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.


Author: Dylan Burns

Dylan Burns is the liaison librarian for the Cinema and Media Studies Program and the School of Music at the University of Washington

3 thoughts on “What We Know and What They Know: Scholarly Communication, Usability, and Un-Usability.”

  1. Hi Dylan,

    Very well written article. Thank you for the shout out. I think that talking to our users about scholarly piracy is better than pretending that the problem doesn’t exist or playing the blame game and shaming those who resort to piracy to access the materials that they need. I wrote this piece in response to a lot of comments that I saw on Twitter from frustrated librarians who were angry/sad/annoyed that researchers were relying (once again) on illegal means of accessing information over the services that we offer. But I think that we should be using this occasion to educate our users over further alienating them. Also, if such movements can be used to draw attention to bigger scholarly publishing problems (i.e. shrinking library budgets or soaring journal costs) then I think that these are conversations that are much needed and that are worth having.

    Just one more thing- I noticed in the article that you misspelled my last name, which is very easy to do, as it’s not listed on my blog (Thorne not Thorn). A correction here would be much appreciated before I share it with my peers. ? Thanks so much!


  2. Hi Dylan, Love your take on this issue 🙂 As we focus on compliance strategies that our clients view as irrelevant, another example of (often well meaning) behaviourism so prevalent in academic libraries, we are taking away our opportunities to think creatively & progressively to support knowledge building & knowledge sharing. Our blinkered views can also apply to textbooks. If we were more able to accept that people will do what they will do, we could look at other disciplines & find highly relevant & modern means of offering alternatives that do engage our clients. Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) have, for several years, struck me as one of these opportunities. Imagine if we & some appropriate others outside librarianship (such as online learning & teaching & ICT & social media & discipline experts & students) looked at creating PLEs. We could be creating environments where students become part of lifelong learning networks with interested professionals & current teachers, sharing & building knowledge. Librarians have great ways to contribute here – we have knowledge about which textbooks aren’t being purchased (through our hold stats), our cataloguing tradition gives us great input opportunities through tagging, we’ve got lots of open access related knowledge & we understand about ownership & access, we know academics & students who would be part of trialing such things, we’ve built relationships with students who have graduated but would probably love to be part of the learning environments of students coming after them, our relationships with academic clients would help us locate practising professionals (new & established) who would be interesting in being part of a growing professional learning community, we know current teaching academics who would be interested in employing such communities into their courses & also researchers who might value from such communities. Think a combo of LinkedIn, Facebook, library catalogue, search engine, social bookmarking, CMS, LMS, apps & whatever else suited community members’ needs coming together to create online professional learning communities founded in a discipline’s ways of thinking, relationship building, ethical practice, professional identity, etc, etc. We’d be working *with* people rather than telling them what to do or who/how to be. We’d actually be surrounded by, & embedded in, lifelong learning communities & playing a meaningful role rather than trying to appropriate a concept with which we don’t/can’t truly engage in with the standard current form of librarianship. We’d be focused on what is important to our clients & becoming increasingly relevant & knowledgeable about evolving possibilities in a world where we seem bent on becoming increasing irrelevant in the eyes of our clients & potential clients. There will be a million great ideas out there just waiting for good librarians to be part of. BUT, we have to be willing to look outside our own box & work in true partnership with people other than librarians. We have so much to offer & there are so many people would love to work with us to find more progressive & relevant ways. And, our profession is in a sensational position. We have universities that teach librarianship & have libraries – our librarianship academics, our librarianship students & our academic librarians could be working together building, trialing, implementing, researching outcomes.

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