April 26, 2018

Living in Parallel Universes | Peer to Peer review

What interesting times we live in. I just got a panicked call from a professor who asked her students to find reviews of YA books that had appeared at the time they were originally published. She suddenly realized she didn’t know how to find a review of a now-classic Judy Blume novel that she planned to use as an example. She couldn’t find any reviews from 1970 on the web. She couldn’t find any in our databases, which often don’t have full text that far back. The Publishers Weekly review posted at Amazon is not from the time of the original publication but refers to a later reissue. The author’s website didn’t include reviews from 1970. And here this professor had thought it was a simple assignment.

I was able to locate a short review in the New York Times and sent her the PDF but found myself amazed at how even though research is so much easier these days, it’s also so much harder. I suspect 20 years ago she would have known what to do, because there wouldn’t have been so many options. Now, tasks that seem simple might require trying out several different paths before hitting on the right one, and the commonest of sources from entire decades may be vexingly out of reach.

This resonated with an experience I had earlier this week browsing through the day’s higher education news sent out by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That one email included the following:

  • An essay offered advice to authors on how to write a book proposal, suggesting authors fill out the information questionnaire that the marketing department likes to collect when books are in production, the one that asks what courses might adopt it, at which conferences should it be displayed, which journals should get review copies. I filled out a form like that nearly 20 years ago (though I didn’t think to do it before I wrote the proposal). What struck me reading this sound advice was how absolutely traditional it is. You’d think nothing had changed in two decades, other than that some of the questions now deal with social media platforms.
  • The lead article that day focused on the debate over whether traditional dissertations are good preparation for scholars these days (subscription required), including a profile of young researchers producing digital projects instead of lengthy and learned tomes.
  • There was a  report from the annual conference of the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, which includes the giant publishing corporations Elsevier, SAGE, the American Chemical Association, and the American Psychological Association (the last two of which are tax-exempt but make a lot of money on their publishing operations so have common cause with for-profits). Publishers seemed interested in further commandeering the uses of libraries by becoming cozier with authors, supplying them with “seamless access to the literature” and citation management tools. All libraries will have to do is pay for it all—while no doubt being up to their elbows in making that seamless thing actually work.
  • There was also a follow-up piece on memorials following Aaron Swartz’s death and the efforts to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which can be so broadly interpreted that judges could impose sentences of decades in prison for violating a publisher’s terms of service.
  • Another article commented on the way social media was altering global interactions among academics, making communication much faster and easier but harder to keep up with.
  • And there was an article on yet another publisher suing a university and a librarian.

But this time it isn’t Oxford, Cambridge, and SAGE suing a librarian and other officials at Georgia State University, it’s Edwin Mellen, a publisher long criticized for publishing a line of books with low editorial quality and higher than average price tags. The publisher was upset when a librarian put in writing on his personal blog what most librarians and scholars had been saying for years: the press had a bad reputation. Mellen sued Dale Askey, the librarian, as well as the Canadian institution where he now works, for $3 million. (Mellen apparently separately filed an action asking for $1 million in damages against Askey.)

It’s hard to understand why a publisher would so thoroughly publicize its own tarnished reputation with an outrageous action that was guaranteed to speed through social media. (John Dupuis has a good roundup at his blog, Confessions of a Science Librarian.) Any number of scholars and librarians have affirmed what Askey said, and some of them have taunted the publisher, inviting the company to sue them, too. This is exactly as it should be. We need to show solidarity with Askey so that the litigious publisher will face too many targets to bully.

What surprised me browsing through that daily digest of articles was how many of them were about how we share scholarship—over half of the major stories that day. The options for academic authors presented in a single email update are not all that clear, other than that there are many of them. Given the multitude of options, it’s strange that low-prestige, high-cost routes to publication continue to exist.

Whether it’s deciding where to publish research or how to complete what appears to be a simple assignment, we find ourselves living in parallel publishing universes. A crucial skill for librarians today and in the near future will be helping the communities we serve know which routes are safe, which routes are pointless detours, which alternatives are emerging, and which are newly blazed trails that offer promise. No academic librarian today can assume that knowing this stuff is not in their job description. None of us can afford to be incurious about the future of scholarly communication.

All of us need to make it clear that we support the right and the duty of librarians to share our informed evaluations, as Dale Askey did. I’m pleased to see that Mellen’s absurd lawsuit doesn’t appear to be having the chilling effect that was no doubt intended. Instead, as a number of commenters have pointed out, it’s having a Streisand effect.

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

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.


  1. In this case, the Streisand effect may well have libraries boycotting Mellen in their collection development plans (a tactic partially undercut by having numerous Mellen books in subscription packages like EBSCO’s academic e-book collection). Mellen sells only about 100 copies of each of its titles, with the bulk of those sales going to academic libraries. It would seem that they are biting the hand that feeds them by taking on an academic librarian. Their plate could become empty pretty quickly if librarians should happen to rally the troops (not that they would do such a thing, would they?).

  2. Now, that’s a troubling thought. We don’t subscribe to any ebook packages, but I hope libraries that do will take a look. We could be inadvertently paying for overpriced and poor quality books and supporting a publisher who sues librarians. At least when we pay Oxford, Cambridge, and SAGE for books, they’re decent books, though yes, they too sue librarians, but on different grounds.

    Years ago, EBSCO included Mankind Quarterly as a full text “scholarly” journal. It turned out its publisher included the same article multiple times under different author names, and also that he held non-mainstream views about a connection between race and intelligence. Many articles from this journal, founded in connection with a pro-eugenics group in the north of England, are used as “scholarly” evidence in The Bell Curve. I was disturbed that a) our students were turning up articles from a journal I would not ever subscribe to with little context to help them see what the journal is about and b) that we were indirectly supporting a journal that fraudulently reprinted the same article under different author names. Wikipedia has a pretty good overview.

    In response to my (and others’) complaints EBSCO for a while stopped labeling it as a scholarly journal. It is no longer in their title list. Sigh of relief. But … don’t we kind of invite this when we say “yay, no need to select! give us what you got!”

  3. Thank you. That is a perfect example of why abdicating our curatorial responsibilities doesn’t always work out. We end up paying the rent for stuff we probably wouldn’t buy, and repeating our “big deal” mistakes seems like a really bad idea.

  4. (I should add that we literally pay rent to house books that aren’t circulating, but there is a fix for that. Most library library collections would benefit if we put as much time into weeding as into acquisition or fixing link resolver problems with electronic content in big deals.)

    • On the pragmatic side, though I agree with you in principle, an e-book subscription of resources chosen by others and rented by us has proved surprisingly helpful, not just for our distance students but for acquisitions. I am constantly identifying new books we should buy only to discover that we already have them through EBSCO. The final down side, of course, is that we are bound to EBSCO forever. None of these issues avoid shadow and nuance.