Something interesting is happening. People are beginning to see connections and patterns and thinking, “It’s not just my corner of the information infrastructure that’s borked. The whole thing is messed up. And I think I can see why.” This isn’t just a library issue anymore; it’s an issue many scholars and ordinary citizens are seeing as their own fight.
“Why are publishers being mean to my library?”
The fact that one giant publishing conglomerate after another has basically said that, in a digital age, public libraries are a bad idea has given the industry a bit of a PR problem. Until recently, the public mostly blamed their local public library when ebooks weren’t available, or were hard to download. They are now becoming aware that publishers actually want a system that cuts public libraries out completely.
Publishers can waffle all they want about the virtues of friction and developing alternatives that protect their business model; in reality, they are saying to the public, “Unless you are prepared to become our customer, we don’t want you touching our books. If that means literary culture shrinks to include only consumers—we’re okay with that. Culture is our intellectual property now, and we will set the terms for who gets access to it.”
I realize that to a large extent libraries are collateral damage in a skirmish between six corporations and a seventh, Amazon—but as they battle for power it has become abundantly clear that (as Steve Lawson, a librarian at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, pointed out this week in a brilliant and blunt blog post) they care about customers, not readers. Corporations that happen to publish books have no interest in the fate of culture at large, because they can’t monetize that which is public.
The RWA effect
Academic librarians have said for decades that the price of journals is unsustainable and damaging, but it seemed like a problem too mired in its own picayune academic context to be fixable. Publishers know that the majority of scholars who give them content, review it, and provide editorial work for free don’t care how much the finished product costs and aren’t interested in changing a system that so far works for them. This has been a “library problem” for most scholars, and what libraries have done to solve the problem has in many ways made it worse. We have used our money as duct tape to hold a broken system together and protect our users from its long-term consequences.
In shifting our resources from developing shareable long-term assets to buying and using up massive amounts of duct tape, we’ve abandoned future library users in order to keep our current clientele happy. Somewhere along the line, we decided that good customer service trumps every other library value. That could be connected to the fact that some of our more vocal faculty are bullies and we have been intimidated by them. But it’s mostly because it’s one value that works for both libraries and for corporations. We care about service. And that works out swell for big publishers.
Enough is enough
But big publishers of all kinds have been pushing their luck, and their behavior in the past few weeks has made the general public more aware of what we all stand to lose. The extent of fierce resistance to SOPA/PIPA among the general public caught the industries behind those bills by surprise. They were also surprised by scholars’ outrage over the audacity of the Research Works Act, when it became clear that the publishers’ assertion of rights over scholarly work isn’t just the fine print in a convenient terms-of-service agreement; publishers claimed to play such a significant role that they believe published research truly is their work. That was like poking sleeping scholars with a sharpened stick.
This attempted enclosure of common knowledge and culture is the natural outcome of neoliberal social engineering. This is what happens when it is assumed that what benefits corporations will automatically align nicely with what’s good for society. Right now, people are seeing what the future looks like: knowledge and the arts will be something that people both produce and consume but cannot own, and so cannot share. Access will be metered by the corporations that own the distribution system and control what happens to these “products” they didn’t create. This isn’t going down well.
But this is exactly what scientist John Ziman warned about in a Nature article years ago: public knowledge is being transformed into intellectual property. Though he was writing about science, this has also happened to the arts. The corporations got a little too pushy in trying to encode these trends into public law, and finally the public is becoming aware of the implications of this massive transfer of our culture into private hands.
Time to walk the walk
All of this leads me to wonder why on earth librarians continue to perpetuate the very system that we have been scolding scholars about for years. Many of our scholarly journals are published by the very corporations that supported the Research Works Act and which will continue to do what they can to maximize profits, which means making research in librarianship unavailable to many. Either we believe in open access, or we’re okay with the enclosure of knowledge. To preach open access without practicing it is baffling to me.
I’ve already signed the Elsevier boycott—not a tough choice, as I have not even considered publishing in one of their journals for years. I have also decided that I won’t sign a contract in the future with any book publisher that withholds ebooks from public libraries, which is a bit tougher. My previous publisher is in that category, and they have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to contracts. But I have to live with myself.
I challenge academic librarians to be as brave as the principled academics who are willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good by signing the Elsevier boycott. This would mean not writing, reviewing, or providing editorial services for some pretty significant journals in our field, including the following:
- Journal of Academic Librarianship—published by Elsevier (36 percent profit reported in 2011)
- Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services—published by Elsevier
- Serials Review—published by Elsevier
- Cataloging and Classification Quarterly—published by Taylor & Francis/Informa (32 percent profit reported in the first half of 2011)
- College & Undergraduate Libraries—published by Taylor & Francis
- Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology—published by John Wiley & Sons (42.5 percent profit reported in 2011)
These are only a handful of the many LIS journals published by these corporations. Some of my friends are on these journals’ editorial boards, and I realize I am putting them on the spot. But it seems to me there’s more integrity in raising this issue with my friends and colleagues rather than simply calling out scholars who I don’t know writing in fields that are not mine. I urge us as librarians to step back and think about the implications of voluntarily entrusting our scholarship to these corporations.
It’s not that the corporations are bad. It’s just that their interests have proven not to align well with the values of our profession and the results have been disastrous for our libraries.
To paraphrase distinguished mathematician Timothy Gowers, the moral issues here are among librarians, rather than between librarians and particular publishers. If you publish in journals owned by corporations that you feel are inhibiting the flow of knowledge, you are making it easier for these corporations to take action that harms libraries and their missions, so you shouldn’t.