Open access challenges for small scholarly societies

I am very much in favor of open access.  I believe it is the natural extension of the scientific enterprise.  Scientists no longer record their results in code, or disseminate them via cryptic anagrams.  Instead, the work of scientists is shared with others so that they may, in turn, make new discoveries.

Creative Commons image courtesy of PLoS, available via Wikimedia Commons

Yes, this is idealistic, but I’m okay with that.

As a result, I have no hesitations in pushing the big for-profit publishers towards greater rights for authors and more open access options, and I applaud the effort behind the Cost of Knowledge  boycott of Elsevier.  And just being a not-for-profit scholarly society will not make me sympathetic to high subscription costs, aggressive price increases and restrictive copyright practices (like the American Chemical Society).

But for smaller scholarly societies, I can see how the open access movement has caused a lot of soul searching and a wide variety of opinions and options.

For small scholarly societies, subscriptions to their scholarly publications can make up a large portion of their operating budgets.  Moving to an open access model may mean the loss of some of this revenue, and society members may question whether an author-pays model of open access publication will be able to offset the cost of publication.  On the other hand, many societies may see a greater fulfillment of their mission by expanding open access options.

Happily, I am seeing more small scholarly societies embrace various aspects of “openness” in their publications.  The Ecological Society of America demonstrates some interesting examples of branching out and offering more open access options.

First, they recently started a new open access journal, Ecosphere.  The new journal conforms to what we tend to expect from “gold” open access publishers: online only, author fees for accepted manuscripts, and authors retain copyright of their articles.  The recent ESA annual report  suggests that they have been pleasantly surprised but the success of the new journal.

Second, although ESA requires transfer of copyright to the society for their other publications, they do grant the right to post a copy of the article on the authors personal homepage or institutions website.  This is “green” open access, an option that more researchers need to take advantage of.

Finally, their journal Ecology provides and interesting example of a hybrid publication.  Ecology is available via subscription and publishes a wide variety of article formats, including brief reports that are “expected to disclose new and exciting work in a concise format.”  Several reports are published in each issue, and all are open access.  As a result, a certain portion of each issue is freely available.

As scholarly societies and other publishing entities come to terms with new expectations for scholarly publishing, I expect that more societies will experiment with a variety of open access options.  A three year old report from SAGE suggests that this will happen. I’m looking forward to seeing what folks come up with.

Tracking down articles from science news stories

Readers of this blog may be interested in a piece I wrote for the Scientific American Guest Blog, How to: Track down journal articles cited in news stories (when they don’t link directly).

Many blog posts will link directly to a version of the original article, but many news sources often have a policy of not linking to the original source. Even when a blog links directly to the original article, you may not be able to read the it without paying. But there are steps you can take to find the original article, and to find a version of it you can read.

Read more.

In which container is the journal article I need?

The other day, I got an email from a faculty member.  A scholarly society he is a member of just announced that their journals would now be available in JSTOR.  He went straight to JSTOR to look them up, only to see that he didn’t have access.  He promptly sent me an email saying, essentially, “What’s up with this?  Shouldn’t we have access?”  (Although his actual email was more eloquent).

In which container is the journal article I need? CC image courtesy of flickr user s_volenszki

In fact, we don’t have access, and it would cost us an additional $1000 to have access to those journals via JSTOR.

For non-librarian types (students, faculty, everyone else), there isn’t always a clear understanding of how they have access to information.

In the case of JSTOR above, most folks don’t understand the difference between the platform and the content (and quite frankly, they don’t really need to).  In this case, JSTOR is simply a platform for delivering journal articles.  You have to buy the content, and that tends to come in specific chunks.  In my library, we subscribe to several of the packages that JSTOR offers, and we have current access to some of the journals that are available via that platform.

But just because we have access to some content on JSTOR doesn’t mean we have access to everything.  The same can be said of other platforms like ScienceDirect from Elsevier, or Project Muse (for any humanities folks out there).

In much the same way, it can be difficult for folks to understand that libraries don’t always have access to journal articles direct from the publisher’s website.  We have access to a lot of journals via third party aggregators, like Proquest or the Ebsco packages.

For example, a student or researcher wants an article from the current issue of the Journal of Parasitology, and goes directly to the journal homepage.  When they get there, they encounter a paywall, asking for $20 for access to that article.  The student or researcher might think that they either have to fork over the money or move on to a different article.

While the student searches for a new research topic, a PDF of this exact article is sitting in our “MEDLINE with Full Text” database ready for them to download.  We’ve already paid for the content, just not through the journal website. Our current access to this journal is via a different platform.

In library instruction sessions we try to teach students to go through the library homepage to check on journal access, but it isn’t always the most intuitive thing to do.  And some students can go their entire undergraduate careers without seeing a librarian in their classes.  We also teach them to use special links we put into databases that will guide them through the library system (we call ours “Get It,” the generic term is OpenURL), but the databases don’t always help us out here.  Some databases provide direct-to-publisher links which, as we’ve seen, don’t always lead to the content.

Is this confusing?  Yes.  Could it be simpler?  Yes, but it would require a complete rethinking of the whole scholarly communication system.  Open access, anyone?

On Messing Up

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

I owe a colleague some cookies. CC Image courtesy of flickr user jamieanne

Over the past two weeks, I have messed up big time, twice. Both times for similar reasons – I forgot to talk to someone important at the right time in a process. In one case it involved a project that I working on with a student and a faculty member, and I didn’t talk to our systems administrators early enough in the process. In another, I forgot to pass on some important information related to a search committee I’m on.

In both cases, I owned up to my mistakes, and begged forgiveness. I owe one person some cookies. In both cases, I was pleasantly reminded of how wonderful my colleagues are. Both accepted my apologies and said that things would work out fine, and both put in some additional work to help fix my mistake.

So here is a public mea culpa and a public acknowledgment that my colleagues are wonderful!  Let’s hope I can get through some of my next projects without any big missteps.

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.

It’s all about context

For the third year in a row, I was lucky enough to attend the ScienceOnline “unconference” in North Carolina.  This gathering of scientists, professors, journalists, editors, librarians and other interested folks is one of the most dense intellectual three days of the year.  With a wide variety of sessions and an extraordinary group of conference goers, it is easily my favorite conference.  Details of each of the sessions can be found on the conference wiki.

As I got back to work over the past week and a half, the sessions and hallway conversations from the conference kept rolling around in my head.  The consistent thing among everything at the conference seems to be the importance of context. A few examples from the conference and beyond:

  • Data – Without context, data is useless.  From something as simple as a unit or a label, to information about the procedure used to get the data.  One reason that scientists cite for their reluctance to share data is the concern that the data will be misused.  Without providing proper context, it is more likely to be misused, and scientists don’t want to spend their time adding metadata to their datasets, they want to spend their time doing science.  In addition, although I was excited about some of the new data sharing services that are springing up, some of them require very little metadata.  This is great if you don’t have a lot of time to upload the data, but slightly pointless if the data can’t be used because of the lack of context.
  • Popular science – I read a lot of science blogs and science news.  I read (ok, skim) a lot of scientific journal articles. In all these cases, the information needs a bit of context.  A classic example from after the conference is a press release about a new article discussing the origins of the Little Ice Age.  Most of the initial news reports failed to provide a good background to the story, largely because they were based on the press release.  Later posts and more in depth stories (from those who had read the journal article) were able to help us better understand where this information comes from.
  • Undergraduates and blogging – Along the same lines, I sat down with an undergraduate today to help her understand how to read a scientific article.  We talked a bit about what each section of the paper was likely to contain, and one of the most important things was context in the Introduction and Discussion.  Likewise, students need to understand the context of a blog post.  What is likely to be discussed?  Where can you find more information? What are the social norms of the blogging world?
  • The semantic web – This is all about context.  Nothing but context.  Just make it machine readable.  Ontologies can help make connections between data points and establish relationships between concepts.  Without context, it’s just a bunch of unrelated zeros and ones.
  • Altmetrics – Just like you need context with research data, measuring research output requires context.  Right now, many researchers have a vague idea of what a good impact factor in their field is.  Through hard work and effort, they have a sense of context.  For the new metrics, most researchers don’t yet have enough experience to be able to put them in context.  What does it mean that 4 folks mentioned your article on twitter or that 18 folks bookmarked your article on Mendeley.  Is that good?  Bad? Mediocre?
  • Managing Digital Information* – One big challenge here is to put this all in context.  That’s why we love email programs that put email messages into threads – we like seeing what came before and after.  How can we see what needs to be seen, ignore the things that can be ignored, and know how it all relates to one another?

I have heard my boss argue that one of the things that libraries are really good at is providing context, although we rarely put it in those terms.  Looking over the list I created above, I think it’s impossible to argue otherwise.

Folks in libraries and information centers create metadata, provide books and reference materials to help folks understand the context of the world around them, teach folks about online environments and explore new technologies.  We make lists and compare things, and provide tools to help manage digital information.

Yes, we are in the information business, but perhaps it is a bit more descriptive to say that we are in the business of providing context.


*I still can’t get over the irony of this session.  In front of a standing room only crowd, the moderators tried to engage us in a discussion of how to manage and deal with the information deluge, while at the same time we had laptop computers and smart phones open to catch every tweet and blog post about what was being said.

A few small concerns about eTextbooks

As everyone who pays attention to these things knows, Apple made a big announcement related to eTextbooks recently. This comes after news that etextbooks may not always save students much money, and some press suggesting that many students still prefer the dead tree variety of books.

The most recent eBook I read. I highly recommend it!

I must admit that the shift to digital textbooks concerns me slightly, but not because I object to the format: I read a lot of ebooks* on my iPhone, via the Kindle and Nook apps.

What concerns me is the decreasing number of options for students when eTextbooks come into the picture.

In a print world, students have lots of options: they can buy books new or used, share books with friends, borrow them from a library (for a few hours or for the semester if they are lucky) and sell them back at the end of the semester for at least a bit of what they paid for them.

But digital textbooks generally have a single price point. And it isn’t always cheaper than the print version. And you can’t share the books with a friend. And you can’t sell them back. Sometimes you don’t even get to keep them.

Certainly, some pricing makes these digital textbooks cheaper, but not always. Faculty have not always paid attention to textbook cost when selecting a book for their classes, and I worry that the more complicated factors involved in eTextbook access will also get overlooked.

So what can we do? Well, we have a textbooks on reserve program at my library where we try to get faculty to donate copies of textbooks to the library. Part of this program is simply talking to faculty about how difficult it can be for some students to purchase all of there textbooks. Perhaps the extension of this program is to help faculty understand all of the options available.

* ebooks? eBooks? Ebooks? e-books?