Free Culture Clash

Libraries think it makes sense to digitize theses and dissertations and have them web-searchable rather than have to rely on UMI publishing them. Having a few print copies on the shelf means hardly anyone will find that scholarship, and why would anyone go to the trouble to write all that if they don’t want it read?

Well, to get a credential, for one, and for another, to prepare for a life that involves publishing books – books that are a marketable commodity, not given away for free.

Several universities have fallen afoul of graduate students who fear their first book – the one that gets them tenure – will be unpublishable if the dissertation its based on is open access. The University of Iowa is now finding itself in the middle of an unanticipated firestorm when they decided deposited electronic theses would be open access and, eventually, print theses would be, too. According to the Chron:

At the center of the conflict is a routine form that students and their faculty advisers sign for depositing students’ theses with the Graduate College. Language added to the form this semester says that the University of Iowa Library will scan hard-copy theses and “make them open-access documents,” which it defines as freely available over the Internet and retrievable “via search engines such as Google.” It is not clear who authorized that clause.

Students can request to have Internet publishing delayed for two years, the form states, but it adds that the default assumption is that students want their theses disseminated online. All graduate students must sign the form, due in early April, in order to graduate.

To some this is a Trojan horse – a university taking control of students’ intellectual property without discussion; for others it’s outright theft. For many students in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop it’s an inexplicable lapse of common sense. After all, these are students who are in school to learn how to write publishable work. They see this action as a high-handed move to take away their creative work and make it unpublishable.

The language in the “first deposit checklist” states the library plans to make electronic deposits open access and to digitize print ones, rather than have them published via UMI. The library has tried to clarify its role in this issue, as reported in EarthGoat.

But clearly, there are some very sticky issues here that open access supporters (including many critics of this new policy) need to untangle.

Addendum: Peter Suber has, as usual, words of wisdom. The only disagreement I would have with him is that two years’ embargo is okay for literary works. It takes a year, at a minimum, to publish a book the traditional way, and trade publishers would not be happy with any open access that wasn’t under their control, ever. Backlist is gold to them, and a lot of books retain their market value even when they’re years old. (I do find myself wondering whether UMI publication has ever interfered with signing a contract for an MFA-originated project – but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down.)

UPDATE: The university (not surprisingly) said whoops and the language on the policy was changed (and that link will no longer work). Chances are, this could have been resolved in-house without any friction, but because there was a deadline involved, the issue didn’t seem resolvable quickly, and word spread across the internet much faster, it became a bit of a public relations disaster. If nothing else, it suggest rolling out any new open access initiative needs to be an opportunity to discuss what open access is all about.

Academic Librarianship’s Future Strengths?

In my first job after college, as a manager at a small nonprofit, I was taught to use the euphemism “future strengths.” For instance, when I conducted performance reviews, my colleagues would often mention punctuality as one of their future strengths. We also used dozens of other terms that ate at my newly minted English-major heart. And yet they seemed to work. People who went out of their way to rationalize tardiness when they thought it was being met with disappointment seemed eager—albeit in a jaded, we-both-know-what-this-means way—to claim punctuality as a future strength.

That’s one danger in talking about disappointment: people sometimes take it the wrong way, as attack rather than encouragement. A second danger is that people might think you’re down on them or the topic at hand—that when I talk about the areas of academic librarianship I wish were different, people will think I’m down on libraries or librarians, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think we’re great, and I think we have the motivation and the resources to address every item on the following list, provided enough of us agree that they should be addressed.

My greatest concern in listing future strengths is that it’s often seen as presumptuous. Please understand that I don’t want academic librarianship to conform to my grand vision (I don’t have one) and I don’t believe the people responsible for the status quo made mistakes (I’m sure they made rational decisions based on what they knew at the time). I’m publishing my list of future strengths not because I have evidence that sharing them will be useful, but because I haven’t yet found any evidence that it won’t be. Sometimes you put something out there not because you know you’re right, but because it’s a good way to find out that you’re not.

I suspect that many of you will react to my disappointments and my ideas for turning them into future strength with some variant of, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.” Maybe it is. Then again, perhaps for one or two of them, it doesn’t have to be.

We don’t own our serial collections

Not owning our serials, all on its own, would be enough to qualify as my number one disappointment. Even though I’m developing a better grasp of the financial considerations involved, it’s still pretty hard for me to believe that we don’t own such important components of our collection. What’s even harder to believe is that we don’t control our own indexes. But the most troubling aspect of all is that we appear to be dead set on repeating this process with our books. While Peter Brantley has said it better than I can (see “Google and the Books” and “Google Books: A Reprise with Clarity”), he seems to be more circumspect than I am regarding the secrecy that every “Google Library” has agreed to maintain. If your library is legally enjoined from divulging which books it has digitized, or the financial details of its Google contract, or anything else at all about its involvement with this project, then your library is “corrupt” in the sense that Lawrence Lessig has begun using the term.

Fortunately, we appear to be making progress. Harvard’s recent announcement was encouraging, Peter Suber’s Open Access News seems to document a dozen small victories daily, Brewster Kahle is fighting the power, and it’s not as if our profession is indifferent to the situation in scholarly communications. And yet, well, let me put it this way: how many of us still read and publish in journals that lock away our ideas like so many Rapunzels?

We don’t know our own history

I’ve already devoted one ACRLog post to this topic and it will likely be the topic of a future post as well, so instead of belaboring the point, I’ll give you an anecdote and a pretty picture. From Edward A. Goedeken:

Like the farmer in the movie Field of Dreams, Louis Shores always believed that if he could build it, they would come—and they did. In 1961, little more than a decade after Shores, Wayne Shirley, and Carl Milam founded the American Library History Round Table (ALHRT) in 1947, the indefatigable Shores was ready to host the first Library History Seminar at Florida State University. From that humble beginning (only sixteen library historians attended the 1961 meeting), the seminars have flourished. Over the years the number of attendees has steadily increased, with recent seminars attracting scholars from all corners of the globe to share their affection for library history.

We are now up to eleven seminars and 199 presentations. Five of these presentations have been about academic librarianship.

Presentations at Library History Seminars grouped by subject

Sources: Library History Seminars I-IX compiled by Goedeken and presented in tabular form. I categorized presentations from the following two seminars on my own and offer no assurance that my decisions match Goedeken’s scheme. Here are the lists of presentations at Library History Seminar X and Library History Seminary XI (see also: Library Trends, Volume 55, Number 3, Winter 2007).


While it’s still enough of a future strength to make the list, I’m optimistic about the OPAC. NC State, Koha, Evergreen, VuFind, Fac-Back-OPAC, WorldCat, LibraryThing, Aquabrowser, the Open Library, and the last proprietary ILS vendors standing, are making inroads. That said, your OPAC is broken if it:

  • Doesn’t offer faceted browsing;
  • Doesn’t include federated search that retrieves relevant results from your entire collection (e.g. monographs, serials, other media, special collections);
  • Doesn’t have a permanent, clean URL for every item in your collection;
  • Doesn’t produce that URL in a way that shows up in Google/Yahoo/MSN/Ask, etc.;
  • Doesn’t offer useful feeds (e.g. new material, sorted by subject);
  • Requires that your constituents get trained in order to use it effectively.

Citations are at the slide rule stage

I’m still surprised by how many software programs there are for organizing references. Some are open source and some are proprietary, some work directly with the ILS and some live within the browser. All of them do their best to work with the major citation styles, and a few try to work with others.

I suppose it’s nice to have a lot of options, but I’d feel better about the situation if I thought I was making a choice among citation systems that work really well. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case, though I don’t blame the software. I think the fault lies in the specifications, which still seem to reflect pre-digital thinking not just in their formatting, but in their licensing and distribution: at the libraries where I work, I share citation specifications with one student at a time in book form. How nice would it be if we had a single, open specification that was developed specifically to help us automate the citation process?

I have more to say about the potential uses for a human and machine-readable, open citation format, but I’ll save these thoughts for another post. For now, I’ll end with my suggestion for what an open citation format might be called: Op. cit.

Open Access to History @ Columbia UP

Who knew? Columbia made a previously subscription-only history book project open access. Maybe Harvard’s news, and the press it generated, led them to tell us about it. From today’s Chron (subscription required, no pun intended):

Without much fanfare, Columbia University Press has radically restructured Gutenberg-e, its high-profile experiment with digital history monographs, from a subscription-only series to an open-access model. The 36 titles will also be available—in somewhat different form, and enhanced with related scholarship—through Humanities E-Book, a subscription-only collection of digital versions of humanities monographs administered by the American Council of Learned Societies, or ACLS.

The Columbia press has been quietly making the monographs freely available since late fall, but the association announced the news on its blog only this month. Gutenberg-e’s switch to open access highlights some of the financial and logistical difficulties that can hamper attempts to establish a viable e-monograph series in the humanities—not that many have yet tried.

Turns out making enhanced digital versions cost quite a bit of money, and those expenses were not made up for by savings in traditional printing and shipping. Scholars, too, preferred to shop their projects for publication as books. Permissions and marketing also have different challenges – securing permission to reproduce an image or passage in a book is much easier than for digital distribution.

There will still be an enhanced subscription-based version of the books. I don’t know the details of this, but I’m growing a little weary of libraries paying for special versions while the great unwashed who aren’t affiliated with an institution that can afford it are stuck with a free budget version. Why the duplication of effort? We’re deliberately creating our own digital divide. But that’s the subject of another post.

A Scholar’s Regrets

Danah Boyd is happy to be part of a special issue of Convergence, a journal devoted to new media technologies. But she’s sad that the only people who can read it will be those who subscribe (or whose libraries subscribe – she notes that the institutional subscription is over $500 a year.) Certainly, there’s some irony in using old media to explore new media. From it won’t happen again, because from here on out, Boyd plans to only publish in journals that allow open access – and she urges other scholars to join her boycott.

I should probably be sympathetic to academic publishers. They are getting their lunch eaten and the lack of consistent revenue from journals makes it much harder for them to risk publishing academic books and they are panicked. Yet, frankly, I’m not humored. Producing a journal article is a lot of labor for scholars too. Editing a journal is a lot of labor for scholars too. Academic publishers expect authors to do both for free because that’s how they achieve status. At the same time, they are for-profit entities that profit off of all of the free labor by academics. Some might argue that academics are paid by universities and this external labor is part of their university job. Perhaps, but then why should others be profiting off of it? Why not instead publish with open-access online-only journals produced as labors of love by communities of volunteer scholars (i.e. many open-access journals)? Oh, right. Because those aren’t the “respectable” journals because they don’t have a reputation or a history (of capitalizing off of the labor of academics). The result? Academics are publishing to increasingly narrow audiences who will never read their material purely so that they can get the right credentials to keep their job. This is downright asinine. If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them.

She recommends that tenured faculty focus on open access-friendly journals, that libraries add open access journals to their catalogs, and that tenure and promotion committees take open access into account. She also suggests funding agencies follow NIH’s lead and mandate open access. And that publishers “wake up or get out.” In an addendum, she points out that patterns have changed; in the past, publication in a top journal meant everyone would read an article, but now younger scholars are less deferential to the idea of prestige – partly because they don’t browse a handful of journals now, they seek out relevant material that they identify by other means.

Boyd is pointing toward a shift in how authority is defined among scholars, but I suspect there’s a practical, technical reason for this change as well: the disaggregation of a journal’s contents into individualized articles that can be discovered by means other than following a particular journal is changing the way people keep up with and discover scholarship.

Open Access at Harvard – Seriously

Sorry to tread on Steven’s heels with another post so quickly – but this is a story worth reading.

Publish or perish has long been the burden of every aspiring university professor. But the question the Harvard faculty will decide on Tuesday is whether to publish — on the Web, at least — free.

Faculty members are scheduled to vote on a measure that would permit Harvard to distribute their scholarship online, instead of signing exclusive agreements with scholarly journals that often have tiny readerships and high subscription costs.

Although the outcome of Tuesday’s vote would apply only to Harvard’s arts and sciences faculty, the impact, given the university’s prestige, could be significant for the open-access movement, which seeks to make scientific and scholarly research available to as many people as possible at no cost.

“In place of a closed, privileged and costly system, it will help open up the world of learning to everyone who wants to learn,” said Robert Darnton, director of the university library. “It will be a first step toward freeing scholarship from the stranglehold of commercial publishers by making it freely available on our own university repository.”

If adopted, the system will be opt out, not opt in – and as experience from both the NIH and library repositories goes, opt in hasn’t created a groundswell among researchers. This is a bold move.

UPDATE: The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has approved the plan. Wow.