Empty gestures?

Jan 05 2011 Published by under Open Access

I wanted to blog about EBSCO's latest jerk move, but I utterly despair of explaining comprehensibly why it matters to anyone but librarians. Suffice to say that in a market where journal Big Deals are in serious budget trouble, EBSCO is doing its level best to position its resources as uncancellable. Time will tell whether they succeed.

So I'll blog about something else instead: the ARL's new language on author rights in library journal-subscription contracts. The idea here is that libraries have leverage over journal publishers and aggregators at exactly one time: when subscriptions, and therefore currency in large denominations, are in play. So as good little open-access advocates, one thing librarians can do while we have leverage is insert contract language that protects our institutions' authors from copyright lawsuits from their own publishers when they reuse and circulate articles they write.

It's a nice idea. I like it. As often happens with good open-access ideas, this one comes out of California, which successfully inserted such provisions into contracts with big shots such as Elsevier. (For California's next trick, I'd really like to see them try this with ACS. I'd pay good money to watch the ensuing apoplexy attack. And hey, if a library or consortium that isn't California wants to try this, good on you.) One clear benefit to faculty is less negotiation with publishers when funder open-access mandates such as the NIH's are in play. That alone is enough to make this negotiation worth doing for most research libraries, I believe.

I don't think, though, that license language all by itself is enough to make appreciably more material open-access, especially through most institutional repositories. If increased open access, above and beyond that created by funder mandates, is your goal, these negotiations may be nice, or even necessary—but they are laughably insufficient.

I'll give you two real-world examples by way of explaining why. One example: author addenda, and faculty-senate resolutions in support of same. (What's an author's addendum? A bit of boilerplate legalese that article authors append to their contract with the journal publisher, ensuring they retain some basic intellectual-property rights over the article.) There are quite a few such local addenda and resolutions out there. Pretty much the entire Big Ten (okay, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, but it's basically the same thing) rallied in support of one such. So, has there been a tremendous efflorescence of open-access literature from Big Ten schools?

Er. Not so much. (Because I must: yes, I work for a Big Ten/CIC school.) I can't be more specific than that, because there has been as best I can tell absolutely zero attempt to assess the real-world impact of the addendum. We don't know who's tried to use it. We don't know who succeeded and who failed. We don't know what those who succeeded ultimately did with their retained rights. All we can really measure—self-archiving rates in Big Ten/CIC institutional repositories—paints a seriously discouraging picture: these addenda and resolutions did not appear to accomplish anything whatever by way of more open access to the journal literature.

So why not? That leads me to my other example: a lovely interview by Mary Minow of Harvard Law School Library's Michelle Pearse. In case you didn't know, Harvard Law School has an open-access policy; its faculty have agreed that they will either give Harvard a copy of their journal articles for archival and open dissemination, or seek a policy waiver for each individual article they don't want to (or can't) let Harvard have. This is the current open-access Holy Grail: faculty imposing an open-access requirement on themselves!

But all by itself, such a policy doesn't guarantee smooth sailing:

We are still in the process of reaching out to and educating the faculty, trying to get them to understand the policy and get it into their personal workflows… It can be challenging implementing such a policy.

A brief digression. Some years ago, Alma Swan published a faculty survey in which faculty overwhelmingly said yes, if they were subject to an open-access requirement, they'd comply (p. 56). I was skeptical at the time; I didn't think this meant faculty were willing to do one jot more than tick a tickybox on a survey.

Harvard, Minho, and other institutions with on-the-ground open-access mandate experience are tending to validate my skepticism. Faculty think open access is a nifty idea. Many deluded faculty think they already have it, because they don't know the difference between open access and library-mediated online subscriptions. Faculty are happy to tick tickyboxen and make resolutions.

When the rubber hits the road, though, faculty can't be arsed. Won't lift a finger. This is hardly (ObSelfCitation) a new or unexpressed problem! But it's why just negotiating an opportunity for open access isn't going to create much (if any) more open access. A library that wants its faculty's stuff to be made open-access actually has to go out there and get that stuff.

I've ripped on Harvard in the past, sometimes unfairly, so I'm extra-happy to say now that Harvard is implementing its open-access collection absolutely, positively, 100% right. They have a whole staffed office whose job is to go out there and get articles that are covered under the various Harvard open-access policies. Is more Harvard journal literature going to become open-access because of what Harvard is doing? Absolutely. You'd better believe it.

(I can't resist one little jab, though: Having DSpace issues, are you, Harvard? I told you that you would. Shoulda gone with—almost anything else, really, but EPrints would have been an improvement. Today, I'd say Islandora, because even schmucks like me can hack Drupal, whereas it takes a major-league propellerhead to hack DSpace.)

The lesson for libraries looking at the ARL language is this: if author-rights negotiation with publishers is to be more than an empty gesture, you'd better have an active, not passive, open-access collection-development program. With staff both professional and para-. With resources. With sufficient administrative will behind it. Nothing else will work.

3 responses so far

  • bill says:

    [this is good]

    Just wanted to ease the burden of Warnock's Dilemma, a little.

  • I suspect I'd really enjoy reading this blog, but is it intended for library insiders exclusively? Most of the posts are about mysterious acronyms. I'm *at* Harvard, and I don't know what "DSpace" is. What is ARL? EBSCO, at least, I've heard of, though I'm not sure whether it's a publisher itself or a consortium or what.

    It sounds like you have a message you'd like to get out. I'd love to know what it is.

    (This post I mostly understood, except for the bit about DSpace. The post a couple back was entirely opaque.)

    • Dorothea says:

      Yes, I wish the Association for Research Libraries had branded the Author Rights site a little bit better. Most ARL links go someplace like here, where the branding is a good bit more obvious!

      Don't worry about DSpace; that was a snide aside. It's software often used for institutional repositories that I've been running (and fighting with, and more-or-less cheerfully loathing) for five years.

      As for EBSCO -- yeah, that's why I didn't write that post. The point at issue is... something only a librarian could love.

      I hope you stick around; I promise all this gets easier to understand once you've been reading me a while. I'll consider putting in a glossary, though -- that's a neat idea.