Open access, open data... open discourse

Aug 26 2010 Published by under Metablogging, Open Access, Tactics

At the end of "Who Owns Our Work?" I pointed out that content vendors no longer own the discourse about their products and about scholarly communication generally. (It didn't fit the article very well—I swear it made more sense in the presentation—but it struck me as important enough to shoehorn in anyway.)

JSTOR found this out in a big way yesterday, as it got egg on its interface (points to Inside Higher Ed for that wonderful headline) and got called on it in public, promptly and bluntly, on Meredith Farkas's blog and elsewhere.

Now, here's a dirty little library secret for you: we librarians complain about software and vendors all the time among ourselves. Constantly. Most of the time, all that complaining doesn't amount to a hill of beans, even when it's smart and cogent. Vendors rarely hear it, and when they do hear it, they don't feel any particular pressure to respond. It's not as though libraries can walk away from them, and it's not as though our grousing makes them lose face.

Except now it does. At least a few library bloggers and groups of librarians among the online public have enough weight to make a difference.

Consider also California vs. Nature Publishing Group. The probably inevitable conclusion has been reached: the parties are going back into a smoke-filled back room to hack out an agreement. Even so, words have been said that cannot be unsaid. California yanked the curtain away from the Wizard of Nature's corner, and quite a few people saw and heeded. This, too, is a shift in discourse.

Making the open-access case to researchers usually means trying to induce a specific lightbulb moment: the moment when they realize that the agreements they sign with publishers mean that they can't do what they thought they could, what they think they should be able to do—whether it's accessing an article they want or putting it on electronic reserve; republishing an article they wrote in a book or putting it on the Web. I get a sense that the lightbulb's gone off for quite a few more people lately. Look at the second comment here, if you will. Sure, it gets a couple of material facts about the JSTOR situation wrong. Still. I didn't think I'd live to see the day when an emeritus professor of European literature, for heaven's sake, would froth at the mouth about scholarly publishing and access!

On the data side of things, Climategate and the Marc Hauser case are leading to calls for open, or at least opener, data. And with regard to peer review, many eyes make bugs shallow, even in the humanities. The discourse shifts even a little more… it's not where we want it to be, but it's moving in good directions.

So what should we do, we librarians, we folk of all stripes working toward open access and open data? How about a third leg on the stool, open discourse? Let's throw open our smoke-filled rooms, the way California did. Let's duel in press releases as well as at negotiating tables. Let's take the ARL's excellent advice and stop signing NDAs. Let's throw our acquisitions numbers out there for all to see (and yes, this means consortia too, reluctant though they may well be to disclose). Let's slug all this out. Openly. On the web. Because we can already see it makes a difference. Really, what do we librarians, the original advocates of freely-available information in a civic cause, have to hide?

Recognizing my own significant bias in this matter, I do still want to suggest also that the library profession recognize good library bloggers and social-media adopters as a strategic asset. Today JSTOR, tomorrow the world? More lightbulbs, more places? This course of action is not without risk to balance reward, of course; good library bloggers turn their laser eyes on their own profession as well as on vendors, because good bloggers are generally honest even when honesty hurts. On balance, though, aren't good bloggers worth protecting? Certainly from vendors, but how about from their own workplaces too? ARL, ALA, this is for you. Library blogs are shutting down and going underground, and as my own blogging history demonstrates, library employers themselves are often the proximate cause. If you want to keep this strategic asset, you need to help protect it.

(All of this is also true of good academic bloggers; adjuncts and those with young careers could particularly do with some protection. I just don't happen to have any particular leverage to exert in that realm.)

For my part, I'm trying to walk my own talk. In Book of Trogool's short history, I've come within an inch of going dark two or three times. Book of Trogool is harder to keep up than Caveat Lector was, because its subject matter is much more circumscribed (which taxes my powers of invention some days) and because I'm eternally, unhappily aware that BoT is being watched with suspicion and distrust from within my own circles.

Even so. I saw a lightbulb flicker on here on this very blog in the comments the other day. I connect researchers with their librarians pretty regularly on FriendFeed and Twitter. I'm reaching the circle of scientists on Scientopia by being an active part of that circle—and no, I don't proselytize open access behind the scenes, of course I don't, but I build credibility for it as I build credibility for myself. None of this is part of my job, but it's part of my work, if you catch the distinction.

So scarred and bruised though I am, afraid though I am, I keep working, working toward open access, open data… and open discourse.

7 responses so far

  • Peter says:

    As your average lurker, let me just say: thank you! And please, keep it going!

  • Christina Pikas says:

    It's taken a bit to realize this - but our blogging does have real power. Knowing this, we have to also use it wisely - which Meredith does. For me it means careful critiques that state what is wrong explicitly and even give examples or ideas of how to fix. When I do this successfully, it's not a matter of being mad and fighting. It can become a partnership with the publisher and they can take my advice and fix their interface and even ask me more questions.

    Other publishers still blow me off when they learn I'm not from a medical school... but anyway.
    But this is just part of your point. I agree with everything else, too 🙂

    • Dorothea Salo says:

      Oh, every now and then a good old-fashioned bloggy temper tantrum gets results.

      It is not a bad thing, however, that I've largely made myself stop pitching them. 😉

  • Yes, excellent, keep it up!

  • Barbara Fister says:

    Go, go, go, go, go Dorothea! this makes me happy.

    I'm always amazed that the intellectual freedom we supposedly espouse is sometimes not practiced in our own workplaces. Duh?

    • Dorothea Salo says:

      Well, it wouldn't be fair to call what happened to me a violation of intellectual freedom. I earned my lumps. It's just kind of a shame that CavLec had to go.