Societies Libraries // November 7th, 2013

Meet Ann Okerson – on licensing, the big deal, OA, and so much more


Ann OkersonTo coincide with the 2013 Charleston Conference, we are delighted to publish an interview with Ann Okerson, Senior Adviser on electronic resources for the Center for Research Libraries.  Ann also serves as Chair of the Professional Committee of the International Federation of Library Associations (2011-2013) and is a member of the international steering committee for SCOAP3, the project to transition the main scientific journals in the field of high energy physics to a sustainable open-access business model.

1.         You are currently the Senior Advisor on Electronic Strategies at CRL.  Could you please tell us what that role involves?

I’m engaged with Bernie Reilly (CRL’s dedicated, creative president) and his senior staff to identify openings and opportunities for CRL electronic engagement:  for example, playing a supporting role in some digital activities (such as supporting work for newspaper digitization projects) and a lead role in others (such as cross-consortial negotiations for significant archival and current e-resources).  CRL offers a great place to think about innovative opportunities for broader collaborations “at scale” than have been possible in the past.  Bernie is a great leader and it’s a pleasure to work with him and his team, supporting a membership group of 275+ mainly academic libraries, plus relationships with various partner consortia in the US, Canada, and the UK.

2.         Could you tell us a bit more about SCOAP3?  What is it and how much progress has been made?

No doubt everyone has heard of SCOAP3 at length!  First of all, the worldwide CERN particle physics community has said that continuing to have the final (Version of Record) journals is important at this time, and that these journals should be available via open access.  arXiv and other sources are most welcome, but an unambiguous VoR, with its added values, is crucial.

Thus, at the heart of SCOAP3 is the belief that, via an innovative business model, it will be possible to bring key journals for a given discipline into full open access without losing the publishers’ valuable contribution — and at no increase in cost to the libraries that have been supporting those journals.  The experiment depends on extracting certain journals from their current packages and “Big Deals” and — in cooperation with the publishers — redirecting the current expenditures for those journals to SCOAP3, which then pays the publishers per article published.  The parallel creative aspect is SCOAP3‘s global negotiations with publishers for Article Processing Charges (APCs) on behalf of hundreds and hundreds of participating libraries worldwide, thus rationalizing and making pricing transparent.  As I’ve learned from my US SCOAP3 work, the current arrangements are often poorly understood and hardly transparent.

SCOAP3 is distinctively a global project.  It is set to “go live” as of January 2014.   There are still pieces to put into place, particularly for future phases; though it is a well-guided project, it has many brand new aspects (such as scale, unwrapping the Big Deal).  Inevitably, we are building parts of SCOAP3 as the plane is in the air!  Without the strategic vision of CERN’s Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer and the extraordinary passion of the project director at CERN, Salvatore Mele, this important new approach to open access could not have progressed to this stage.

3.         Do you think it could be a model for Open Access in the future?

We will find out.  I think SCOAP3 is a possible model for certain disciplines that have a fairly discrete journal literature and a strong international (or national) organization as host.  Given not only the benefits of open access, but also increasingly influential mandates, it behooves everyone to test models that will work.  The results of such experiments may be different from one field to another, depending on specific cultures, access to funds, etc.  High energy physics has always been a leader in the open access arena, and I’m sure success with SCOAP3 will lead others to follow and expand on the model.

4.         As the founder (1997) and moderator of the multi-faceted LIBLICENSE project, you have been a strong advocate for fair and clear licensing of online resources.  In what ways do you feel this has been achieved?

I’m struck with just how far we’ve come since 1996, when I negotiated my first e-resources contract (with the collegial Biosis group) and where we are today.  At that time, a number of provisions were brand new and contentious (for example definitions of authorized users, access for walk-in users, fair use/scholarly sharing), while today they are normal parts of publisher-library contracts.  However, our environment changes all the time and we face many new matters that must become the stuff of negotiations (for example, authors’ rights, non-disclosure, mining, MOOCs).

Under the CRL umbrella, we’ve brought together a working group to rewrite the “Model Contract” that the LIBLICENSE project pioneered in the late 1990s.  We see this as a library community venture and plan to have a draft for comment early in 2014.  Many librarians find LIBLICENSE a useful tool for real-time negotiations, but we’ve also learned that library schools use it to train the next generation.

I’ve always seen the greatest value in licensing as an activity that has librarians and publishers in conversation, learning more about each other’s work and priorities.  In the 1980s, I recall seeing Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods on Broadway in New York City.  The play is about a Russian and an American diplomat engaged in disarmament negotiations; on occasion, they talk informally by walking in the woods outside of Geneva.  And while the play and the two characters cannot come to resolution, one says to the other “but if we continue to talk, we will never go to war.”

5.         What areas do you think will be the focus for licensing in the future?

For a long time, there will be new matters to resolve as creative people and enhanced technologies make new activities possible.  For the next couple of years we will be talking more about open access provisions, about rights management, about new uses (such as text/data mining and MOOCs).  More and more types of e-resources will come into the marketplace, including “consumer” products of interest to libraries (think daily newspapers).  We will be talking even more and more “at scale.”  The licensing environment started mainly with libraries as single customers of publishers.   Now we work heavily in consortia (often at the national level) and teams.  The work on SCOAP3 (an international negotiation) has shown me that at the library and publisher level, we still fall short of where we think we already are in building cooperation.  I hope we can go a lot further.

6.         You have previously been Associate University Librarian at Yale, negotiating for the Big Deal on behalf of the University and also the NERL consortium.  What are your views on the future of the Big Deal?  What other models do you think will dominate in the future?

The journal Big Deal (which dominates for science-related fields) has served as a huge access enhancer, opening up the scholarly literature to many who have not had access.  Interestingly enough, the enhanced access has come not so much for the biggest universities, who generally (not always) already had a lot of access, but – through the hard work of consortia — in gaining access for less well resourced colleges and universities and leveling the access field.  By the way, we should think of Big Customers (via consortia) as a major landscape development in parallel with the Big Deal.

There’s nothing new in my saying that, unfortunately, the biggest deals have turned in many cases into fire-breathing dragons that seek out and consume as much as they can devour of library budgets.  It’s increasingly evident that this is a poor situation all around, for library budgets, for readers, increasingly marginalized disciplines, and even for competition.  (My worry here is that the same Big Deals are now coming into place for the journal publisher’s e-books, with potentially similar downsides.)

One has to wonder whether the journal Big Deals will either adapt to libraries’ more modest budget circumstances (via newer business models) or eventually collapse of their own weight?  Something has to give, somehow, and publishers should look seriously for other options that don’t involve excessive penalization of their customers who wish to pull out of or tailor such arrangements.

But my concern about the Big Deals goes beyond pricing.  Through the work on SCOAP3, I’ve come to believe that these deals, however carefully negotiated, nonetheless elide some underlying pricing practices that are understood differently by publishers and libraries.  These practices are related to the value and identity and extricability of individual titles within the huge packages:  libraries, users, and publishers think about these things very differently.  Questions inevitably arise:  is the individual journal title identity now being lost as it sinks into the Big Deal?  Or, perhaps with the growing interest in altmetrics, will the article’s visibility supplant that of the journal?

Then there are numerous questions about the downstream impact of open access (green, gold, hybrid) on the Big Deal.  I’ve digressed a bit from your question, but all of these developments are closely tied.

7.         What would you say are the greatest academic challenges librarians are facing today?

There are so many; overall one could say that a great challenge is in keeping libraries front and center and relevant in new ways, during an age of rapid creativity and change.  All of our libraries are asking how they will do this, particularly in a time of various societal and legislative pressures on higher education, which is where we operate.  How best can librarians become visible and productive partners in university research?  In the development of our students?  With so many options and uncertainties around us, how can we become “part of the solution?” How can we influence national and global information policy and law in favor of our users?  How do we know what success will look like?

In the subset of collections, which has been my area of focus:  How shall we manage e-collections in the face of superabundance and the drive to open access? Manage print collections to shared repositories, last copy, and careful preservation; what about perpetual access and digital preservation?  How to do all that needs to be done, in a budgetary and values environment facing unprecedented challenges?   Many of the solutions are local but increasingly more are collaborative — and we librarians are not yet good enough at efficient scaled-up collaborations.  There has been some success, but we have a long way to go to think in better ways about that aggregated aspect of our futures.

8.         You may have seen Alice Meadows’ Scholarly Kitchen blog post on senior women in the scholarly publishing industry. Are academic libraries facing similar challenges and, if so, how can these best be tackled?  Do you think that there is equality of opportunity within library careers?

The old stereotype had it that librarians were all women who made you stop talking.  That was rarely true.  Librarianship has offered opportunities for women to achieve a wide variety of leadership roles over the years (perhaps because librarianship was initially seen as women’s work?) and we’ve maintained that inclusiveness remarkably well.  Some of the most amazing leaders I’ve known in the profession have been women, and they’ve been good at bringing along younger performers.  However, the more urgent question is our need for strong leaders, regardless of gender, nationality, color, etc.  I just spent four years on the governing board of IFLA and became deeply impressed by the librarians emerging in all kinds of places around the world and their commitment to making libraries vital to societies at every stage of development.  I saw things in southern Africa last year that made me smile and go on smiling.  In my next life, I plan to return as a children’s librarian in Africa!

9.         What advice do you have for librarians starting out on their careers today?

Look at growth areas and develop skills in those (technology, business administration, public services, information policy).  Learn a couple of languages, because “global” is so significant, in so many ways — cultural understanding, international projects, access, career experiences in other countries or with wonderful organizations such as IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations), Research4Life, the Bill & Melinda Gates international programs, various IGOs and NGOs and more.  Above all, have some fun.  When having the right kind of fun, you’re doing your best work.