Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pretend that you are a librarian in the year 2025

A lot of the essay below is wishful thinking, but some of it might come to pass. Just as there are a lot of physicists who ignore the journal literature, and they read only from the Cornell physics arXiv, more researchers and disciplines will take a path that takes advantage of open access resources.


Five years ago, in the year 2020, a small unique software company led to an academic revolt in publishing. A small foundation-based nonprofit start up called the AcademiCenter (AC) created a scholarly social network that scientists, social scientists, and a fair number of humanities researchers use to find, read, share, and communicate their open access research. (Some say that foundation is funded by Bill Gates, but no one is sure.) This service is much more than just a blogging system, it is a truly easy-to-use publishing system with built in altmetric features. Scholars and researchers all over the world can keep track of reading patterns, download metrics, citation data, and other metrics. In short order, the AC integrated citation and linking data from a merger with CrossRef, and they also bought out the content and linking services from Google Scholar. (This was in 2022 when the Feds split up Google into five parts.) Over the next three years, the service integrated data and resources from mergers with ResearchGate,, Mendeley (sold off from Elsevier), MEDLINE, the Cornell ArXiv, and the SSRN, and many small society presses. This service has built up a huge following of academics, scholars, and other researchers because of huge breadth, depth, and the amount of semantic interlinking. This service uses advanced Artificial Intelligence tools to create metadata on the fly. This is THE PLACE for researchers to find information and knowledge. This is also THE PLACE for researchers to post articles, book chapters, whole books, conference papers, reports, dissertations, presentations, and anything.

The cost for scholars to join this “club” is nominal, but it is well worth the small expense. The pricing for this service was modeled after PeerJ.  Many researchers add value to the database by donating time to crowdsource fixes to bugs and other known issues. In return for their maintenance, they are able to add content to the database for free or a reduced cost. Other researchers provide peer-review services to enhance the content.

Now that it is 2025, the cost of data and information storage is tiny. Services such as this can host petabytes of storage for just a couple of dollars a year. The AcademiCenter is the central hub for researchers to post their ideas, thoughts, and other content, so that they can get feedback from others in just about any subject area. Because of this new system, researchers have slowly learned that they don’t need to publish content with traditional publishers to get a high research reputation and status in a field of work.

Just as the newspaper market was disrupted in the years 2010-2020, the scholarly publishing market has been greatly disrupted by this new easy to use self-publishing service.

What does this all have to do with academic libraries today (in 2025)? Submissions to the large commercial publishers have dropped about 10-30% each year over the last 5 years. For example, Elsevier has lost 75% of their content (compared to the amount of content published in 2020) since most scholars are now using the AcademiCenter to publish their papers. The local consortia has been able to renegotiate a price reduction of 75% as well. (Elsevier figures that 25% is better than wholesale cancellations.) Book publishers are doing slightly better—they have only lost 50% of their market share in the last five years.

Libraries are also seeing the usage of core databases such as ProQuest Central and EBSCO Academic Search Complete go down dramatically. Many libraries have cancelled mainstream databases, but they continue to subscribe to specialized databases. Databases such as the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge and Scopus have licensed data from the AC to enhance their indexing services. Even still, many academic libraries are cancelling those two citation databases as well.

Many universities also pay nominal fees to the AC so that they can host Institutional Repositories. The price depends upon the percentage of scholars at the university who take part in the crowdsourced project.  The AC is a much better system than the IR software systems that were available just 10 years ago back in 2015. Overall, libraries all over the world have saved Billions of dollars because scholars use and trust this system to publish their articles. While some scholars are afraid of putting everything into one basket, the library license for the IR software will automatically hold the intellectual output of the university should something happen to the AC.

Academic libraries are putting this saved money back into other resources. They are hiring more data managers who help the researchers document and keep track of their work. Libraries are hiring more specialized reference librarians because it is still hard to find good high quality content in certain subject areas. While the AcademiCenter houses a wealth of recent articles, chapters, reports, dissertations, and data, they don’t have the full text of everything. Also, artificial intelligence applications in smart phones are starting to work better to anticipate the information needs of the students, but it still isn’t perfect. The library is able to hire more programmers so that customized software systems are implemented. The library is able to purchase more books, particularly the ones in the humanities, since 300+ page academic texts are not posted in the AC as often as shorter works.

The library building is still a central location for student interaction and meeting space. Faculty still assign group projects, and students find face-to-face communication to be the most productive. While many students meet with others using the latest version of Skype, the on-campus students still find the library a great meeting place.

Academic libraries have experienced a great deal of change over the last ten years. Some of the librarians tell stories about how people had to “type in” their search phrases into Google Scholar or that old Summon database (cancelled in 2021). Now, people can just whisper to their computer, “Hey AC, can you find me some information concerning the history of Maine politics in the early 1900s?” and the system comes back with a wide set of results including articles, videos, dissertations, and more. The system knows that you are looking for Maine (and not the word "main") based on new AI features that were implemented.

The local university is feeling some financial pressure though. Since there are new colleges that are starting up using the wealth of open access content that is available, the U has had a hard time attracting some of the best students. Some of them have been going to attend online classes that use the AC as the source of learning materials, and they use a Khan Academy approach to instruction. In fact, the local U reduced the tuition for all students this year so that they can continue to attract the best and the brightest of students. Because of this pinch, the University has had to cut some of the budget. It was a tough decision, but the Law School was disbanded, since enrollment had been declining for years and years. The budget for the library had been reduced as well, but the renegotiation of the contracts with Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Thomson Reuters, etc., more than made up for small reduction.

It is an exciting time to be in academic libraries.

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