Biljana Kosanović is Head of the Department of Scientific Information at the National Library of Serbia in Belgrade. Recently I spoke to Kosanović about the research environment in Serbia, about access to international journals, about local Serbian journals, about initiatives like doiSerbia, and about Open Access. It turns out that the situation is not quite how I had envisaged it.
Those who advocate for Open Access (OA) argue that in the age of the Internet the traditional subscription-based journal system used to publish scholarly papers is outdated, and so places an unnecessary barrier between researchers and published research.
Why? Because in order to have their work published, researchers freely give their papers to publishers, who then package them into journals and put those journals behind a subscription paywall so that they can recoup their costs, and make a profit. Many, however, believe that journal subscriptions are unreasonably high. Moreover, argue OA advocates, while this paywall may have been inevitable in a print world, in an online environment it is not, and simply creates a needless accessibility problem.
For so long as research libraries could afford to subscribe to all the journals they needed this accessibility problem was minimal, or non-existent. With the amount of research published growing year by year, however, it has become increasingly difficult for research libraries to afford all the journals they need — creating an affordability problem. And this affordability problem has led to a serious accessibility problem.
In an attempt to resolve the problem, in the 1990s publishers created the so-called Big Deal. Instead of selling subscriptions on a journal-by-journal basis, they started to sell discounted packages of (sometimes hundreds) of journals on an all-you-can-eat basis.
Librarians initially welcomed the Big Deal, since it gave them more for less. Subsequently, however, they concluded that it had exacerbated the affordability problem, and so made the accessibility problem much worse. Not only have prices continued to rise, but libraries have come to feel that they are locked into large over-priced contracts from which they are now unable to escape.
Underlining how serious the problem has become, last year the library of the wealthiest university in the world — Harvard — published a Memorandum in which it asserted that subscription-based scholarly publishing is now untenable. “Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive,” the Memorandum read. “This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers … to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.” [I.e. sell Big Deals, and at increasingly higher prices].
Even Harvard’s wealth, it would seem, is no longer able to afford to provide access to all the journals its researchers need. So Harvard Library proposed a number of solutions, most notably that researchers should embrace Open Access (OA), which ensures that research papers are made freely available outside publishers’ paywalls.
If the library of the world’s wealthiest university can no longer afford to provide its faculty with all the research they need, I thought, how appalling must it be for researchers in universities based in less wealthy countries? It was for this reason that I made contact with Biljana Kosanović. Serbia, we should note, is a transition country. It is also classified by many as a developing country (e.g. here and here).
To my surprise, however, Kosanović, informed me that access to international research is not a serious problem in Serbia.
She added that this is because eleven years ago the Consortium of Serbian Libraries for Coordinating Acquisition (KoBSON) was created, and charged with negotiating and managing national licensing schemes (Big Deals) with scholarly publishers. The aim was to ensure that Serbian researchers had access to all the international journals they needed.
How do we know that access to international journals is currently satisfactory in Serbia? “Two years ago — when we celebrated the tenth anniversary of KoBSON — we did a big survey of our users,” Kosanović explained to me. “We got around 3,000 respondents — which is pretty good for a user population of 30,000. Based on that, I would say that our users are pretty satisfied with what we offer them. There were only a few publishers they mentioned that we don’t have in our collections.”
How can it be that access to research appears to be less problematic for Serbian researchers than it is for those based at Harvard University?
Read the interview with Kosanović below to find out. In doing so you will also learn something of the research information environment in Serbia, and you will learn about the current state of Open Access in the country — for despite Serbian researchers’ current satisfaction with their access needs, Kosanović is a committed OA advocate.
“KoBSON is not a long-term solution,” Kosanović explained, adding, “I am sure that OA is the future of scholarly publishing, but this future will not arrive in the next year or two — so initiatives like KoBSON remain essential.”
In the meantime, there is much to be done. Currently only one university in Serbia has signed the Berlin Declaration, there are no OA mandates, and there are few institutional repositories.
On the other hand, more and more Serbian journals are becoming OA, thanks in part to the efforts of Kosanović and her colleagues who manage the doiSerbia initiative.
If you wish to read the interview with Biljana Kosanović, please click on the link below.
I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.
To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.