November 24, 2017

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change? | Peer to Peer Review

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

Open access requires serious investment, especially in hard times

Barbara_Fister(Original Import)

This week our Interlibrary Loan manager notified a student that an article he had requested was open access, and she provided him the link. He didn’t read the email message carefully (hardly unusual for our students) and was indignant that the library wouldn’t provide him with the interlibrary loan he’d requested. A second email with the .pdf attached also made little impression. He complained to his professor that the library was turning down his request. So, when his class came to the library yesterday for some database help, I hand-delivered a copy to him in class and gave an impromptu explanation of the open access movement. He was grateful for the article and impressed that we’d taken the trouble to hand-deliver it—but it took two false starts to shake him out of his routine and get his attention.

I’m not surprised. It’s hard enough for students to master the ways libraries work; convincing them that they don’t work very well, and that alternatives are worth seeking out, seems to send a mixed message: here’s how the library works, but it’s kind of broken. Yet if this student, a science major, moves on to graduate school without understanding the problem, he will certainly become part of it.

Once I built a railroad
It’s Open Access Week, and while many libraries are using the occasion to celebrate progress and encourage change, not everyone is in a party mood. At ACRLog this week, Steven Bell provided a realistically bleak assessment of how far we have to go, writing “excuse me if I’m not in the mood to celebrate. I’m feeling frustrated. What else can you feel when the system is broken, you know that system must change, but there is little incentive for those perpetuating the system to change it for the better.”

Kendra Levine shared his ambivalence. As much as we want to see change, as much as we feel disaster is looming if something isn’t done, librarians are also expected to provide information regardless of where it came from or how overpriced it may be. Faculty feel publishing in the “right” journals so they can establish their reputations is far more important than doing anything that might rock the leaky boat. Even faculty who have earned tenure attach status to traditional forms of publishing and ignore all the signs that those traditional forms are teetering on the brink of extinction.

They used to tell me I was building a dream
Daniel Goldstein, who seems to have a knack for pushing librarians’ buttons, wrote this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the ways in which the corporatization of the university, the subject of a recent series of articles at the Chron (as well as scores of books), has altered libraries. In the name of “customer service” we have agreed to licensing terms that make libraries a business office that provides goods on demand for a local population rather than collecting and preserving knowledge as a cultural resource for all. Though librarians who commented on the essay were offended—they work hard to meet local needs and believe licensing information makes far more sense than purchasing and storing it, Goldstein’s main point—that we have ceded a great deal of power of the future of knowledge to publishers and mega-vendors is indisputable. When we tell faculty they need to change their ways, because we soon will be unable to pay the bills, we overlook our own complicity in the problem.

Librarians, frustrated by the slow pace of change, often see themselves as powerless servants of the students and faculty who need information and need to be published in traditional venues. We are much better at finding ways to cope (and more comfortable in that low-profile servant role, which we do very well) than we are at stating unpopular truths and drawing lines in the sand. We should all take lessons in candor from Dorothea Salo, who has a refreshing way of pointing out the obvious, even when it’s unwelcome news.

Last month she had some cheering and challenging things to say about the open access movement, which has made some progress since her early days as the discouraged Innkeeper at the Roach Motel. (The fact that the open access version of this classic essay has been read tens of thousands of times actually proves progress is possible.) In a recent interview with Roy Tennant, she points out that game-changing events, like Harvard’s Arts and Sciences faculty adopting an open access mandate, are possible, and she predicts we’ll see more major steps forward in the near future.

But libraries have to do more than bake an OA cake and gently wag our fingers at faculty while serving it up. We need to support open access through providing more resources and less lip service. We need to put more time and money into making information available for all, even if it means reallocating scarce and dwindling funds. We need to say no to practices that threaten access to knowledge.

Salo points out, for example, that the lack of transparency about what we pay for licensed materials is professionally irresponsible. Our “superstitious reverence for licenses that have unconscionable terms” makes us enforcers of policies that violate our values and even common sense. (Harvard Business Review, anyone?) Why do we take highly efficient collective action to share resources, but not our passions and our values? As Salo points out, “we’re the ones with the money. We have all the juice.”

I was always there, right on the job
And yet, and yet . . . libraries tend to act very much like that student who panicked when open access disrupted his routine. We know how to license and link to resources. We know how to explain databases and link resolvers and interlibrary loan. That open access stuff—it doesn’t fit into our “workflow” (a word I’ve come to hate with a passion).

How many libraries are licensing ebooks in vast numbers but not taking the trouble to include open access books in their catalogs? How many libraries scrape up loose change to create a repository, then find we just can’t spare the time to promote them—though somehow we find time to link to and promote the databases we pay for.

If we need change—and we do—it can’t be accomplished with spare change and free time. “Free” is a value, not a price-point. And change won’t happen if we only fund it with a few coins found under the budget’s cushions and the odd spare moment.

We can spare a dime—and then some
Here’s a challenge for all of us: every time we have to cancel a journal due to cost, let’s make sure faculty know what open access alternatives exist and encourage them to connect the dots. Every time we learn of a new faculty publication, let’s find out if the publisher allows self-archiving and use that information to spread the word and help set their publication free (or explain why their choices make that impossible). Whenever we celebrate scholarly work, let’s highlight that which is open access. Every time we teach juniors and seniors how to use our databases, let’s also talk about open access and why it matters. Next time a vendor insists we keep a price quote secret, let’s tell the company we find that unconscionable and immoral. Let’s tell them “we don’t do things that way.”

Will they get the message? All I know is they won’t if we never send it in the first place.


Note: BMJ Open‘s Richard Sands’ response to last week’s column expanded my perspective. Please see the addendum to read about our exchange.


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), was published in May by Minotaur Books.

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