November 24, 2017

What Is To Be Done? | Peer to Peer Review

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

Wondering how to COPE with author fees and other monsters.

As a recovering Russian Literature major, I often ask myself chto delat’? It’s the title of a novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and the translation is What Is To Be Done? I have to admit it’s one of the canonical works that I never actually read. I did, however, have a survey course in which both War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov were on the reading list, so I’m not a total slacker. I just fudged a little when it came to this earnest and rather dull social novel.

All the same, Chernyshevsky’s catchy title came to me when speaking to some librarians at the University of Wisconsin in a kind of Open Access Week warm-up. I’m better at answering the question “just how broken is it?” than “what do we actually do about it?” My solutions, such as they are, tend to be more philosophical than practical.

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Can you put that in the form of an answer?
“What should we do?” was the perfectly reasonable question raised by the audience when I finished speaking. I didn’t have a lot of answers, though suggested that, as librarians, we should refuse to publish in journals that are not open access-friendly. Some of the library faculties that have passed open access mandates include Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, the University of Calgary, and yes, the librarians at my little college on the prairie.

We also talked about the need to support open access journals in the field such as Communications in Information Literacy and the indispensible and truly cool first kid on the block, First Monday. We also discussed exercising our self-archiving rights, which not all librarians do. Come on, people! What are you waiting for?

I am also thinking about changes we can make at my small undergraduate institution that has a fabulous and productive faculty, and one issue that needs to be discussed is whether or not it makes sense to reallocate some library funds toward author-pays fees to make articles open access.

The University of Michigan Libraries, which has been doing many interesting and practical things to encourage open access, has just started doing this on a two-year pilot program basis, joining an initiative called the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equity (COPE). With support from its provost, it will provide funding for authors who need support to publish their work in an immediately accessible form, with priority given to those who don’t have grant support to fund these fees and for fees that aren’t too high. It will not fully fund publication in those toll access journals that, for a fee (and often quite a high one) will open up one article at a time. That’s smart, given that these fees may help a single article find more readers but ultimately are just a new revenue stream that sustains a broken system.

We all pay
One of my first lessons in scholarly communication was hearing a physicist explain some 20 years ago that he had to pay page charges to publish articles in a journal we could no longer afford. When my jaw dropped, he hastened to reassure me it was okay; he didn’t actually pay for it himself, he built the cost into his grants. I was not reassured to learn that I was paying those page charges with my tax dollars. This was before arXiv was founded and before physicists began to routinely use LaTex so their publishers didn’t have to format their pages for them. This is one discipline that has done a good job of using new technologies to advance science through the open exchange of research. But that casual “no worries; it’s just part of the grant” still haunts me.

Now, when we talk about open access, the question often arises: who’s going to pay for it? Of course, we are already paying for access in myriad ways—both in the labor we contribute as authors, editors, and reviewers of scholarly work and in the overhead our institutions provide for doing this work. We also spend a lot of money providing access through libraries and are doing everything we can to make it seamless. Many librarians are investing time and money in creating and filling institutional repositories. But not so many have signed on to COPE.

Charting a course together
I will be raising this question with our faculty during Open Access week. Given that we have recently worked together to cancel a huge number of journals (the third round of cuts in a decade), I have a feeling the faculty will be wincing and rubbing their necks, suffering from whiplash. What, put scarce library money toward publishing our research when you can’t even provide subscriptions to basic journals? Are you crazy? But we need to steer between these rocks and hard places, and working together to develop a nautical chart of where these obstacles are located is one way to start.

If nothing else I want to make sure our faculty know those places we librarians know all too well, those dangerous places like those where early cartographers indicated, “here there be monsters.”


Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), has just been published by Minotaur Books.

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