A Couple of Points about the Elsevier Response

Elsevier has briefly responded to the steadily growing petition by researchers to refuse to publish, referee, or do editorial work for Elsevier journals until they change how they operate. Last summer I speculated that a faculty boycott would be a necessary step towards more open access. That was in response to the OUP, CUP, and Sage suing Georgia State University. We might finally get to see what, if anything, will happen. 3500 or so researchers have signed the petition so far (about 40 just while I was writing this post), but it’s hard to know how many of those are actively involved in work for Elsevier journals. If the bulk of the people actually providing the research and the free labor quit doing it, what actions can Elsevier take? If they start paying for the articles and editorial work, there goes their profit.

The response so far is that business as usual is the best thing for everyone. At least that’s how I understand their response. To be fair, it’s a clever response, and you can tell that Elsevier has the money to hire intelligent and articulate people to do their marketing. I don’t want to address the entire post, but a couple of the points made especially stuck out. Here’s one quote:

Although it’s tempting to boil issues down to catch-phrases like “Publicly funded research should be free to the public,” it is much more difficult to divine the implications of such statements. I was recently told about a dynamic government-funded research center to develop flexible display technology. What portion of that research should be free: the research report to the funding agency; the peer-reviewed published article; or the new flexi-plastic tablet as the result of that publicly-funded research? How did we come to accept that the peer-reviewed article meets that obligation? I think this is an important discussion; one that needs much more thoughtful debate.

The opening rhetorical move accuses the thousands of scientists and librarians who support open access to scholarship of oversimplification. The implication is that anyone who believes that publicly funded research should be open to the public just doesn’t understand all the complexities of the issue, even if they’re the ones funding or performing the research. Instead, the people who really understand the issue are vice presidents of global marketing for large publishers with a serious investment in defending the status quo.

The use of a specific example is a good move. Draw attention away from the general debate and the accusations against Elsevier (which admittedly are very broad) and focus that attention on a specific piece of research. Of all the stuff that goes on in a research project, “how did we come to accept that the peer-reviewed article should be free? It’s a fair question, but not a particularly difficult one to answer. We didn’t “come to accept” that proposition. We began with that proposition. For the past 300 years scientists have been doing research with the goal of publishing and disseminating that research. The article isn’t the research, but merely the report of the results of that research, and scientists have always been interested in having the reports widely available. The petition says it’s about “right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work,” and that’s what scientists have wanted since the 17th century. Moreover, scientists expect to have access to all the published results of other scientists, regardless of whether their particular institution can afford the very high prices of most scientific journals, which is why they’ve always shared amongst themselves regardless of copyright.

This isn’t to say that scientists haven’t been implicitly responsible for the inaccessibility of much of those results. Unfortunately, while scientists have been very good at furthering science, they haven’t been so good at creating mechanisms for the wide distribution of the results of their research. The network of noncommercial scholarly journals didn’t keep pace with the output of scientific research, and enterprising publishers with commercial values at odds with scientific values emerged to fill the gap. Scientists were so intent on publishing, they didn’t think about the implications of creating a large commercial network of journals to publish research that was often publicly funded. They also haven’t thought much about the refereeing and editorial work they did for these journals, treating all scholarly journals as equal, regardless of whether they were published by a commercial firm dedicated to profit or by a noncommercial association dedicated to the dissemination of scholarship.

Which brings me to the second quote from the Elsevier response, in which my claim that international science and Elsevier have different values is implicitly challenged.

Elsevier aims to make research more accessible and discoverable while ensuring the integrity of the scientific record. We’ve always supported the principle that the public should have access to publicly funded research. We believe this can best be achieved in an environment without government mandates.

I would be puzzled by how they could support the principle that the public should have access to publicly funded research and then fight to counteract a law that tries to uphold that very principle, except that I doubt even the person who wrote that response believes it. I understand why they want an “environment without government mandates,” because those government mandates could cut into the profit they make by publishing the results of publicly funded research. But if they supported that principle, they wouldn’t have been paying members of Congress to push the Research Works Act, and if they hadn’t been supporting the Research Works Act this petition against them probably wouldn’t have happened. Of the three accusations against Elsevier, only the third–the support of SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act–is even remotely new behavior. It would be ironic indeed if a push by Elsevier to overturn a law supporting a principle they claim to uphold leads to radical change in scholarly publishing.

The Codex is Dead; Long Live the Codex

ACRLog had a post last week about humanists wanting print books rather than ebooks. Here’s a key passage:

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

When thinking of humanities scholars and their books, I don’t see how it matters if most students don’t want to read their books all the way through or want to treat scholarly monographs the way they treat encyclopedias, as collections of information tidbits to pick and choose among. The scholarly monograph in the humanities isn’t designed to be read that way. It’s not a report of research results, but the result of research, and the analyses and arguments develop throughout the book or at least throughout the chapters. And what’s more, scholars don’t just dip into one book at a time to get some useful fact; they immerse themselves in books and frequently move among many different books while working.

The writer notes that the same faculty who demand print books for their work are happy to read novels on their ebook readers while relaxing or traveling. “It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.” I don’t know why this would surprise any librarians who work in the humanities. It’s easy to forget amidst the technological splendor that the codex is an extremely useful tool. Humanists often work on research projects that involve examining multiple texts and comparing them, sometimes moving from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage within those books. Spreading several books on a desk and flipping back and forth between passages is relatively easy, and much easier than trying to do the same thing on any current ebook reader. Annotating a book with pencil in hand is also faster and easier than doing it on any ebook readers I’ve yet seen. It’s easy enough for me to think of examples from my own work. This summer I was writing a book chapter that was more or less intellectual history. The bulk of the chapter focused on four or five primary texts as well as a handful of secondary sources. I was trying both to analyze specific arguments occurring throughout the primary texts as well as compare the arguments to those in the other primary texts. The easiest way for me to do this was to have the books spread out around me, so that I could quickly put down one and pick up another or flip back and forth between several relevant passages in the same book.

Working with printed books is at the moment the fastest and easiest way to do this, which is probably why the scholars who do this sort of work the most like printed books. Everything else is clunky by comparison, especially ebook readers. This kind of work explains why humanists like ebook readers for casual reading but not for scholarly work. Leaving aside the DRM restrictions that make getting and reading ebooks so irritating at times, the ebook reader technology just isn’t sophisticated enough for widespread humanistic scholarly use yet. When it’s possible to flip instantly among several books and between passages on a device that’s easy on the eyes and allows annotation as quick as a pencil, this might change. Indeed, I was unsurprised by the Ebrary ebook survey that showed “The vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.” To that I would add two caveats: first, better tools with fewer restrictions aren’t being offered, and second, the majority of students aren’t humanities scholars. My library did a large campus survey of faculty and students last year. 92% of humanists viewed print books as “essential.” This will change when the new tools become as adequate and easy to use as the old tools.

Sure, there might be ways around this, assuming one can get all the necessary books in digital format. (For the project I was working on this summer, I used books that were print-only and hard to get because few libraries held them, and they weren’t for sale or I would have purchased them for my own library. So much for PDA-only libraries relying on used-book dealers to meet their retrospective collection development needs.) But assuming I could, what current technology would suffice to replicate the ease of moving among books and passages of books? Maybe having six tablet computers would work. They would have to be devices that displayed PDFs well, too, so that the secondary journal literature could also easily be read. That sort of defeats the purpose of ebooks, because if I had to carry around, much less purchase, a handful of ebook readers the main purpose of having an ebook reader is eliminated.

I think this is an example where breathless ebook prophets are pushing a format that for now remains an inadequate tool for humanistic scholarly research, and I suspect they’re doing so because they never do any of that type of research, so they either don’t know or don’t care about the inadequate tools. Technology that doesn’t make work easier is bad technology, no matter how much some people might like it for their casual reading. When the tools improve, no one will be protesting the demise of the codex. The ideal might be one of those virtual reality gesture-input computers like in Minority Report. All it might take is a computer that could simultaneous project multiple, easily manipulated texts in the space surrounding a scholar, texts that could be read, highlighted, annotated, and flipped through as easily as printed books. Making copying and pasting of quotations easily into whatever passes for a virtual reality word processor would be a boon as well. When that technology is as ubiquitous in academia as printed books, then the problem will be solved and humanists might abandon the codex. And if they don’t, that’s the time to start chastising them for their reactionary views, because it’s not reactionary to resist technology that makes one’s life more difficult.

The immediate future will be considerably more banal, but I can see the trend with both the new Ebrary ebook downloads and the new ebook platform on the new Project Muse beta site. Both allow quick and easy downloading of portions of books into PDF format, and the entire book if you don’t mind it being broken up into sections or chapters. This mimics the availability of scholarly articles through many databases, and everyone admits that even humanist scholars have no problem with electronic articles, just electronic books. That’s because most of them print the articles out and read them on paper, which they will now be able to do with lots of future ebooks. I’d rather have the virtual reality library, but until that happens PDF printouts might be as close to an ebook-only future as most humanists are likely to get. Libraries might stop buying printed books some day. The codex is dead. Scholars will then print out their PDF ebooks to make reading and research easier. Love live the codex.


Ebrary Ebook Downloads: the First Time

Ebrary now allows users to download ebooks to devices. Ebrary users can download up to 60 pages of a book into a permanent PDF file or an entire ebook using Adobe Digital Editions, which seems to load onto every ebook reader except the one I own (the Kindle). Ebrary has always had an ebook model similar to the ejournal model we’re all familiar with, where multiple users can access the same item just as they can with journal articles. Reading on the computer screen isn’t great, but having the searchable full text of the ebook is great. The ebook download is a bit trickier than downloading an article from ProQuest or Ebsco, though. Here’s what it’s like the first time:

1. Once you choose your ebook, click the “Download Button.” 


2. In order to download a book, you have to create an Ebrary account, which you don’t need just to view the books online. I had an old one, but couldn’t remember my password.



3. Once you create the account, you have to sign in, of course. From now on, you’ll be prompted to sign in when you want to download.



4. You’re not quite done. Getting the partial ebook on PDF is easy, but to get the entire book you have to download Adobe Digital Editions. If you miss the tiny print, you won’t be able to read your book.



5. At the Adobe Digital Editions site, you have to click “Install.”



6. After you click “Install,” you get another screen, where you have to click “Install” again.



7. Adobe needs you to be really, really sure you want this and that you’re not just toying with their affections, so after clicking “Install” twice, you have to click “Yes” to actually download Digital Editions.



8. Then the setup begins.



9. And another step.



10. One more click and we’re done!



11.Well, almost. You still have to agree to the license terms that you’re almost certainly not going to read, hoping as with all software installations there isn’t something tucked away about you owing anyone the souls of your unborn children.



12. Oh, and you still have a little setting up to do.



13. It turns out you can’t download the ebook without creating accounts with both Ebrary and Adobe. So it’s time to do that.



14. Fill in all that information and “Join Adobe.” Now’s the time to start getting excited about reading that book, because there are only four steps left to go.



15. Success! Adobe Digital Editions activated.



16. Only you don’t have any books yet. So go back to the Ebrary download page and click “OK.”



17. Now you’ll get a prompt to download the ebook into Adobe Digital Editions. If you’re still going at that point, click “OK.”



18. And now we have our book. Through Adobe Digital Editions, it can be moved to various ebook readers and devices. Unfortunately, despite having accounts with both Ebrary and Adobe at this point, it doesn’t sync across computers. So if you download a book onto one computer using Adobe Digital Editions, you won’t be able to log into Adobe from another computer and access the book, which is functionality I expect at this point.



So, there you have it. How to download your Ebrary ebook for the first time, in 18 easy steps. It’s not quite as seamless a process as downloading an article from JSTOR, but Ebrary is doing the best it can with what it has. As with a lot of things, the first time is the hardest, and the download process is much smoother once you have the right accounts and software downloaded. I just wonder how many people will get through that first time.

Boycotting the Plaintiffs?

It has been a season of discontent with publishers. After HarperCollins announced in March that they were going to impose a 26 checkout limit on ebooks licensed to libraries, a number of libraries began boycotting HarperCollins and refusing to purchase Harpercollins ebooks, with a few taking the next logical step and boycotting print titles as well. New Jersey public librarian Andy Woodworth started an online petition to challenge HarperCollins, and apparently tens of thousands of people have signed it. So far, it’s had little effect on HarperCollins that I can tell.

That scandal made the library news, but another petition and call for boycott didn’t. The philosophy of science journal Synthese published a special issue on Evolution and Its Rivals (subscription definitely required).The online version came out as the guest editors intended, but when the print edition was released in March, and unbeknownst to the guest editors, the editors-in-chief inserted a disclaimer saying they had observed “”that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.” Most people interpreted this as a criticism of Barbara Forrest’s article, “The non-epistemology of intelligent design: its implications for public policy.” The New York Times article about the incident reported her article used “language some would later criticize as unfit for a scholarly journal” in criticizing noted Intelligent Design (ID) proponent Francis Beckwith. The “some” who later criticized the article were apparently Beckwith and Beckwith supporters, who allegedly complained and threatened legal action. I read through the article, and while it’s a devastating critique of the epistemological claims of ID to be taken seriously as science, it doesn’t seem to me to have language unfit for a scholarly journal. If you subscribe to Synthese, you can judge for yourself.  (And check out John S. Wilkins’ article “Are Creationists Rational?” in the same issue, in which he argues they are, at least within a “bounded rationality model of belief choices.”) The guest editors complained to well known philosopher and philosophy blogger Brian Leiter that they had known nothing about the disclaimer. He called for a boycott and started a petition demanding an apology and retraction of the disclaimer from the Synthese editors-in-chief, among other things. The apology and retraction have been just as forthcoming from the editors as a change in ebook policy has been from HarperCollins. Another philosopher called for a subscription boycott as well. Depending on how libraries get access to this particular Springer journal, such a boycott might not be possible.

These two controversies are different in the relationships between the petitioners and their targets. Public librarians are merely consumers of HarperCollins ebooks, but philosophers are the editors, reviewers, and contributors to Synthese. Somehow I doubt HarperCollins will lose much money, and they might even join Simon and Schuster and MacMillan in not allowing ebook licenses to libraries at all. However, an effective boycott of Synthese could destroy not only the reputation but the existence of a top philosophy journal.

A third controversy began a couple of years ago when Oxford U. Press, Cambridge U. Press, and Sage sued Georgia State University over alleged copyright violations in their handling of ereserves. They have now, in the words of Inside Higher Education, “proposed an injunction that, if approved by a judge, would make Georgia State University comply with strict guidelines for copying and distributing copyrighted texts.” The implications of the injunction have been covered very effectively by Barbara Fister in the Library Journal and the Duke University Scholarly Communications Officer Kevin Smith on Duke’s scholarly communication blog, and by several people in this CHE article. Fister likened the injunction to Soviet attempts to suppress free speech, while Smith called it a “nightmare scenario for higher education.” The injunction would prevent GSU “from creating, reproducing, transmitting, selling, or in any manner distributing, or assisting, participating in, soliciting, encouraging, or facilitating the creation, reproduction, download, display, sale, or distribution in any manner of, copies, whether in hard copy format, digital or electronic computer files, or any other format, of any and all Works without permission,” where permission means paying a fee to the Copyright Clearance Center.

That’s pretty dire stuff. If I’m interpreting it right, and I very well might not be, the injunction would include, for example, a professor taking an article from JSTOR and loading that article onto her Blackboard site, or a library from putting the file on ereserve. That is, a university would have to pay extra for permission to distribute to students journal articles that the university’s library had already subscribed to for a full campus license. Though this might be the extreme example, it would seem to consider “facilitating the distribution” of digital documents that were already paid for and accessible to the entire campus community to be a violation of copyright. This seems utterly foolish to me, so if I’ve misinterpreted the extent of the injunction, please let me know. Most would say that the scenario I described is indeed a violation of copyright law, to which I have a couple of replies. First, if so, then current copyright law is unjust law, and thus deserves to be civilly disobeyed. It is contrary to the mission of the university to create and disseminate knowledge, and to the Constitution’s intent that copyright exists to promote science and the useful arts. Second, any law that prohibits such distribution is not only unjust, but stupid, which is why the intelligent professoriate ignores it.

While there has been some press coverage, I haven’t seen any call for a boycott of Oxford, Cambridge, and Sage titles, except in a few comments on the articles mentioning the injunction. That there seems to have been little or no response from any faculty is disappointing, though not that surprising considering the problems the open access movement has had. The injunction would be very difficult to enforce, as the oversight of faculty would be almost impossible, but the very fact that respectable academic presses are seeking an injunction so restrictive it borders on the absurd should give everyone pause. It’s one thing to protest scanning large chunks of a print book
and putting it on the open web (which allegedly is the sort of thing that prompted this lawsuit in the first place), or putting up works by commercial presses. It’s another thing entirely when publishers want to restrict access to scholarly works or expect copyright payments for articles that already have campus-wide licenses, which would be the case for anything from a campus-wide subscription database that is used in ereserves or placed on learning management systems.

I’d like to see some faculty call for a boycott just to see what the response would be. A boycott by librarians would be impossible. No decent academic library could just refuse to purchase or license material from those three publishers. The quality, for the most part, is just too high, and there would be faculty protests. A faculty boycott would have to be a precursor to any library boycott. If and only if the quality of their publications dropped because top scholars refused to publish, review, or edit for them would libraries be able to boycott them effectively. It would be interesting just to see the response from the publishers. Better still would be for scholars to move to open access publications to finally make the fruits of scholarship universally accessible like they should have been all along.

Resource Sharing and the Republic of Letters

At the risk of creating an infinite blog post regression, I’ve been wanting to write about this post at ACRLog by Steven Bell, and this post partially responding to Bell’s post by Barbara Fister on her Library Babel Fish blog. Bell responded to the Netflix-in-libraries debate by pointing to a scholar who didn’t understand why he couldn’t get JSTOR access from a university he no longer attended, and the apparent willingness of the scholar and his commenters to share resources illegally if necessary to get what they need for their research. Fister added into the mix an article from The Scientist in which a scientist realized (better late than never!) that if libraries can’t afford scientific journals then the progress of scientific research will be retarded, as well as the recognition that outside of R1 universities access to scholarly resources is often severely limited.

The discussions, as usual, are well worth reading in their entirety, but I’ve been thinking mostly about the willingness of scholars to share articles and books amongst themselves, even if that sharing is technically illegal. This doesn’t surprise me at all, nor does it alarm me. Instead, it confirms my hypothesis about the mission and ethic of scholars, research universities, and their libraries. Last post, I speculated that the mission of research universities is to create new knowledge and disseminate it through publication. That creation and dissemination are not confined to institutions. The mission isn’t just that of a university or a library, but of every individual scholar.
For my purposes, I will give you an oversimplified and bastardized history of the Republic of Letters and its relationship to current scholarship. In the 17th century, an international network of scholars developed who shared their works and ideas with each other, often through letters (hence the phrase). In the late 17th to the 19th century, the Republic of Letters metamorphosed into a network of scholarly journals, where scholars both independent and institutionalized published their work for the benefit of themselves and the public. The purpose of organized research since the Enlightenment has been to create knowledge and disseminate it for the public good. Before research universities were even founded, scholars considered it their duty to share their work and their ideas with other scholars. This freedom of publication was difficult in countries and principalities with censorship policies, and sometimes scholars had to publish anonymously or underground, but the ideal and goal of sharing was always present. 
Fast forward to today. Early 21st century America is a very different place from 17th century England or 18th century France, but the scholarly ideal of the Republic of Letters remains strong. It’s only natural, since academia is by its nature conservative and traditional, with generation upon generation of scholars training other scholars in the theory and practice of research. Scholars in universities have been organizing and training their predecessors in remarkably similar ways since the 12th century. Some believe this tradition has no place in the contemporary world. I tend to think that this ideal of knowledge creation and dissemination are shining lights of intellectual virtue in a sea of compromise.
Though I’m oversimplifying my history for brevity’s sake, I don’t think it’s mistaken, and if true it would explain the willingness of scholars to this day to share scholarly articles among themselves, even if such sharing is prohibited by licensing agreements and copyright. The ethics of scholarship require that scholarly resources be made available to other scholars, period. Laws and contracts created centuries after the formation of this ethical code are irrelevant. Pay-walls might keep an individual scholar from an individual article or database, but they are merely an inconvenience for the dedicated scholar, not a moral encumbrance. Such is evident from practice.
When that happens, when a law or regulation is widely flouted without compunction or guilt, what do we normally say about it? Recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He draws upon Christian and Jewish sources to argue that positive laws (the laws on the books) that don’t adhere to the natural law are unjust laws, and that unjust laws are not laws at all. Legislators can pass any laws they want, but that doesn’t necessarily make them just.
There are numerous laws that the vast majority of us consider unjust, and thus ignore. I argue that scholars believe severe copyright restrictions, or restrictions on sharing of scholarly resources, are inherently unjust, and thus not worth abiding by. Scholars operate under an ethic of sharing several hundred years old.
Granted, the history of scholarly publishing has demonstrated that scholars aren’t very good at living up to their ideals, often because they pay no attention to how the real world of publishing works.  They do their research, and work for free for publishers who then charge their universities outlandish prices for their journals. That after almost a generation of library advocacy, a scientist is just now discovering that the rising cost of journals might endanger research is a case in point. 
Also, since the emergence of what William James called the “PhD Octopus,” scholarly journals have become not just media to distribute scholarly research, but status markers in a competitive profession. However, I would argue that such developments are the result of incentives created by administrators and non-scholars rather than the natural development of the modern scholarly ethic. Scholars participate in this system because they ignore its legal and economic restrictions, quite possibly because they believe that those restrictions don’t apply to them.
How does this relate to libraries? I’m not entirely sure. I’m not arguing that libraries should disobey the law or violate licenses. Even if it weren’t illegal to argue that, it would be impolitic. I merely point out why scholars pay no attention to copyright or license agreements, why they freely share resources, why they post copyrighted content to their open course websites, and and why they have no ethical qualms about such actions. Understanding this helps us understand the ethos of the profession academic librarians support.
But I also wonder about the clash here between the scholarly ethic and the laws regarding copyright and licenses. Can we make a right choice here? It seems an impossible dilemma. The positive law requires us to enforce copyright and licensing agreements, but the positive law conflicts with the centuries-old ethic of scholarship as well as the freedom of information that librarians champion. What would the natural law be in this situation? Wouldn’t it be that the results of research freely provided, and often even publicly funded, should be free to the world? That open access to scholarly publications is part of the natural order of scholarship? If that’s true, then what are we to make of copyright laws or licensing agreements that are designed to benefit the publishers and not the public? How can we believe that the most stringent of current copyright laws are just laws at all? It seems all we can do is advocate change and hope for the best, neither of which has helped much so far.

The Mission of Research Libraries

AL Direct linked today to a blog post I hadn’t yet read at the Book of Trogool blog. In that post, and in another linked from it, Dorothea Salo responds to a challenging question she received at a meeting at UCLA:
“How do libraries justify spending on open access–making local materials available to the world–if our guiding mission is to buy appropriate materials specifically on behalf of our patron base?”
Her answers were that promoting open access is better for us financially in the long term, and that unless we achieve a “collective openness,” libraries will die as their and the publishers’ business model dies. These are good answers, but not the ones I would give.
Instead, I would choose to challenge the original assumption, that the guiding mission of research libraries (and I’m assuming research libraries only, which UCLA has) is to buy appropriate materials for local (and presumably currently existing) patrons. That’s not now, nor has it ever been, the guiding mission of research libraries, or in the interest of the research institutions they support. The guiding mission of research libraries is to collect the human record in its totality and make it accessible for study by all scholars. We have not yet achieved a “collective openness,” but we’ve achieved a remarkable amount of collective organization.
Salo is primarily concerned with journal publishers and open access, but considering other areas will help us understand this mission. Archives and special collections exist at every research library, and yet in my experience archives and special collections aren’t funded specifically because the local patrons want to use them. The purpose of archives is to collectively preserve the human record. Visiting scholars are as common in many archives as local scholars. Special collections exist because someone somewhere may want to study them because they are important. If local scholars study them, so much the better. And libraries are increasingly digitizing these archives because the mission of the library is to disseminate as well as collect and preserve human knowledge. Scholars everywhere benefit from the preservation or digitization of knowledge by libraries at institutions they don’t work for. 
Another way libraries try to fulfill this mission is through interlibrary loan and other forms of resource sharing and cooperation. No library is an island, and librarians have worked very hard for several decades to build up networks to share resources and information. Stand outside the profession for a moment and think how amazing it is that thousands of libraries are connected through OCLC and other organizations, and that a scholar in Florida who needs a book available only at libraries in Oregon and Alaska could probably get the book in a few days without traveling. 
The interconnectedness of libraries today is no trivial fact. And the more that libraries cooperate and share and digitize and allow open access, the greater the totality of resources available to all scholars. It’s the totality and access that are important. Scholar A at University B also benefits when University C digitizes content or shares it through ILL or an institutional repository, and all scholars and librarians should remember that.
Research libraries are not like, say, community college libraries, because the driving goal for every purchase isn’t that a resource fills an immediate curricular need. Research libraries also buy materials for immediate need, but they have to consider the needs of scholarship in general, both now and decades from now. A lot of scholars are able to do their work now because some librarian some time in the past collected material just for the sake of collecting it, and the same will be true of scholars in the future. Or it won’t be true, depending on whether research libraries live up to their mission. Research libraries that purchase only what is absolutely necessary for their current local patrons fail in their mission.
The mission of research libraries is motivated by the mission of research universities, which were founded to create new knowledge and disseminate it through publication. Sometimes this new knowledge has practical and commercial applications, and so often receives more funding, but that’s not necessarily the case. The mission to create new knowledge extends to every area of human experience, from the mundane and practical to the esoteric and purely abstract. Knowledge creation in history, literature, philosophy, or even higher mathematics doesn’t lead to startling commercial products, but still research universities support this work to the extent they fulfill their mission. Unlike undergraduate teaching, which until recently was necessarily confined to local classrooms, the research mission of universities and the community of scholars have always been international in scope. 
Thus, an answer as to why research libraries should spend money promoting open access publications is because open access publications perfectly fit in with the mission of research libraries to collect the human record in its totality and make it as accessible as possible to all scholars. While the bean counters at every university may think only of short term expenses and gains, librarians and the current and future scholars they serve have an obligation to think globally and collectively. Research libraries and research universities are all part of a vast network to create, preserve, and disseminate human knowledge, and while they have many challengers with less pure motives, and are far from perfect in fulfilling their mission, it’s still astounding how much they have accomplished. Whether they can better accomplish this mission in the future considering the current economics of information is still an open question, but that they should do what they can to accomplish the mission should not be in question at all. Instead of being contrary to the mission of libraries, open access to the results of scholarship would be the ultimate fulfillment of the mission of research libraries and universities.

Alternative Ebsco

Most of you are probably familiar with the Alternative Press Index. If you’re not familiar, you might check out their “history” page. Here are some selected quotes:

the Alternative Press Index (API), a unique and comprehensive guide to the alternative press in English, French and Spanish
With increased corporate conglomeration in the media industry, readers are now turning to the alternative press for news and analysis.
The Alternative Press Centre (APC) is a periodicals library and nonprofit collective that promotes access to independent and critical sources of news and information.
The APC networks with activist librarians, such as the Progressive Librarians Guild.
The spirit of the late 60s brought new publications that reflected the movements of the time
The original founders came together to promote a many-sided dialogue aimed at the development of a radical consciousness by providing the tools for analysis that are necessary for meaningful social change.
As of this month, the API is available only through Ebsco. The original database went back to 1969, but Ebsco has split it into the Alternative Press Index (1991+) and the API: Archive (1969-1990), which I assume allows them to charge more for the full content. Though perhaps they’re being true to the alternative spirit, and trying to make the more recent content more available by lowering the price. I doubt it, but I suppose it’s possible.  
It’s ironic that an index founded as an alternative to the corporate mainstream media that wanted to develop a radical consciousness is now available only through Ebsco, one of the most aggressive commercial content providers around. This is the company, after all, that has made it a policy to secure exclusive licensing agreements for any journals they index, thus monopolizing information and making it less accessible if more profitable. Perhaps the “spirit of the 60s” met the “need to pay the bills.”

Notes on the Serials Crisis

I’ve also been wanting to enter the discussion Meridith Farkas started over Ebsco getting exclusive and expensive control over a journal her community needs. On a number of collection issues, lately I’ve wanted to just link to Barbara Fister’s columns in the Library Journal and comment, "Yeah, what she said," especially since in this case she’s partly said what I’ve already said in Dealing with the Pusher Man, including a comment on journal title monopolies with title comparisons that sounds awfully familiar.

But what I have to say is related to part of the  Ithaka Faculty Survey 2009

Let me back up, though. There are a lot of things I think librarians have done right in the past few decades. Unlike some, I think they’ve been adapting and adopting and changing for a long time. But there’s one problem that librarians have tried to solve for thirty years and failed. When it comes to the so-called serials crisis, librarians have screwed the pooch. (If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, then read or watch The Right Stuff, ideally both.)  And you know what? It’s not our fault. To slightly adapt Chuck Yeager, sometimes you get a pooch that no one cares is being screwed. 

Consider this "finding" from the Ithaka survey: "Despite several years of sustained efforts by publishers, scholarly societies, libraries, faculty members, and others to reform various aspects of the scholarly communications system, a fundamentally conservative set of faculty attitudes continues to impede systematic change." Like the other findings, this one will hardly come as a surprise to librarians.

Librarians have been cutting serials and complaining about vendors for a generation at least, and working diligently to educate academics about the economics of scholarly communication for over a decade. Even I once gave a talk to faculty showing how the rise in STM serial prices made it harder for junior professors in the humanities to get tenure, and I hadn’t been a librarian for that long. The problems are obvious and there for anyone with eyes to see. No one wants to see but librarians, and even if they did see there’s nothing they could do about it. The problem is systemic to academia and it’s tied to the tenure process. Professors want to publish in the best journals they can to get tenure or gain a reputation. They have every incentive to keep publishing in the top journals and no incentive to published only in open access journals or low cost journals. There are journals libraries "must" have, and enough libraries will get them to keep the system going. The entire academic tenure system in the United States would have to change its goals and incentives for the "serials crisis" to end. That’s not a change that will be driven by librarians.

I want to compare this to another systemic "crisis" in academia, the rapid and continuing decline of tenure track jobs in the humanities. This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and this one in the NYT are the most recent thing I’ve seen on the issue on the very off chance it’s unfamiliar to you.. The underlying causes are different. The overproduction of of humanities PhDs for 40 years is driven by many causes, but the result is the same. There are too many PhDs for the jobs available. Everybody knows it. Everybody complains about it. Nobody can do anything about it. And no one in power wants to, anyway.

I’m also reminded of an encounter from my days at a liberal arts college. I was the liaison to the English department among others, and one of the English professors once requested the library purchase a very expensive microfilm set to support a portion of her research. I would have liked to, because she seemed to be doing some interesting work. But it was much too expensive for our budget and I had to turn her down. Visibly frustrated, she complained that the college expected her to do research, but couldn’t pay to support that research. This is an issue William James called the PhD octopus, and Jacques Barzun recognized as the drive in academia from the 1940s on to make sure that every institution of higher education from research universities to junior colleges had PhDs teaching the courses. The PhD is a research degree, and once upon a time wasn’t necessary to teach undergraduates, especially lower level undergraduates. But colleges wanted PhDs to seem more important and compete with others. 

Traditionally, liberal arts colleges focused on undergraduate education. In practice, they still do. But their professors are now required to research like professors at research universities without the support. It’s a systematic issue. Everyone knows about it. People complain. No one cares. And if they do, they can’t do anything about it anyway. When you have hundreds of PhDs competing to teach freshman composition, then there’s a problem with the system. However, once more it’s a systematic problem built up over decades, not one that can be easily solved. 

This is also why despite my frustrations, I don’t blame the vendors. For the most part, they’re not acting unethically just because they act contrary to the morals and desires of librarians. Librarians want to provide people with the information they need. Vendors want to make money. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it’s not from the benevolence of Elsevier, Ebsco, and Sage that we expect our journals, but from their regard to their own interest. They’re not necessarily evil or unethical, but they don’t operate by librarian standards. To keep expecting them to, and to be frustrated when they don’t, is a problem with our expectations rather than their practices. Watching some librarians try to deal with the behemoth vendors as if they have the same values as librarians reminds me of Dr. Johnson’s saying that marriage after divorce is the triumph of hope over experience. 

Keeping that in mind, we still get some value for our money or we wouldn’t be working with the vendors at all. It would be very expensive for libraries to deal separately with every publisher and impossible for them to host online content individually in the way vendors can. Barbara Fister pointed out that in an informal survey a lot of librarians were happy with Ebsco. If we were really that unhappy, if we weren’t getting value for our money, then we’d do things differently. The time might come when that happens, but I suspect the vendors would know when that was happening and would adjust accordingly. A dead addict can’t pay for a fix.

Meredith had a follow-up post wondering whether some organization on our part could battle this "Goliath." ACRL? Tried weakly and failed, though they helped educate a lot of librarians on the issues. Consortia? I don’t see it happening. Consortia are there to negotiate prices and deal with vendors. When it comes to the painful and likely impossible decisions that would have to be made to solve this problem, consortia are only as strong and willful as their individual members, and in my experience will balk only at systematic outrageousness, not at something as relatively minor as one journal becoming much more expensive. It can happen. I saw it happen last fall as one vendor proposed a ridiculously high price increase for a consortium. In fact, "Dealing with the Pusher Man" was an adaptation of an internal ema
il I sent arguing against accepting that deal. The vendor attempt fell through, but it was because the price hike was so outrageous as many libraries were cutting funding that it just wasn’t possible. Vendors know when they’ve pushed libraries to the brink, so they pull back, all with the goal of maximizing their profit. 

I think dealing with increasing costs and the loss of control that comes from accessing information rather than owning it is one of the most serious ongoing problems for academic libraries, both for budgeting and preservation issues. Other than fight guerrilla battles here and there as circumstances permit, there’s not much we can do about it, though, because while it’s one of the most serious problems for libraries, it’s not one of the most serious problems for academia. Libraries don’t drive research; research drives libraries. We’re just the research support arm of an academic Leviathan. We can do our best to understand the issues and explain them to others as necessary, but until most faculty and university administrations think there’s a huge problem, libraries can do very little. Even if it was viewed as a major academic problem, the root causes would have to be addressed over a period of years or even decades to begin solving it.

So what can be done? Very little, and it’s not our fault. I suspect there are other issues that will overwhelm higher education long before librarians’ serials crisis becomes a truly academic crisis. Already we can see the warning signs. The liberal arts and sciences are losing ground in higher education to be replaced by professional programs that people will pay for because supposedly they will get jobs. We’ll see more programs in business, education, nursing, maybe even librarianship, and geared to training practitioners rather than training future researchers. This intersects with more trends in higher education: the increasing reliance upon adjunct labor, the slow disappearance of tenure-track jobs, and the rise of distance education (at the moment aimed mostly at professional degrees or practical training). Adjuncts teaching 4/4 loads won’t be doing much research or publishing.

What will a world of higher education modeled on the University of Phoenix look like? There will be fewer doctoral programs, especially in the liberal arts and sciences. Thus, there will be fewer graduate students to train. With the decline in graduate enrollments, there will be less need of research professors to train the grad students as they engage in their own scholarship and publishing. Thus, there will be less scholarly publishing and less demand for scholarly journals. Instead of the proliferation of esoteric and hyper-specialized titles we’ve seen in the past few decades, we could instead see a reversal where there aren’t enough specialists to support those journals. 

As higher education remakes itself into a marketable, profit-driven exercise in pragmatic job training, the problems we see now will gradually disappear, no doubt to be replaced by new problems that we also can’t solve. All we can do is educate ourselves, explain our cause, and lookout for skirmishes we can win. And maybe hope, because sometimes hope does triumph over experience. 

The Kindley “Big Brother”

Probably for the first time since starting this blog, I received an email from a publicity person touting a blog post that I actually thought worth reading. Others of you may have received this entry from the Oxford University Press blog: Amazon Fail 2.0: Bookseller’s Big Brother removes Orwell’s Big Brother from Kindles everywhere, by Dennis Baron. In full disclosure, I don’t really know Professor Baron, but I did take a seminar from him my first semester of graduate school – introduction to the teaching of rhetoric. I recall writing an essay arguing that the concept of plagiarism arose during 18th century intellectual property disputes and was inherently capitalist, and thus all the Marxist rhetoric instructors out there shouldn’t be bothered by the practice of plagiarism. But all this is irrelevant prelude.

Baron argues that we should beware giants such as Amazon and Google because even though they do much to promote literacy, they do so at the price of privacy and control of our information. I completely agree. The essay was inspired by the recent Kindle mini-scandal, where some Kindle users found bootleg copies of 1984 removed from their Kindles and their $.99 refunded. Probably no literate person has missed at least one headline in the past week or so linking Amazon to Big Brother. It seemed at least an irony too good to pass up.

As I’ve written before, I’m no fan of the digital rights management or intellectual property restrictions on the Kindle. Ebooks are great in many ways, and I read them regularly on various devices, but for library purposes Kindles are too controlled by the company to be reliable, and for personal use I still refuse to buy (perhaps "buy" would be better) a book that I can nether lend nor give nor sell to another person. Kindles have their uses, but they go against the grain of readership since the beginning of writing – if I may make so bold a statement – in that they deliberately and effectively deter the possibility of multiple readers of the same item. Besides which, it’s obvious that DRM is a finger in the dike preventing the free flow of digital information and will always be thwarted somehow.

However, despite my reservations about the Kindle and DRM in general, I can’t jump on the Big Brother bandwagon (nor am I accusing Professor Baron of doing so). The actions of the federal government seem to have more and more Big Brother characteristics these days, but it’s inappropriate to apply this description to something like Amazon.

First of all, we all have to be citizens of our state unless we opt out somehow and immigrate. However, we do not have to use Amazon or the Kindle. I am unaware of any situation in which someone was coerced into using the Kindle or giving up the history of their reading habits to Amazon. Amazon knows so much about us because we let it know so much about us. We willingly let Amazon see what we buy so that it can recommend yet more entertainment for us. This is much closer to the hedonistic and shallow Brave New World than it is to the dark dystopia 1984. Regardless of the contracts saying they’ll own a digital copy, Kindle users know how much control over the Kindle content Amazon has, and if they didn’t before they do now.

Contrast this with the music digital downloads from Amazon, freed by the music companies from the extremely restrictive DRM of the ebooks. I’m sure there’s some information embedded in the digital files saying I purchased specific songs from Amazon and that could be used against me if suddenly everything I purchased ended up on some file sharing site. Below that point, though, the files are mine, and Amazon can’t take them away from me. I can copy and back them up as many times as I like. I can give them to other people if I wanted, and they could play them without unlocking. Theoretically, I could even charge other people for these files, if I could find someone stupid enough to buy them from me. (Note to the Amazonian Big Brother: I would never do anything like this. Really.)

Despite the apparent irony of 1984 disappearing, there’s nothing Big Brothery about any of this. When it comes to Amazon, we are the victims of our own desire for easy shopping and entertainment. There are undoubtedly times when corporate malfeasance completely out of control damages our lives. Actually, that pretty much happens everyday somewhere. But this is not one of those cases. We willingly comply with Amazon, as we do with Google itself, handing over our privacy for the opportunity fondling their shiny baubles. Situations like this might erode our trust in Amazon, and thus we might be less willing to shop there, but that would still be our choice.

People who do anything on the Internet should know there is no guaranteed privacy anymore. The Internet is filled not with Big Brother, but with millions of little brothers gathering random details of our online life and using them for their own advantage. When this practice is ubiquitous, to pretend as some people have been doing that Amazon is in any way specially or specially evil is just duplicitous or naive. Or maybe it just makes a good headline.

Open Access Library Journals

The ACRLog had a short piece this weekend on librarians and open access. Barbara Fister mentioned reading in Current Cites about a U. of California study noting the discrepancy between the words and deeds of faculty when it comes to information access, then trying to link out from Current Cites to another possibly interesting sounding article from the Journal of Academic Librarianship and finding a shopping cart. When I tried it, I got the article, but that’s because it seems to be written into our library’s charter that we subscribe to everything no matter how much an individual publisher might gouge us. (Not that I’m saying Science Direct gouges us.) She rightly wonders “Why do so few librarians bother to put our words into action? Maybe because it’s work? Maybe because nobody says you have to? Maybe because we’re hypocrites?”

This problem has bothered me for a long time. I’ve never been on the tenure track, so I’ve never had a requirement to publish. If I write something, it’s because I want to write it. Since I don’t do anything even remotely related to social science or statistics, there isn’t much discursive space in the library literature for me anyway. Regardless, years ago I decided that whenever possible I would write only for open access library journals. As an academic librarian who has discussed these issues with professors and tried to promote the idea of open access, I have also wondered why so few library journals are openly accessible.

That includes the offerings from the ALA. American Libraries isn’t openly accessible. I don’t often read it, because I read almost no journals in print now and going through the member signup page and navigating Ebrary isn’t worth the trouble. It especially bothered me that the ACRL publications weren’t openly accessible, though that seems to be changing. C&RL is mostly accessible now. When I visited the site for the current issue, I saw a notice about full text articles: “The full-text of these articles are available to current ACRL members only. You will need your password to access them.” But they were all available without my password. Maybe there’s a category of article not available.

Back to Fister’s question, why don’t we put our words into action? I suspect it’s for the same reason most other fields don’t. If one has to publish to keep one’s job, and publishing in the most respected journals is the best way to impress people, then that’s where people will try to publish if they can. Why take a chance on Library Philosophy and Practice or E-JASL when you can publish in standard journals like the Journal of Academic Librarianship that people have heard of. I suspect that fear keeps people from changing, the fear that publishing in a little known journal won’t look as good come review time.

There is one silver lining to this cloud. At least library journals don’t cost $10K a volume.