Tag Archives: scholarly journals

Evaluating Information: The Light Side of Open Access

Early last week I opened the New York Times and was surprised to see a front-page article about sham academic publishers and conferences. The article discussed something we in the library world have been aware of for some time: open access publishers with low (or no) standards for peer review and acceptance, sometimes even with fictional editorial boards. The publications are financed by authors’ fees, which may not be clear from their submission guidelines, and, with the relatively low cost of hosting an online-only journal, are presumably making quite a bit of money. The article included an interview with and photo of University of Colorado Denver librarian Jeffrey Beall, compiler of the useful Beall’s List guide to potentially predatory open access scholarly journals and publishers.

I’ve long been an admirer of Jeffrey Beall’s work and I’m glad to see him getting recognition outside of the library world. But the frankly alarmist tone of the Times article was disappointing to say the least, as was the seeming equation of open access with less-than-aboveboard publishers, which of course is not the case. As biologist Michael Eisen notes, there are lots of toll-access scholarly journals (and conferences) of suspicious quality. With the unbelievably high profits of scholarly publishing, it’s not surprising that the number of journals has proliferated and that not all of them are of the best quality. And there are many legitimate, highly-regarded journals — both open access and toll-access — that charge authors’ fees, especially in the sciences.

As I’ve bounced these thoughts around my brain for the past week, I keep coming back to one thing: the importance of evaluating information. Evaluating sources is something that faculty and librarians teach students, and students are required to use high quality sources in their work. How do we teach students to get at source quality? Research! Dig into the source: find out more about the author/organization, and read the text to see whether it’s comprehensible, typo-free, etc. Metrics like Journal Impact Factor can help make these determinations, but they’re far from the only aspects of a work to examine. In addition to Beall’s List, Gavia Libraria has a great post from last year detailing some specific steps to take and criteria to consider when evaluating a scholarly journal. I like to go by the classic TANSTAAFL: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Get an email to contribute to a journal or conference out of the blue? It’s probably not the cream of the crop.

So if faculty and librarians teach our students to evaluate sources, why do we sometimes forget (or ignore?) to do so ourselves? I’d guess that the seemingly ever-increasing need for publications and presentations to support tenure and promotion plays into it, especially as the number of full-time faculty and librarian positions continue to decrease. I appreciate reasoned calls for quality over quantity, but I wonder whether slowing down the academic publishing arms race will end the proliferation of low quality journals.

The Times article last week notes that one danger of increasing numbers of fraudulent journals is that “nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk.” This isn’t the fault of the open access movement at all; if anything, open access can help determine the legitimacy of a journal. Shining a light on these sham journals makes it easier than ever to identify them. It’s up to us, both faculty and librarians: if the research and scholarship we do is work we should be proud of, prestigious work that’s worth publishing, then it stands to reason that we should share that work and prestige only with and via publications that are worth it.

ACS Solutions: The Sturm und Drang

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sue Wiegand, Periodicals Librarian at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

A chemical storm recently blew up across the blogosphere, involving the American Chemical Society journals, the serials crisis of unsustainably high prices, and one brave librarian, Jenica Rogers at SUNY Potsdam, who said “Enough!” The atmospheric conditions that caused this storm: high journal prices, clashing with low library budgets. Not a surprise, as these storms blow up frequently before subsiding, but the response to Jenica’s blog post thundered through the online community of librarians and scholars. Why? Because she implemented an unusual solution. She cancelled the high-priced “Big Deal” ACS package, after consultation with their Chemistry Department. Others have cancelled Big Deals, but Jenica cancelled ACS journals, when ACS is also the accreditor for Chemistry. She made sure SUNY Potsdam Chemistry scholars and students would still get access to the research they needed, they would just get it in different ways. Controversy swirled like the winds of change.

Other “serials crisis” storms have come and gone over the years: in 2010, the University of California threatened to not renew Nature Publishing Group journals; in 2012, thousands of scholars and librarians signed a petition to boycott Elsevier. Going back further, decades of complaint from librarians resulted in, well, even higher prices. So, cancelling is the direct approach—the action alternative to what hasn’t worked.

As both Periodicals Librarian and liaison to the Chemistry Department, I knew that the answer at SUNY Potsdam would be different from what we could do with the resources we have available here at Saint Mary’s College. Our consortial arrangements are different, our mission is different—we’re a small liberal arts college, not part of a state-wide system. A suggestion from others here was to try to persuade the Chemistry Department to give up their ACS accreditation, but I didn’t want to do that. I’ve worked closely with Chemistry faculty, not only in collection development for their journals, but on college-wide committees—I know they are reasonable people, and they are also shocked at unsustainably high pricing for scholarly articles. I reckoned the department and the library could work together to figure something out. The other librarians agreed: the time was right. Discussion ensued.

Some history: way back in 2002, after an interesting discussion of the new digital era for journals, a senior Chemistry professor came to me with a scenario based on what I’d told him was possible if he wanted to make a deal: cancel some Chemistry journals to use the money available to get SciFinder Scholar, the indexing and abstracting database. ACS was offering a deal: a “3 for 2″ split with 2 similar institutions, so we could pay 1/3 of the cost of the SciFinder index. So we worked out which journals to cancel, which to keep, and we added SciFinder, a client-server product at that time, while keeping the necessary number of print ACS journals to keep our accreditation. The scenario accomplished this at no cost increase because we cancelled some print titles they didn’t want as much as they wanted the comprehensive, discipline-specific indexing.

Soon after, our state consortium offered an ACS “Big Deal” package: convert our ACS journals from print to online at the same price we were paying for print (the “historical spend”) and get many more journals for every library in the consortium. We converted. As with all Big Deals in the beginning, we marveled that we could get so many online journals at the same price we had been paying for our print subscriptions. I configured SciFinder to link our new titles, closed the catalog holdings, and shelved the print on the lower level, with signs on the Current Periodicals shelves: “This title is now online!” We added links. For Chemistry journals and indexing, at least, we were set for the brave new millennium.

Every year, the consortium negotiated small price increases, and more journals were added. Every year our budget stayed stagnant or went down while, subscription prices to other periodicals also went up. Faculty members in Chemistry were happy with the access they could get to the high-quality ACS journals, and frequently told me soWhen SciFinder became a web product, replacing the client-server model—even better (I was happy about that, too, in spite of the hassle with passwords and creating accounts that it entailed.) But the librarians thought the cost per use was too high for our small Chemistry Department. Then came Jenica’s blog post.

At Potsdam, librarians and Chemistry faculty decided to continue the ACS Legacy Archive, plus use Interlibrary Loan, add journals from the Royal Society (the Royal Society Gold package), and continue both STNEasy and Elsevier’s ScienceDirect database, which we don’t have at Saint Mary’s. Our mix is slightly different—after much discussion with Chemistry faculty and my librarian colleagues, we kept only the subscription to Journal of Chemical Education from ACS. We renewed the ACS Legacy Archive, and also kept our one Royal Society title (Chemical Society Reviews). The department agreed to use Interlibrary Loan when needed (as Jenica notes, ILL is also not free, but it is doable). We had post-cancellation access rights to 10 years of ACS content (next year, we must subscribe to another ACS title or pay an access fee to continue that).

We also kept SciFinder Scholar, still the single most important element to our faculty in Chemistry—they made this very clear from the first meeting I had with them. SciFinder is the indexing piece of the puzzle—it searches the Chemistry literature as a whole, not just the ACS journals, so it’s one place for them to search, and they like that. They already get non-ACS, non-subscribed journals from ILL, and they know it works well. We also, as did Jenica and the SUNY Potsdam librarians, encouraged faculty to use their ACS membership titles first for needed full-text found via SciFinder, and to consider having students also become members, since Society membership includes 25 “free” ACS articles, and student memberships are inexpensive.

The other solution I explored to complete the picture for us was to try using a document delivery service called FIZ AutoDoc, from FIZ Karlsruhe. FIZ (Fachinformationszentrum) is a not-for-profit German company that partners with the ACS, provides their document delivery, and also provides the STN databases. Implementation of the FIZ AutoDoc service required an incredible amount of mind-boggling documentation-reading, collaboration, copious emails, technical discussions, a webinar demo, a trial, and much angst. The sturm und drang, was not FIZ’s fault—they were extremely easy to work with, even though based far away in Germany. We just needed to figure out what we wanted and how to configure it to work with SFX, our link resolver, and our ideas about how to do this—how our workflow should go, who should do what, should it be mediated or unmediated, how it would look to the end-user—required much discussion. Eventually, we thought we had it—mediated by ILL would be best. No, wait! Maybe there is another way… The debate raged.

Ultimately, we did go with mediated by ILL, with the SFX link also in SciFinder. We added an SFX note about using free ACS membership articles if possible, and provided a list of ACS titles for use by ILL student workers. The account was set up with 2 passwords so the ILL Department can experiment with unmediated seamless access through SFX, so there is room for further improvement when the technical details are worked out. Meanwhile, requests for ACS articles are passed through to the ILL form, which is handily pre-populated by SFX from wherever they originate (since some ACS titles are also indexed in Academic Search Premier). ILL takes it from there in their usual efficient way.

So where do the philosophical questions come in? Is it ok for a library to purchase an article for just one person? What about sharing library resources? What about Fair Use? What about Open Access?

I have to say, I love the idea of Open Access, always have. I told the Chemistry Department that chemists everywhere should get together and start a subject repository like arXiv for Physics—this was quite humorous, apparently. In 2010, the University of Prince Edward Island’s library director, wanting to cancel Web of Science because of the high price, proposed an even more radical idea: librarians collaborating to build an index to scholarly literature that would be free and maintained by librarians. We all know the scholarly communication story by now. No one should be constrained from scholarly work by lack of resources wherever they are or what resources are available. Libraries are about sharing, at no cost to the users. Scholarly collaboration and library sharing shouldn’t have to be in competition, with large amounts of money at stake for access to published research. Yet, those devilish arguments go on.

Meanwhile, the ACS says it wants to work with researchers: “In the future… publishers will deal more directly with contributors and rely less on libraries as middlemen.” They have introduced ACS ChemWorx for research, collaboration, and reference management. In another example from a scholarly society, the Modern Language Association (MLA) is also working with researchers, but by making their author agreements more friendly to authors’ rights to self-archive, and by developing a platform for sharing: “members join the association less in order to receive its communications than to participate in them, to be part of the conversation, and to have their work circulated with the work being done in their community of practice.” They plan to emphasize their society role in “validation and credentialing”, developing new forms of peer review and scholarship in the MLA Commons.

This is the kind of action we can endorse and applaud. As librarians, let’s encourage scholarly societies to share scholarly work as the communities of practice they are at their best. Other collaborative platforms in various stages of adaptation include Zotero, Mendeley, Academia.edu, ResearchGate.org. There are also repositories, institutional and subject-based. The world is converging toward networking and collaborative research all in one place. I would like the library to be the free platform that brings all the others together.

Coming full circle, my vision is that when researchers want to work on their research, they will log on to the library and find all they need—discovering research ideas, the ability for seamless literature searching, accessing and saving citations for books and articles of interest in one place, downloading what they need, finding research collaborators through a network of scholars all over the world with similar interests, finding project management, having the ability to write and cite their research in a seamless way, sharing it informally, having it peer reviewed then formally published in a archived scholarly version of record, having it showcased and celebrated at each institution, then preserved for future scholars to discover and continue to build on. Walk in or log on, we could say to scholars and students alike—the library is the one place that has all you need to get your scholarly work done.

Let’s all, like Jenica, say enough with the old way! Let’s try some new ways and keep trying until we find or create something that works. This storm could help clear the air.

Experiencing the Shift

I spent a few days last week at a fascinating conference called MobilityShifts held at The New School in NYC (full disclosure: I was also a presenter). The tagline for the conference is An International Future of Learning Summit, which I definitely found true: attendees from all over the world ranged from faculty and administrators to publishers, students, activists, and librarians, and were interested in education at all levels. It would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the great talks and panels I experienced at the conference, but here are some notes on a few that piqued my interest that seemed especially relevant to academic librarians.

John Willinsky (founder of the Public Knowledge Project which created Open Journal Systems for publishing open access journals) gave a wonderful talk about open access publishing. He made the distinction between two kinds of intellectual property: content produced by scholars and researchers, and content produced by commercial and entertainment entities (with frequent use of Lady Gaga as an example of the latter). Willinsky asked us to consider why copyright for these two types of intellectual property is treated identically. He suggested that there is a strong historical and legal basis for open access in scholarly journals: information produced by universities is a public good, as demonstrated by the tax-exempt status of academic institutions. Further, the information that researchers produce only increases in value when it circulates and is critically reviewed, and open access increases the circulation of scholarly information. With Open Access Week practically around the corner, I’m looking forward to sharing what I learned at Willinsky’s talk during the faculty workshops we’re planning at my library.

I was very pleased to have the opportunity to hear Michael Wesch speak — I’ve been a big fan since seeing the video he made in 2007 with his undergraduate anthropology students at Kansas State University, A Vision of Students Today. Wesch focused his talk on student engagement, beginning by juxtaposing a photo of 400 bored-looking students in a lecture course with one of excited young people at auditions for American Idol. College students are seeking ways to create their own identities and find recognition, which the mainstream media are all too happy to provide. He noted that in the past media critics like Neil Postman criticized television for being a one-way medium, but now we have the ability to both create content and to talk back — it’s no longer just a top-down information stream. Wesch suggested that we encourage students to ask questions and talk back (both critical aspects of information literacy), and show them that these actions are relevant to creating their own identity and making meaning in their lives.

Like most conferences, the overwhelming majority of the speakers were faculty, administrators, and other professionals — that is, adults. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a panel titled Open Education: A Student Perspective, and listen to the voices of four articulate students from The New School. Open access publishing was one dominant theme in this session. One student spoke passionately about the frustration that accompanied his inability to access scholarly information in databases when he had taken time off from his studies. Another wondered about the oxymoron of students who depend on piracy and copyright infringement to get materials that they need (or want), at the same time as the university has to take steps against it. The high prices charged by textbook publishers were also questioned, especially for materials for K-12 education. These students were an interesting counterpoint to the students Wesch discussed; they’re highly engaged in their own education, and curious about why educational policies and practices so often default to closed when arguably one of the purposes of higher education is to open and broaden knowledge and worldview.

The conference also featured “short talks,” 10 minute presentations grouped by theme. Among the many I heard, one from Xtine Burrough, Communication professor at Cal State Fullerton, stands out as particularly information literacy-friendly. She asks her students to remix and respond to the copyright infringement case Lenz v. Universal. In 2008 Stephanie Lenz was served with a takedown notice by Universal for posting a video to YouTube in which her then-toddler is shown dancing to a brief snippet of the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy,” and decided to fight back (she’s being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation). Burrough’s students create videos using the same 29 seconds of the song and upload them to YouTube as a response to Lenz’s original post. And of course even this assignment has gone viral, and there are many video responses from people who aren’t students in Burrough’s classes.

There are so many moving parts to the education ecosystem that it’s easy to stick to just the topics we know best or spend the most time thinking about. This was the first non-library conference I’ve been to in ages, and it was fascinating to step outside of my library bubble and listen to/learn from the other presenters and attendees. It’s going to take a while for me to digest everything I’ve taken in over the past few days, but I’m finding myself with lots to think on about the place of libraries in education.

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.

Caught Between the Old and the New

Over the past academic year I’ve worked on a research project with a colleague to study the ways that students do their scholarly work, similar to the project at the University of Rochester a few years ago. We finished with data collection for this year and are spending the summer analyzing our results. We’ve gotten an additional grant and plan to collect data at a few more sites next year; ultimately we’ll produce a comprehensive analysis of all of our data. But in the short term, we’d like to share our preliminary results and analysis from this year’s research.

Here’s my dilemma: the fastest and most efficient way to disseminate our results is to share them on the website we’ve set up for the project. When I was an archaeologist we wrote up an interim report after each field season and a final report when the project was complete, and I’m thinking along these lines. However, I’m also a junior faculty member on the road to tenure, and the currency of the realm is, of course, the peer-reviewed journal article.

A peer-reviewed article will take considerably more time to be published, up to a year or even longer, especially if our submission isn’t accepted on the first try (as seems true for most article manuscripts). I’m a strong advocate of open access publishing, and it just seems wrong to keep our data to ourselves for all that time. But I do value the peer review process, and while I hope that posting a report on our website would generate comments, there’s no guarantee.

Ideally I’d like to write both a preliminary report, to be posted online by the end of the summer, and a scholarly article, submitted around the same time and (hopefully) published sometime next year. I’m not sure that we have time for both, though. While the summer months are slower in the library, we’re still open, and there are classes and reference desk shifts to staff and programs to plan for next year. So we are probably going to have to focus our energies on just one publication.

As I’ve been thinking on this recently there’s been lots of other news in the world of academic publishing. The University of California proposed a possible faculty boycott of the Nature Publishing Group. And an unusual scholarly publishing project came out of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: Hacking the Academy, a book that gathered all of its submissions in just one week. I can’t help but think that we’re in an odd scholarly communication moment right now, stuck between old and new worlds of knowledge dissemination, and I’m not always sure how to chart my course.