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Confusing Excess With Access
May 11, 2011 - 3:30pm

Last week, I confessed to having something of a crisis of faith. I was attending a fascinating workshop on library publishing services. A vast majority of library directors surveyed for this project said they were interested in publishing ventures because they wanted to help solve the decades-old scholarly communication crisis.* Many libraries have stepped up to create institutional repositories, platforms for electronic theses and dissertations, local infrastructures for journal publishing, and a variety of publishing services designed to make access to information more open.

But . . . it hasn’t worked. The big corporations get bigger, the giant scholarly societies that have well-paid CEOs and reap tens of millions annually in publishing revenue charge more and more, and libraries install expensive “discovery systems” to make it possible to search across their databases, which may number in the hundreds. When libraries make cuts, as they must, they make them where they can: axing the few remaining print journals, paring down the book budget, canceling journal subscriptions that run $20,000 a year and instead setting up systems to buy individual articles for $25 - $50 a pop.

Would you pay $50 for an article? Probably not. But libraries do it on your behalf. This is so broken it makes me crazy.

Perhaps because on my campus we held a conference on food last fall, I keep thinking about things in terms of need for a sustainable, healthy, and secure food system. Once upon a time, libraries stocked our own pantries. We even set up a kind of pot-luck sharing system, relying on first sale rights to loan things among libraries. Now we outsource our nourishment, paying for campus-wide access to an all-you-can-eat buffet. There’s much more to choose from, but we have no say over what gets served, where the ingredients are sourced, or whether we can accommodate unusual dietary needs or sustain regional cuisines. Oh, and there are strict rules against taking leftovers home or inviting the locals to dinner. Do you know someone – maybe a recent graduate – who doesn’t have a campus ID and is wasting away? Too bad! Sharing with them is strictly against the rules. But hey, you have so much more to choose from, and it’s so convenient! Help yourselves! Of course, the price goes up every year. And there’s no telling what will be on the menu from one day to the next. But who cares when there’s such abundance?

Where do all those dishes come from? Scholars cook it up as part of their jobs and give it to the mega-corporations who put into the churning machine and it becomes a part of the all-you-can-eat (so long as you can afford it) banquet. This is unhealthy and unsustainable and does not serve the public good.
In response, many libraries have reassigned a few lines to tackle the problem. Those small but passionate cadres of librarians roll up their sleeves and plant victory gardens, share recipes, and rediscover locavore cuisine. It’s valuable, and it serves local interests – maybe saving a recipe that the giant corporations won’t bother with, or preserving seeds for a crop that’s all but extinct - but it hasn’t changed the way faculty treat their work and doesn’t replace the all-you-can-eat buffet. No matter how unhealthy it is, how much it harms the environment, how much it costs us, very few faculty will time out of their busy schedules to even discuss alternatives. Their careers are too bound up in the corporate system, and proof of constantly-increased productivity is what they need to get ahead. Most faculty are too busy producing to notice what’s going on, and those who do notice often think library-based alternatives are ludicrous. What do librarians know about publishing? The library’s most important job is to pay for the buffet, dammit!
And we do, of course. We are a service-oriented profession. We shift allocations around to make adjustments, but we hate to say no, so we end up buying admission to the buffet, the price of which keeps spiraling upward, and in a small office in the basement a few hard-working souls run institutional platforms for sharing research and produce a handful of locally-operated journals.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but this isn't solving the problem.

I’ll grant you that there are significant successes on the path toward open access. Most journals now allow authors to self-archive some version of their publications (though unless forced, most authors don’t bother; they’re much too busy producing to worry about whether anyone can read what they produce). The NIH and Wellcome Trust have insisted that the results of the research they fund is shared. There are more high-quality open access journals now than there used to be, and the biggest, most prestigious and most profitable publishers are sensing enough of a market that they are starting new author-pays open access publications, though that just shifts the timing of the payments from one end of the process to another, retaining a healthy profit margin for those corporations.

So far many library-led efforts have not made significant progress toward challenging the monopoly “traditional” publishers have on the prestige market.** More than ever, I am convinced that libraries can’t solve this problem. We’re terrible at saying no, and we’re too addicted to excess. So our choices are to give up and let the corporations continue to own both the means of production and the knowledge scholars produce, transformed into intellectual property that can be made artificially scarce. We can acknowledge the foolishness of the Panglossian notion that things will somehow get better and go tend our victory gardens. Or we can look at the entire system, find allies, and work to create a nimble and sustainable means of sharing knowledge that isn’t just local and isn’t just an afterthought.

Some of us are working on a project that will try to honor all that is important to scholars and libraries and will take into account the nostalgic but still compelling concept of scholarship as a public good. It's a small-scale effort, but possibly a prototype for investing our time and funds differently. It may not solve anything. It may not even happen. But it’s worth a try.

This has gotten too long; I'll have more to say about this project next time.

* Some argue that “crisis” isn’t the right word for the commodification of knowledge and libraries’ response, which is to pour most of our budgets into temporarily licensing information or paying per view rather than building shareable collections. Crises, by definition, don’t last decades. But like global warming, it’s a problem so big it defies quick solutions but can’t be ignored. I don’t know what else to call it, so I’ll keep calling it a crisis.

** I put that word in scare quotes because this kind of publishing is to traditional publishing as the gigantic agribusinesses is to the family farm. Farm subsidies that were originally designed to support small operations now go to massive corporations. Our scholarly work . . . well, you get the picture.



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