I hacked the academy

May 28 2010 Published by under Open Access

This post is intended for Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt's crowdsourced Hacking the Academy book.

Arguments about open access usually appeal to altruism, tradition, or economics. Even arguments supposedly aimed at researcher self-interest strike me as curiously abstract, devoid of useful example. I will therefore tell my story about open access, because I hacked the academy and lived to tell about it.

I graduated from library school in May 2005, and by good fortune managed to begin employment as an institutional-repository manager in July. Knowing no better, I wrote about my experiences and how they were informing my thinking about open access on a weblog.

About two years later, another repository manager contacted me. She was co-editing a themed volume of Library Trends about institutional repositories, and would I be interested in contributing an article?

This all by itself is an academy-hack. Wet-behind-the-ears librarians barely two years out of the starting gate are not usually asked to contribute articles to august periodicals. I can't explain this save by reputation gained from my open writings on my weblog. Can you?

I'm not sure, I said. Most of the things I have to say about repositories aren't happy. That's all right, she said; somebody has to say them. But the Powers that Be… I said. Just write me an article, she said.

So, knowing no better, I did, titling it "Innkeeper at the Roach Motel" after a nickname I had earned from my librarian colleagues. In December 2007 I placed a preprint of that article in the institutional repository I was running.

The article did not appear in print until March 2009, though it had been due out several months previously. Delays happen in the scholarly-publishing business; that's not unusual. Here's what's unusual: the day "Roach Motel" appeared in print, it had five citations already. Bizarrely, two of those citations are in the very same issue of Library Trends in which "Roach Motel" itself appears.

Today, Google Scholar claims over forty citations for various forms of "Roach Motel," though some of them are student papers rather than published articles. Because I still run the repository housing the pre- and post-print, I can tell you that "Roach Motel" has had over eleven thousand pageviews there. Even a full year after publication, it is rarely out of the top spot in monthly pageviews, and never out of the top three. (Incidentally, this is why the repository in question does not publish top-ten monthly download statistics, as others do. I could do it; it just feels too self-aggrandizing.)

This is academy-hacking with a vengeance! I can't explain "Roach Motel"'s wide readership via my own prominence in the field; I didn't have any when "Roach Motel" was published. I can't explain it by publication venue; Library Trends is a solid journal, but it's not the library analogue of Science or Nature or Cell. I can't explain it by selective self-archiving, as I've self-archived almost everything I've written for publication. Moreover, I self-archived "Roach Motel" as soon as I sent in its draft, before it was reviewed and long before I could have had any notion it would make a splash. I can't even make much of a claim about its quality; I hope it's good, but I know it's flawed.

Open access. Open access let me hack the academy. I can't explain the bizarre story of a bizarrely-titled little article from a relatively bizarre librarian any other way. Can you?

And if you can't, why aren't you self-archiving?

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