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From the covid impact survey report

Current and Anticipated Future Support for Open Initiatives


6 mins read

The changes brought on by the COVID pandemic made clear how important access to online content and workspaces are for faculty and students, among others. Suddenly, the only materials available to students were those available digitally; the only workspaces safe for teachers and classes were online spaces such as Zoom meeting rooms. With the entire workforce working from home, the strength and robustness of the digital content and infrastructure were put to the test.

College and university campuses have long been making the “transition” from print to digital collections. In recent years, not only investing in e-content and databases, but in a growing movement to invest in the infrastructure, platforms used to create, store and share content. With the higher education community now having been forced to move entirely online due to the pandemic restrictions, SPARC wondered if this bolstered the case for supporting academy-led open access initiatives.

Survey respondents were asked to report if and how they support different “open” initiatives, and to consider how these might change in the future. The four types included:

  • Open Infrastructure: Platforms, tools, and other software to support publication of open communication of research results, such as PKP, Fedora, or OpenCitations.

  • Open Content Initiatives: creating or providing scholarly materials for free to those who use them, such as Open Libraries of Humanities or Knowledge Unlatched.

  • Supporting Organizations: offering guidance, training, or advocacy to support the open research ecosystem (e.g. LPC, SPARC, DOAJ)

  • Open Access Agreements with subscription publishers, such as publish & read agreements

Even before the pandemic, many libraries had already begun to support some of these efforts financially. Ninety-two percent (92%) of respondents reported offering financial support to supporting organizations; 70% for Open Content initiatives, 59% for open infrastructure, and 58% for open access agreements with publishers (Table 2). Nearly a third of respondents indicated that they donate developer time or other in-kind contributions to open infrastructure platforms, and several reported that “we are building our own” open infrastructure (19%) or open content initiative (15%).

Faced with the COVID-related budget cuts, would libraries choose to maintain these levels of support? Perhaps decrease them, due to lack of funds? Or increase them, as a way to protect against future rising costs from commercial alternatives?

Across the board, respondents saw their investments in open initiatives as likely to stay the same or grow in the year to come (Table 3). While over 50% of respondents noted that their levels of support for open infrastructure platforms would stay the same, 31% noted that they were likely to increase somewhat and another 4% noted they would increase significantly. Similar patterns noted for open content initiatives and supporting organizations. For Open access agreements with subscription publishers, a majority of respondents noted that their investments would increase somewhat (54%) or significantly (9%). Notably, none of the eleven Canadian respondents expected to decrease their investments in these areas.

In other words, in the face of large budget cuts and a good deal of uncertainty concerning future potential risks, the vast majority of libraries maintained or even expanded their support for open initiatives (Figure 5). This is a trend that seems likely to continue. When asked to consider how investments might change “beyond next year,” 62% of all respondents (and 91% of reporting Canadian institutions) reported that “we will allocate more resources than we did this year.” [Q19]

In addition to investments in open initiatives, respondents also shared a wide range of strategies used, including building support with faculty and partners, investment in local and consortial transformative agreements, and increased outreach to faculty to “garner support for library actions.”

One highlighted the importance of consortial investments and another underlined their commitment to maintaining existing investments, even in difficult financial times. (“We will continue our historic investments as well (which is saying a lot when the budget is shrinking).” Several noted that they were still not sure, and planned to “keep evaluating and determining what works best for our organization.”

Respondents were asked to consider “what effect will the changes being put in place today have on the library landscape in the next 5 years?” Most felt that while the changes put in place may have been in response to very specific conditions, they were likely to last beyond the pandemic. Among those changes respondents felt were most likely to last were: increased demand for online resources (97%) and freely available online resources (91%) from faculty and students and a push for libraries to re-negotiate contracts with vendors to reduce costs (84%) in light of budgetary constraints (Table 4).

There were, however, a few choices that did not elicit as strong a consensus. While 53% of respondents felt library publishing investments would continue beyond the pandemic, 38% felt it would “not happen at all.” Similarly, 56% felt that “we will observe a significant reallocation of funds from paid subscription products to investment in open infrastructure,” while 30% disagreed.

Among US institutions, there were some notable differences between doctoral and non-doctoral institutions. While neither felt investments in library publishing or open infrastructure would be increased post pandemic, a greater proportion of non-doctoral institutions were more pessimistic than their doctortal counterparts. Only 40% of US non-doctoral institutions felt that “the library will invest significantly more than today in library publishing,” while 57% of doctoral institutions felt the same.

Similarly, there was a large gap between the proportion of US doctoral and non-doctoral institutions that felt that “a significant re-allocation of funds for paid subscription products to invest in open access publishing agreements” would be seen beyond the pandemic. While 71% of doctoral institutions saw this strategy persisting, while only 55% of non-doctoral institutions felt the same way, with a full 25% of those institutions feeling it would not happen at all (in contrast to 16% of doctoral institutions that felt the same way).

Even if most respondents felt certain changes were likely to take place—somewhere—whether or not they thought it was likely to happen at their own institutions was a different story. In thinking about the longer-range impacts of these COVID-related changes, respondents were asked to consider the same list of changes, but this time to indicate whether they wanted to see the change take place at their institution; whether they thought it would take place at their institution; and whether they thought it would take place at many other institutions.

While many felt library budgets for materials will be “significantly lower than in the past” at many other US institutions (88%); virtually nobody wanted to see it happen, but nonetheless almost half felt it was likely to happen at their own intuition (Table 5).

Among all US institutions reporting, 65% felt “a significant reallocation of funds from paid subscription products to investment in open infrastructure” was likely to occur at many institutions and 58% described it as something they’d want to see at their own institution, though only 40% felt it was likely to happen at their own institution (Table 5). Similarly, 63% wanted to see the library “invest significantly more than today in library publishing,” but only 36% thought it was likely to happen at their institution (while 59% felt it was likely to happen elsewhere).

About the authors

Portrait of Claudio Aspesi

Claudio Aspesi

A respected market analyst with over a decade of experience covering the academic publishing market, and leadership roles at Sanford C. Bernstein, and McKinsey.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition

SPARC is a coalition of academic and research libraries that work to enable the open sharing of research outputs and educational materials in order to democratize access to knowledge, accelerate discovery, and increase the return on our investment in research and education.