Barbara Fister's blog

One Last Thought

We are in a global epistemological crisis, one that's largely invisible by design.

The impact of the long-term cultivation of information channels that sow distrust of institutions and spread "alternative facts" has been magnified and globalized by the reckless power of Facebook, Google and other information intermediaries. These corporations sweep up the details of our lives to persuade, predict and nudge, undermining our freedom and safety while making it easy and profitable to spread hate, lies, anger and distrust, damaging our ability to agree on how we can arrive at factual truth and cultivate generosity and common understanding.

It will take a combination of efforts to overcome this crisis: political will, legislation, public policy, responsible technological improvements and civic engagement, as well as knowledge of the social and historical roots of our fractures, insights from information and media studies, and a broader definition of what it means to be information literate.

Higher education needs to do everything it can to bring its best traditions, knowledge, values and commitment to the public good to the struggle as we deal with this crisis. It matters.

We have much to contribute if we have the will.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019
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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish*

It’s been a good ride. For 10 years, I’ve been an Inside Higher Ed blogger. I’ll be sad to leave the blogging team, but after 10 years readers have probably had enough of me. (Ever since the days of sharing my opinions on library Listservs in the 1990s, I have always imagined eyes rolling as my name pops up: not that woman again!) Opinions, I have them.

I’ll carry on blogging at my own site, though without deadlines I suspect I will be a bit more ad hoc about when I post. A more relaxed schedule will give me time to work on that book project that I’ve pushed aside for too long. (It’s -- surprise! -- a college librarian’s take on technology and how it works on society.)

I have a long history with this form of public writing. I remember the day (though I'm not certain of the year) when a student, who is now a seasoned librarian himself, introduced me to this new thing he was excited about. I was chatting with him at the reference desk, and he politely asked to borrow my keyboard and brought up Blogger to demonstrate how easy it was -- much easier than my kludgy attempts to put library news on our site using raw html. I was hooked.

I began to assign blog posts as writing assignments in courses starting in 2005. That year, I also launched a blog for my library and become one of the inaugural contributors to the Association of College and Research Libraries ACRLog, which is still going strong (though I stepped away from it in 2011). Between 2009 and 2015, I wrote a weekly column for Library Journal (in disappearing e-ink, as the links have all broken), and I began blogging weekly for Inside Higher Ed in 2010.

A lot happened in libraries and technology in my decade of blogging for Inside Higher Ed. Open access to scholarly publishing went from something only activists cared much about to becoming a significant part of the scholarly publishing environment. Lever Press, which I helped to brainstorm into existence, now has an entire catalog of open-access books published, with more in development. The Google Books lawsuits were resolved; the GSU e-reserves lawsuits were not. Wall Street was occupied and had its own library until the police tossed it into dumpsters. We lost Aaron Swartz. Edward Snowden blew the whistle. Net neutrality was rescued, but then deregulated out of existence, though the fight isn't over. Social media became increasingly antisocial. The news industry continued to struggle, with half of newspaper journalists pink-slipped over the decade.

Librarians retired a set of standards for information literacy in favor of a more complex framework after much debate. Project Information Literacy released one fascinating report after another. After being a fan for a decade, I was tickled to be invited to serve as their first scholar in residence, to help with a project that is close to my heart. Look for the report to be published on Jan. 15 -- it’s a corker, if I do say so myself.

Some things didn’t change. Students struggled with research papers. Librarians struggled to help. And I had the chance to work out my thoughts in writing, every week.

In 2015 while on sabbatical, I assembled some of my blog posts and articles into an open-access anthology using PressBooks. I was motivated to explore with public scholarship by blogging about my research into online book discussion communities while exploring the potential for using new platforms for open-access scholarship. Since then Minitex, my local library collective, has made PressBooks available as a service to everyone in the area through their libraries. (If you’re part of the Minitex region, check it out -- or if not, see if your regional library consortium has a similar arrangement with PressBooks.) Last summer, I began to think it was time to throw together another edition of Babel Fish Bouillabaisse, which turned out to be good advanced planning as my 10-year gig with Inside Higher Ed came to an end after 492 blog posts -- something over 350,000 words about libraries, learning, technology and society.

Stop by my website if you are so inclined. Do check out Project Information Literacy’s new research report a month from now. If you’re a publisher who thinks this book idea of mine might have legs, get in touch (though email or Twitter; some of my colleagues and a lot of robo-callers know, I’m a bit shy about sharing a number where I can be reached).

And to my readers here, thanks for accompanying me on this journey and for the many years of good conversation.

*Readers of a certain age and temperament will recognize the reference as the Babel Fish and I make way for a hyperspace bypass.

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Sunday, December 15, 2019
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Sunday, December 15, 2019

A Babel Fish Bookshelf

For years I've kept some sort of record of what I've been reading, though it's not always complete. (I use LibraryThing -- it has both a handy phone app and an excellent privacy policy.) Here are a few books I read this year that I found especially illuminating or enjoyable.

On my librarian shelf I can recommend:

The Revolution That Wasn’t by Jen Schradie -- a fascinating field study of how activists across the political spectrum use technology and why the right is better at it (my review).

The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World by John Whibey -- a journalist reflects on how information spreads through social networks and what it means for journalism, engaged citizenship and democracy (my review).

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff -- an epic investigation into how big data and big tech influence everything, worthwhile, though I had reservations (my review).

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell -- technology, art, philosophy, nature; it's a liberal arts meditation on how to approach living in a world shaped by the attention economy (my review).

On my mystery lover shelf I enjoyed:

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha -- two families whose lives are entwined over an act of violence, and a sensitive exploration of the complexities of racism (my review).

Conviction by Denise Mina -- a rollicking adventure told in a wry Scottish voice that makes you laugh while it delves into internet fame, true crime podcasts, troll armies and female rage (my review).

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand -- billed as The Alienist meets The Devil in the White City but utterly original (my review).

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke -- which single-handedly redeemed the police procedural for me by digging into the complexities of law enforcement for African Americans (my review).

On my to-be-read pile -- added just this week:

Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin -- how tech encodes racism and inequality.

The Missing Course by David Gooblar -- John Warner recommended this book on college teaching.

Snowden's Box by Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge -- the role trust played in getting Edward Snowden's documents to journalists and the role of trust in the age of surveillance.

What books knocked your socks off this year? What are you looking forward to reading?

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Thursday, December 12, 2019
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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Change and Agency

I’ve always had a prickly relationship with the word “change” when it comes to libraries. It has been invoked as both an existential threat -- we had better change, and fast, or we’ll be irrelevant -- and as an imperative -- you must change, or you’re one of those stodgy people who stands in the way of progress. There have been entire consultancies devoted to explaining how library organizations should change. And it’s all over our literature. There are over 9,000 articles with that word in the title published since 1990 in the LISTA database. It ramped up especially during the first decade of the current century. The rate of increase has slowed down -- just a little over 1,000 new titles in the decade just coming to a close -- though “innovation” is nudging ahead, used in very similar ways.

That institutionalization of change as a top-down demand responding to external threats and fear of obsolescence is both irritating and exhausting. Nobody likes to be heckled about how behind they are and how the things they’ve been doing (and which still have to be done) don’t count for much. Admittedly, there is a conservative tendency in libraries -- not politically; we tend to be pretty lefty -- but in terms of organizational culture. Unlike most academics, we often have to ask permission for even small things, we tend to make decisions by committee and it’s not in our nature to claim credit. The library launches new programs. The library announces a change. The building has amazing powers. Some of us can be suspicious of new things and want to know if they will be sustainable, even if it's a response to something we’re doing now that is clearly not sustainable. People who find this cautious pocket-veto culture frustrating tend to leave, or be driven out, depending on your point of view. Yet most librarians I know are not reluctant to think creatively and indulge in curiosity (why do we do this thing, exactly? Could we try …? I wonder what would happen if …?) without being ordered to "embrace change or else" by their boss.

I’m thinking about this after reading Audrey Watters’s feisty provocation, “Ed-Tech Agitprop” (I can’t wait for her book, Teaching Machines,* to come out) followed by the text of Donna Lanclos’s recent talk, “The Anthropologist in the Machine.” The notion of change or innovation is really only fraught when it’s institutionalized -- either as an imperative driven by threat or as an irresistible force of forward momentum. Both approaches miss something really important.

We have always changed. We manage the unending parade of technical upgrades and migration, we switch up the syllabus, we try new things in the classroom. We notice something isn’t working or someone is left out, and we put our heads together to come up with a fix. We build alliances, and we quietly retire ones that aren’t working. We bring new people aboard and we greet new students every semester, a fresh chance to do things differently. A lot of these changes are invisible, either because they are new things we do continually in our teaching and reference work and as we address the budget cuts that keep coming or because we want to roll out things that have changed in a way that is as painless for our users as possible. A lot of our work is continually tinkering to make things better and try stuff out. A lot of it is maintenance, a lot of it is repair, some of it is reflection (though there's precious little time for that) and some of it is considered resistance to things like the inaccessibility of research to the public, the price of textbooks that leaves too many students out, and invasions of privacy.

But when we’re ordered to change so we operate more like a start-up or be more like Google, we should recognize the library is already a “growing organism.” Change can be resistance to market assumptions, walls and student surveillance framed as “success.” It's innovation when we align the changes we make day to day with values that matter. Standing up for what libraries are and should be is revolutionary enough these days.

*I mistakenly mistitled this forthcoming book in an earlier version -- thanks to the eagle eye who pointed it out.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019
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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

On Not Being Able to Tell Fakes From Good Reporting…

As frequently happens to me (probably the fault of never quite overcoming being an undergraduate), I came across three new research reports on the same day that seem connected.

The first came out earlier this month, but I somehow missed it. “Students’ Online Civic Reasoning: A National Portrait” should be required reading for anyone who cares about information, news, civic or digital literacy. (That should pretty much cover all of us.) The Stanford History Education Group, which has previously studied how both students and history professors struggle with evaluating information found online, has new results that suggest that, despite a host of efforts to fight “fake news,” high school students are no better prepared today to sort misinformation from reliable sources. Hardly any performed well on a series of tasks that are the kind of basic information decisions we have to make multiple times a day. Whatever we’re doing for students, it’s not working and, as the study authors point out, these kids are almost voting age.

Another study, this one from PEN America, shows local news (meaning news coverage based in places like Baltimore and Chicago, not just tiny towns) is fading fast. The invaluable Margaret Sullivan lays out the implications: want stories that uncover grift in city hall or in the halls of the rich and famously untouchable? You need local reporters. This is mostly the denouement of a long story of extractive greed. Newspapers, which were once quite profitable, began to be scooped up some years ago to create big bundles of profit. Now that we have all the information we can shake a stick at apparently for free, and advertising belongs to Google and Facebook, the financial vultures are swooping in to buy up, dismantle and pick the bones of what's left. Yes, there are bright spots. New ventures have found alternatives to being run like a business right into the ground -- but we need solutions that aren’t small, local and dependent on the kindness of philanthropists.

Nor can news (or people who care about quality news) depend on the kindness of the social media giants that soak up so much attention and the digital dollars that come with it. The Tow Center just published a study that explores how news organizations have been victimized by social media, which keeps making promises that don't pan out. News organizations can’t escape the gravitational pull social media exerts on readers and can’t recoup the digital dollars that go to these incredibly wealthy and powerful intermediaries, so they have to go with whatever new schemes the giants cook up, but in the evocative words of one research subject quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review, “it’s like we’re wounded animals and wondering if they’re going to shoot us or try to give us just enough medical help to keep us alive so we can continue to serve them.”

These issues seem knotted together to me, in the Gordian sense. Students can’t tell what’s news and what’s misinformation because they don’t understand how to navigate our current, messy digital information environment, where it’s profitable to lie but not so much to tell the truth. Newspapers are being killed by vulture capitalists, and the advertising market that once paid for news has been taken over by a few big companies that hold all the power. We can work on helping our students figure out what makes information good, what kinds of processes and ethical considerations go into seeking truth and telling it, but as citizens we also have to think about how we can ensure quality news is there when we need it.

We need better civic literacy, but we also need better civics. We need new policy, and for that we need to break the grip of money on … well, everything.

A couple more links that don’t directly relate, but kind of do -- the prison-industrial complex wants to exploit incarcerated folks by charging them to read by the minute, and the outfit that collects funds to keep internet domains organized has just sold control over .org domains to a vulture capital company and removed price caps for renewals, guaranteeing that the new “owners” of this service that is fundamental to the existence of websites can gouge .org website owners at will with virtually no outlay. These are specific problems that maybe can be reversed with enough public outrage, but … come on, people! Really?

When there’s so much going on, it’s hard to decide where exactly to apply our shears to the Gordian knot, but we need to stay alert to the big, entangled picture and whack away where we can.

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Saturday, November 23, 2019
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Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Bombshell That Wasn’t

On Nov. 16, The Wall Street Journal published an investigation, “How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results” (paywalled, but your library likely can provide you with the content; if you aren’t sure how to find it on the library’s website, the reference desk can point you there). I notice, when looking at Google results using that title, this story is, in fact, the top link. Apparently at one point the search engine downranked paywalled news articles, but after complaints from news organizations such as the WSJ, it changed that algorithmic tweak. So there it is, though I am not a subscriber so had to use my library for access.

The second thing I see in the results are “top stories.” The first is from something I’ve never heard of called GV Wire. This appears to be a central California digital competitor to the Fresno Bee. Why that would be on top is beyond me. The other is a rather good critique by Search Engine Land, a website that has been analyzing search engines for about as long as search engines have existed. Among the other Google results on the first page are stories in the Hindustani Times, Niche Gamer and Hotelmarketing.com. Note, I was not logged in to Google, and I have locked down my privacy settings so I am getting less tailored and perhaps less relevant results than if I allowed Google to spy on me routinely. You are almost certain to see different results. Stop the presses! (Just kidding. You already knew that.)

Here’s my takeaway: There is no such thing as an algorithm that works without humans involved.

Of course Google interferes with its search algorithms. It has to. Constantly. Do we really want to leave it to marketers and trolls to take over the entirety of search results? Because they would, just as they trained Tay, the Famously Manipulated Bot, to curse like a sailor. Without intervention, every autocomplete search suggestion would be something misleading or offensive and ultimately useless, and the first result for “did the Holocaust happen?” would still be a denialist site.

That’s not to say Google’s human involvement in its search results is deliberately malicious, corrupt or partisan. It’s simply an unavoidable feature of a process that is, behind the scenes, humans telling computers how to handle human data that other humans are trying to influence. The WSJ is shocked, shocked to find there’s gambling going on in here -- but nobody should be, not if they’ve been paying the least bit of attention. It takes lots of human work to develop and maintain the technology required to index the volumes of information available online. Heck, as a librarian, I can testify to the difficulty of making even a small portion of the world’s information available, and I don’t have to deal with armies of people getting paid to influence what appears on my website.

That takeaway gives way to a meta-takeaway: There is no way to run an advertising business that doesn’t involve manipulation at its heart.

Google is an advertising business. So are YouTube and Facebook. Every business that tries to influence Google search results is an advertising business. The many websites that populate the internet, copying material from other sites or creating personal brands to host ads and gain influence, are in the advertising business. The Wall Street Journal, while using ad revenue to support its work, is not in the advertising business, it’s in the news business, and I usually find its reporting (if not its editorial board) extremely solid. However, this report is hardly the blockbuster some have called it. Among mistakes in this credulous article is the statement that Google’s “innovative algorithms ranked web content in a way that was groundbreaking, and hugely lucrative.” Actually, the page-rank algorithm itself was not lucrative. What was lucrative was the realization that the data exhaust it inadvertently captured could be exploited to convince the world that targeted ads would revolutionize the tricky business of convincing us to do things, like buy a product or support a political cause. Once Google became the dominant digital ad platform as well as the most commonly used search engine, search became a great deal more complicated.

Here’s the thing: we’ve become dependent on information systems like Google that don’t create information but are financed by the dark arts of manipulation. Does this mean we are all destined to be Tay, persuaded to mindlessly respond to the algorithmic nudges created by ad campaigns and adopt the opinions of internet influencers?

Of course not. We can still think for ourselves, but we must be aware that yes, indeed, there is gambling going on in here.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019
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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Subject to Change

I was talking to my partner one evening last week when my phone died, midsentence. The apple symbol flashed a few times, then the screen went dark. Plugging it in didn’t help. All the usual resuscitation moves failed. I was phoneless, and it rattled me.

It’s discombobulating to have your phone stop working when you’re traveling. It would be disruptive at any time, really (it’s embarrassing to look at the charts showing how much time I spend staring at that little screen every day) but when I was away from home, it seemed especially disorienting. I am so used to figuring out where to go using Google’s map advice, finding the time I’m supposed to be somewhere by pulling up my email, keeping in touch with family by text message -- even talking to people occasionally, though that’s rare. It was as if half my brain stopped working.

I had a laptop with me, and Wi-Fi at the hotel, so that initial moment of panic was reduced. But I couldn’t get into my email or Google documents I needed because I had to prove it was me using dual authentication, which meant I needed to click an app on my phone. To add embarrassment to injury, when I wanted to call my partner at home to explain why I had unexpectedly hung up on him, I couldn’t make the hotel room phone work without assistance. (What can I say? It had so many buttons.)

It could have been worse, but it made me realize how dependent I’ve become on technology I didn’t have just a few years ago. I used to navigate around cities through a combination of maps, a general sense of the cardinal points and asking people for directions. I put travel details down on paper. I checked in at the airport, not from my hotel room. I would talk to my family once I got home. Email could wait. But this time when my phone went dead, I felt like Robinson Crusoe. Stranded.

All of the technology we depend on is fragile. The app you use to pay for your coffee won’t work if your battery has run down. The power can be cut off if the wind picks up or an ice storm hits or a squirrel gets into a transformer. Our digital systems can be held hostage with a ransomware attack. A company we entrusted with our photos or our conversations can decide they aren’t in that business anymore and might not provide easy options for downloading all the things you thought were yours. A piece of your workflow may vanish because Google thinks it’s unimportant. A publisher can go belly up, be bought for parts or can simply update their website and break all the links to stories you assumed would be there. (The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine can help, but it’s not complete; I’ve started using Perma.cc when I want to be sure I can reliably cite an online source.)

I remember when our library catalog first went online. We kept the card catalog for a couple of years to reassure patrons, though we couldn’t afford to run two parallel systems, so stopped filing cards for new books. The public catalog was retired, but we kept the shelf list just in case. In time, that went, too. Yes, the new catalog had hiccups, so we kept a paper copy of the LC classifications handy so we could guide people to the most likely place the book they wanted would be. But now that so much of every library’s content is only available online, a sustained power outage would essentially shut down much of the library.

But wait! There’s more (as they used to say on Veg-o-Matic ads). There are any number of security vulnerabilities that threaten the internet, so the more we rely on it, the more opportunities there are to mess with us, personally and on a geopolitical scale. The infrastructure of the internet itself takes lots of power, plenty of water to cool the data centers where our stuff lives and physical equipment that will be seriously affected by sea level rise. The cloud sounds so amorphous and safe, but it’s built out of real stuff here on Earth.

Talk about amorphous -- think about the smoke-and-mirrors ad-tech business model that powers so much of how we find information online. Not only are browsers and individuals increasingly blocking ads and trackers, there’s plenty of reason to believe ads based on surveilling individuals don’t actually work. What happens if we have a replay of the tech bubble that burst in 2000, only on a much larger scale? It would be a tad inconvenient to lose Google apps, Gmail, YouTube, Google search and Google Scholar, all of which are funded by scraping our lives to create the digital advertising that provides 83 percent of parent company Alphabet’s income. The economy overall would take a bigger hit than it did 20 years ago: none of the tech companies that rattled the market when they failed in 2000 were on the list of the top 10 publicly traded corporations, but in 2019 three of them rely almost entirely or to a large extent on tailored digital advertising. A lot of our economy (not to mention our daily habits) rely on an advertising emperor dressed in hype so finely woven it turns out it may be stark naked after all.

As we go about our digital days, hooked on digital devices, it’s something to think about. What’s our plan B?

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019
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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

In Praise of University Presses

All too often I hear a couple of falsehoods slung around carelessly.

  • Nobody reads scholarly books because they’re self-indulgent and impenetrable, used only for tenure and promotion
  • Students don’t read books anymore.

These pronouncements are often made by people who purport to think critically, but if you ask for evidence for those claims, you’ll get, “Well, I mean, duh. Everyone knows …” followed by anecdotal examples of jargon-laden writing or vague slurs about millennials (which is funny because faculty are more likely to be millennials than their students and besides, pigeonholing people into birth-year stereotypes is intellectually lazy).

I suspect what underlies the first falsehood is frustration about out-of-control demands for faculty “productivity” measured by publications, fueled by the increasing use of contingent labor in the academy and the hypercompetition it has generated. People feel more pressed to produce and disciplines become more specialized and splintered, and for-profit publishing behemoths are happy to oblige by publishing narrowly focused books and journals that carry such high prices very few people will ever have access to them, which is considered fine because very few people could understand them, anyway. It’s incredibly wasteful of money and human talent, but it’s not true that all scholarship is in this category.

What underlies the second falsehood is the kind of frustration teachers have always had with their students coupled with changes in how information is created and shared that influences how students do the things that perennially frustrate their teachers. Before the internet, the easiest way to write a paper the night before it was due was to grab a handful of books from the library’s shelves, copy some quotes and stitch them together with a hazy thesis. Now it’s easier to grab a handful of articles from a library database, copy some quotes and stitch them together with a hazy thesis. Given the same incentives but a different path of least resistance, you won’t see as many books in a bibliography, but that has nothing to do with whether students will read books.

So if faculty have incentives to write lots of stuff quickly and students do, too, you might draw the wrong conclusions. But students are simply doing what they’ve always done and will read books with pleasure given the right conditions. Likewise, lots of scholars write well for a wide audience (and also write highly specialized stuff -- and there’s nothing wrong with that). As evidence, I submit the catalogs of university presses. Here’s a sampling:

(Note: if you have Privacy Badger installed on your browser, and you should, you may have to temporarily disable it to see the slideshow.)

I just browsed through the list of nonfiction books I’ve read recently that have meant the most to me. The majority have been published by university presses, and they were both compelling for a nonspecialist and well written in spite of (or because of) the intellectual heft behind them. I’m kind of lazy. I wouldn’t have read them if it wasn't a pleasure. These books might have succeeded in the trade publishing marketplace, but maybe not, or they may have been altered beyond recognition in the process. That’s one of the reasons university presses matter -- they publish books we may not realize we need because they aren't driven only by the marketplace. University presses take risks that commercial presses might avoid for economic reasons or for fear of backlash -- the University of Minnesota, for example, published a book about child sexuality that trade publishers wouldn’t touch, and got condemned for it by right-wing talk show hosts and politicians who hadn’t actually read the book. Though university presses often have a trade line to pay the bills, they don't publish celebrity bios or political jeremiads that would fall apart if fact-checked, as the Big Five trade publishers are happy to do. Unlike for-profit academic and scientific conglomerates like Wiley, Springer Nature and Taylor and Francis, university presses are experimenting with ways to make research open access without using that move to preserve high profit margins, For one thing, they don’t have high profit margins to preserve. For another, they are much more closely aligned with the value of scholarship, not just the shareholder value that can be wrung from perverse incentives.

Count me a fan of university presses. Let’s stand up for them when they’re threatened, but let’s also make sure we don’t count them out when -- in reality -- they’re thriving.

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Monday, November 4, 2019
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Monday, November 4, 2019

Dona Nobis Pacem

If you want to get my goat, or, I daresay, the goat of any librarian, make a gratuitous reference to shushing. The finger held to the lips, the aggressive whisper, the frown at a pin’s drop. We don’t do these things, but it’s a stereotype that is endlessly used in article titles and commercials, and it’s annoying.

Still, something struck me as I was recently mulling over what it is that libraries offer in our frazzled, commercialized, surveillant society. I’ve made the claim before that library values, if not actual library practices, could be beneficially applied to the digital platforms we use every day. Caring about privacy, intellectual freedom, the public good and free access to information for all would go a long way toward making our tech corporations more just and socially responsible. We may be making a little progress on that front. There seems to be a growing desire among tech workers to take their role in society seriously -- see a letter recently endorsed by hundreds of Facebook employees protesting the company’s decision to allow political campaigns to skirt the rules that govern other advertisers, allowing politicians to spread targeted misinformation. But there’s a long way to go.

There’s one thing not on the ALA’s list of values that may well be something people value about libraries: quiet. We don’t have many quiet places in our lives anymore. Our technology hums incessantly, our keyboards click and our phones nudge us with alerts. It takes a toll: noise is harmful to humans and animals. Even when out in nature, you’re likely to hear the whoosh of distant traffic or hear a plane passing overhead. There’s something about human-made noise that makes us feel a bit anxious, pressed for time, wondering what we’re missing while we try to focus.

Libraries don’t bill themselves as quiet places these days. We like to think they are social, active, buzzing with energy, because that makes us seem vital and necessary. Besides, they often are noisy -- noisy enough that students ask for areas to be set aside for quiet study. We set one of our three floors aside as a quiet floor years ago at the request of students. Some find it intimidatingly “serious,” but others gravitate to it at least for some of their study time. For students who don’t have a lot of quiet places in their lives, those spaces are particularly valuable.

In March 1997 Sally Tisdale railed against the “library as entertainment center” in Harper’s Magazine (paywalled); more recently Laura Miller plaintively asked that we “bring back shushing librarians,” noting that a Pew study found over three-quarters of a representative sample of Americans valued quiet places in libraries, just one percentage point behind internet access -- but that was not a finding the report highlighted, nor is it something librarians tend to brag about. Come on in, enjoy the silence. That seems unbearably retro -- and yet …

I’ve often reflected on how pleasant it is to be at work in the stacks. I usually attributed it to the presence of books, to their representation of the patient and enduring majesty of knowledge, but it’s not just that -- it’s also the contemplative quiet that settles even if my laptop and phone are with me, bringing all the emails and tweets and calendar notifications with them. It feels as if time slows down, my heart rate calms and all the frantic busyness of life falls away for just a while. There’s contemplation in the quiet. We could all use some of that.

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Monday, October 28, 2019
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Monday, October 28, 2019

The Writing on the Unpaywall

Since it’s Open Access Week, I finally got around to reading a paper I’d bookmarked a few weeks back, “The Future of OA: A Large-Scale Analysis Projecting Open Access Publication and Readership.” Written by Heather Piwowar, Jason Priem, and Richard Orr, the wizards behind Our Research, a non-profit devoted to developing infrastructure for open research, it makes a measured assessment of how much open access research is being read, what form it takes, and whether being published in an open access form makes a difference in readership and (by extension) in impact. Their analysis is based on the Unpaywall data set and access logs from the handy browser extension that lets you see if there is a legit open access version of a paper. (In other words, it doesn’t include papers publishers want to keep behind a paywall, just papers that are open access from the start, open access after a period of time, or open access because the publisher gave authors the explicit right to post them openly.)

Here’s the tl;dr version: more research will be open in future, and research that is open access is more likely to be read. This should surprise no one, but it’s good to have data to back it up.

At the moment, according to their analysis, nearly a third of journal articles are open access; over half of articles read are open access. By 2025 the authors estimate 44 percent of articles published will be open access and 70 percent of the articles read will be open. This is likely conservative because it doesn’t take into account the potential of major shifts in policy, such as Plan S or large scale read-and-publish deals, or simply the growing popularity of open access among researchers and their funders to significantly ramp up the shift to open access.

For folks in the humanities, this may be a bit misleading, since the data is limited to journals that assign DOIs. Still, it’s likely that with shrinking library budgets and the growth of open access options for humanities scholars, we’ll see a similar pattern. People are more likely to read research they can get their hands on. A lot of people don’t have access to research libraries with large, current collections. Increasingly, they do have access to publicly-available research. If you want your research to find readers and make a difference, making it open is smart. Libraries are finding ways to help.

I’m not sure these myths are as widespread as they once were, but I’ll bust them anyway:

  • It’s not true that open access means you have to pay. It all depends on the discipline and the publication. Yes, in disciplines where researchers get grants, it's not unusual to use available research dollars to fund publishing. If your discipline isn’t awash in grant money, it's likely open access journals won’t charge you a dime. (If they do, you're probably looking at a profitable mega-publisher that handles lots of STEM journals. Look for alternatives.)
  • It’s not true that if the author pays, it’s vanity publishing. Open access journals apply the same peer review criteria and processes as toll-access journals.
  • It’s not true that open access publishing is lower quality than subscription-funded publishing. You’re confusing open access journals with scams that pretend to be open access journals but aren’t. Don’t worry; you can tell the difference. And it’s not as if every journal that charges subscriptions is high quality.
  • It’s not true that you can’t get tenure with open access publications. Yes, some departments and some T&P committees are ill-informed and think Journal Impact Factors mean something they don’t, but times are changing, and younger faculty are increasingly impatient to have their work shared.

I’ll also recap my usual open-access-without-tears advice:

  • If you aren’t already familiar with open access journals in your field, take a browse through the Directory of Open Access Journals. Not every quality OA journal is listed here – the vetting is done by volunteers, and there’s a backlog – but it’s a place to start. Or just ask around. There are lots of excellent OA journals being published.
  • If you have a subscription journal in mind, see what their policies are before you submit using the SHERPA/RoMEO database. Most journals allow you to make your article available online, though they may make you wait for a year or more and often require you to post a manuscript version rather than the final PDF. (Hang on to that final draft!) Articles posted by authors get read, as the Future of OA analysis shows. It doesn’t take much time to build a few easy steps into your work flow to set your research free for all those potential readers who won't otherwise see it. If you don’t have a repository in mind, librarians can help with the how-do-I-get-it-online part.
  • What about books? The list of open access books is growing, and quite a few publishers also allow authors of chapters of edited books to post manuscript copies online. See what’s shaking at Punctum Books or Lever Press or any of the publishers on at Simmons’ Open Access Directory list of open access book publishers. Sure you could go with Routledge or Palgrave if you don't mind a $150 price tag that will limit readership to the privileged few. Or you could make your book available in a way that won't make your proud parents blanch when they ask how to get copies for the relatives.

Ten years ago, Open Access Week launched. We’ve seen a lot of progress. Imagine what the next decade will bring.

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