Embargo periods: A personal view

A guest post by Dawn Hibbert
Open Access Advocacy Librarian, University of StrathclydeDawn (2)

Embargo periods set by publishers continue to undermine, or at best, delay open access (access to scholarly research without having paid a subscription or cost to access).  Whist publishers have been quick to argue that without embargo periods libraries would no longer purchase subscriptions to their journals, and that it could potentially eat into profits due to the journals perceived “shelf life” this does not appear to be based on any factual evidence.  It is also negated by publishers have some journals with no embargo periods, some with short embargo periods, and others with excruciatingly long embargos (I have seen up to 5 years) – do we surmise from this that they are not intending to make any profit from some of the journals that they publish?

From speaking with numerous academics and students, I have yet to find more than a handful who would pay for an article that their library does not provide to them for free – instead through means such as request a copy, the open access button app and other methods, most would instead select the next article on the list that was similar, and that was not behind a paywall!  Even those that do access an accepted manuscript that is freely available tend to cite the published version.

CC BY 3.0 Bidgee

CC BY 3.0 Bidgee

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to how publisher’s set their various embargo periods, with most publishers having a range of embargo periods from 6 to 36 months.  Publishers that have 6 month embargo periods for most, if not all, of their journals (for example, IEEE) – do not seem to be suffering losses for having shorter embargo periods, nor are their subscriptions being cancelled by libraries.  Indeed, it was found that “the vast majority of article readership for the ‘The EMBO Journal’ takes place within the first three months of publication.2” It would not be too big an assumption to assume that the same is true of most journal articles.  Therefore, a shorter 6 month embargo period for all journal articles would not have any detrimental effect on publisher’s profits.

The argument that libraries will not continue to purchase subscriptions to these journals with a shorter embargo period seems to be a convenient myth rather than based on fact.  A study from 2006 found that “82% of librarians surveyed noted an embargo period would need to be 3 months or less before they would consider it a factor in cancellation decisions1” and “only 9% saw access to an author’s final manuscript, as an adequate substitute for the final manuscript1”.  What added value do publishers see in having some of their journals embargo periods being 36 months – do they really believe that by lowering this embargo period to 12 months for all of their journals that this would significantly impact upon their profit?

CC BY-SA h_pampel

CC BY-SA h_pampel

It is ironic that Elsevier continually state that they are embracing open access and working with HEI’s particularly in the UK to ensure that they can meet requirements of the likes of HEFCE, yet even in their modified list of journals (http://bit.ly/21hQnMC), there are still journals with 36 month embargo periods and journals within the STEM disciplines that are 18 to 24 months, these are outwith the maxima stated in HEFCE’s open access policy.

I recently had case for an academic to ask Elsevier to use our amendment to copyright agreement in order to shorten the embargo period of an article to be published from 18 to 12 months in order for us to comply with HEFCE’s open access policy.  We were not asking for the embargo period to be changed for all articles published in this journal (although that would make more sense), but for this one article to be allowed to have a shorter embargo period.  Under the guise of helping institutions to meet HEFCE’s policies, the response refused to offer any flexibility, and recommended to either pay for open access, or to seek an exemption from HEFCE’s open access policy.  Whilst we will apply an exemption, some academics may feel pressured to pay for open access to avoid having to seek an exemption.  Whilst HEFCE have reassured HEI’s that there will be no penalty for the number of exemptions used, and that they do not want article processing charges to be paid in order to meet their requirements, it is perceivable that an academic would not want to have an exemption.

Creating a list of embargo periods specifically for UK HEIs is already a bone of contention for those authors who collaborate with others from outside the UK.  Where by it is legal for the accepted manuscript to be made available on a UK HEI Institutional Repository, but not legal for the same paper to be made available through the other author’s Institutional Repository in another country – some would say this is discrimination, or indeed sheer madness.  To get around this the other authors are able to provide a link in their repository to the article in the UK repository… but it does seem rather foolish that this is the case!

If a publisher is going to go to the pains of creating a separate embargo list for UK HEI’s that has been designed to allow our academics to meet the requirements of funders, then should the embargo periods not actually reflect this?

Dawn Hibbert, Open Access Advocacy Librarian, University of Strathclyde

Email: dawn.hibbert@strath.ac.uk

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