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Open access publication in the spotlight (April) - 'Sharing with minimal regulation? Evidence from neighborhood book exchange'

Date:24 April 2024
Author:Open Access Team
Open access publication in the spotlight: April 2024
Open access publication in the spotlight: April 2024

Each month, the open access team of the University of Groningen Library (UB) puts a recent open access article by UG authors in the spotlight. This publication is highlighted via social media and the library’s newsletter and website.

The article in the spotlight for the month of April 2024 is titled Sharing with minimal regulation? Evidence from neighborhood book exchange, written by Anouk Schippers and Adriaan Soetevent (both from the Faculty of Economics and Business). 


Informal peer-to-peer services to share or barter goods often succumb to free riding behavior because they lack the tools to enforce compliance and reciprocity. We collect unique quantitative data on a form of unregulated peer-to-peer in-kind exchange that appears internationally viable: the free exchange of books via privately owned public bookcases, also known as little free libraries. Other than previously studied honor-based exchanges, little free libraries use a non-monetary one-to-one book exchange rate.

We find surprisingly limited free riding in this market. Users return 9 books for every 10 taken. An incentivized survey points to strong social norms and preferences for cooperation among owners and users as key behavioral primitives that can explain the observed high and stable level of reciprocal exchange.

We asked authors Anouk Schippers and Adriaan Soetevent a few questions about the article:

Why is free riding not an issue for little free libraries? What makes them different from other peer-to-peer initiatives for sharing goods?

We observe relatively little free riding over a study period of six months: as a group, users return 9 books for every 10 taken. Our survey results and incentivized experiments suggest that this is at least in part driven by the fact that users and owners of free libraries are a self-selected group of people with preferences for cooperation that are far above average and that there exist social norms in the local user community that prevent exploiting the library for personal gain.

Well-known initiatives for sharing goods are Uber and AirBnB, which involve paid transactions and formal enforcement mechanisms, and Peerby, an app to borrow, lend and rent goods from people in the neighborhood. Free libraries differ from these sharing mechanisms in that they focus on sharing products for free, request an in-kind exchange in the form of a book instead of  money, and there is no (online) platform which organizes the exchange or that allow users to build trust through reputation or to rate other users.

Do you use little free libraries (public bookcases) yourself? 

No, or perhaps a better answer is not yet. We both have bought too many books in the past such that there still is an entire pile of great books in our in-home bookshelves that we still have to read. But once we are making progress with that, it would be great to make other readers happy with these books by sharing them via our own public bookcase.

Can little free libraries provide us with lessons for the open science movement?

The sustained success of little free libraries is to a great extent due to committed, enthusiastic owners who continually monitor their library and sometimes clean it up when it gets clogged with worn or uninteresting books. In fact, similar to providers of data repositories like OSF, and open access archives like, these library owners manage a platform. The lesson for the open science movement is that it works best when the platform owners who provide the services are committed, in it for the long-run and, ideally, are driven by a strongly felt intrinsic motivation to provide the service. In turn, users - we as researchers - should reciprocate by acting as good citizens. This means that we should restrain ourselves by for example not putting just anything on a pre-print server, but only our work that meets a certain quality standard. Otherwise, these open science systems also get overwhelmed and clogged.

The experimental part of this study was pre-registered in the American Economic Association’s registry for randomized controlled trials. Why did you decide to do this?

Nowadays, pre-registering experimental studies is very common in economics. As a researcher, you submit your research hypotheses beforehand, together with an explicit plan on how you aim to test these hypotheses, including the number of observations one plans to collect and details on the statistical tests. This increases research transparency, but because of the need to formulate all this before the study and data collection go "live", it also often improves the quality of the research design. For this study in particular, an important reason to pre-register was that we wanted to make clear that our main motivation to collect the data on little free library usage was to study free riding behavior among users.

Could you reflect on your experiences with open access and open science in general?

We have mixed feelings. The inconvenient truth about open access is that it has not broken the market power of the big commercial publishers. Allegedly, the great benefit of open access is that it enables a more widely and rapidly dissemination of scientific knowledge, yet this still comes at a huge cost. For example, the current article processing charge (APC) of publishing an article gold open access in Nature Human Behavior is €10.290, the price of a good second-hand car. Such prices are really hard to justify to the tax-payer. Publishers like Springer have operating margins of around 30%, which is indicative that the APC by far exceeds the actual cost of peer-review and publishing an article. Hence a more appropriate name for the APC would be APP, the Article Processing Price.

That said, we are very much in favor of researchers sharing their data and research online on no- or low-cost platforms such as the ones mentioned above. We also applaud the options to publish open access at reasonable cost, for example in journals published on behalf of academic societies such as the European Economic Association.

Useful links:

OSF: The Open Science Framework is a free and open source project management tool that supports researchers throughout their entire project lifecycle. OSF helps teams collaborate in one centralized location and provides file hosting, version control, persistent URLs, and DOI registration.

Wikipedia provides a useful introduction to preregistration in science


Schippers, A. L., & Soetevent, A. R. (2024). Sharing with minimal regulation? Evidence from neighborhood book exchange. European Economic Review, 161, 104639.

If you would like us to highlight your open access publication here, please get in touch with us.

About the author

Open Access Team
The Open Access team of the University of Groningen Library

Link: /openaccess