Hiding the costs of information

The other day, as I was trying to find a journal article, I noticed that the link to the full text of the article was labeled “Free to you.”  This amused and frustrated me, because I knew exactly how much the library was paying for access to this journal.  It was most definitely not free, but the costs had already been paid.  In this case, the publisher was doing a great job of hiding the cost of this item from the end users.

Hiding the true cost of information resources won't do us any good. Image courtesy of flickr user TruShu.

As I thought about this, I realized that libraries have largely been complicit in this campaign to shield end users from the real costs of information.  If I’m being honest, we’re not just complicit, but we actively and purposefully engage in practices that leave patrons in the dark about the sticky issue of money.

For example, most libraries don’t actively talk to faculty about the costs of the journals they subscribe to.  As a result, faculty don’t see the annual much-larger-than-inflation price increases that libraries pay for this content.  Librarians have been talking about a “serials Crisis” for 30 years, but just last week an online petition to boycott Elsevier has gained momentum.

At my institution, we promote interlibrary loan as a way to fill in the gaps in our journal coverage, but we never tell patrons (faculty or students) what it costs for us to acquire these materials. (It isn’t just the personnel costs.  We sometimes pay fees to lending libraries, and we often have to pay copyright clearance fees if we borrow too many articles from the same publication.)  Go read this excellent post about why interlibrary loan can’t fill in our access problems long term.

Likewise, not all libraries fully engage their users when it comes to making difficult decisions about cuts to subscriptions. And by “fully engage” I don’t mean sending an email to a faculty listserv with a giant excel file attached.  I have tried hard to work closely with “my” faculty when we’ve had to make cuts, despite their cringes whenever I ask for a meeting.  Faculty need to know how much the college pays for resources they use.  They need to know how much that cost is increasing this year, and they need to participate fully in the decision making process to bring our increased expenses in line with our flat (or decreasing) budgets.  I may not be the most popular person in the room, but I want the faculty to say “lets cut this journal so we can keep this other one” instead of shouldering the burden myself.

Along the same lines, we need to do a better job of showing faculty the things we do to preserve their access to information sources.  Things like cutting the number of student worker positions, cutting the travel and professional development budgets and forgoing (sometimes badly needed) renovations.

As a result of this lack-of-transparency, most faculty don’t see the real need to explore alternatives to the big for profit (and nonprofit-that-acts-like-for-profit) publishers – green and gold open access, alternative publishing models, etc.  It’s partly our fault.  Sorry about that.

So what’s next? Librarians need to start talking, and we need to start being specific.  Yes, we often can’t disclose how much we pay for databases outside of our institution (shame on us for signing such agreements, btw), but we are free to share this information internally and we need to do this more often.

The difficulty of counting scholarly activity

I had a really interesting conversation yesterday with my colleagues in our library’s Scholarly Communication Group.  It started with a simple question – should we keep track of faculty art?

One of the things this group does is try to keep track of faculty publications (via CiteULike and LibraryThing) and host a celebration in November celebrating our faculty authors.  We have alerts set up for author affiliations in relevant databases, and we also send out a call to faculty asking them what they published this year.

The biggest challenge is trying to figure out what should be on these lists and what shouldn’t.  In the case of books and journal articles, it’s a pretty easy call.  But what about other stuff? We would like to create a record of faculty scholarship without judging the quality of that scholarship.  That’s not our job. But in creating a list, we end up doing a bit of judging.

What's in and what's out?  Courtesy of the Boston Public Library on Flickr
What's in and what's out? Courtesy of the Boston Public Library on Flickr

For example:

  • Conference Proceedings:  some are peer reviewed, some aren’t.  Do we include all?  None?
  • Book reviews: while we wouldn’t normally include these on a list of faculty publications, some faculty have sent them along when we ask for them.  Do we say no?
  • Artistic works: How could we include this type of scholarship?  What would we include?  My colleague, the liaison to the School of Art was absent at this meeting, so we are no closer to a resolution.
  • Magazine articles:  If one of our economists had an article in The Economist, we would want to celebrate that.  But a letter to the editor of the local newspaper?  Not so much.

Our conversation rapidly delved into the disciplinary differences seen across campus.  Importantly, we recognize that scholarship in each field is different.  And we would like our lists and our party to be inclusive – once again, we aren’t trying to judge.

Last year, we had a faculty member complain that we were including the authors of journal articles as well as book authors in our celebration.  They felt that the work required for an article was slight compared with that of a book.  But this would largely leave out whole departments (like the sciences) where the highest level of scholarship is the primary research article.  Certainly the last thing we want to do is fan the flames of existing disagreements among faculty about what qualifies as “scholarship.”

So what’s the answer?  Well, there isn’t one really.  If you wrote a book or an article, let us know.  As for everything else, well, let us know about that, too.  We’ll try to figure it out without pissing people off.  And everyone will be invited to eat cake at the party.

Why science blogs are worth your time

The science blogging community was once again reshaped recently by the addition of the Scientific American Blog Network edited by the science Blogfather Bora Zivcovic.  Keeping up with (and keeping track of) interesting science blogs could be a full time job.

Front page of the January 5, 1850 issue of Scientific American.
Front page of the January 5, 1850 issue of Scientific American.

Despite the value placed on the scientific blogosphere by web savvy science types, I often find myself in situations where I have to plead the case for science blogs to science professors.

Why should you take time to read science blogs?  You barely have time to read anything from the peer reviewed literature, and aren’t blogs just a bunch of naval gazing anyway?

There are multiple misconceptions:

  1. “There aren’t any top tier researchers who are blogging.”  This has been repeated several times in journal editorials (and often rebutted), but a simple trek through some of the blog networks reveals that blog authors come from all stripes: highly respected researchers, teaching faculty, undergraduate students, science writers and more.
  2. “Blogs are just pseudo-scientific BS.”  While there is certainly that kind of stuff available on the web, there is a remarkable network of intelligent folks writing about real science.  This is a great way to keep up with interesting developments outside of your field.
  3. “The blogs aren’t relevant to my research.”  It’s possible that no one is blogging about the particular rock formation you are studying, but it’s likely that someone is discussing some interesting concepts and research in your general field.  And casual reading can be a great way to get new ideas for research projects.

Faculty: read science blogs – take a break from grading papers while you eat lunch – and share them with your students.

What would you get out of it?

  • Quick way to keep up with relevant science news stories
  • Easy way to expose yourself to things outside of your disciple
  • Stories to tell your students in class the next day
  • Ideas for class projects so that you don’t have to read the same term papers year after year
  • Information about science policy issues that may affect you, your research, and your ability to share your research with others

Reading science blogs is a great way to expose students to the scientific process, scientific stories and the community of science in language they can understand (research articles aren’t exactly on the easy-to-read shelf).

So where do you start?

The blog aggregator scienceblogging is a great entry into the blogging world.  This site collects headlines from a wide variety of science blogging networks allowing for easy browsing.

If you want to have your science blogs link directly back to the scientific literature, try Research Blogging, which collects posts that discuss peer reviewed research.

From there, teaching faculty can post RSS feeds into course management systems so students can have easy access to headlines as well.  These sites make excellent tools for students exploring project ideas.

Talking with faculty

Over at Confessions of a Science Librarian, John Dupuis has set out a delightful “Stealth Librarianship Manifesto” that echoes many of the comments I have made about how librarians need to get out of the library (physically and virtually) and interact with our users in their spaces, including conferences and publications.

At my library, we are currently working through a big project to help us do that.  We have a relatively new “scholarly communications” team and our goal over the next 6 months or so is to talk to faculty members across campus to learn about what they are doing.  I’ve mentioned this project before, and noted that there are some resources available to help folks understand various disciplines.  It is vitally important for us to understand what is going on on our campus.  Our faculty are amazing, but they have different pressures than the folks at research universities.

So every week I meet with two or three faculty from the disciplines I serve and chat with them about the research and publication efforts:

  • What are they working on right now?
  • Are they incorporating undergraduates into their research?  Have they co-authored publications with these students? (Quite often)
  • How do they select which journal to publish in?  Do they pay attention to impact factors or not? (Although my faculty pay attention to general reputation, they rarely mention the metrics)
  • Have they posted a copy of one of the publications online?  Do they know if they kept the right to do so? (They have no idea what rights they have to their papers)
  • What kinds of data are they producing?  What do they do with it? (I’ve already learned a lot about the distinctions between the theorists and the applied folks in math and computer science)

The conversations I have had so far have been incredibly interesting and educational.  I service 6 departments (Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Geological Sciences, Mathematics, and Physics & Astronomy).  My educational background is in Geology, so I don’t have a native understanding of what the mathematicians or physicists are doing, for example.  These conversations have given me remarkable glimpses into our faculty’s values, assumptions and goals.

One of the important distinctions I’ve noticed is the disconnect between the highly active science online community (bloggers and tweeters, etc.) and your average run of the mill faculty.  Scholarly communication may be changing, but many of the faculty I’ve talked with (including those who are still publishing actively) are barely aware of some of the fascinating changes and experiments taking place.

So far, I’ve only had a chance to talk with 13% of the faculty I work with, and an upcoming maternity leave will delay my conversations with some, but it has been an incredible experience so far, and I look forward to the rest.

Discovering the scientific conversation

I often like to think of science as a conversation.  It is a conversation that other folks need to be able to hear, so it needs to be discoverable.

We’ve come a long way since da Vinci wrote his notes in code.  Research results are regularly published as journal articles, and references and citations attempt to credit previous work.  The conversation of science could (at one point) be seen as the steady progression of peer-reviewed journal articles and technical comments, with some conference proceedings thrown in for good measure.

Conveniently, this was fairly easy (if expensive and time consuming) to access and preserve.  Publishers originally worked with print index makers and eventually digital database folks.  Conference abstracts were often preserved, even if the actual presentation wasn’t.  And each discipline typically had one primary source to find this information: GeoRef for the geologists or Chemical Abstracts for the chemists.

Things are changing.  And the ScienceOnline2011 conference provided a lot of examples of this new conversation in action.

The peer-reviewed journal article is no longer the only place where this conversation is taking place.  Scientists are commenting on and rating papers on publisher websites.  Scholars are making comments via twitter and friendfeed.  Bloggers are providing detailed (and informed) commentary on published papers, making suggestions for further research and trying to re-create published experiments.  Scientists are citing and archiving data that is stored all over the place.

So, how can researchers and student follow this conversation?

Just a few of problems:

  • Comments, ratings and supplemental material are usually not indexed in the traditional research databases we point students to.
  • Google is great at uncovering conference presentations posted on SlideShare or Google Docs, but not so great at making the connection between the presentation and the conference abstract.
  • If researchers access a journal article via an aggregator (not through the publishers website) they probably won’t have access to the supplemental material
  • Will the non-article material be preserved?
  • Will a published journal article link back to the Open Notebook that was used during the course of the experiment?  Will that notebook be preserved?
  • Most research databases and publisher websites don’t provide links to blog posts commenting about the article.

Is this a problem for researchers, or just for librarians and science historians?

I spend a lot of time in classrooms teaching students how to track citations forward and backward in time using tools such as Scopus and Google Scholar.  But if Scopus is stripping out citations to archived data, and if there is no connection to the blog post that sparked a whole new research direction, they aren’t seeing the whole story.

Is there a need for a more complicated discovery system that searches everything and makes the appropriate connections?  Is the semantic web a solution to these problems?

While I don’t know the answer, I will continue to look for ways to expose undergraduates to this exciting conversation of science.

Understanding the culture of the disciplines

Books! Image courtesy of Flickr user babblingdweeb

A brief story: When I was in library school, I took a course called “Reference Sources in the Humanities”.  I figured that perhaps I ought to learn a bit about the humanities since my last English class was in High School.  While most of the class was largely useless (even my colleague the arts librarian doesn’t really use the art encyclopedias we talked about), the first couple of weeks were very useful.  It was there that I learned that scholars in the humanities primarily use books in their research, rather than journal articles.

Books!  Who knew?

Having ‘grown up’ in the scholarly culture of the sciences (geology specifically), I assumed that most scholars relied on journal articles as their primary form of scholarly communication.

I have limited knowledge of how scholars in the humanities do their research, combined with a limited knowledge of the types of resources they use.  My non-science colleagues on the other hand, have a very limited knowledge of the scientific literature and types of resources scientists used.  A ‘primary source’ in history takes a very different form than a ‘primary source’ in chemistry, even thought the basic idea is the same.

Understanding these scholarly cultures is a very important part of being a good academic librarian.  It isn’t just about knowing the publishers and the databases, you have to understand how scholars in the disciplines use these resources and the types of materials they are using and expecting to find.

Why isn’t this something that is focused on more in library school?  Most of us learn this on-the-job.  At the moment, I’m trying to figure out the subtleties of the science disciplines I work with, but I’ve only found a few good resources to help me out.  How do the needs of the physicists differ from the molecular biologists?  And what on earth are they doing over in the computer science department?

The new emphasis on “Scholarly Communication” services in libraries has expanded the number of resources available to help librarians figure this stuff out.

Some relevant reading:

Importantly, the librarians are talking to faculty here at Geneseo.  Our goal over the next year is to sit down with most of our faculty to talk about their research and publication needs.  One of our primary goals is to investigate how the needs of our faculty at a small, mostly undergraduate university differ from the needs of scholars at larger research universities.  How are our scholars similar?  What are they doing differently?

After we all complete our chats, I am hoping that we will spend some time talking to each other about what we learned.  Knowing more about the culture of the disciplines will allow us to target our resources and services better, and make us better librarians.

Headline: Traditional librarians and information scientists start to talk to one another!

One of the great things about the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting is that the organization for geoscience librarians, the Geoscience Information Society (GSIS) meets right along with them as an official part of the conference.  This brings librarians and scientists together in a wonderfully engaging setting.  Now, I’m betting that most of the geoscientists present don’t realize that there are librarians in their midst, but it’s great start to be in the same building for a little while.

Librarians tend to care a bit more about metadata than scientists - they just want to do the science.

I’ve attended sessions related to data preservation and more traditional library related stuff.  Permeating the talks at these sessions is the idea that librarians and the scientists dealing with data and information seem to be at the beginning of discussions about how they should work together.  This is encouraging.

The most visible folks on the scientists side are a group of folks from the USGS and state geological surveys.  These organizations have federal or state mandates to make their data available, so some scientists at these organizations have been tasked to develop the complex systems needed to share this information (The Geoscience Information Network, for example).  While in some cases, the scientists are unfamiliar with the systems and metadata standards developed for libraries that could assist them, others are building on the work of librarians, and others are encountering brand new issues that need new standards and practices.

I like seeing this, and I think we need to see more of it.  And for the most part, I think that the librarians have the responsibility of reaching out to the scientists (online, in person, at conferences, etc.) to start discussions about how we can help.

What I’m not entirely clear about, is how I can directly impact these efforts.  My tentative thoughts on this include working with faculty at my (small) institution to make their data accessible via appropriate external repositories (but do they want to share?), and working with the Geoscience Information Society to reach out to scientists to continue the conversation.  I’m not a cataloger (and I don’t want to be one), but their metadata experience could be highly valuable to scientists trying to manage their large quantities of information, and we need to try to let them know that.