25 August 2017

Requesting permission: reflections and perspectives from the University of St Andrews

[The following was originally published on the UKCoRR blog as guest post, here: http://ukcorr.org/2017/08/22/requesting-permission-reflections-and-perspectives-from-the-university-of-st-andrews/]

In July I attended the UKCoRR Members Day and delivered a presentation on the subject of approaching publishers for permission from the perspective of someone working in open access/repository support. The title of the presentation was ‘Requesting permission: approaching publishers, lessons learned, and the many successes!’ Here’s a link to the presentation in the St Andrews Research Repository: https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/handle/10023/11261

In this blog post I’ll go over some of the points from the presentation that I think struck a chord with the audience, with the overall intention of explaining the rationale behind our processes. Before I begin, I must say that I am very grateful to the other attendees on the day who shared their experiences in the Q&A, as well as after the event. It was really encouraging to hear from so many colleagues who have experienced similar stumbling blocks as we have, and it was especially useful to hear from those who do things differently to us at St Andrews.

I had noticed the issue of publisher permissions popping up on the UKCoRR email list on a number of occasions, often in relation to specific publishers who don’t have a public open access or author self-archiving policy. Additionally, a Google Doc listing publishers and their responses to requests to archive book chapters has been circulated many times, and indeed was the subject of numerous discussions on the Members Day as well. This brings me to the first point from my presentation that I felt was perhaps the most illuminating, and this is the fact that most of our permission requests are actually for articles published in journals and conference proceedings (see figure 1). Perhaps not the most shocking expose on the face of it, but if you factor in REF2021 compliance it is in fact quite significant. This is because 60% of our permissions requests are for outputs potentially in scope for the REF open access policy. So, I argued, having an effective permissions policy can potentially affect an institution’s approach to their REF return and level of exceptions required.
Figure 1 - Item types

Another perhaps less ‘sticky’ and more ‘carroty’ reason for all this comes down to effective curation of our research outputs. Many of the items in our repository are archived on the basis of successful permission requests for print-only publications, and so are often unique as they cannot be found online anywhere else. So, I explained my thoughts about digital preservation and the duty of care we have for this rare part of our collections. Part of this duty of care is ensuring permissions are well thought out, and that ensuing replies are clear and unambiguous. But, as I explained, no matter how careful you may be, I expect that risk management will always play a part in any decision to host third party copyright material online.

So, how do we do it? From the outset I want to state that I don’t believe our process is perfect by any means. And, although we have had an overwhelming amount of success there are caveats, but more on that later!

Figure 2 - Permissions workflow
When we receive a manuscript for archiving we first check SherpaRomeo, an authoritative database of publishers’ and journals’ open access and author self-archiving policies that I’m sure we’re all intimately familiar with. If we come up short we then check the journal/publisher’s website for a policy (if indeed there is a website). If we are still left wanting we’ll then go to the author and ask them to check the publishing contract. This is a very important step as it includes the author in the process and in so doing alerts them to the work required to make things open access. It also has an important educational function as it highlights the importance of retaining rights, including copyright, and the distinction between exclusive and non-exclusive licences for instance. We are also conscious of the close relationship many of our authors have with publishers, so we always try to ensure that we have the author’s prior consent before any permission requests are sent.
Figure 3 - Permissions spreadsheet
Once we have the go ahead to approach a publisher we record the action in a spreadsheet and assign it an ID (see figure 3). Then, when we receive a reply we can easily update the spreadsheet, take any actions on the Pure record (we use Pure as our Current Research Information System by the way!), and importantly we save the email in a folder and rename it according to the ID. We think it is important to track and document these requests in such a way as it creates a convenient audit trail, but it also gives us a way to assess the effectiveness of our process. You may also notice that we can report on the items types too, so for instance we know that 60% of our permission requests relate to outputs that are potentially in scope of the REF2021 open access policy.

The vast majority of responses come back in the form of emails, often but not always from editors of the journals themselves. As I said before these are filed away and retained as proof that permission has been attained. But, a question I posed at the end of my presentation was: does this actually protect our collection? It would seem common sense to suggest that items that are archived on the basis of an email are less protected than items that are archived in response to a signed letter. But is this actually the case? Might both forms of response be equally fallacious if in fact the issuer of the permission response is not vetted for authenticity (whatever that would mean). I don’t have an answer for this, so this is the point at which I ended my presentation and opened the debate to the floor.

My enduring impression from speaking to colleagues on the day was that each institution has a clear understanding of the level of risk they are willing to take, even if it is not enshrined in policy. Generally speaking my colleagues and I in the Open Access team at St Andrews tend to err on the side of caution and risk aversion, but from speaking to colleagues at other institutions my feeling is that we could perhaps afford to be less so. At any rate, the question of how we can protect these unique parts of our collections lingers on I’m afraid, and I suppose ultimately it is always going to be a balancing act between collection growth and collection sustainability.

Kyle Brady
Principal Library Assistant (Scholarly Communications)

3 August 2017

University of St Andrews pledges support for Knowledge Unlatched


The University of St Andrews has joined 50 other institutions in supporting Knowledge Unlatched for it's 2017 pledging period. Knowledge Unlatched is a novel crowd-funding initiative that aims to reduce the individual cost of academic books and journals. Each year institutions pledge money to 'unlatch' a collection of books and journals, and make them freely available with Creative Commons licences. This year's collection consists of 343 academic books, as well as 21 journals. The journals are a mixture of open access, subscription, and hybrid journals, and if a sufficient pledge is attained all will be published open access for three years starting in 2018. The journals are also from a variety of publishers: MDPI, De Gruyter, Sage, and Brill to name a few. You can find out a little more about Brill's contribution to KU in a recent blog post.

Details of the Knowleldge Unlatched 2017 Collection, can be found here: http://www.knowledgeunlatched.org/ku-select-2017/