Monday 3 August 2020

Opening Content for COVID: What Comes Next?

By Will Schweitzer & Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen,  Silverchair - Silver sponsors of the ALPSP Virtual Conference and Awards 2020

To enable researchers, students, and faculty to easily access scholarly content remotely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many publishers removed paywalls from their content. As those free access periods begin to expire, how are publishers handling the reinstitution of paywalls, both logistically and from a messaging standpoint? How has this period changed customer relationships and how will it change future sales approaches? And how has the race to open content affected intellectual property protections and guarding against cyber criminals like SciHub? In July, Silverchair assembled a panel of publishers and service partners to discuss the ways they are approaching these challenges. A summary of the insights follows, and a recording of the full webinar may be found online.

As the pandemic crisis took hold globally early in 2020—first slowly, and then all at once—the scholarly publishing community was quick to respond, adapting their products and sales strategies and opening access to their content to support the newly remote world. Now more than halfway through the year, we begin to ask which changes are sustainable or here to stay.

Portland Press publishes five hybrid journals, of which about approximately 20% of their content is currently open access, and two fully open access journals. Portland is endeavoring to sustainably transition their entire program to open access. So, when the crisis hit, the move to open their content was a natural one: any previously published content that had relevance to the outbreak was made freely available, then any related content submitted thereafter was published fully open access with no charge to the authors. However, although coronavirus-related content was freely available, they began to wonder whether this would actually be enough for the community. As more and more countries were going into lockdown and institutions were closing, they, like many, were concerned about how researchers would access the content.

Clare Curtis, Publisher of Portland Press, said, “We knew that we had remote access options set up for our content, including institutional authentication. But we weren't really sure how this workflow fit in with the user journey. Was it straightforward for users? And we also realized as more and more research was being done on COVID-19, it was becoming very clear that a number of areas of the molecular biosciences would be of relevance to the disease. So where did we draw the line as to what research is of relevance to the coronavirus outbreak?”

And so, in April, after surveying societies, institutions, and researchers, they suspended paywalls across all of their content until further notice.

The practice of providing free access to content—whether for coronavirus-related content only or across the board—was widely adopted by scholarly publishers. MIT Press opened access to their 3000+ ebooks on MIT Press Direct. That move, and the communications that accompanied it, fostered new relationships and allowed the press to gather data and insights that may support future sales opportunities.

“We found there to be a lot of collaboration in the crisis, a lot of appreciation and a lot of flexibility in working with libraries to make sure that we were getting access to students who needed it and faculty who needed it,” said Emily Farrell, Library Sales Executive at The MIT Press. “But we also were able to gather a lot more data on our own platform than we have in the past. With the 800 institutions that we brought onto the platform, we had an incredible array of institutions that were now able to access content that hadn't been in a position to purchase before, or hadn't really considered trialing it because they didn't feel they would be able to. So, we've had community colleges, we've also had art museums, as well as larger libraries. It's also opened up an amazing channel of dialogue with libraries to be able to answer questions directly.”

The open content has also provided larger patterns of content and institutional usage that provides publishers with a better understanding of where value lies and how content is being used.

Andrew Pitts, CEO of PSI, has been working with publishers to ensure that key data from this period is accessible and actionable down the road: “We've been looking at the log files during the period where everybody's got their access controls down, to make sure that when you are about to put your access controls up, you know which organizations who are not customers have been using your content a lot, so you can actually advise them, and you can talk to them about options for accessing your content when the paywalls go back up.”

The AMA captured similar access information by keeping PDF registration in place on their freely available COVID content, which has led to a wealth of data to feed their sophisticated digital marketing programs, and which also informs new sales and productization opportunities.

Vida Damijonaitis, Director of Worldwide Sales at the American Medical Association, noted “Out of 730 pieces of content, we've had close to 33 million engagements year-to-date. Google has always been the biggest driver of traffic to our websites, and that has actually fallen off slightly. Traffic is increasingly coming from social media. That has increased by 159% year over year. Access through email alerts has increased by 82%. And we're actually seeing more and more traffic coming from mobile devices instead of traditional computers and laptops.”

The insights that come from a wealth of data are only as good as the data itself, however, and malicious actors have also upped their activity during the crisis, as revealed by PSI.

“Sci-Hub has been very, very active during this period. All cyber criminals have been, but Sci-Hub have gone into overdrive to attack universities and publishers during this period. Our data has shown that there was an 828% increase in attacks in April. What we were seeing before was about 800 attacks per month in the year previous. And in April, we had 7,424 attacks. The effect on you as publishers is that they have been downloading your content massively and taking everything.”

This means that without the proper alerts and protections in place, some of the usage publishers are seeing on their open content may be misleading. The pandemic will no doubt be seen in the future as a turning point for open and free access to content, as both users and publishers alike have been forced into a situation that has revealed both the positives and negatives of the models in a much less hypothetical conversation. For many, the crisis has simply accelerated existing plans for a full transition to OA.

Emily Farrell of MIT said, “We're certainly at a point where there's clear value in the push to open, and all publishers and societies are examining ways that we can make more content open. Also, particularly as a university press that has a mission alignment with the university, the dissemination of research is central to what we do. MIT Press has experimented with all sorts of open access models for quite a long time now. It has required us to consider what model is most suitable for each journal, in part as a consequence of the wide array of subject areas that we cover, since some disciplines just don’t have access to the funding needed for OA.”

As paywalls begin to come back up, many publishers are questioning how to communicate this change to their customers and stakeholders, especially as the pandemic appears far from over. How do they inform librarians as well as general site visitors that subscription access controls have been reenabled?

For Portland Press, said Curtis, “We will be having targeted messaging to our institutional subscribers. There will be general messaging as well to our members and our users. We have to do that quite carefully. Because obviously, we did this to support the community, but with the understanding that we cannot keep paywalls lifted indefinitely (as we require this income to be sustainable and support the Biochemical Society).”

For MIT Press, they made their libraries aware through use of public and direct messaging when the expiration date was coming nearer. As part of that messaging, they also sent information about the top 10 titles that were most used during the open period, and options for purchasing either individual ebooks or full collections.

And of course the conversations won’t end there, just as remote access and changes to user behavior won’t end when the open content periods do.

“We will be listening to our community as to how they have been and continue to access and use content, whether that be back in their institutions or remotely, said Curtis. “We will be assessing where usage from this period has been from and what people have been accessing (e.g. HTML versus PDF). An immediate action is to assess the user journey and access options to ensure that whether someone is working remotely OR accessing at their institution, this is as seamless as possible. I don’t think that the molecular biosciences research community will be back to ‘normal’ for a long time, so we need to work with that community to find a new normal, and support in any way that we are able to.”

As Damijonaitis said, “It'll be interesting to take a look back a year from now and see what sticks, what doesn't stick, and what's going to be developed between now and then.”

For more on how publishers responded to the crisis and how partnerships enabled their adaptability, check out Silverchair’s recent report.

Silverchair are silver sponsors of the ALPSP Virtual Conference and Awards 2020.

Will Schweitzer Silverchair
Will Schweitzer,
Chief Product Officer, Silverchair

Will Schweitzer 

As Silverchair’s Chief Product Officer, Will Schweitzer is responsible for developing and managing Silverchair’s scholarly and professional products, including the core Silverchair Platform. He has a deep knowledge of scholarly publishing having worked in the industry for over 16 years in product and publisher roles for the American Association for the Advancement Science (Science Magazine), SAGE Publications, the American Psychological Association, and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen
Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen Silverchair
Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen,
Senior Marketing Manager, Silverchair
Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen is the Senior Marketing Manager at Silverchair. She has worked in the publishing industry for 14 years, including at the University of Virginia Press and Clarivate Analytics.

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