MW: Which leads into my response to point 2, this one is so exasperating. There is no such thing as UK policy on open access. There is the Research Excellence Framework policy, which is different to the RCUK policy (which itself has different flavours for the different research councils), which is different to the Wellcome policy (which itself is slightly different to the policy of the other Charity Open Access Fund partners), which is different to the NIHR policy, which is different to the Horizon 2020 policy (we’re still part of the EU at the moment!), and so on. Any blanket reference to “UK policy” by publishers is a red herring.

On point 4, this is the complete opposite of the intention of the UK-SCL – the whole point is for academics to not have to worry about what a publisher might say can and can’t be done with an AAM, because their employing institution will already have a non-exclusive right to distribute the AAM (and let’s not forget that, despite the practice of not routinely asserting this right, under UK law the employer is the first holder of the copyright in their employees’ work). It would mean academic authors could “fire and forget” with regards to open access, and therefore concentrate on the more important stuff like a journal’s subject fit, profile in their discipline, and so on.

AC: Moving away from the challenges of the UK-SCL, how do you see the role of librarians changing as digital and open access grow in the UK and as intermediaries and indeed publishers extend their services and may encroach upon library turf?

MW: This is such a huge area, I can only scratch the surface. You talked about different stakeholders’ “turf” there, and I think one of the key elements of the changing landscape is that lots of actors in the research communication space will be branching out into lots of different areas – I hope we’ll see “turf collaborations” or “turf complementarities” rather than “turf wars”!

Speaking from my own experience, the amount of work that libraries now do in collaboration with their institutions’ research offices is increasing. There are so many new areas opening up, like research communication and public engagement, tracking research impact through things like bibliometric analyses, identifying potential research partners, and so on, where librarian skills and resources can be put to good use.

I think it might have been Lorcan Dempsey who coined the term “the inside out library”, where library work increasingly involves opening up our collections (both resources we’ve bought in and the outputs of our own institutions) to other users, rather than simply concentrating on making others’ work available to our community – this is clearly a major change, and one I think is most welcome, so that our role is more that of custodian than gatekeeper.

We definitely need to mention research data management in this context. This is a vitally important area, and becoming ever more so, particularly in our post-truth world where so much of science is being questioned. The library’s role in this area is expanding and changing, and it will be very interesting to see how it develops. This also speaks to the wider “open research” agenda, not just open access to journal outputs, which is another area where institutions will often look to the library to take a lead.

I guess one of the things your question is hinting at is that of disintermediation, and that this would remove some of the roles of the librarian. I think that’s right, actually – at the very least it does diminish the importance of certain aspects of what librarians have traditionally done in areas like information discovery, but I see that as a good thing, allowing us to get stuck in with other activities more closely aligned with our institutions’ strategies.

It’s a good time to be getting into library work, actually, and I hope we can attract more bright people from all sorts of previous job backgrounds to help shape that future.

AC: How can university presses most effectively support and complement the work of the library in future?

MW: One way is by talking with their host institutions’ library services to get a feel for what the real pressures are – where publishers have a good understanding of those pressures they should be better able to adapt their products and services to help meet those needs, while at the same time maybe showing librarians some interesting options that they hadn’t already considered.

Another way might be to use the greater understanding of the institutional environment that they should hopefully possess as university presses in order to help inform the practices of the other publishers, like commercial publishers and society publishers (as an aside, it’s often the society publishers that have the most indefensible open access policies). Being both “of the institution” and “of the publishing industry” should put university presses in the best position to ensure a proper transformation to the kind of academic publishing industry we need.

@LivUniPress  #OAWeek