The Way We Publish Now

Some tenure and promotion committees for librarians need a brush-up on how to judge the quality of scholarship. Not to mention where their discipline has gone since they stopped paying attention.

July 21, 2016

All signs point toward an open access future for scholarship. The pressure from funders as well as from academic authors to publish openly is growing. So is the convergence of the affordances of open web-enabled publishing with the present-day means of scholarly conversation, much of it online, assisted by links rather than clumsily-written bits of code (aka citations) that have to be resolved by visiting a library website to push the code by hand through a verification process that is likely to fail because the library doesn’t have everything, including that thing you want.

Paywalls aren’t just a barrier to sharing scholarship with those who don’t have the money for access, they’re becoming a nuisance. A lot of academics can ignore barriers caused by funding because it’s a library problem that doesn’t affect them. Inconvenience, however, does. They want their stuff easily shared, though that desire doesn’t always include willingness to do the extra work to make a toll-gated article available online; the fact that a full quarter of faculty at the University of California system have done this extra work suggests things may be changing, though only with a lot of advocacy. As the Library Loon explains, institutional repositories aren’t the magical answer to paywalls, but 25 percent participation among a very large number of scholars ain’t bad. Still, scholars like to refer people to texts, and as more and more can be shared quickly with a link, irritation will grow with those that aren’t similarly shareable.

Even the highly-profitable giants of scholarly publishing recognize that the future is open and they are making acquisitions and retooling their revenue models as a result, something we need to watch carefully if we care about fairness as much as convenience.

But clearly the writing is on the wall: open access is coming, in one form or another. It’s only a question of working out the logistics. A couple of interesting large-scale approaches to making the transition are the Open Access Network and the recently-released Open Access 2020 Roadmap, both of which sketch out ways academic libraries can use their resources and values to make scholarship accessible for the public good.

Given that the future of scholarship is open and that academic librarians have a stake in that future, I was completely thrown when Lisa Hinchliffe reported on Twitter that she was advising a junior colleague on publishing options and was told she had to avoid open access journals. The tenure and promotion committee wouldn't count them.

At first I misunderstood. I thought the junior librarian was badly misinformed. No, I was the one misinformed. The T&P committee, in this case made up entirely of academic librarians, would not accept articles published in open access journals for a tenure file. In fact, they preferred subscription journals that appear in print.

Who on earth is in charge here and why are they so utterly, completely, disastrously ignorant of trends in scholarship and in our own discipline?

Last week our association issued a welcome statement urging librarians to make their scholarship open access and for journals in the field to move toward open access and for librarian authors, reviewers, and editors to encourage them to do so. So I’m baffled that librarians evaluating the qualifications of a librarian for tenure would send the signal that open access is unacceptable.

That’s exactly backward. We should be rewarding librarians who move scholarship toward a future that reflects our values and is consistent with trends in scholarly publishing. Sure, there are plenty of library journals owned by giant for-profit corporations. They don't get read much, because so few libraries can afford to subscribe to them. Our best journals are not all owned by Taylor & Francis or Wiley or Elsevier, though they have bought their way into the field and snatched up some venerable properties. Most of the LIS journals they publish are not of particularly high quality. Being expensive is not a mark of excellence.

All of this made me curious about how open our so-called “top journals” are. There is no officially recognized list of them, which is fine by me. An article by Judith M. Nixon published in College & Research Libraries a couple of years ago explored this issue and explained a method for developing such a list for the T&P process at Purdue, coming up with a list that was fairly consistent with previously published if not canonical “top LIS journals” lists. She included measures for selectivity (expressed as low acceptance rate), reach (based on subscription numbers), high impact factor, and a strong h-factor as well as favoring journals their tenured faculty had published in. In other words, she used classic if outdated measures of quality, including some that manifestly should not be used to evaluate an individual’s contribution to scholarship. It's not that it's a bad article. It’s a very thorough examination of what seem to me to be zombie criteria that reflect the age of print. They are no longer useful.

In addition to her list, I also looked at the journals Google Scholar reports as LIS “tops” (though they are heavily tilted toward information science rather than librarianship – I had never heard of most of them) and polled librarians with whom I have a relationship on Twitter just for an up-to-date if anecdotal check-in. Here’s what I found.

The six journals that received top marks using Nixon’s methodology included Library Journal, which I am excluding because it’s a trade magazine, not a journal. The remaining five are:

  • College & Research Libraries (gold open access; appears on Google’s list)
  • Journal of the Medical Library Association (gold open access through PubMed Central; also appears on Google’s list )
  • Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services (Elsevier; articles cost $55.20)
  • Library Resources and Technical Services (open access after an embargo period of five issues; authors may self-archive a pre- or post-print)
  • Reference and User Services Quarterly (Years ago this journal was fully open access, but inexplicably reverted to toll access. Now it’s open access after an embargo of four issues; authors may self-archive a pre- or post-print.)

So it’s a mix of gold open access, green open access, and “are you kidding me?”

My Twitter colleagues in academic librarianship came through with dozens of responses to my question “what do you consider the three most important LIS journals?” Here’s what got mentioned three or more times, with the most-frequently mentioned first, gold open access journals bolded:

  • College and Research Libraries
  • Library Trends
  • Journal of Academic Librarianship
  • Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication
  • code{4}Lib
  • portal: Libraries and the Academy
  • Journal of Information Literacy
  • In the Library With the Lead Pipe
  • Communications in Information Literacy
  • Journal of the Association of Information Science and Technology
  • D-Lib
  • Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research
  • Library Quarterly

Of these 13 titles, more than half are gold open access (perhaps because people who I hang out with on Twitter lean that way; perhaps because of their subject interests; perhaps because they aren’t constrained by the prejudices of antediluvian T&P committee members). Of the subscription journals on the list, all allow for some form of self-archiving - though The Journal of Academic Librarianship was bought by Elsevier some years ago and a lot of us are boycotting them. It charges $41.95 for their articles, so falls into the "are you kidding me?" category.

I started asking about “top journals” mainly because I was so shocked to hear that some librarians still insist that open access publications are not appropriate for a tenure file, particularly when the flagship journal of our association is proudly and properly open access. What I am concluding, though, is that there are plenty of options for librarians who want their research to be available to all. What's stopping us?

Apparently there are librarians who still haven't got the memo: open access and quality are not exclusive, and if you are discouraging rising librarians from publishing the way our association urges us to do, you’re badly out of step and should stop it, right now. It's nothing less than professional malpractice.


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