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.

Open Access Week at SUNY Geneseo

SUNY Geneseo celebrated Open Access Week for the time this year.  It was a modest series of events, just one guest speaker from a local University and a small panel of faculty members from Geneseo talking about their experiences with open access.

The events were not very well attended for a variety of reasons, but those who attended were able to see some wonderful presentations.

Charles Lyons, Scholarly Communications Officer and Business Librarian at the University of Buffalo gave a presentation at our first event.  Charles provided a great overview of open access, with a particular emphasis on the motivations for scholars to consider open access options.  The traditional argument (from the library perspective anyway) tends to focus on the Serials Crisis – the steady higher-than-inflation increase in journal costs over the last 30 years.  But scholars are rarely thinking about the costs associated with institutional  journal subscriptions.

Instead, Charles focused on two primary concerns of scholars.  The first is the idea of sharing scholarship for the greater good.  Scholars don’t publish to make money (because they don’t make money).  They publish because they want to share their findings.  Making scholarship open access (either green or gold) can work toward the greater good by providing greater access to that scholarship.

The second main motivator towards open access is the idea of being a part of current innovations in scholarly publishing.  The basic journal article has been around for 350 years.  Peer review (distinct from editorial review) came into vogue in the middle of the 20th century.  Open Access is one of many innovations in scholarly publishing, and scholarly publishing needs to move forward if scholarship will move forward.

Our second event was a panel discussion featuring Geneseo faculty who have been involved in open access:

The format of the panel allowed these scholars to talk about their experiences and some of the issues associated with open access: how do most faculty perceive the label “open access”?  What are the disciplinary differences in this perception?  How do open access journal differ (or not) from subscription journals?  What was the review process like?

I really enjoyed this conversation, and learned a lot from the faculty panelists. My goal is that this is just the beginning of a campus wide discussion about open access and the future of scholarship.  We’ll see.

Faculty, librarians and student research skills: are we on parallel paths?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the themes I’ve been writing a lot lately is that department faculty and librarians aren’t talking to each other as much as they should, especially in areas that they are both concerned about.  One of the biggest areas we need to be talking more about concerns student’s library research skills (or information literacy skills).  Librarians aren’t doing a lot of publishing in disciplinary college teaching journals, and we aren’t going to a lot of disciplinary conferences.

So when I saw two articles in the August/September issue of the Journal of College Science Teaching written by department faculty that included heavy doses of information about teaching library research skills, I began to be convinced that departmental faculty and librarians are on parallel paths with this issue.  It is wonderful that we are both exploring these issues, but the fact that our paths don’t intersect may lead to frustration on both sides.

Davies-Vollum, Katherine Sian, & Greengrove, Cheryl (2010). Developing a “Gateway” Course to Prepare Nontraditional Students for Success in Upper-Division Science Courses Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (1), 28-33

Kitazono, Ana A (2010). A Journal-Club-Based Class that Promotes Active and Coorperative Learning of Biology Journal of College Science Teaching, 40 (1), 20-27

Both of these articles describe courses in the sciences in which information literacy skills make up an important part of the course content.  In both cases, the faculty consulted a librarian for assistance in teaching students about database searching, and the authors of both articles found this assistance to be helpful. But in both cases, the authors don’t cite a single article about information literacy from the library literature.  This is hardly surprising – these articles would be almost impossible to find in the typical databases used by scientists.

In a completely un-scientific perusal of articles from library journals concerning information literacy in the sciences (i.e. those that were on my computer or filed in my desk), I find that librarians aren’t citing this disciplinary literature either.

So we are both trying to figure out how to equip students with the skills they need to effectively search, locate and understand the scientific literature.  We are both writing articles about classes and exercises that can help students develop these skills, but we don’t seem to be talking to each other about these issues, at least in the formal literature about college-level science teaching.

I have had a lot of interesting conversations with faculty about how to develop these skills.  How can we move this discussion from informal hallway conversations into the formal literature?

I think this is up to the librarians.  I don’t think we can expect the faculty to start reading the library literature.  We need to keep our eyes on the disciplinary literature, take the opportunity to publish in them when appropriate, and present at disciplinary conferences.  And maybe get out of the library occasionally.

Scholarly Communication: What can my library do right now?

In January, 2010, my library formed a Scholarly Communication Group, of which I am a member.  One of our first activities was to honor a recent faculty publication (Broadway : an encyclopedia of theater and American culture by Thomas Allen Greenfield) that involved many campus authors.  After this celebration, we have struggled a bit to find our role at this small liberal arts college.

WNY-O ACRL LogoIn search of a well defined purpose for our group, I attended the recent Spring Conference of the Western New York and Ontario chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (WNY-O ACRL).  The conference theme was “Getting the Word Out: Scholarly Communication and Academic Libraries.”  I was hoping to get some ideas of things that we could do NOW, and to look at how we might be able to grow our scholarly communication efforts over time.  I wasn’t disappointed.

What can we do now?

  • We can help faculty interpret their publishing contracts, suggesting the SPARC author addendum when appropriate.
  • We can do the research and legwork to help faculty find a good journal to publish something new in.  They are probably already familiar with journals in their primary research area, but if their interests lead them in new directions, we may be able to help find a publication venue that meets their needs.
  • We can recommend tools and programs to help scholars manage digital information.  Bookmarking from Delicious, Connotea or Diigo.  PDF and reference management with Zotero or Mendeley (among others).  Customizing research databases like Scopus.  And lots more.
  • We can recommend programs and tools to better enable intra- or inter- campus collaboration (webinar software, Google Docs, etc.)
  • We have always offered assistance with literature searching and research consultations, now these activities can be combined under a heading of Scholarly Communication Services

What do I want our library do in the future?

  • Develop an institutional repository for undergraduate presentations, faculty publications, conference posters and presentations and anything else that folks want to put in it.  We need to set up a repository, figure out how we will manage it, and what we want in it.
  • Work with faculty to develop plans and strategies for managing their research data (especially now that NSF grant applicants may be asked for a “Data Management Plan”).  We need to learn about data management.  I suspect that many of our current skills will transfer nicely, but I need to learn a bit about it.
  • Assist faculty with NIH Pub Med Central Deposits (this shouldn’t be too hard to get started with, but we have very few NIH grant recipients at the moment)
  • Present faculty colloquia about scholarly communication issues.  I think we are getting started on this.

The conference sessions also gave me some important insight about how to discuss scholarly communication issues with faculty and administrators.  Austin Booth and Charles Lyons from the University of Buffalo presented the results of some surveys and discussions they’ve done with faculty to gauge faculty interest and knowledge of scholarly communication issues.  The short story is that (no surprise) faculty aren’t particularly interested in the serials crisis.  They are interested in their own publishing opportunities.  As a result, the question of open access (either gold or green via institutional repositories) may best be framed in terms of the impact on faculty publication.  Although there is still some debate, the studies evaluating the impact of open access seem to point to an increase in citations to articles that are freely available.

Although it was brief (just one day) and small (no more than 50 participants) it was an excellent conference that gave me a lot of ideas for the future of scholarly communications in our library.