Open Access and the Benevolence of Multinational Corporations

As with much of its history the academic library is at a crossroads. The exploding budgets for journal subscriptions which are necessary to the living and breathing research institution is slowly strangling libraries. This, of course, is obvious and much maligned and talked about. Getting back to the perceived roots of librarianship and the values of intellectual and learning freedom is an increase in open access publishing and learning in the minds of our left-leaning colleagues. The narrative has been pretty simple; open access moves the dissemination of information away from large corporate publishers and into the hands of “radical” faculty members who use their clout and expertise to provide information for the masses.

Gold open access (journals which publish fully open with little or no strings attached) is hardly the norm, and is outpaced in all metrics by Green open access (the self-archiving of pre or post print versions from non-open access journals). Gargouri, Larivière, Gingras, Carr, and Harnad (2010) found that unsurprisingly that subscription-based journals dominated STEM fields for publications, and only about 21% of their articles were available by green open access means. At the time of their study, only ~3% of publications were fully open access, evidence suggests this number has grown but not by much. While this number has surely grown in many fields, currently OA is dominated by Green and the dreaded hybrid journals.

Oftentimes, green OA is only possible with copyright strings that make it difficult for scholars to keep straight the versions, the citations, and the identifiers necessary to comply with author’s agreements. The burden is on the scholar to provide the necessary versions to libraries or other disciplinary repositories for the green model to work. While this can be seen as an open path set forth by the publishers, the hurdles and the arcane rules behind it makes the benevolence more of a blind eye. Some scholars I’ve spoken with do not want work viewed as “unfinished” or “unpolished” out on the internet, which is a far assumption to make. The “pre-print” especially because of its lack of peer-review and editing is very unappealing in some disciplines, while others, with long standing histories in open science have embraced it (looking at you Physics). On a practical side, how do we cite pre-prints and post-prints? I’m a librarian and I’m not actually sure the best action on that. When a journal owns the copyright on the very page numbers, how can I cite a passage I glean from an IR?

This has led me to often wonder whether green OA operates under the assumptions that overworked faculty and librarians will not follow through on the rules and therefore keep the article behind subscription walls.

The present and future of Open relies heavily on the benevolence of corporations to provide avenues for their content to be openly accessible. The success that libraries and scholars have had with green open access is limited by the rules set up by journals as well as the initiative of individual scholars. With many of the larger publishers showing anything from reluctance to open hostility to open access measures, this is a precarious proposition for libraries. Pressure from researchers and the past Presidential administration has made OA an important part of the scholarly communication environment yet we as researchers and as librarians are at the mercy of the large publishers to make this happen and need their partnerships and the continued patiences of our patrons to make this happen. Publishers, knowing the field’s love affair with open, have provided for open access in a pay-to-play model known as “hybrid.”

For many librarians, hybrid journals are seen as double dipping. Institutions are asked to provide extra money on top of growing subscription fees to make locked access articles fully open. APCs, the most common way to pay for these articles to be made open, range from a couple hundred dollars to upwards of $3000 depending on the field. For libraries chaffing under the threat of rising subscription fees this is not something many are willing to pay for no matter what our good intentions are to do. The elitist and competitive nature of publications and tenure requirements reinforce the need to publish in certain journals published expensively by certain publishers. The best journal in your field will allow you to have an open access version with rules that are complicated and impossible to understand or with the low price of several thousands of dollars make it gold open access for you. Wealthier scholars will soon pay the APC rather than jump through the hoops of green open access, if they know such a path even really exists.

What we are left with is a system that is built to perpetuate the subscription crises without any real and easy solution to full open accessibility. We either pay for subscriptions, pay for APCs, or pay for both. International and national boycotts, like the ones striking Western Europe  hurt the bottom line of publishers but harm faculty who need the journals to survive in this current scholarly climate. Pirate websites prey on our log in systems to provide “open” access to every published article but put our institutions, as well as researchers, at risk. While green avenues might be appealing, they are only the most common method of providing open access materials because of their inherently difficult nature. A journal wanting you to pay their hybrid fee would be happy to provide you with many hoops to jump through for a post-print. Relying on faculty to provide the correct versions is like relying on faculty respond to your Friday afternoon emails during the Summer; some will be pros at it but most will ignore you.

For now, we wait with baited breadth for the benevolence of publishers like the cave children who could be saved by Elon Musk’s submarine.






Puzzling Over Interdisciplinary Publishing

This semester I’ve been working on an article sharing the results of the research I did while on sabbatical last year. I was interested in how undergraduates access and complete (or don’t complete) their course reading, and I interviewed students at three colleges in my urban public university to learn about their experiences. My interest in this topic is multifaceted: I’m interested both as a librarian at a library that offers (some) textbooks on reserve for students and has a robust OER initiative underway, and also as a teacher who wonders why students don’t always complete the reading in courses I’ve taught, and also as a faculty member who hears similar questions about reading completion from my colleagues on campus (and honestly? also a little bit as parent of a junior in high school who’s starting to think about college).

This topic, like most of the research that most interests me, is interdisciplinary. While it’s library and information science-relevant it’s not solely relevant to LIS; it’s educational research but I don’t have a degree (at any level) in education, and folks who work in student or academic support services might find it of interest, too. As I gather and update sources in my literature review, initially compiled almost two years ago when I prepared my sabbatical application, I’m also thinking about where to submit the article. What journal should I aim for? Where’s the best home for this work?

Interdisciplinary research is interesting if challenging. I find that it stretches my brain in lots of ways — my lack of prior knowledge of the scholars and journals outside of LIS and a few other fields can make it hard to find sources, though as a librarian with a public services background my instruction/reference skills are helpful. Even so, sometimes finding keywords to describe a topic outside of my expertise is a puzzle. We academics love our jargon, and jargon often differs between fields even when describing the same subject or topic (information literacy, anyone?). Spoiler alert: our students recognize this as a barrier, too — during my interviews I often heard that students sometimes struggled with the reading in general education courses outside their majors and felt that their instructors assumed prior knowledge of the topic that students did not have.

I’m also finding it challenging to find open access journals that fit my interdisciplinary leanings. At this point I’m tenured and not aiming for another promotion, and I’m even more committed to publishing only in open access journals. Open access coverage is highly variable between fields, still. I’ve become so spoiled by the wide range of OA journals in LIS that I’m somewhat shocked when looking for journals in other disciplines. There are lots of fantastic OA options in LIS, but that’s not always the case in other disciplines.

In recent years I’ve begun to wonder whether the journal itself isn’t somewhat of a dinosaur, at least for interdisciplinary work. I use Twitter plus uploading to my university’s institutional repository as my primary means of self-promotion, hoping that the range of scholars who I follow and am followed by will help my work get to anyone who might be interested in it, both inside and outside LIS. In my own research process I rarely read entire issues of scholarly journals anymore, or even table of contents updates, with a few exceptions (that include those journals I regularly peer review for). A journal can be and represent a disciplinary community, but must it always be? There are multiple means of discovery — our usual library databases, social media, the various search engines — for scholarly articles. Is the journal as container for research still the best model, especially if it can’t easily accommodate research that doesn’t fit neatly into disciplinary categories?

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?