Open Access in Corona Times – The Rumors Blog (Guest Post)

by | May 16, 2020 | 0 comments

By: Sven Fund, Managing Director, Knowledge Unlatched, and Philipp Hess, Publisher Relations Manager, Knowledge Unlatched

No other topic both shapes and polarizes scientific publishing and cooperation between libraries and publishers as much as Open Access (OA). The current situation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic is exceptional and has meant that research and teaching has been moved in some haste from lecture halls and seminar rooms to desks at home, thereby making it abundantly clear that there is a real need for research literature to be easily accessible from anywhere and everywhere. Due to the novelty of the situation, the expert debate regarding the impact of this crisis on the ecosystem of scientific publishing has not yet fully evolved. But there is no doubt that demands for easier access on the one hand, and intense conflicts over ever-shrinking budgets on the other, will fuel the debate as to how publishers and libraries will cooperate in our new reality.


Libraries have long been prepared for the increasingly digital acquisition of research literature for their patrons. Books, and even more so scientific journals, are increasingly being published in this model. The market researcher DeltaThink estimates that almost 30% of all research articles were already openly published last year. That is a huge market share with estimated sales of $758 million US dollars. If it had not been for the contribution of Open Access, the number of published journal articles would have fallen in 2019 for the first time ever since records began.

This may not necessarily mean that these services were running completely and seamlessly beforehand, but it does mean that (on the whole) researchers in many countries around the world can already do their work in their home office or even on the beach, whether utilizing their university library or other online resources. In recent years publishers and retailers have invested massively to make this possible, and the forced shift in usage habits has rewarded those innovators among them. There is no doubt that Open Access is benefiting particularly from the new reality that digital books, journals and other digital content offer, in the same way as the consumer markets of Netflix and Co.


OA does not end, however, with access to content free of charge for users, just as research and teaching are not limited to access to digital documents, which is exactly where the problems begin for those digital models still behind the paywall. Many universities have been forced to change their curriculum to distance learning in a great hurry, and in most cases they have done so without prior experience or preparation. The results are therefore mixed, just as one would expect from such a rushed situation. And the copyright issues involved in dealing with digital content are often the final straw, thus rendering the provision of teaching material something of a nightmare for both professors and students, rather than realizing the aim of creating a contemporary working environment. While every single chapter on a reading list is normally checked for use in digital teaching according to legal guidelines, publishers are now outbidding each other in the (well-meant) release of teaching content on their platforms. Interpret that as you wish.

Open Access does not only mean access to scientific and scholarly content free of charge. Instead, the proponents of OA have always been concerned with what is currently at the center of the discussion: namely the barrier-free re-use of content, provided it is in compliance with intellectual property principles and the correct attribution of content, as provided for under Creative Commons (CC) licences.

It is already foreseeable today that teaching content will soon be subject to re-evaluation. It will not only be possible to focus primarily on the quality of content, but also on the accessibility of access to such content. It is, however, evident that this shift will not be free of charge. Publishers will have to invest far more than ever before in digital options for teaching and learning content. Germany is right at the bottom of this development compared to other countries and has an enormous need to catch up. The fact that different systems of education do not have to stand in the way when it comes to achieving something has been impressively demonstrated to us in recent weeks. 

But even in the case of scientific, monographic content, some publishers are nonetheless finding it difficult to offer their content really openly on all available platforms, even if the titles are described as Open Access and have the appropriate CC licences. The colorful landscape of repositories and hosting platforms shows a patchwork of very different treatments of the same content.


The fact that vital systems must not be over-complicated is not only illustrated by the image of drawing electricity from a socket. Under digital conditions, a new balance has long been necessary between the (justified) economic demands of the publisher and its authors as well as customers in libraries and (online) bookshops. Attempting to find a solution for this issue is akin to trying to square a circle, such as how long the tug-of-war is already ongoing and without any foreseeable solution thus far. Would it not make more sense to reconcile the two sides by compensating the costs of creating the content and its refinement with the users when the “textbook” is published, and then releasing the content for use? Collaborative financing models, such as those frequently used in Open Access, would appear to point a pragmatic way forward here.


The Corona Crisis fuels a crystallization of two aspects which will no doubt keep the industry and its players occupied long beyond the current state of emergency. It shows that working from home is possible in many intellectual professions and has long been custom practice in science. At the same time, it reveals that decision-making processes in which players are not in the same place must first have to be practiced and internalized. This applies equally to libraries and publishers. Once we come out of the crisis it is to be hoped that the often-maligned digitization laziness of administrations and the dinosaur structures of corporate networks are a thing of the past because we can now all say with experience: digitization does not hurt one bit!


Which brings us to the issue of money. Neither scientific content behind the paywall nor Open Access can ever be made completely free of charge, if the process is to be sustainable. Libraries all over the world have enjoyed high growth rates in Open Access in recent years, while paywalled and subscription models have developed at a somewhat arthritic pace. 

At the moment, of course, publishers’ anxieties are focused more on the library budgets of the coming years, likewise the concerns of librarians. Whether publicly or privately funded, scientific institutions around the world fear that once the pandemic is over, they will become budgetary victims of the resulting, and necessary, budget cuts. It is worth taking a look at 2008, the year of the last global financial crisis. In actual fact at that time significant savings were made in numerous institutions in the financially important markets of Europe and North America for publishers, initially in books. In the journal sector there was a growing trend towards “big deals”, which promised a lot of content and little library support.

Two megatrends render the situation today a significantly different one than in 2008:

1) Libraries are now tried and tested when it comes to confidently renegotiating “big deals” with major publishers and, where necessary, terminating them. A current example of this is the new contract that has just been concluded between the (relatively small) Iowa State Library and the (fairly large) world market leader Elsevier. The library decided to cancel the supposedly good “big deal” in favor of individual subscriptions to those journals actually required by the institution.

2) Libraries are much better connected globally in their activities today than they were twelve years ago. They are now in a position to act cooperatively and thus to share the costs of scientific information provision. This is an approach that can be of considerable economic value, particularly in the case of institutionally-funded Open Access.

The Coronavirus has posed a new challenge to the ecosystem of libraries and publishing houses, as well as to large parts of the world. As is so often the case, it is not revolutionary and breaks with everything we know. However, it does force us all to think about a new balance and to align access to content with the technical possibilities created by digitization. This will continue to change business models and give a further boost to those initiatives which, like Open Access, help to break down the barriers to free use.

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