More on serials

Jan 26 2010 Published by under Open Access

It's odd to wake up in the morning to discover that I've earned a new Nerd Merit Badge. I for one welcome our new Boing Boing overlords readers, and I thank the marvelous Jessamyn West for the shout-out.

Now. To clear some things up.

It was pointed out in a lengthy comment to the BoingBoinged post that publishers aren't doing this because they're evil; it's Just Bidness. Well, yes, it is. That doesn't require me to refrain from pointing out that Just Bidness in the monolithic-publisher toll-access serials industry is squeezing libraries, destroying university presses and responsible small journal publishers, and locking up knowledge. I don't have to put up with that quietly, and in fact, I myself am in the open-access business, hoping to make a saner, less destructive scholarly-publishing industry so that we in libraries can get on with our jobs.

It's nothing against publishers. I used to work in scholarly publishing, in fact. It's just business.

It was also pointed out that the comparison of the Time and Forbes empire to scholarly publishing is flawed. Absolutely correct. For mass-market news and entertainment publications, writers and readers are not the same people. A few people write; many people read. For scholarly journals, all writers are also readers and quite a lot of readers are writers. (Students, clinicians, and such of the interested public as can manage to climb the barriers to access are usually not research-article writers.) This means that if researchers-as-readers get upset about lack of access, they have power besides market power to rectify the situation: they have their writing, peer-reviewing, and editing labor, which they can withhold.

Thus far, they've mostly been unwilling to use that power. (There are exceptions.) The dominant (though certainly not the only) reason for this unwillingness is the power that influential journals wield over tenure and promotion decisions in academia (which is a long and painful story I won't go into just now).

A wise comment to the Boing Boing post asked about consortia and buying power, remarking that library consortia seemed small and (vis-a-vis market muscle) ineffectual. Well, size and bargaining skill vary, but in the main, the commenter is correct. Libraries, individual and collective, have mostly not used their market power to ameliorate the serials crisis. I'll try to explain why not from my academic librarian's perspective, remarking before I begin that I don't necessarily approve of all these reasons—this post is not a library apologia!—but they're accurate to the best of my understanding.

One reason is that the focus of any good academic library has traditionally been serving the needs of its local population. This inward focus is great for building sensible, well-tailored collections. It tends to obstruct collective action, however. Academic libraries don't think of themselves as a collective; each one thinks of itself as an arm of its parent institution. So outside of some high-flying "memory organization" rhetoric, academic librarians just don't think about the impact of their individual collection decisions on the general scholarly-communication scene.

On my first library-job hunt, I heard "The Big Deal has been very good to us. We can give our faculty much more material than we ever could before," from a library director at a place I was interviewing. Aside from being somewhat short-sighted—I wonder what that library director is thinking now, five short years and at least one renewal cycle later!—it completely shrugs off the damage that the Big Deal has caused in the rest of the system. That, I am sorry to say, is fairly typical librarian thinking.

Another reason is that academic libraries collaborate uneasily and compete fiercely, especially at the research-intensive institutions. Consortia don't exist because libraries like them. Consortia don't exist because libraries want to speak with a powerful uniform voice. Consortia exist only because libraries couldn't function without them. Again, this is a barrier to collective action.

A third reason is that faculty raise holy hell with their librarians when their favorite journal is cancelled. They don't care why. Unlike librarians, they are for the most part completely ignorant of how money sloshes around in the system; practically nobody teaches that in grad school. Like librarians, they also tend to ignore their role in the system, as well as their power to change it, and (I can say from much sad experience) they resist any and all attempts at education. They just want what they want when they want it. You can imagine the power relations there, I'm sure; I'll just say that hell hath no fury like a faculty member who thinks he's been scorned by a mere librarian. "The library is using its market power to punish bad actors and lead eventually to a more equitable and affordable system of scholarly communication" goes over like a lead balloon.

Finally, there's the problem of choked-off information flow in this market. Non-disclosure clauses come standard with journal agreements these days. Libraries often cannot legally tell each other what they're paying for a given journal, package, or database. Of course that's fertile ground for price-gouging. There have been some nudges to this system recently, in the form of public-records requests with which the libraries in question gleefully complied, but the problem remains.

By the way, there was one very interesting exception to the "libraries have just sat there and taken it" rule. In 2003, Cornell University's libraries started a small insurrection against the Big Deal generally and Elsevier specifically, which was followed up by several of Cornell's peer libraries. I was mightily encouraged by this! … But no further market-level actions happened. Saddening.

And there the situation rests churns uneasily, teetering on the edge of breaking down altogether.

By way of epilogue, I'll mention that being BoingBoinged closes a curious circle for me. About a decade ago, when I was a mere conversion peasant, I turned a couple of Cory Doctorow's books from ASCII into HTML so that he could freely distribute them that way (as well as in the then-crop of HTML-based ebook readers). I actually met Cory last year at the Access 2009 conference, and to my considerable surprise and delight, he recognized my name immediately and remembered what I'd done.

Cory is a Good Egg and on the side of the angels. So is Jessamyn. And I'm honored and grateful for the link!

4 responses so far

  • jessamyn says:

    Thanks for the follow-up. I feel that phrases such as "Libraries, individual and collective, have mostly NOT used their market power to ameliorate the serials crisis." need to be repeated over and over and over again until we realize the power we have that is slipping through our fingers.

  • T Scott says:

    Generally accurate description of the problem, although I think that your third reason gets more credit among librarians than it ought to, and becomes a crutch for librarians who are too timid to engage with their populations the way that they need to. After 5 years with the ScienceDirect big deal we stepped away from it for 2009 and selected about 140 Elsevier titles that we felt were most essential for our community. We had some good interactions with our faculty about those decisions, and certainly some strong expressions of concern, but only one email that I would put in the "raise holy hell" category. This year we're probably going to be down to fewer than a dozen Elsevier titles. (We're canceling across the board, by the way, not singling Elsevier out). Again, we're having very good interactions with our faculty and getting a lot of useful information, but nobody is "raising holy hell." But we've worked very hard for a very long time to make sure that we're engaging the faculty effectively. It worked for Cornell, as you pointed out, and also for the UC System. I've been a library director for twenty years and have come to the conclusion that the excuse that the faculty will raise holy hell is largely a myth, and we've got to get past it.

  • You'll get no argument from me about that! I think we (as a profession) squander an awful lot of potential teaching moments, and it makes me a little happier to hear about places where engagement and education are serious and ongoing.

  • bill says:

    *applauds* Nothing substantive to add, just happy to see these issues get an airing.