November 16, 2017

The Accessibility Paradox | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

The book world has been harrumphing about a battle among big box stores to sell the season’s biggest books at the cheapest price. In order to draw customer into their stores, Target and Wal-Mart are making ten bestselling author’s books available for under ten bucks. (Wisconsin is missing all the excitement—they have a law against dumping goods below wholesale prices —but Amazon has joined in the fray, so Wisconsinites can still go online and pre-order bestsellers at low-low prices.)

The American Booksellers Association has even asked the Department of Justice to intervene. I’m somewhat bemused to see a Barbara Kingsolver book among the discounted books—attention shoppers! Critique of corporate greed and US imperialism on sale in aisle three! But I’m also taken aback by the horrified response of the book industry. I thought the big crisis was that nobody reads. Now it turns out the problem is that books are so popular with the masses they’re being used as bait to draw in shoppers.

Come on, guys, get your story straight! Which is it?

Information wants to be valued
It strikes me that this issue is somewhat parallel to the love-hate relationship that many academic librarians have had with the Internet. Although our complicated relationship is improving, there are still some silly assumptions floating around. Oh no, our reference stats are down! Hurrah! People are able to find answers without our help. That’s awesome! Anybody can publish on the web, unlike scholarly journals which are peer-reviewed. Fine, but don’t tell me all peer-reviewed journal articles are shining examples of reason and academic brilliance. A lot of them are finely-sliced research rehashing the same findings, or are closely examined and exquisitely detailed trivia. Besides, there are plenty of examples of peer review failing in spectacular ways—and examples of wonderful peer-reviewed journals that were born free online.

But this is my favorite: Unlike information you find on the web, we pay for the information in our databases, and you get what you pay for. No, actually, with what you pay for you get a lot of junk that you don’t even want, but you have no choice.

You want this journal? You have to subscribe to this pricey bundle. Either that, or you purchase one article at a time for your users, something more and more libraries are doing. You spend less, but the information never visits the library—it goes straight from the publisher to the desk of one user. All the library gets is the bill. Apart from failing on its merits, the argument that paid is better than free is self-contradicting. We can’t tell students that purchased information is by definition better than free and, at the same time, beg faculty to recognize how broken the current system is and please, please, please make their work open access.

Fortunately, most librarians have gotten used to the fact that the Internet is a tremendous boon to researchers and that free information is a fantastic idea. Sure, we haven’t yet reallocated our organizational resources to recognize this fact—our staff time is much more likely to be devoted to acquiring and messing about with purchased information than in making good information from our archives, our labs, or the web more easily available. That work is "other duties as assigned" or soft-funded special projects that suffer from lack of support. But at least we’ve reached the point where most librarians no longer have a kneejerk resistance to Wikipedia or insist that information acquired through the library is the only legitimate kind. We’re even getting past being numbed by the realization that the OPAC sucks no matter how much money we spend on it and are exploring open source solutions that are better and that cost far less. 

But we still worry about our obsolescence. If information is given away for free, or if remote users don’t realize we paid for it, when the traditional work of libraries is shifted to things other than buying and organizing physical containers of information, how will we justify our existence? Being a purchasing agent for faculty really isn’t my idea of a fun future, or a sustainable one.

To frame the issue another way: What value will the library have for academia if we actually succeed and have an open access future? Will the library, like the perfect Communist state, wither away?

We need to separate our value—the way we curate information, champion its availability in the face of intolerance of unpopular ideas and economic disparity, and create conditions for learning how to find and use good information—from the amount of money it takes to acquire stuff on the not-so-open market. We need to be quite clear that good information is good information, no matter how it’s funded. And we need to find creative ways to partner with those who add value to information and find sustainable models for the editorial work that can make good academic work better.

Cheap thrills
The other day at the grocery store I was tickled to see a spinner near the checkout lane filled with Little Golden Books. The Pokey Little Puppy! Scuffy the Tugboat! They don’t cost 35 cents anymore, but for under three bucks I could buy the same titles I talked my mother into buying me a long time ago. That’s cheap! Yet nobody seems to think having these inexpensive books in grocery stores cheapens books.

Independent booksellers, quite honestly, are not threatened by ten popular books being treated as loss leaders. For years they’ve been disadvantaged by bestseller discounts at chains, discount stores, and Amazon; they haven’t been able to compete on the sale of bestsellers for years, so successful indies have excelled at other things—being a community resource, capitalizing on their curatorial skills to fill niches, helping people discover books one-on-one. The major trade publishers whose business model is built around the Big Book, the out-of-the-ballpark hit, have more reason to worry. Their idea of success is selling lots of copies of a book to occasional readers rather than satisfying the varied tastes of avid readers. If the occasional reader thinks ten bucks is all they should pay, then the big-book theory of profits crumbles.

But that doesn’t mean there is no future for books. In fact, they are such a popular draw that they are being used as ammunition in a pitched battle for consumers’ attention. Surely, that’s reason for celebration. Somebody will have to publish books because readers obviously want them. The economics may shift, but at least the product is in demand.

In the same way, we have come to realize that libraries will endure. Our professional roles will change, our relationship to our users and to the information they seek will evolve, but there is still a demand for high quality information and for assistance in learning how to make good choices. Creating, curating, and publishing are likely to start blending in interesting new ways. The value of what we do will still be there. We just have to figure out how to stop equating the price tag with our actual worth, roll up our sleeves, and find interesting new ways to make good information freely available. Isn’t that what libraries have always been about?

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books in 2010.

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