If a researcher does not have an individual or institutional subscription to a journal, she can easily pay as much as $35 to access a single article. But such pay walls for scientific articles may soon be a thing of the past for users of the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriot Library. The library, together with Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and the tech startup Labtiva, recently initiated a pilot program that allows readers to access individual articles from NPG journals, even if the Marriot Library doesn’t subscribe to the journal in question. Rather than the user paying out-of-pocket, the university foots the bill—for a reduced rate. University librarians hope the new program will help expand user access to research articles while helping keep subscription costs down.

“Historically, libraries buy access at the journal title level,” said Rick Anderson, interim dean of the Marriott Library. “But there’s a...

So when NPG approached Anderson with a possible alternative, he was intrigued. “I’m all about trying out new models,” he said “We’ve been buying articles on demand for years, but the old methods couldn’t meet the demand for 100 requests per day. The new [pilot program] is scalable to demand,” with users getting the content they need immediately.

The University of Utah’s pilot program is simple for users. It relies on Readcube, Labtiva’s reference managing platform, which is integrated into the University’s library proxy and allows users to browse, download, and organize journal articles. If they encounter an article in a journal that the Marriot Library subscribes to, it downloads instantly to the platform. If it’s a NPG journal with no institutional subscription, such as Nature Climate Change, the user can choose to rent the article for 48 hours for about $3 to $6, or buy it for $5 to $10. And the library pays. To help protect libraries from indiscriminate downloading, Labtiva charged an initial retainer for access, which limits the funds available for Readcube downloads, explained Siniša Hrvatin, a Harvard University doctoral student who developed Readcube with his roommate, Robert McGrath, to address his own frustrations when accessing and organizing research articles.

The Marriott Library is testing Readcube-based access to NPG articles with the help of researchers from four colleges—Science, Engineering, Mines & Earth Sciences, and Health. Already users are trying it out. Yueqi Wang, a neuroscience graduate student, has downloaded several papers using Readcube, and said it gives him access to papers that he previously wouldn’t have paid $35 of his own money for.

Such initiatives have caught the attention of other university libraries, especially at smaller schools that are feeling the pinch of requisite site licenses perhaps more than larger ones, said Jenica Rogers, Director of Libraries at SUNY Potsdam. Working with a budget of less than half a million dollars, Rogers, who recently cancelled her university’s subscription to the American Chemical Society online journal package due to high prices, has little room to negotiate with publishers who may see her library’s $4,000 site license as meaning little to their bottom line. A cheaper pay-per-view strategy has potential, she said. “We need different functional models to meet different needs.” Her own library is part of a consortium participating in a similar program targeted at ebooks, where the library pays for researchers to download ebooks on a short term loan, then purchases those books that are most frequently downloaded.

Because the Readcube pilot program allows users to get content from journals for which the Marriott Library has no subscription, it “isn’t competing with site licenses, which will make it more acceptable to publishers,” noted Hrvatin. “It’s more like interlibrary loan”— wherein a library without a subscription to a particular journal can request an article from the journal from a library that does subscribe—“but not so slow and expensive."

“It’s moving the ball a little bit down the field towards better access and more affordability,” agreed Heather Joseph, who sits on the board of PLOS and is Executive Director of Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. But, she added, users’ inability to print and share articles and data mine the articles prevents the strategy from “enabling the research environment” like a move to full open access would.

Whether Readcube’s cheaper pay-per-view strategy will be adopted by other publishers remains to be seen, said Joseph. Smaller journals, such as those published by academic societies, might not have enough user volume to generate adequate revenue on a per-article basis, she said. It will be easier for large publishers, like Elsevier, to adopt such a strategy, with more journals to general revenue and a greater profit margin, of a 36 percent, to absorb any dips in income.

The Readcube pilot program is not the only strategy being tested to increase readers’ access to individual scientific articles. NPG allows users to buy their own articles from document delivery services, or rent them for less than $4 from DeepDyve, which provides articles from a wide range of journals for 3-day rentals. Readers, not libraries, foot these bills. The University of Utah’s Eccles Health Sciences Library, which operates on a different budget than Marriott, is also testing a new service from Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), which provides pay-per-article access to content from many journals, including those under the NPG umbrella. But like Readcube, these strategies generally allow little to no sharing among users and no printing, although an annual license from CCC will provide the ability to share content within an institution.

“I think [Readcube pay-per-view] is still in its model T stages,” said Mark England, Collective Development Librarian at the Marriott. “But it has a lot of potential. It’s one more tool to manage library costs.”

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