‘The Old Models Are Not Working’: A Librarian on the New Big Deal

Elaine Westbrooks ful
Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost for university libraries and university librarian, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A recent headline in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s news blog crystallized the current state of play between research university libraries and academic publishers: “University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks is on a mission to open Carolina’s research to all.” The article focuses on UNC’s efforts to recraft the nature of “Big Deals” — arrangements between publishers and libraries to package academic content – to allow published scholarship from the university to circulate freely. 

Westbrooks, vice provost for university libraries and university librarian at Chapel Hill, really has been mission-driven in this regard – the article above focuses on a deal made with Elsevier, and in the interview below she’s focused on a deal made with SAGE Publishing (the parent of Social Science Space). As David Ross, SAGE’s vice president of open research, said of UNC,  “[T]hey showed a willingness to try this. Not just a willingness to try something, but their attitude was very open and collaborative. They wanted to work with us to try and find a way.” (Read Ross’ full comments here.)

So there was a way forward. But why now? 

“The current model is unsustainable for universities,” Westbrooks said, “and is inconsistent with the values of a public university. … I hope our scholars realize that this is something that has to be done. This is the tipping point for us. The money is not there to support the status quo. I’ve heard from many faculty who agree that we need to change this system that we have.” 

Although there’s no shortage of criticism of for-profit publishers in the academic space – the current impasse between Elsevier and the University of California illustrates that – the truth is that more connects publishers and libraries than pushes them apart. Which is why librarians and administrators like Westbrooks have been working diligently with publishers to find a new modus vivendi. In the interview below, she details a little bit about the academic publishing ecosystem and explains why and how UN-Chapel Hill entered into this particular read-and-publish deal with SAGE 

What was the spark for this particular deal now? Who initiated the conversation? 

Higher education is at a tipping point when it comes to how scholarly research is published and disseminated. The old models are not working anymore. At UNC-Chapel Hill, we are always interested in ways to start moving the needle to make knowledge more open, accessible and affordable. Raising the visibility of the outstanding scholarship that comes out of Chapel Hill is another priority. These considerations were all part of my thinking when I approached SAGE about trying things a different way. 

Would you discuss the context around any journal publisher’s relationship with a research institution, especially in light of recent changes to relationships between institutions and publisher content? 

Journal publishers, scholarly societies, universities and libraries all have a role to play when it comes to the production and dissemination of scholarly content. We need to find ways to rebalance the process, though, because the status quo is no longer tenable. The digital age changed everything in terms of how publications are shared, but it never really changed the core relationship among key players – researchers, funders, publishers, libraries and universities. We need to create a new dynamic, and that’s going to be the big challenge for all of us.  

Have we seen anything else like this pilot program out there? 

There have been other read-and-publish pilots, such as the agreement that VIVA (the Virtual Library of Virginia) entered with Wiley. But this is largely new territory for universities and publishers. This is the first read-and-publish agreement that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has entered. 

Why does this partnership between SAGE and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill make sense right now? 

SAGE, the university, and the university’s researchers have worked together for decades. That historical perspective gives us a great foundation to build upon. SAGE’s strong emphasis on the sciences and social sciences meshes well with many areas of strength at Carolina. 

I also think SAGE’s history and commitments align with our values as a public institution to ensure that scholarship serves the public good. Sarah McCune set SAGE up eventually to be owned as a charitable trust. That means it can’t be bought down the line by a company that is less dedicated to the dissemination of scholarly knowledge and the betterment of the world. That’s very important to us. 

What are the metrics for figuring out if the deal is successful and satisfying to you? 

There is a lot that we are eager to learn from this pilot. We will be tracking carefully how authors at UNC-Chapel Hill take advantage of this opportunity and will be analyzing data about the use and visibility of their open access articles. 

More than anything, we are keeping our eyes on the big picture. Ensuring that the research done at Carolina can reach its broadest audience and have its greatest impact is a goal that the University Libraries shares with researchers here. There’s no better benchmark than seeing research positively impact society. 

Talk a little about the shift in knowledge transfer and the OA model from a research institution’s perspective. Who is driving the evolution? Do your academics talk about this, or are they generally uninvolved on these publication issues?

The decision of the University of California to break their big deal contract with Elsevier caught everyone’s attention and has spurred a great deal of conversation. I’m fielding questions every day about what this means, what UNC-Chapel Hill is doing to contain costs and promote open access, and what individual researchers can do. We want each faculty member and researcher to understand how the decisions they make as authors, editors and peer reviewers can impact other researchers and the public. 

The graduate students — who are tomorrow’s faculty — in particular see this as an issue of social and economic justice—appropriately, I might add. That gives me a lot of hope for what the future is likely to hold.  

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