Why I’m Not In The Mood To Celebrate Open Access Week
It’s Open Access Week, a time to “present the individual and collective benefits of free online access to research”. It’s a time to celebrate the many accomplishments and progress made on the scholarly communications front. And some of those accomplishments are indeed significant: SPARC; OA resolutions at a growing number of institutions; NIH policy requiring the public sharing of taxpayer-paid research; the possibilities for FRPPA; expanding numbers of open access journals; a growing number of fringe faculty who are speaking up about the inequities and failures of the current journal publishing system. There is some cause for optimism. There’s a lot going on this week based on my visit to the OA Week site. You can even buy an OA t-shirt.
So excuse me if I’m not in the mood to celebrate. I’m feeling frustrated. What else can you feel when the system is broken, you know that system must change, but there is little incentive for those perpetuating the system to change it for the better. This might be the first time I’ve posted about scholarly publishing (I have shared thoughts about the textbook publishing system here). Scholarly communications is in my current work portfolio and I take it seriously. But it is one small part of a much larger set of responsibilities for projects and initiatives across the spectrum of public, research and instruction services. So I’m hardly an expert, and compared to others I haven’t the time to dive deeply into all the issues and conversation. At best, I’m simply on the front lines trying to promote new possibilities in scholarly communications.
A few months ago I visited colleagues at another ARL library. At some point the conversation got around to scholarly communications and open access. I asked what they were working on, and how they were trying to create change on their campus. The response was something along the lines of “We tried all that a few years ago, and quite honestly none of our faculty showed any interest in changing their scholarly publishing behaviors. So now we’re just putting our energy elsewhere. When they are ready to change we’ll be here waiting to support them”. I wonder how many others have reached the same point.
To better understand our academic departments and their needs, I have an ongoing project of visiting department chairs (a few each semester). We simply have a discussion about their department, the library and how we might better serve their faculty and students. Our head of reference and instruction attends as well as the librarian who is the liaison to the department. Sometimes the chair invites other faculty or possibly a student to attend and participate. It is always a good conversation, and we learn quite a bit from each other. But when the conversation invariably turns to scholarly communications, I tend to feel more like a traveling salesmen speaking to a potential customer who really wants to get away from me. I wouldn’t even dare show my faculty colleagues something like this – as helpful as it may be – for fear of never being taken seriously again.
The good news is that most of the chairs and faculty I encounter are aware of the open access movement. Most aren’t really paying it much attention. I bring up the benefits, talk up the importance of public access – and remind them about our own walled garden. No one is opposed to open access publishing, they just don’t want to be the ones doing it. As I’ve now heard more than once, “I’m all for providing public access to my research, but what matters most – more than the possibility of thousands of hits on Google – is knowing that the 200 people that matter the most in my discipline read my article in our most prestigious journal – and that’s not going to happen if I publish in an open access journal in my field.” They also remind me that our institution’s tenure and merit process are quite clear about the importance of publishing in top tier, high attention-attracting journals.
I know there are some interesting new ideas about open access floating around out there, and Barbara mentions some of them here. Dorothea Salo shares some as well in an informative podcast interview with Roy Tennant. For much of the conversation Salo expresses her frustration with our lack of progress in creating change. Some things are beyond our control, but in other ways we can do better. For example, she says that we are at fault for poor communication that fails to make faculty aware of “the very real inequities and difficulties that their own behaviors cause.” Well, when I try do that I hit the brick wall of having faculty point at the current system, and acknowledging that it may be broken but they don’t want to be the ones to change it because it will potentially cost them their chance at tenure, a thousand dollar merit increase or a promotion to a more prestigious university. The Tennant-Salo interview ends on a more hopeful note with Salo seeing some signs that higher education (faculty bloggers, the occasional essay in IHE or the Chronicle) is starting to question the current system. I am feeling less optimistic.
These ideas are worth reading and thinking about, but any new ideas for fixing the broken publishing system must take into account the disciplinary prestige factor. If it fails to provide an adequate substitute for it, then the majority of faculty will not buy into that new system. My hope now is that the best prospects for widespread change in the scholarly publishing world will have to wait until the current crop of millennial students are the dominant faculty. I have to believe the current generation of college students, with their better grasp of a social Internet, will refuse to support our current closed system. The other scenario for change is something we recently had a glimpse of in this article that discussed the impact of shrinking library budgets on scientists’ access to the journal literature. When our academic libraries no longer have the funding to sustain the current system, except perhaps for the few elite institutions that could afford it, faculty may then take notice that the current system is broken. They may then be motivated to accept that an open access journal could meet their need for prestige and merit.
I find all this particularly frustrating because I am a believer in the power of design thinking to help us come up with solutions to what is referred to as a wicked problem – something with no obvious or possible solution because the problem is ambiguous and shifting in nature. In an essay I wrote about design thinking I used the scholarly communications crisis as my example of the wicked problem and how we needed to turn option A and option B – neither of which solves the problem – into the more workable option C (a process referred to Roger Martin as “integrative thinking“). But I fail to see how even a design thinking approach can get us out of the scholarly publishing mess if the players in the system, as currently structured, mostly fail to acknowledge that we’ve got a wicked problem. In order for a design thinking approach to work we need to agree that there is a problem, and then we can begin to go through the process to identify a solution. I continue to get the old “it is what it is” response, as if this is the way it has to be and there are no possible solutions worth exploring.
Despite my current frustrations over the difficulty in getting faculty excited about the possibilities for change in scholarly publishing I’m not about to give up on it entirely. That’s not just because it’s part of my job, but I inherently believe it’s the right position to take on the issues. I hope that when I next post about scholarly communications I’ll have more reason to get in the spirit of Open Access Week.