Category Archives: Open Access

Open Access Week Tidbits

It’s not actually a holiday, but for me Open Access Week seems more exciting than ever this year. There’s lots going on during this 5th annual international advocacy event, which runs from October 24-30. Here are a few highlights:

  • Kicking things off last week, John Dupuis over at Confessions of a Science Librarian blogged about one strategy that researchers can use to regain control of their scholarly communications: blogging. (I’m not entirely sure, but I believe this was the first use of the #occupyscholcomm hashtag, which continues in heavy rotation on Twitter this week.)
  • In her column over at Inside Higher Ed, our own Barbara Fister shares the gory details of the price increases for her library’s subscriptions to ACS and Sage journal packages. And she’s not the only one — others are taking up the call to make the rapidly increasing price tags for scholarly communication public. So many of our colleagues outside of the library are still unaware of these high and growing prices, and sharing this information is vital to our advocacy for open access.
  • Alex Holcombe, a Psychologist at the University of Sydney, has created a lovely, simple way for faculty and researchers to demonstrate their open access advocacy: the Open Access Pledge. Holcombe’s pledge calls for scholars to commit to doing peer review primarily (though not exclusively) for open access publications (both gold and green). It’s a simple pledge that calls on us to recognize that our volunteer peer review efforts have an impact on the economics of scholarly publishing, and we can use our labor to help address the disparities in access to research and scholarship.
  • Last but certainly not least: a little humor always makes difficult discussions easier, even discussions about the frustrations and challenges of scholarly communication. So if you’re on Twitter you should most definitely follow @OpenAccessHulk, who will SMASH TOLL ACCESS PUBLISHING.

Lots of libraries feature special programming for Open Access Week (including mine). If your library’s hosting events or programs this week, please share the details below. Happy Open Access Week, everyone!

Tackling Textbooks

Many libraries grapple with whether to buy textbooks to put on reserve for students to use. At my college we do acquire textbooks, though of course we purchase many other books for circulating use as well. I’ve usually thought about the textbook issue from the perspective of the library, for example, our materials costs vs. the relative perishability of these books. Textbooks also have an impact on our library faculty and staff: our students assume that the library has their textbook on reserve and and sometimes get frustrated when we don’t, and can take their frustration out on our library faculty and staff.

But I’m starting to think that our offering many textbooks on reserve for students to use is deflecting many of the core issues with textbooks. Recently we’ve heard our faculty lament more and more often that their students are not buying the textbook for their classes. This is not surprising: textbook prices are high and growing, and I’d guess that one of the main reasons students don’t want to buy their textbooks is that it seems like a lot of money for something they may only use in one class, especially for classes that aren’t in their major.

We are certainly helping our students when we provide textbooks on reserve for them to use, which is an important part of any college library’s mission and goals. But we’re also allowing faculty to sidestep a major and thorny issue in academic publishing: the extremely high and continuously increasing cost of textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s definitely value in textbooks. Writing about complex subjects and disciplines in a clear, concise way that’s appropriate for undergraduates, especially first year students, is challenging. A good textbook can be very useful for faculty teaching and students taking a course. Some textbooks are not unreasonably priced, either. But for far too many topics it seems like the textbook market is out of control, with new editions every couple of years, and costs into the hundreds of dollars.

Open access textbooks and educational materials are one way to tackle these thorny textbook issues. As we get closer to Open Access Week I’m preparing for a faculty workshop we’re planning at my library, and am beginning to read about encouraging experiments with open access textbooks and other curricular materials by librarians and faculty. Is your library working on an open access curriculum project with faculty? Please share your thoughts and lessons learned below.

Stranger Than Fiction

My head’s been buzzing since I first read yesterday on the New York Times Bits Blog that coder and activist Aaron Swartz was indicted under federal hacking laws for illegally downloading millions of articles from JSTOR (the full text of the indictment is embedded at the bottom of the post). Since then I’ve read through lots of articles and tweets, news about the case having all but taken over my Twitter stream, including a more in-depth story in today’s Times. And I’m finding that with every article I read I have more questions than answers.

Why’d he do it? Swartz is well known as an information activist and open access advocate, so this question’s not hard to answer. I’d hazard that it’s also not a stretch for many librarians to sympathize with Swartz at least a little bit. After all, we spend our days helping people find information, and we know all too well the frustrations of not being able to access the information we and our patrons need. I’ve read that Swartz wanted to use the data for research, but as JSTOR points out in the official statement, there are procedures in place for scholars who want to use large parts of JSTOR’s database for research.

What, exactly, did he do? This has been difficult to tease out, and the information in the many articles around the internet is highly varied. The indictment accuses Swartz of installing a laptop in a wiring closet at MIT to download large portions of JSTOR’s content. But it’s interesting to see terms like “hacking” and “stealing” used as synonyms with “illegal downloading” and “violating license terms” in many articles describing the case. As noted in an article in Wired:

Swartz used guest accounts to access the network and is not accused of finding a security hole to slip through or using stolen credentials, as hacking is typically defined.

On the other hand, Demand Progress, the progressive political organization founded by Swartz, has compared Swartz’s actions to “allegedly checking too many books out of the library” (a quote that’s been heavily retweeted). Of course, this analogy doesn’t really hold up, since books and databases operate under very different ownership models.

Why JSTOR? I’d guess that this is a question only a librarian would have, but I can’t help wondering why JSTOR? Why didn’t Swartz pick on one of the giant scholarly journal publishers with well-publicized huge profit margins? Perhaps JSTOR was easiest for him to access? Or maybe, because JSTOR isn’t one of the biggies, he suspected that if he got caught they wouldn’t press charges? It’s been reported that JSTOR secured the return of the downloaded content and did not press charges; the case is being brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

What does this mean for libraries? And for the open access movement? As I was sitting down to finish writing this my CUNY colleague Stephen Francoeur sent out a link to this post on the Forbes blog that terms Swartz’s actions “reckless and counterproductive.” The post gets at something that’s been nagging at me since yesterday: it points out the possibility that the reputation of the open access movement could be damaged by association. And I’m still not sure how exactly to articulate it, but I worry that there may be fallout from this event that could have a negative effect on academic libraries, too.

OA: Just Another Business Model

Steven Bell kindly pointed me toward an interview published in InformationToday with Derk Haank, former Elsevier executive who now is CEO of Springer. I wrote about it earlier at Library Journal’s Academic Newswire, but now that it’s available online, I thought I’d share it here, in case you’re having trouble staying awake or suffer from low blood pressure.

Haank helped organize Springer’s acquisition of BioMedCentral and has introduced some open access options for authors publishing in Springer journals. But even though these moves have made Springer one of the largest OA publishers, he thinks it’s a tiny tributary to the glory that is STM publishing, a minor revenue stream, a sop to the cranks who oddly enough care about access to research. These are mostly in the biosciences, and won’t have much effect on the future, which in his crystal ball looks very much like the present. Scientists will continue to produce more and more publications (and Springer is happy to oblige by increasing their publishing program); scientists will need to access the literature to do their work, and libraries will simply have to find ways to fund access. Subscriptions will continue to power scholarly publishing because … well, the system we have now works just fine. Publishers have recognized that libraries are strapped, so they have given up highway robbery are no longer insisting on double-digit increases annually. But since they’re publishing more, libraries will have to pay more; that’s just the reality. And all that fuss we make – that’s just a negotiation strategy.

Some choice quotes:

“e-products are much less expensive to handle [than print]: They have no storage costs, the data comes with a catalogue, and our books come with MARC records.” (No muss, no fuss … hey, can’t we just have the business office run this thing? Think of the money we’d save.)

“The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread. I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem; I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it . . . it corrected everything that went wrong in the serials crisis in one go: people were able to get back all the journals that they had had to cancel, and they gained access to even more journals in the process.” (All the journals that we don’t need that you can shake a stick at! Too bad it hasn’t worked out for anything the library used to buy that isn’t in the Deal.)

“Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit but not like in the days of the serials crisis. We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.” (Hey, at least you’ll have company. Welcome to Flatland!)

“I am absolutely convinced that the traditional subscription model delivered through the intermediary services of the library or information department will remain the dominant model. You might be forgiven for thinking that the OA movement is a lot bigger than it is. That is because those people who want to change something are always more vocal than those who are happy with the way things are.” (Happy … like us? Oh, that’s right, our opinion doesn’t matter. We are but handmaidens.)

“Our first priority is to continue as we are.” (We’ve noticed.)

What’s interesting – and worth thinking about – is that he feels mandates are a genuine threat to business as usual, particularly those imposed by funders who provide billions of dollars for basic research. One more reason to agitate for FRPAA and to urge our colleagues in other departments to consider mandates, even those of us who are not at research-centric institutions.

More discussion is happening at the Library Society of the World’s online water cooler.
Image courtesy of Bob Fornal.

The Age of Big Access

This month marks the second in our new series of guest posts from academic librarians around the biblioblogosphere. October’s post is from Iris Jastram, the Reference & Instruction Librarian for Languages and Literature at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. She also blogs at Pegasus Librarian.

While we were all busy wondering what it means to be a librarian in the Age of Google, we got flanked. This is not the Age of Google after all. That was just a distraction — a clever and dazzling light show. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, a totally different age was gathering itself: The Age of Big Access.

We saw and were outraged by Elsevier’s extortionist tactics. You know the story: our scholarly communities can’t function without these journals. We needed to provide access, Elsevier knows we needed to provide access, and so we have no leverage. The part of our librarianly DNA that is hardwired to provide access and further scholarly pursuits kicks in and overrides everything else.

We saw and were outraged by OCLC’s revised Use and Transfer guidelines. Sure, we could decide not to hand the record over to OCLC, but then the other systems that we really do need (such as ILL) wouldn’t work as well. We couldn’t lend our items, which means we couldn’t build up credits, which means that we couldn’t afford to borrow as much. Our scholarly community would suffer. We need to provide access, OCLC knows we need to provide access, and so we have no leverage. That librarianly DNA kicks in again.

We saw and were outraged by EBSCO’s increasing holdings of exclusive rights to periodicals, often offered through increasingly obscure EBSCO aggregators. But we need to provide access, the journals know it, they contract with EBSCO to get as much out of EBSCO as they can, we have no leverage. That blasted librarianly DNA keeps kicking in.

We saw and were outraged by Nature Publishing Group’s price hikes, made public by the University of California system when that system announced a boycott (PDF) of all of Nature’s periodicals and Nature-related activities. How dare Nature sell our own work back to us at such a price, we asked. Because we need to provide access to these things, Nature knows it, and so we have no leverage. Is there any way to amputate DNA?

We saw and were outraged by OCLC yet again when a lawsuit reminded us just how often we have no choice of vendor now that OCLC controls our cataloging, ILL, and to a lesser but growing extent, our catalogs. Apparently librarianly DNA loves these parasitic relationships around providing access.

And weren’t we just talking about how we’re no longer gatekeepers now that there’s so much free information out there? What about information overload and result fatigue? Have we wondered and worried about our futures so long that the future got written by big corporations in the business of selling us access, and selling it to us again, and then selling it to us again?

As usual, Barbara Fister is way ahead of me with her Liberation Bibliography manifesto. But what about me? I don’t have an activist bone in my body, but surely recognizing that I’m living the wrong future must have some effect. Surely there’s a place for instruction librarians in this alternate future.

I was pretty comfortable with my role as an instruction librarian in the Age of Google. I’m totally at sea trying to figure out my role as an instruction librarian in the Age of Big Access.