Category Archives: Open Access

An instruction librarian, a digital scholarship librarian, and a scientist enter a Twitter chat…

A quick note to preface this post: Thank you, Dylan Burns. After reading your post–What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability–I can’t stop thinking about this weird nebula of article access, entitlement, ignorance, and resistance. Your blog post has done what every good blog post should do: Make me think. If you haven’t read Dylan’s post yet, stop, go back, and read. You’ll be better for it. I promise.

I am an instruction librarian, so everything that I read and learn about within the world of library and information science is filtered through a lens of education and pedagogy. This includes things like Dylan Burns’ latest blog post on access to scholarship, #TwitterLibraryLoan, and other not-so-legal means of obtaining academic works. He argues that faculty who use platforms like #Icanhazpdf or SciHub are not “willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it,” and that “We as librarians shouldn’t  ‘teach’ our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons.”

My initial reaction was YES, BUT…which means I’m trying to think of a polite way to express dissent. Thankfully, Dylan’s always up for a good Twitter discussion, so here’s what ensued:

My gut reaction to libraries giving people “what they want, when they want it” is always going to be non-committal. I’ve never been one to subscribe to what a colleague a long time ago referred to as “eat your peas librarianship” (credit: Michelle Boulé). I don’t think things should be difficult just for the sake of being difficult because things were hard for me, and you youngin’s should have to face hardships too! But I am also enough of a parent to know that giving people what they want when they want it without telling them how it got there is going to cause a lot of problems (and possibly temper-tantrums) later on. Here’s where the education librarian in me emerges: I don’t want scholars to just be able to get what they want when they need/want it without understanding the deeper problems within the arguably broken scholarly publishing model. In other words, I want to advocate for Lydia Thorne’s model of educating scholars about scholarly publishing problems. To which Dylan responds:

To which I can only respond:

Point: Dylan. Those of us who teach have all had the experience of trying to turn an experience into a teaching moment, only to be met by rolling eyes, blank stares, sighs, huffs, etc. Is the scholarly publishing system so broken that even knowing about the problems with platforms like SciHub, scholars will still engage in the piracy of academic works because, well, it’s all a part of the game they need to play? Is this even an issue of usability then? Creating extremely user-friendly library systems won’t change the fact that some libraries simply can’t afford the resources their community wants/needs, but those scholars still need to engage in the system that produces that resources. Is it always going to be a lose-lose for libraries?

At this point a friend of mine enters the Twitter discussion. Jonathan Jackson is an instructor of neurology and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital:

Prior to this conversation I’d not thought about #TwitterLibraryLoan and similar efforts at not-so-legal access to scholarship as acts of resistance, but Jonathan’s entrance into the discussion forced me to think about the power of publicly asking for pdfs. I’ll admit that part of me skeptical that all researchers are as politically conscious as Jonathan and his colleagues. I’m sure there are some folks who just need that article asap and don’t care how they get it. But there is power in calling out that one publisher or that one journal again and again on #ICanHazPDF because your library will never be able to afford that subscription.

I’ll admit that the whole Twitter exchange made me second guess motivations all around, which is what a good discussion should do, right?

What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability.

Over the past handful of years, a lot of digital ink has been spilled on library responses to #icanhazpdf, SciHub, and, most recently, the #Twitterlibraryloan movement. This hit home in my life because  in recent discussion with students at my University, we found that students told us outright that they used SciHub because of its ability to “get most things.”

How we talk about piracy with our patrons is an important topic for discussion, and places a tremendous amount of emphasis on the ethics of a for-profit publishing model. But it places librarians in a precarious situation defending publishing practices that build barriers to research.

SciHub Pirates, from the Rjiksmuseum in Amsterdam. Schip van de schrijver Jean de Thevenot door zeerovers overmeesterd, Jan Luyken, 1681














Lydia Thorn wrote an excellent piece about teaching professors and students about the importance of legal means of acquisition, pointing to an expectation of immediate access and declining library budgets as culprits in this explosion of piracy. Thorn suggests pointing to the ways in which piracy hurts small presses and not-for-profit publishers and how the library can and should fill these needs. She also suggests that we point to several open models that provide access to materials without the illegality of piracy.

Switching gears slightly, it reminds me of the difficulties I have in working with faculty on online scholarly profiles. Because I administer DigitalCommons@USU, and its profiling system Selected Works, I am often confronted with faculty and students who use the for-profit academic profiling systems (I’m using this difficult phrase to talk about the systems that we all know but I’d rather not name) that are extremely popular across the world and across disciplines.

What brings these two examples and issues together is the way in which we, as librarians, promote ourselves as experts in this realm and how, in a lot of ways, our strategies for promoting our services fall flat. Faculty are not cynical monsters who actively search for ways to be “anti-library,” but make rational choices that fit what they need. They aren’t very often knowledgeable about the inner working of collection development or the serials crisis but they are knowledgeable about what they need right now in their academic careers.

I explain to my faculty, much like Thorn suggests, that the for-profit profiling systems are sometimes deceptive, corporate, and, often times, include illegal materials. While the illegality of the for-profit profiles often reaches faculty, who want to avoid any legal entanglements, the prevalence of these systems does not seem to be waning. The library’s 100% legal version pales in popularity in comparison to the others, who are often much more popular in certain fields. Who am I to tell professors not to choose these options in academic areas where for-profit profiles are more valuable than the library’s resources? Despite my feelings to the contrary, sometimes the for-profit profiles fit certain scholars well.

This brings me back to the issues surrounding SciHub and #Icanhazpdf. The important thing to remember about our users is that they spend much less time than we do worrying about these things. For them, the ease of use of a for-profit profile or a pirated pdf warehouse is an issue of access and not a preference towards profits or not-profits. While each choice we make as actors is political, I do not believe that our faculty who use these platforms are willfully ignorant or disloyal to their institutions, libraries, or librarians. They just want what they want, when they want it.

Carolyn Gardner and Gabriel Gardner speak to this in their College and Research Libraries article from earlier this year:

“Poor usability is also hindering our patrons from gaining access to materials. Librarians need to apply user experience thinking to all our online systems. At our respective libraries, we have to click multiple times just to discover if an item is own. Besides complicated discovery methods, software or holdings errors are possible…Librarians need to view these crowdsourced communities as alternatives that fill a gap that we have yet to meet as opposed to purely underground and shadowy communities.” (CRL February 2017 pg 144)

When the film and television industries felt the crunch from piracy they invested in Netflix and created Hulu, and when the music industry faltered we got Spotify and other streaming platforms. Each of these systems allowed for the quick access to media that users stole to gain access to. Libraries should view SciHub and for-profit profiling systems not as a betrayal but as a call to change and action. If SciHub is easier to use than the library we cannot blame our users if they use it over our complicated systems. If the for-profit profiling systems are superior to the library administered in someways, perhaps that is what our faculty are looking for.

We as librarians shouldn’t  “teach” our patrons to adapt to our obtuse and oftentimes difficult systems but libraries should adapt to the needs of our patrons. I really do not want to be at odds with my colleagues who call for education on these issues, because education is needed on these issues. After all, we are in the business of education. Yet, I believe that, in some ways, we should respect our faculty for what they do know. They know that they need resources to do their job. They should know that the library is often the best source for these resources. They also know that there are some platforms that provide easier access to these materials. I do not begrudge faculty who seek easier paths towards the resources they need to do their jobs, as much as I don’t begrudge undergraduates (or librarians) who use Wikipedia as a first source of quick info. It is a symptom of the age of easy access to materials online, and it is something that we as librarians should learn about what our scholars are looking for.

The second part of this is adpatation. We should not only respect our patron’s decision making processes but we should listen when  faculty seek sleazier means towards library services, and adapt to this need. If the for-profit profiles do something that my profiles don’t, I should think about ways to build my system to reflect those needs. If access to materials needs to be quicker than three clicks through our system, we should work to make it easier to gain legal access to materials. We shouldn’t claim that we know more than they do just because we deal with our obtuse systems on the daily, we should adapt to their needs when they arise.


No, Fair! Evolving Perspectives on Excessive Use in Research

Midterm brings its share of bustle to the library with last minute research questions to ask and copiers and printers to locate.  Library staff are also busy negotiating licenses, finalizing renewals, and troubleshooting access to the resources on which faculty and students rely. I’d like to shed some light on a subtler side of the troubleshooting task that, while not a frequent occurrence, is a growing concern for me as a librarian and researcher. The technologies that enable this bustle of research activity can at times inadvertently trigger what publishers call excessive use or excessive downloading.  This is considered a breach of contract according to the licenses for these resources.  Remedying this breach usually involves working with university IT security to identify, inform, and prevent such use, assuring publishers that the breach is cured, and publishers then unblocking the network IP or IP range necessary to restore access to content.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating researchers’ expectations when working with scholarly content and technology.  What technologies are they using?   Are they compatible across content provider platforms?  How might they trigger excessive use breaches?  What exactly is excessive use or excessive downloading in an online research environment?

What publishers think

Sometimes the publisher’s license language specifies the use of bots, link-checker, crawlers, spiders, automated software, and even indexing as excessive or unauthorized.  But more often, breaches associated with this activity are not explicitly defined, nor are they put in context of excessive use within the license. This leaves it fairly open to interpretation.

Publishers must consider the perspective of copyright holders, and typically enforce equivalent limitations for online use that they would for physical print materials uses.  It sounds reasonable, but because in reality we use print and online resources very differently, such licenses terms may give up fair use and other scholarly exceptions granted by copyright law.  Publishers take an even heavier hand when responding to excessive use breaches.  Blocking the user’s IP access, or sometimes an entire campus IP range, presumes malicious intent (which it almost never is).  This response also exaggerates the stakes involved and misunderstands what is necessary to perform digital research. Strict reinterpretation of print use restrictions in the online environment denies advances in research technology, from basic citation management software to APIs used for text and data mining.  It also ignores the very structure of the linked-data world we live in.

What most people think

When users learn that their actions violate library license agreements, their reactions are  surprised, apologetic, and most often confused.  While some may be aware of the technologies that makes excessive downloading possible, most don’t believe they constitute unethical or unlawful actions.  Breach of contract itself is kind of a boogey-man phrase that brings more readily to mind data breaches like Equifax.  If people are aware of breaches occurring in academia, attention more often goes to those involving individual student records.

According to one IT security expert I asked, the kinds of scholarly content breaches I’m talking about don’t even register on the scale of data sensitivity or security.  Unless credentials were stolen in order to download excessively, it is not security issue; it’s a copyright issue.  Publishers who treat copyright infringement as a security issue might be mitigating risk, but they are not serving or educating their customer.

What librarians think

Librarians, naturally, do approach this from the service and education mindset. Increasingly that means a not just serving end-users within the academy, but the general public who pay for the research through their tax dollars. As researchers assert the right to retain copyright of their own content and share it more widely, more diverse collaboration is possible, increasing potential for innovative research discoveries.  Libraries assert copyright exceptions and expose inequities in traditional publishing structures in order to make openness for innovation possible as well.

Aaron Swartz profileBy Fred Benenson - User: Mecredis [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll digress briefly to the story of Aaron Swartz  for illustration and comparison.  He was an advocate of openness, yet his deliberate action to hack and release scholarly content provides, I suppose, a perfect case for publishers’ insistence to treat copyright as a security issue.  In this case, the breach involved 4 million documents.  The scope in numbers (less than 3% of the Equifax breach) pales by comparison, especially considering nature of the data and the consequences (or lack of) to those responsible and to those harmed.

Rarely are scholars’ actions as deliberate or the stakes of intellectual property loss as high as  this scholarly breach (or breaches of individuals’ personal data).  In fact many legitimate uses of scholarly research technologies are being blocked even to those with “rights” to use them.  Some examples of technology uses I’ve seen publishers block include citation management software like EndNote that indexes and stores full text where available.  As early as 2006, librarians reported browser technologies that link and open an articles’ cited references, triggering such use.  What about mining text and data  to discover disciplinary concepts across time and from journal publications that span multiple publishers?  Innovating digital researchers  are developing their own programming for this, but can they use it?  Are there alternatives, and are they open or proprietary?

My role as an acquisitions librarian means I must balance the needs of publishers supplying the content we license with needs of users who access that content for their research and study.  That balance falls somewhere between stoic realism and OAnarchy for me.  But I’m still a teacher at heart, so educating all sides remains my goal. In the traditional, profit-based publishing system, where flat library budgets mean buying power decreases each year,  I must follow open access developments carefully, just as I must work to negotiate the best deal within these existing structures.  There is always room in this to educate publishers, librarians, and users.

Learning more about the tools researchers use, wish they had, or wish they could use without being blocked from access is my next goal. In my troubleshooting experience so far,  tools like EndNote, Papers on Mac, Abstraktr, RedCap, WGET are just a few.  So tell me…

What digital research
(or reference citation management)
technologies are your researchers using?  



Leading By Example: The Idealis highlights expert-curated open access LIS research

As I began crafting this sixth (and final1) piece as a First Year Librarian Blogger for ACRLog, I realized I’d come full circle thematically over the course of my posts, closing with a more focused call to action inspired by my work with The Idealis, which I discuss below. Last October during Open Access Week, in my first post, I shared reflections on the state of open access publishing, noting many optimistic aspects to this evolution in scholarship, despite its perceived slow pace of development. I highlighted Peter Suber’s state-of-the-union webcast in which he accurately describes a movement led by librarians, who remain open access’s biggest champions and workhorses, and the continued need to expand stakeholder engagement beyond the library. Much open access advocacy work has focused on partnerships with researchers, funders, and policy-makers (see groups like SPARC, Right to Research Coalition, Force11, etc.), yet Suber’s ideas for extending OA’s reach included a seemingly small suggestion–to lead by example.

Enter The Idealis, a new overlay journal of high-quality, open access library and information science scholarship, intended to elevate open access publications, and encourage others to publish and self-archive their work as OA. The journal officially launched on March 15th with its first collection area, scholarly communications, and will continue collection development into other areas of librarianship (such as archives, critlib, OER, liaison librarianship, etc.).

Continue reading Leading By Example: The Idealis highlights expert-curated open access LIS research

CORE and the Commons: Digital Scholarship, Collaboration, and Open Access in the Humanities

This week it was reported that Berlin-based ResearchGate, a social networking site designed for scientists to share research, received $52.6m in investment funds from a variety of sources, including BIll Gates (previous investor), Goldman Sachs, and The Wellcome Trust. This news is another development in a continuing saga and conversation surrounding commercial services (i.e., ResearchGate,, Mendeley) and the companies that own them, managing the scholarly profiles and content of researchers. While ResearchGate promotes a mission of connecting “the world of science and make research open to all,” open access advocates and those working in scholarly communications are quick to point out that these platforms are not open access repositories.

In a blog post from 2015, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association (MLA), pointed out, for example, is in no way affiliated with an academic institution despite the .edu domain (they obtained the address prior to the 2001 restrictions). “This does not imply anything necessarily negative about the network’s model or intent,” Fitzpatrick said,  “but it does make clear that there are a limited number of options for the network’s future: at some point, it will be required to turn a profit, or it will be sold for parts, or it will shut down.”

Much like we shouldn’t rely on Instagram to serve as our personal digital photo repository, researchers and academics shouldn’t rely on these commercial platforms for long term preservation of and access to their content. Hence, the work of open access institutional and disciplinary repositories takes on a certain imperative in the scholarly sphere. Those at Humanities Commons recognized this need, and in 2015 launched CORE, the Commons Open Repository Exchange, originally a digital repository for MLA members to share and archive “all forms of scholarly communication, from conference papers to syllabi, published articles to data sets,” now open to anyone who joins Humanities Commons. I spoke with Nicky Agate, Head of Digital Initiatives in the Office of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association to discuss CORE, in light of national attention garnered in a recent Forbes article about the monetization of scholarly writing.

Continue reading CORE and the Commons: Digital Scholarship, Collaboration, and Open Access in the Humanities