Librarians have been at the forefront of the open access movement since the beginning, not least because in 1998 the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) founded the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). Today SPARC is arguably the world’s most active and influential OA advocacy organisation.
SPARC’s initial strategy, therefore, was to encourage the growth of new low-cost, non-profit, subscription journals able to compete with the increasingly expensive ones produced by profit-hungry commercial publishers. As SPARC’s then Enterprise Director Rick Johnson wrote in 2000, “In 1998, after years of mounting frustration with high and fast-rising commercial journal prices, a group of libraries formally launched SPARC to promote competition in the scholarly publishing marketplace. The idea was to use libraries’ buying power to nurture the creation of high-quality, low-priced publication outlets for peer-reviewed scientific, technical, and medical research.”
In the wake of the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (an event attended by Johnson), however, SPARC began to focus more and more of its efforts on open access. The assumption was that this would not only allow research to be made freely available, but finally resolve the affordability problem faced by the research community. As the BOAI text expressed it, “the overall costs of providing open access to this literature are far lower than the costs of traditional forms of dissemination.”
Ironically, despite their high profile advocacy for open access many librarians have proved strangely reluctant to practice what they preach, and as late as last year calls were still being made for the profession to start “walking the talk”.
On the other hand, many librarians have embraced OA, particularly medical librarians. In 2001, for instance, the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) began to make its content freely available on the Internet. And in 2003 Charles Greenberg, then at the Yale University Medical Library, launched an open access journal with BioMed Central called Biomedical Digital Libraries (BDL). One of the first to join the editorial board (and later to take over as Editor-in-Chief) was Marcus Banks, who was then working at the US National Library of Medicine.
Four years later, however, BDL became a victim of BMC’s decision to increase the cost of the article-processing charges (APCs) it levies. This meant that few librarians were able to afford to publish in the journal any longer, and submissions began to dry up. Despite several attempts to move BDL to a different publishing platform, in 2008 Banks had to make the hard decision to cease publishing the journal.
What do we learn from BDL’s short life? In advocating for pay-to-publish gold OA did open access advocates underestimate how much it costs to publish a journal? Or have publishers simply been able to capture open access and use it to further ramp up what many believe to be their excessive profits? Why has JMLA continued to prosper under open access while BDL has withered and died? Was BDL unable to compete with JMLA on a level playing field? Could the demise of BDL have been avoided? What, if anything, does the journal’s fate tell us about the future of open access?
I discuss these and other questions with Banks below. The issue of affordability, it seems to me, is particularly apposite, as librarians are having to confront the harsh truth that, far from reducing the costs of scholarly communication, open access appears more likely to increase them.
It turns out that Banks has an interesting perspective on this issue. As he puts it, “At the risk of frustrating many librarian colleagues, I must say that the framing of open access as a means of saving money has been and remains a serious strategic error.”
He adds, “A fully open access world may not save any money and could cost more than we pay now — this world would include publication charges as well as payments for tools that mined and sorted the now completely open literature. That’s fine with me, because in this world we’d be getting better value for money.”
The interview begins …
RP: Can you say something about your background and career to date?
MB: I have been a librarian since 2002. My first position after earning my Masters of Library and Information Science was as an Associate Fellow at the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), from 2002-2004. During this time NLM was developing PubMed Central (PMC) as a freely accessible digital archive of biomedical literature.
Growth at PMC was slow, as deposits to it were voluntary — this was years before PMC became the required repository under the terms of the NIH Public Access Policy. Publishers rightly worried that a fully open access archive would challenge their business model, a concern that persists today.
Watching this debate unfold raised my awareness of the various agendas in scholarly publishing, as well as of the potential for open access publishing to expand the reach of biomedical literature.
RP: What are you doing currently?
MB: My most recent position was as the Director of Library/Academic & Instructional Innovation at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, California. Since then my wife and I have returned to the Chicago area for both personal and professional reasons. I am currently pursuing employment while building a consulting practice devoted to transformation in scholarly communication. Even with “gainful employment” I would continue the consulting.
RP: You said that the growing debate about scholarly communication made you aware of the potential for open access publishing. You were later involved in the creation of an open access journal called Biomedical Digital Libraries, which I think was launched in 2004 but ceased operations in 2007. Can you say what your role at the journal was, why the journal was created, and why it did not succeed?
MB: Charles Greenberg, then at the medical library of Yale, launched Biomedical Digital Libraries (BDL) at the Medical Library Association meeting in May 2003. It was an open access title published by BioMed Central (BMC). His first task was to recruit an editorial board, and I joined in as an Associate Editor. Our first papers appeared in 2004. As Charlie moved on to other projects, I became co-editor and then sole Editor-in-Chief in 2006.