This week, a group of the largest publishers launched a new service, GetFTR, ostensibly designed to help readers get easier access to the full text of journal articles from their sites. Sounds good, but hang on — there’s a reason why commercial players are scrambling to launch such services: to maintain control.

The pioneers in doing this have been non-profit, open source initiatives: ourselves and Unpaywall. For more than five years, we built browser plugins as they provide unparalleled opportunities to ease users’ access to papers. Our friends at Unpaywall nailed the formula.

Shortly after, for-profit players jumped in to add subscription access to the mix, including Lean Library, Kopernio, and Digital Science. The first two were quickly bought respectively by Sage Publishing and Clarivate Analytics / Web of Science. In just the past few months, even more tools have launched, like Libkey Nomad and CORE Discovery, with their own iterations on the ideas. Meanwhile, big library technology vendors (e.g Ex-libris et al) have continued to add their own incremental improvements to library search and link resolvers.

What all these folks know is that there is significant power available as the provider of access to scholarly articles which is now up for grabs. As the transition to Open Access accelerates and big deal prices reach a breaking point for more institutions, the old rules of how to access content are rapidly changing. In their place, users now expect simple access to everything. Historically, publishers’ monopoly control over access has enabled them to control access through a single point: big deals. Now, they want to maintain that status quo for as long as possible, translate their legacy role into APCs, and build a new monopoly over a treasure trove of data and access to associated bundled services.

The launch of GetFTR shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it should concern everyone. While the future is difficult to predict, especially about the future of tools we know little about, what concerns us is:

  • GetFTR has the potential to quickly surpass the usage of any of the above tools. It will appear on the largest publishers’ websites, and come with genuinely valuable user experience benefits and the increased visibility of pre-prints and self-archived content. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it will also weaken the clear value proposition for the above tools, and their ability to change who controls access — strengthening the commercial’s players’ lock on content access.
  • Providing open content will not be the disaster publishers have always said it will be. It’s a good move. By doing this, publishers get to decide the terms — exactly what content is shown. However, they’re unlikely to include all open content and likely to equate it to free read-only. It’s unlikely most users will notice, muddying the case for the above tools and the full vision of open itself.
  • User privacy is under threat. But, as commercial players lock up this space, we should expect the first policies here to be ‘not as bad as expected’ as they push for mass adoption. However, policies change, and we should be clear about who’s in the driver’s seat as they do.
  • They’ll tell us this is about piracy, but it’s not. Sci-Hub has been around since 2011, and major publisher stock prices are higher than ever. Piracy is just a useful rationale for building support for broad implementation of GetFTR.

These concerns presume GetFTR is executed well, and given the mission-critical nature of the project and the unlimited funding available, expect it will be.

So, what to do? That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves and our colleagues in the library for quite some time now. As a small non-profit, we’d have a hard time taking every big publisher and vendors head-on. Instead, our answer has been to flip the question. Most people are asking, “How do we make it easier for researchers to access papers they can get instantly, freely, and legally either through Open Access or subscriptions?.” We’ve instead been asking “What should we do when they can’t?”. If you can answer that, you understand how to help reduce reliance on big publishers, big deals, and bridge the gaps between today and a world where everything is open.

We’ve begun answering that question in our new services, each built in partnership with the library community. That is why we’ve invested in Interlibrary Loan, which can legally deliver articles libraries don’t have subscriptions to. With InstantILL, we’re making it easy for researchers to use while making it cheaper and faster for the library to deliver papers. We’re making dramatically more content freely available through self-archiving by simplifying it to nearly a one-click process with shareyourpaper.org. We’re making emailing authors a powerful tool for access and change, with requests, which drive authors to self-archive. Our bet is that by decreasing the impact of not having instant access, we can make a dent in the power that comes by controlling access. Our hope is that by working with libraries to build innovative new tools, we can find out what actually works, and scale as others follow.

As a community, we have to act boldly. Time is not on our side if we hope to maintain what control over delivery we currently have, and seize an opportunity to take back rights for patrons. We must resist this new effort, invest in community-owned initiatives, and demand more action from library technology vendors.

Winning might take overhauling the user experience of link resolvers, focusing library search offerings on delivery, backing browser extensions that share our values by pre-installing them on machines, promoting on homepages, and having vendors support them. To resist means organizing the community against whatever pressure comes to libraries to participate: SPARC has a roadmap to help navigate this. These are not insignificant things to do, they are not the only things to do. But the goals: ensuring scholars control scholarship and ensuring open access also means private access, are surely worth it.

If you’d like to act boldly, drop us an email.

Thanks to the Arcadia Fund for generously supporting our work.