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Open Access and the law librarian

                                         Unofficial Open Access logo

Last year, I sector hopped a bit, going from a law library, to the academic sector, and on to a public body. During my academic sector interlude, I was working with Open Access publications, sourcing academic materials in the appropriate formats and versions, and uploading them to the institutional repository. Now, to anyone working in academic libraries, that sentence probably needs no further explanation, as they know exactly what it relates to. However, outside the academic sector, the topic of Open Access and the institutional repositories holding OA materials isn’t something that’s very familiar. In the special libraries catering for sectors such as law and health, library staff are used to having to pay (usually huge sums!) to access materials behind paywalls, and although there are some good initiatives to give wider public access to certain materials (e.g., there are very few resources which we can access for free. You’d think we’d be leaping with joy at the prospect of accessing any materials for free...but from what I can tell, awareness about the concept of Open Access materials hasn’t really come over very strongly to the commercial sector. Although the sort of materials that are created by academic researchers aren’t particularly a core material of a type that that solicitors tend to want frequently, it’s useful to have a good general idea of what materials could be found in institutional repositories.

So, for commercial librarians, here’s a short, guide (based on my own, non-expert knowledge) to Open Access materials, what you can find, what you can’t find, and why everything’s where it is (or isn’t). It’s slightly simplified in some areas, so please academic librarians: no shooting me for not properly mentioning/explaining the Finch Report!

What is Open Access?

Open Access relates to the ongoing initiative in academic institutions to make research outputs from academic authors more easily available to the public, by placing those materials (usually referred to as “research outputs”, as they can cover a range of textual and non-textual formats) into institutional repositories. Currently, the bulk of the research that is produced by academic authors and institutions is effectively inaccessible to the public as it is published in journals that can only be accessed via a paid subscription, or in a limited manner. As the public is the actual source funder of the research that is produced, for the output of the research to be inaccessible to them is not a reasonable situation, and the Open Access initiative seeks to address this imbalance. This enclosure of high quality research behind publisher paywalls can also stifle academic discourse and innovation, making it harder for innovations and developments in academic work to progress. In particular, it can be an issue for professionals in developing countries, who cannot afford access to the latest research materials in their fields, but who would be best placed to put the theories outlines in research outputs into effective practice, especially in the medical area.

How the research is funded

A large amount of the research done in UK universities is funded by money provided by a variety of research bodies, including the Wellcome Trust, the Research Councils UK (RCUK), HEFCE (in England), and multiple medical charities. As a condition of this funding, RCUK and other funders imposes a requirement that the outputs of this research be made available to the public (the funders of the research grants) via Open Access methods such as depositing appropriate versions of materials in an institutional repository. The eventual aim is to have 100% of RCUK funded research outputs made available via Open Access methods within a five year period (starting in 2013), with the intervening transitional period having increasing targets for the percentages of research outputs being made available, beginning with 45% in year one. (3.10). Other funding bodies are imposing similar access/deposit requirements. From 2016, a massive national exercise to assess and rank the academic output of centres of research (the Research Excellence Framework, or REF) has mandated that all journal articles and conference papers materials submitted to the REF “must be deposited in an institutional or subject repository on acceptance for publication.” As the REF materials represent the highest standards of academic work completed in each institution, this mandate means that more, high quality research will be being placed into institutional repositories from 2016, if not before (as universities gear themselves up to meet these requirements). So, both the bodies funding research, and the national exercise that assesses the quality of that research are supporting a move to make materials available via Open Access.

How the materials get online

There are two ways for academic materials to be made available to the public: via either the Green or the Gold route. The Gold route involves the author paying a fee to the publisher to allow the final, published version of their material to made immediately available to the public via their institutional repository or the publisher’s website. Green has three methods of implementation. One method involves no payment by the author to the publisher, but in return the publisher places an embargo on the public sharing of that material on the author’s repository. The embargo can vary in timescale, covering a period of anything from 6 months to two years. The second method involves placing research outputs into OA journals that are free of charge and allow immediate access to anyone. They are usually run by enthusiastic individuals and academic departments, and some of them are high quality. The third method involves the academic placing the research outputs directly into a repository, and not publishing it as a journal article out of it at all.

However, for both Green and Gold routes, the payment of publication fees and embargos on public access relate only to the final, published-in-a-journal version. The author is free to deposit the submitted version (i.e. the final, peer reviewed version of the material they submitted to the publisher, but which the publisher has not edited or typeset, also (confusingly) called the post-print) into their institutional repository at any point. Although the publishers really, really don’t like that, and some try and claim that authors are barred from putting ANY version of their work into a repository, even the earliest versions that the publishers never touched a character of, unless they themselves say so. This is an incorrect, and is a too wide-ranging interpretation of the rights of the publisher over the author’s preceding versions of the submitted work.

What use could it be to me?

When information professionals are trying to source legal materials for library users, there’s usually one of two things that those people want - either the latest materials, or the most in-depth materials. For the latest materials, you’ll always want to go first to those extortionately expensive subscription sources you’ve paid lots of money for, but in the situations where there’s no demand to get something topical, when you’re trying to find some learned discussion of a topic...then checking institutional repositories might be a good idea. Or those times when you’re given a citation for a journal that you don’t have access to, you could start the hunt for it by checking for the version of the article which may be deposited with the authors institutional repository in its pre-publication format. The content of the article is still the same, it’s just probably laid out in a different way to the final version (the publisher typesets and puts submitted materials into the house style), and it’s the content that the users want to get a hold of, not the nice column layout. Currently, it’s pretty hit and miss whether you can find what you’re looking for in a repository, but as explained above, the odds of finding material are improving by the day, so it’s increasingly worth a shot to look. I found quite a lot of interesting materials on Scots law via these institutional repositories, quite often from international journals. These are particularly useful because they often provide an introduction to certain aspects of the law from an outsider’s point of view. When being asked to begin research on a new legal topic, this is exactly the type of material that can assist the legal information professional in establishing a basic knowledge of a topic, before moving beyond that into greater detail.

Why’s it not there?

Unfortunately, as with all things that are a good idea on paper, the system doesn’t always work as planned. For example, you may know that a certain academic wrote a certain paper for a certain journal….if it was research funded by RCUK, then there’s an increasing impetus to make sure that the author deposits an Open Access version of it in a repository, so it should be available. However, there are also a LOT of reasons why what you’re looking for isn’t where you’re looking for it, and I’ll explain a few of the reasons below:

  • The information above currently relates mainly to journal articles and conference proceedings, items which are in a text format: other materials such as posters or audio/visual materials are not as likely to appear in a repository due to the difficulties of making these formats available in an appropriate way. However, as protocols for the uploads of these materials are developed and implemented, it’s likely that more of these non-textual materials will become available.

Technical skills/support
  • The author may not have the technical skills to upload their materials to the repository themselves, and may be unwilling to ask for help to add them. They may also be relying on assistance from others such as OA support teams specially recruited to assist in sourcing and uploading materials. Therefore, the availability of their materials will be reliant on the support staff being available to deal with those materials for the academic.

Availability of appropriate document versions
  • Only certain versions of materials are suitable for deposit in repositories. If the author hasn’t kept earlier versions of their work, and therefore only have printouts of earlier document versions that would need retyped or scanned, it may not be possible to make it available via Open Access without dedicating disproportionate resources to the task. This means it will not be a priority for addition to the repository, as contrasted with upload-ready materials.

Publisher restrictions
  • Publisher embargoes, and the confusion around them, means that many materials which should be freely available are locked away until the expiry of an embargo period set by the publisher. When the public tries to access them, they’re directed to a publisher paywall. This isn’t very helpful, and as a non-academic, hugely frustrating.
  • Books and individual chapters in collections are unlikely to be available on repositories, due to the fact that, unlike journals, there is no collective agreement for how books will be treated. Each book or chapter will need a separate negotiation with the publisher, and as this is a hugely time consuming task, with little likelihood of success (what publisher wants to invest in publishing a book, only for it to be freely available to the public in a year or two?), books are not a priority for adding to repositories.
Author understanding of copyright
  • Some authors may not understand that they retain the copyright in their work (unless it was commissioned), and they can often be told by publishers that no version of a published article can be shared on a repository. Although this is untrue (the copyright of everything up to and including the peer-reviewed, final version submitted to the publisher remains with the author), academic authors, especially those early in their career, can feel intimidated and anxious about getting published and will accede to publisher demands without disputing them. They can be too willing to assign copyright to publishers, when they should retain copyright and simply license the publisher to publish the item. This means that some academics may be wary of doing anything with their work which they believe the publisher has not authorised them to do, despite the fact that they do not need such authorisation to deposit their own work.

Location of the main author
  • If you know someone was the author of a paper, and where they’re employed, you’d hope that you could find it on their university’s repository. However, the author you’re looking for may not be the main author, and therefore the materials won’t necessarily be available on the author you know’s own institutional repository, but on the repository of the lead author. This can be a particular issue in medical studies papers, or any where a large number of academics did some research on a large project. and has been credited as an author (if anyone mentions the Lothian Birth Cohort to me, I tend to get a twitch...200+ authors on one paper!!).

Willingness of the author to participate
  • Some authors do not agree with the move towards making materials available via Open Access. Some authors feel that allowing anything other than the final, published version of their work will harm their reputation. Some feel that allowing free access to academic materials will damage publishers, especially publishers of small, independent journals who may support associated professional societies who are reliant on the income from journal subscriptions. Some authors just want to stick their heads in their sand and hope everything will go away. And some authors are very happy to share their work via the repository, and are keen to help make it available as widely as possible. Your chances of sourcing materials will be heavily tied to how engaged with Open Access goals an author is.

Where to look

Of course, if you have good details of where the author of material works, you can go straight to their institutional repository and begin searching there. If, as is more usual, you have only been given vague information, you could start with the sites that search across those repositories.

  • Google Scholar allows users to search across many academic sources. It will also allow access to book chapters, if available.

  • MIMAS has a tool here for UK repositories.

  • OpenDOAR is a listing of Open Access repositories around the world.

  • DOAJ is “an online directory that indexes and provides access to quality open access, peer-reviewed journals.”

  • Another option, as suggested by Charles Oppenheim, is to go directly to a university that you know does good research in an area, and check their repository directly. For Scots law, that would be Edinburgh Research Explorer (ERA) at Edinburgh University, Enlighten at Glasgow University, AURA at Aberdeen University, and Strathprints at Strathclyde University.

I hope this information is useful, and good luck hunting through the repositories!

Many thanks to Ian Clark (@ijclark) and Charles Oppenheim (@charlesoppenh) for their input to this article, and helpign me to keep the information as accurate as possible.


Laura Wilkinson said…
Great post, thank you!

I'd like to suggest a correction to the difference between gold and green:

OA is possible via two routes: gold, in which the published edition of a work is available from the publisher’s website; and green, in which the final copy of the published work is available under OA licence from a repository.

The difference between the gold and green routes is whether OA is provided by the journal itself, or by a repository.

As the model of academic publishing changes, commercial publishers are exploring new funding streams are being explored. These include the use of direct publication charges such as article processing charges (APCs).

The business model used by a journal is independent of whether it provides free (OA) access to its content or not.

It's also important to note that OA isn't just about free access to content (gratis OA) - it's also about licensing the content for sharing and re-use (libre OA).

More info at:
(but I know you were aiming to keep it simple!)
Penny Andrews said…
Thanks Laura, you made the comment I would have made. Gold does not automatically mean author pays - 70% of gold journals charge nothing at all.
Dumpling said…
Thanks for the comments and clarification - my work with Open Access involved sourcing materials, not the publication side.

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