When is the Library Open?

If we don't act together to build the infrastructure for an open access future, somebody else will - and they are already on it. 

June 2, 2016

I’ve been traveling for a couple of weeks with intermittent internet access so am behind on news, but a couple of stories seem particularly important.

First, a deal was struck in Florida to have a highly successful for-profit publisher populate a university’s institutional repository with links to intellectual property that its faculty created and gave to the publisher. Isn’t this like outsourcing the management of the henhouse to Foxes, Inc.? An Elsevier spokesperson says this will help the repository because it’s much harder for libraries to get material from their faculty than it is for Elsevier. This is a true but cruel irony. Publishers like Elsevier still have a great deal of control over the prestige that faculty need to persuade other faculty (and administrators and funders) that they are worthy. Still, it’s one of those strange moments when efforts to make local scholarship more widely available by making it open is colonized by the company that for many scholars and librarians is the poster child of the problem.

As bloggers at IO: In the Open point out, this is a Trojan horse strategy, in tune with Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN. While libraries may struggle to get content into their IRs, publishers are reading the writing on the wall and are staking their claim in an open access future. Apparently they want to own as much of the infrastructure of this future (and the metrics those platforms will generate) as possible. Incidentally, this might be a good time to reconsider giving your content to venture-capitalized for-profit platforms like ResearchGate and Academia.edu.  They’ll no doubt be looking for buyers as soon as their venture capital fairy dust is exhausted, and we can guess who the buyers will be.

Second – further indication that an open access future is inevitable: the European Union has called for all publicly-funded scientific research to be open by 2020. Wait, that’s . . . like, really soon. Unlike the approach spelled out in Britain’s Finch Report, the EU statement doesn’t bend over backward to preserve publisher’s revenue streams. It simply says research needs to be open for the public good. 

This thing we've advocated for years? It's happening. 

Naturally, publishers have protested, saying that the whatever comes next has to continue “the sustainable creation of high quality content” through maintaining their business. This is nonsense. The way journals are published today is obviously not sustainable, which is why these moves toward open access are happening, nor does it have anything to do with creating content. The scholarly publishing industry takes control over content created by its authors and reviewed by experts for free, in exchange for the use of publishers' technical infrastructure and the legacy prestige that, in many if not most cases, was not developed by its current corporate owners but was acquired through mergers, acquisitions, and outsourcing contracts with scholarly societies.

But here’s the thing: the industry that has profited from a system that is failing is positioning itself to own the infrastructure for open access. Is that what we've fought for?

It’s pretty obvious that outsourcing institutional repository management to Elsevier is a bad idea. What’s less obvious is that librarians need to move quickly to collectively fund and/or build serious alternatives to corporate openwashing. It will take our time and money. It will require taking risks. It means educating ourselves about solutions while figuring out how to put our values into practice. It will mean making tradeoffs such as giving up immediate access for a few who might complain loudly about it in order to put real money and time into long-term solutions that may not work the first time around. It means treating equitable access to knowledge as our primary job, not as a frill to be worked on when we aren’t too busy with our “real” work of negotiating licenses, fixing broken link resolvers, and training students in the use of systems that will be unavailable to them once they graduate. It means being part of the future of scholarship by acting now.

Ellen Finnie and Greg Eow put it better than I can:

Admirable efforts are being made in all these directions. We have arXiv, DPLA, HathiTrust, Internet Archive, ORCID, SHARE, and other important initiatives too numerous to name. But these nonprofit collaborations have taken time to surface, are still limited in scope and execution, and are taking too long to build.

As we see it, the question is no longer how proponents of open access can work together to build a shared infrastructure for the open dissemination of scholarship, but rather how can we move quickly to jump the political, cultural, organizational, and economic hurdles so these open infrastructure initiatives can move swiftly with development and wide adoption.   

This is our work. If we neglect to do it, Elsevier will. That's no future for libraries or scholarship. 


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