The Time is Now: Scholarly Communication and Undergraduates

“Open Access empowers all scholars, not just those with a Ph.D appended to their last names.”

~char booth, open access as pedagogy

Several recent developments in the scholarly communication world have left the future feeling bleak. An April news piece in Science concluded that millions of pirated papers continue to be downloaded from Sci-Hub. The piece states that for access or convenience (or both), “[o]ver the 6 months leading up to March, Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents” for researchers around the globe (para 6). Some of the papers downloaded were open access, with more than 4,000 papers available from PLoS. Even more surprisingly, “some of the most intense use of Sci-Hub appears to be happening on the campuses of U.S. and European universities” (para 10).

Let me be clear: I believe that Sci-Hub and the work that Alexandra Elbakyan is doing is imperative and eye-opening (if for no other reason than that it “has hastened the speed and vigor of [the OA] conversation.”) But I wanted to share two immediate, visceral reactions that I had to these findings. The first is that this is undeniably an indictment of current library systems and how functional and accessible they are to our users, particularly if those that already have access through their library databases and Interlibrary Loan still prefer using Sci-Hub. The second, which is perhaps more important, is that this will have repercussions with vendors. Last open access week, our library hosted two showings of “The Internet’s Own Boy,” which is a documentary about Aaron Swartz’s life and work. One of the people interviewed for the documentary talked a bit about “underground” or illegal movements. This person expressed that they are important and even central to progress (particularly when all legal routes have been exhausted) but that they can inhibit the legal, mainstream progress that is in motion.* I have to wonder how strict vendors will be in the future in an effort to shut Sci-Hub—and sharing—down.

Since the Science article was published, more has happened. It is difficult to say if these developments are a direct result of the Sci-Hub findings or simply part of vendors’ constant quest to create more revenue. In May, Kevin Smith published a blog post entitled “Tightening their Grip.” In the post, he discusses publishers ever-growing control over access to scholarship, including Wiley’s “control over the pre-peer review copy of scholarly manuscripts” (para 2). He ends the post by discussing Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN and their interest in data on scholars’ behavior and impact. Last week, Phil Davis wrote about two-step authentication and its possible repercussions for Sci-Hub. I would add that this addresses my first reaction—this could potentially make library systems even less intuitive for our users (which, in turn, makes Sci-Hub even more attractive!).

I hope I’ve made it clear that it’s incredibly messy. Yet, while all of this happens—we see more evidence that our students are using Sci-Hub and we watch Elsevier continue to acquire more pieces of scholarly workflow and the scholarly communication system—it becomes more and more evident to me that librarians are missing an important opportunity.

Most of our efforts to move the system closer to openness seem to focus on helping faculty understand the importance and impact of making their work open. This is a start but it is clear that out of all of the populations that the library engages, this group has perhaps the most developed and ingrained practices for sharing their work. I’m not implying that we shouldn’t try to work with faculty. But I am asserting that we aren’t doing enough to engage graduate students and undergraduate students. Yes, you read that right. Undergraduate students.

In 2010, Warren and Duckett claimed that undergraduate students “largely remain excluded” from scholarly communication outreach (pg. 352). While their article started a conversation and Davis-Kahl and Hensley have added to it, I believe that we haven’t come far enough. Amy Mark has written that “[b]ecause of how knowledge and expertise are arranged in the academy, there is little trust in the student voice” (pg. 5).

Even with more of an emphasis on the “student as creator” in library discourse, our outreach seems to reflect this claim. We seem to question whether undergraduates will be able to engage with the complexities of access or even care about the economics of scholarship. By doing this, we’re shortchanging our students, compromising their ability to be truly information literate, and impeding the greater open access movement. Introducing undergraduate students to the complexities of access and scholarly communication can make them more informed authors, information consumers, and future advocates for open access. Stephanie Davis-Kahl (2012) adds,

Asking students to consider if and how they want their own work to be shared and used by others shifts the nature of discussions from cautionary and reactive to reflective and proactive, and explicitly acknowledges that the students’ work is valued enough to be shared if they choose. (pg. 213; emphasis mine)

At my own institution, students get scholarly communication. I don’t mean that they understand the cost of information, how and why they can access it (more on this later), or the stakeholders in the scholarly communication system. I mean that they get the root of scholarly communication—that the point is to share so that knowledge can progress. As an example, in our college’s newspaper, The Davidsonian, there is a section called “The Yowl.” This satirical section pokes fun at the quirks of Davidson College and the greater Davidson community. Some of the satirical section headings have included “Davidson Creates New Interdisciplinary ‘Undecided’ Major” and “Local First Grader to Allow ‘Unsatisfactory’ Report Card Grade to Haunt Him for the Rest of His Life.” In the April 2016 issue, one of the headings read, “Student Excited for Thesis to Collect Dust in Dark Corner of the Library.”

I know that this is meant to humorous. But I also think that it is telling. Students understand that their work has to be shared to have an impact. Though they might not be able to articulate it, they might even be frustrated with the library’s inability to give them a mechanism to share their work widely through an institutional repository. They spend hours and hours of their time researching and writing important, original research and they don’t have an avenue to see this research have an impact in the world. Someone has to ILL the print copy of their thesis from us to even read it! As I think about this, I’m reminded of what a faculty member that I admire once said to me: “Davidson students’ work is too good to be sitting in a drawer somewhere. We have to share it.”

And while they get the root of why scholarly communication is important, so many of our students don’t understand how and why access happens. A few weeks ago, my colleagues Cara Evanson, James Sponsel, and I presented at Library Instruction West. We talked about an assessment we created last year that utilized case studies to better understand students’ misconceptions and understandings of the research process. One of our most important findings was that our students didn’t understand the complexities of access. I presented this finding by using the following slide, which is composed of student quotes. All of the quotes are from incoming Davidson students who were asked to evaluate at least two case studies, one of which describes a researcher hitting a paywall:

access quotesStudents didn’t understand that non-scholarly information, like articles in the New York Times, can also live behind paywalls. They didn’t understand the limitations set by copyright and what that means for access. They didn’t even understand why someone might have to pay for information or, surprisingly, that some people just can’t afford to pay for information. I know that this might appear to reflect poorly on our students. I would argue that this is just as much a reflection of librarians.

These students have presumably accessed subscription-based content, possibly with the help of a librarian. But no one ever explained to them why they could access the content, who couldn’t access the content, what that meant for progress and knowledge creation, and what their role in all of this was. Do we systematically explain to students that they will lose access when they graduate? Many of them might be using Sci-Hub right now. Do we even engage them in why Sci-Hub exists? Are we transparent about the role they play in changing the system as an information creator? Don’t we think that their understanding of these systems is central to information literacy?

I’m in the process of co-authoring an article that will present some of the ways we’ve had success in answering these questions at Davidson. I know that I don’t have it all figured yet. But I do know that these questions have to be answered in an institutionally-relevant way. We have to use the context of our specific information literacy programs, missions, workflows, and student bodies to engage these questions on our campuses in a way that makes sense. We have to tailor our programs and outreach to fill this gap.

I also know that this work has to be built upon some basic principles: undergraduate students are legitimate creators of information now. They will be the faculty members, scholars, and citizens of the future. Right now, we meticulously train them to use resources they’ll lose days after they graduate. We’re doing them—and ourselves—a great disservice by not introducing them to the complex, ethical questions surrounding openness.

*I am not critiquing the underground movements both Swartz and Elbakyan have created. It is both shortsighted and privileged to claim that progress can only happen through legal venues. It is outside the scope of this post to get into the complexities of ethics and progress but others have started to speak publicly about this. See John Sherer on our collective needs (last paragraph), Kevin Smith on malum prohibitum and malum in se, and Carolyn Gardner on libraries’ complex position.

3 thoughts on “The Time is Now: Scholarly Communication and Undergraduates

  1. Hi Sarah, Fabulous post – exactly the kind of conversation that we need to be having I reckon. I wonder how much of this situation is created by our very limited understand of learning & teaching basics. As a profession we say that lifelong learning is fundamental to what we do, but do we truly believe this? Is it reflected in our work? Or did we just jump on a bandwagon for some purpose of our own? If we had the learning & teaching basics required to undertake our information literacy work effectively, the knowledge creation & sharing environments of our students (as individual learners & as groups) would be at the front of our minds & our work with them. As we don’t, it is as though we are trying to tell people what we think they need to know to pass courses & graduate – we take a shallow & behaviourist approach because it’s all that we know. And, we often don’t take into account the discipline differences of our students. Like you, I find discussions about the research & research publication cycles very productive. Students are amazed & engaged & don’t take terribly long to situate knowledge sharing through publication in the familiar profit-driven context that influences so much of our lives. It also starts them questioning their assumptions about what a university is & what their lecturers actually do. I also wonder if we have a tendency to copy each other a bit too much (as a response to resource strapped working environments) to the detriment of our learners & their learning. For me, two examples regularly come to mind. The first is the regular absence of confirmation bias in the “teaching” of information/literature evaluation. Given the evidence of neuroscience & cognitive psychology, shouldn’t it be the number one evaluation factor on all of our lips? The second is the information creation process (which we so often start with word of mouth or newspaper articles). This is not the research publication process in many disciplines, yet it is the one that we routinely offer to our students to help them understand why they would use books versus journal articles, etc. More & more we are told that our education systems need to provide genuine opportunities to develop a literacy for the “hard sciences” that now drive our world more than ever before, yet we rarely see explanations based on the realities of those disciplines. Instead we so often focus on what appears to be a social science context. Thank-you for challenging us with your post & I very much look forward to reading your paper 🙂 Sandra

  2. Oops sorry. I got on my soap box & forgot to mention a couple of things. As some academics are now embracing open access & challenging what textbooks can actually be in our world & who can be their authors, we will no doubt see more & more ways for students join the scholarly open access world & more & more frameworks in which they share their knowledge development. Here at USQ, our 4th year Engineering & Spatial Sciences research projects’ dissertations are made available via our open access repository. It’s interesting to watch the faces of some students as what this means dawns on them 🙂 Sandra

  3. Thanks for writing this thoughtful, passionate post, Sarah! I love this: “Students didn’t understand that non-scholarly information, like articles in the New York Times, can also live behind paywalls. They didn’t understand the limitations set by copyright and what that means for access. They didn’t even understand why someone might have to pay for information or, surprisingly, that some people just can’t afford to pay for information. I know that this might appear to reflect poorly on our students. I would argue that this is just as much a reflection of librarians.”

    You are so right. Who else other than librarians will teach students about how information creation (by researchers, others, and themselves!) and access “works” — the social, economic, and technological phenomena that surround it and the ethical implications of openness and not-openness? For me, this is more important than teaching any database interface.

    Our challenge is always how to find the right opportunities to engage students in these conversations — in the classroom and beyond. I’m excited to see your upcoming article and to learn more about your thinking and experiments in engaging students in these critical issues!

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