Access to the literature: does interlibrary loan solve our problems?

Jan 11 2012 Published by under information policy

Elsewhere around the web there has been a lot of discussion of the Research Works Act (see John Dupuis' round-up, for example).  This is a bill to prevent U.S. federal agencies from mandating open access to government funded works, among other things. One of the arguments given by the publishers is that access to the literature is not a problem - everyone who needs it has several ways to get it.*  They cite these methods:

  • abstracts are free
  • institutional subscriptions
  • walk-up access for members of the community of institutional subscribers
  • pay-per-view
  • article rental
  • patient programs
  • programs to provide access to less developed countries
  • interlibrary loan (henceforth, ILL)

Abstracts, yeah, well, that's fine but...

Institutional subscriptions are for affiliates of the institution. By that I mean employees, staff, students, faculty, etc. Budgets are being cut all over the country, in some places as much as 25-30%. Even very wealthy institutions can't license everything that their users need.

Walk up access. Most of our licenses do permit walk up access. If you do live near a large research institution then this might help you. It is not acceptable, however, for government labs, for-profit companies, and other organizations that should have their own licenses to systematically send interns over to the large university to download all the needed articles.(as was mentioned in the comments to Sandra Porter's post)

Pay per view. Typically articles can be purchased for $15-$75. Sometimes that's for 24 hours worth of access, sometimes that's to download. That's never to redistribute.

Article rental. This is to look at the article online only - not to print or save down - for approximately 24 hours. This typically costs <$5. The problem is engaging fully with an article in 24 hours. What if you want to cite later and check something?

Patient programs and programs for less developed countries. I personally think these are great programs but 1) I'm not sure how many patients know about their programs and 2) there are a lot of people in developed countries who still don't have access.  Of course 1) doesn't mean that the publishers aren't trying.

ILL. Here is where we get to the purpose of my post. Can interlibrary loan solve our problems? My answer is no, and I'll tell you why.

First, you have to be affiliated with a library to request an interlibrary loan. Most people in western countries have a local public library. My local public library won't ILL articles for you and any books they ILL have to be free. Government libraries (at least the one I worked at) could also only get free articles. Did you know that many universities charge a fee to lend articles? Government libraries don't charge, but what with their budget woes there were a lot of articles to which they don't have access.

Second, ILL is not to be a substitute for a subscription. There are a set of guidelines that libraries follow. One of these is CONTU. The rule of 5 states that you can request no more than 5 articles per year from a particular journal (for journals published within the last 5 years).**  So what if there's a special issue? What if it's a really relevant journal with lots of good stuff? What you do is you go and you purchase the copyright clearances for extra copies --- or you say no. You could also pay the document delivery price (pay per view).

Third, ILL is expensive. A 1993 report calculated about $30 per transaction. If you have to pay for document delivery or copyright clearance charges or if you can only get it from some university that charges a fee, then it can be a whole lot more. Libraries are cutting services and even when they have a robust service, there's only so much an individual researcher can ask for without being seen as abusing the system.

Fourth, ILL is slow. It really is. Think of the opportunity cost. The luxury of being affiliated with two major research institutions means I have almost everything I want at my fingertips - but do people satisfice if they have to wait 2 days-3 weeks for something? Sure they do. And sometimes they wait for a crappy copy because the publisher says you have to print it first and then send fax quality (Evil empire rule).

Fifth, a crappy copy days later is not the type of engagement we need right now. We need to be able to mine, to compare, to calculate, to reuse data and tables

So no, IMO, ILL will not solve our problems.  I would be interested to hear of any other public libraries (besides perhaps NY city and maybe Cleveland) that do ILL articles for their patrons - for no fee, happily, and a bunch all the time.

With all this said, I really do wonder to whom the publishers are talking when they're hearing that people have the access they need. Are they talking to people who are at institutions like mine***? Are they talking to community college instructors? Are they talking to random members of the public?

* this argument does not address the bunch of other arguments including the one about how the taxpayer has already paid for the research and the writing up and the peer review...

** actually i think this really applies to the lender so you could probably shop around to multiple lenders to request things but it's easy to run out of lenders for expensive or rare titles

*** and hey some of our researchers are pissed because we had to drop AMS (American meteorological society) journals and a  v. v. expensive T&F remote sensing journal

update 1/12/12: Kiyomi Deards adds on twitter that some publishers limit or won't sell copyright clearance to go over 5.

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