March 22, 2018

Joining the Movement: A Call to Action | Peer to Peer Review

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:

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.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

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 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Well said Barbara. I think this makes the actions of those who started portal: libraries and the academy even more amazing – in that they walked away as editors when JAL was acquired by elsevier – in order to start portal as a librarian-friendly competitor. This is one challenge i see in your suggestion. Where will all the librarians on the tenure track publish? Yes, there are some other possibilities, but one would hope that open alternates would emerge – especially for serials or cataloging – where there may not be that many options.

    I do like that you indicated that you have friends and colleagues on these boards, and they’re not bad people because they serve the profession in this capacity – but that they have some thinking to do. I am friends with the co-editors of The Reference Librarian, for which I used to write a column, and they create good opportunities for those who want to publish or edit a special issue. But the last time I dealt with T&F – as a favor to a colleague who wanted to edit a special issue of articles from a conference – the author agreement was so draconian I decided this was the last time with T&F.

  2. I have close friends and colleagues on the tenure track in my own library. One of my jobs is mentoring them into practices that will not hurt them, but will also not hurt the advancement of our discipline or the future of libraries. There are open access alternatives and there are high quality journals not published by these corporations. I’m convinced they will be professionally better off publishing in venues that are forward-looking, responsible, and open.

    We’re reaching a tipping point where the “what about people on the tenure track” argument is no longer such a stumbling block.

  3. Rachel Borchardt says:

    In my mind, changing tenure requirements seems like the next logical step that will potentially remove a large stumbling block. But I think it goes beyond simply open access vs. closed journals.

    I think it’s time for us, as a profession, to readdress the question, “what does scholarly communication mean? What does impact within library science mean?”. I think that influence and impact has ceased to exist solely within the realm of peer-review and journal articles. This doesn’t mean that peer review isn’t necessary, but I would argue that it’s happening in other channels. When one librarian’s blog recommends another librarian’s blog, that’s a form of peer review, just as when one article cites another article. I don’t think we NEED peer review in order for great research and ideas to be communicated in our field any more.

    So, MY call to action would be to advocate for more lenient tenure requirements – how can we begin to legitimize not only open access journals and journal articles, but also the myriad ways in which librarians are currently communicating – via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts, etc.? Tools like Total Impact ( are emerging to try and quantify this level of scholarly communication and its impact, and I think it’s time for us to embrace it.

    Let’s be an example for others on campus!

    And thanks for letting me piggyback on your call to action to promote my own ideas. :)

  4. “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.”

    Right on target! I am one of the 6000+ researchers that have signed the Cost Of Knowledge boycott (in fact I was one of the first hundred or so) and I am absolutely delighted to see that librarians are standing with us.

    Big Publishing corporations don’t need to BE evil to have an evil effect. Every individual I have spoken to that works for Elsevier has been polite and pleasant … But that doesn’t change the fact that the position their jobs require them to take are totally inimical to the free exchange of information that science is built on. Sorry, but they have to go. They never intended to be the bad guys, but history has forced them into that role.

  5. … and I will just sneak in with a reminder that corporations did not invent and hold no patent on peer review. Lots of OA journals do it too.

    There are new publish-then-review models being tested, but to me that’s an interesting but separate issue. We don’t need to reinvent what currently counts to ditch predatory publishing practices.

    These publishers are claiming peer review is what they provide. They don’t. Though reinventing may be a good thing to do, it’s not a prerequisite.

  6. “These publishers are claiming peer review is what they provide. They don’t.”

    So true! I have made it a bit of a personal crusade to get this through people’s heads. As part of that, I wrote this article: Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.. You might find it useful to point to as a summary.

    • Liz Smith (@lexemes) says:

      Hello, Barbara. New here, but not to Mike! I work for Elsevier but am not an official spokesperson.

      I’d like to offer some clarification, which may seem like semantics but I think it’s important. We don’t provide peer review. Rather, we help it happen more efficiently. Any academic editor will tell you that it is hard work to find reviewers and manage that process. You may have experienced delays in getting a decision on a submission because of the review process. Elsevier (and I’m sure other publishers) invest in systems that help streamline it. In and of itself that may not seem like a lot but (a) it’s not the only thing we do and (b) research output is increasing year on year on year so it only gets harder to manager the peer review process.

      And, if I may include it here even though it’s not strictly a reply to Mike’s comment: we do not in any way, shape or form consider the research that we publish ‘our’ work. I stake my life on that. We’ve been sloppy and used ‘our content’ as a shorthand meaning the articles that we have invested in. I realise that whether our investment is useful is still fiercely contested, but it’s not correct to say that we believe published research to be ‘our’ work.

      Thanks for listening.

    • Liz, thank you for commenting. We do need to hear from all sides, and it’s good of you to speak up in what must seem a hostile place. I truly appreciate it.

      I realize all that labor, while donated, takes significant management and so does the development of a good distribution platform. However, we have developed a system that is not designed to spread knowledge, but to sell access to it, and that seems the wrong way to go about it. I would be happy to pay toward the necessary infrastructure. I do not like paying so much knowing that it’s ephemeral and only available to some. It troubles me that we the people have nothing to show for all that expense except temporary access.

      I also appreciate that you aren’t personally asserting moral ownership of the ideas in the published work, but that is how it is being described to legislators, because it’s the only argument that will will make sense: publishers create something entirely new from what is publicly funded and freely given to them; therefore it’s there’s and funders shouldn’t be allowed to require it be given back to the public. To say “you can put your research online, but once it passes into our hands it is no longer yours” has technically been the case for decades,but seeing it outside the fine-print language of a publishing agreement has made the true implications obvious to researchers, perhaps for the first time. And it’s an audacious claim of ownership that many feel goes too far.

    • … err, “therefore it’s theirs” ….. (d’oh)

  7. Thank you – and bookmarked for future use!

  8. Rachel Borchardt says:

    Barbara, agreed. I’m excited to see the possibility of our field moving away from predatory publishing practices, as you say, and am hopeful that the boycott will lead to some good discussion and an embrace of new standards of practice. I would just like to see an extension of the discussion wherein we ask, “are journals still needed?”. It is a separate question, but I think it’s all part of the bigger picture of what the field of librarianship looks like moving into the future.

  9. What I wonder is: why aren’t libraries boycotting where it actually hurts: subscriptions? At least those whose faculty are on the boycott list should have plenty of faculty support…

    • Seriously? Roughly 6000 people spread across the country, some (unknown) number of whom actually are librarians, is enough “support” to protect librarians from the backlash of a unilateral Elsevier cancellation?

      Think again. Just the institution I work at has thousands of faculty who couldn’t define “open access” if a multi-million-dollar grant depended on it.

      6000 signatories is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a long road from that to a general academic consensus. A very long road.

  10. I agree with Dorothea – we honestly don’t have the power to deny more powerful faculty in the disciplines the resources they believe they require. We very nearly boycott Elsevier at my library because … well, we can’t afford not to. We subscribe to maybe five of their journals in print, and they were ones we subscribed to before they were acquired by Elsevier, which then cut off the electronic version that came with the paper subscription.

    The big bundles effectively hold a handful of key publications hostage and then tell libraries they only can have them if they pay the ransom. They typically don’t offer us the option of subscribing to only the journals you want in electronic form.

    It would take a lot of faculty support to say no to these journals, and we haven’t got it. In the case of ACS, we would jeopardize our ACS accreditation – which, racket though it is, would hurt us more than it would hurt them.

  11. Another professional journal I would add to the list: Visual Resources, published by Taylor & Francis.