Library Committee Meeting - November 28, 2018

On November 28 the Caltech Library Committee met to discuss the future of open access in the Caltech library

The mission of the committee is described in the committee website:

The Library Committee shall advise the University Librarian concerning the operation of the Institute library facilities, and shall formulate policies on the administration of the libraries of the Institute.

All committee members were present: Victor C. Tsai William A. Goddard Anton N. Kapustin Austin J. Minnich Lior S. Pachter Nicolas Wey-Gomez Eduardo da Veiga Beltrame Daniel Naftalovich Noelle U. Davis, Kaushik Bhattacharya.

Background on the current library situation

Before the open access discussion, Kaushik provided a brief overview and background on the Library current situation

Currently the main library issue is that there has been no University Librarian at Caltech for 9 months now, since the previous University Libraria left for Harvard in February 2018. The library currently reports to Vice Provost Kaushik Bhattacharya, who is serving as interim University Librarian. The search is ongoing, and one candidate that had received an offer has to decline for personal reasons. As a result a new round of interviews is taking place in March.

The Caltech library has a smaller total budget than peers institution because of Caltech’s size, despite having a bigger relative budget, and in contrast the main focus of the library budget is research. The library’s budget is currently split ito about 40% for acquisitions, 60% for salaries.

A big issue with the current library organization that will need to be tackled by the new chief librarian is that sometimes there are strong conflicts and tensions between different parts of the library. Despite only having 40 people divided in 4 groups (see org chart here). We were told that the library has a very hierarchical structure, which sometimes hinders interactions between groups.

One reason for this splintering and disconnect within the library is that the vision of the library within the Caltech community is not clear and people seem to be holding to their jobs (a recurring theme at Caltech it seems….). We were told that currently the library largely operates in a “reactive” manner, meaning it will fulfill its duties and requests but is not being very proactive in taking new initiatives. Morale within the library also seems to be affected by the fact that the Library does not seem to be perceived as a high priority by the administration. This situation will have to be addressed by the new University Librarian, who will need to put forth a strong vision for the library future.

Open access discussion

Note: Wikipedia gives a good background overview on what open access means and how it’s currently implemented

Currently Caltech’s main an open access initiative is the Caltech AUTHORS repository ( which makes preprints, theses and papers authored by the Caltech community openly available.

Last year, by the Library estimate, about $1M was invested in “golden open access” publications by Caltech faculty, which have an upfront fee for open access publication. This money does not come from the library budget, but is paid by individual faculty for each open access publication. The estimate was obtained by counting the total number of Caltech open access publications last year, weighted by their publication fee.

As an example, Kaushik described that last year Caltech spent $80k on subscriptions to an unnamed published, plus another $40k on golden open access publication by individual groups. They approach Caltech (this pattern has happened on multiple cases) and offer subscription plus unlimited open access for e.g. $100k. This lowers their current revenue ($120k in this example) a bit but guarantees future revenue and ties Caltech.

If such models become prevalent, one possibility that makes Kaushik wary is that publishers spin off unprofitable titles and let them go under. This has not happened yet apparently, and there is a very strong reputational cost is a publisher does this. Interestingly, Kaushik said that such combined deals are most commonly offered by publishers that are most vocal and strict about copyright enforcement.

These deals are the kinds of decisions that the library will face going forward with regards to open access.

Goddard remarked that he is strongly in favour of such institutional golden open access subscription because lowers costs for labs.

Lior described his positioning and proposed a stance for the Caltech library. He started by saying that last year the meeting with the University Librarian (before he left) was on which journals to cut, because costs keep rising dramatically and there is little use. From his perspective (coming from math, computer science and biology) in biology open access journals are essentially a “scam”. When you publish on Nature communications for example, the link to your paper reads “Nature”, which is what people care about (impression). Publishers are being rather exploitative, and some universities are being quite reactionary (cutting deals) and Lior strongly supports Caltech using it’s small size to turn the tables on the publishers. For example, to cut several subscriptions, which will hurt, and use the savings to pay for faculty to publish golden open access at their discretion. Access is already a problem, and faculty already have to get around such issues (using Docuserve, etc) so such a strategy could work, especially because many current subscriptions have very low usage. Caltech alone cannot take on the publishing industry but by virtue of it’s small size can take a strong stance on this issue, which transcends strict budgetary considerations.

Note: The UC system is already taking exactly the position Lior describes:

Kaushik remarked that it would be possible to fully provide golden open access to all of Caltech with less than doubling the library budget, however he is wary of the possibility of future increases of publishing costs of golden open access.

Lior responded by reiterating that part of our mission being at Caltech is to be leaders, not only amongst our peers, but the general public. And to help sustain a business model that hurts the general public is antithetical to everything we preach.

Following that a we had a discussion about the current status of preprints: not only in arXiv, but also now in the bioRxiv, which has been growing exponentially and now several communities within biology make strong use of preprints: submitting versions of their articles as they stand prior to (or at the moment of) submission to a journal and peer review. Such a model is the norm in physics, math and computer science and is now seriously being adopted in the life sciences.

At this point the meeting was already running overtime and was adjourned.