Opportunity in opprobrium

So the Bentham thing is getting a fair bit of airplay, and it raises a lot of questions in my head that I would like to see wiser heads than mine work through. Because I do see a time-sensitive opportunity in all this madness, I’ll venture forth with my half-formed thoughts.

Am I particularly surprised that there are skeevy publishers on the OA bandwagon? No, not particularly. It’s not like there aren’t any skeevy toll-access publishers (or, perhaps better said, publishers with skeevy practices, on both sides of the aisle). Not to mention that novelty business models tend to attract the skeevy for a while, precisely in hopes that people’s anti-skeeviness heuristics won’t have caught up to the newness. Besides, we knew Bentham was skeevy, just as we have been pretty darn sure Scientific Journals International was up to no good.

I am a little surprised that Dr. Parmanto seems genuinely not to have had any idea what was going on until it hit the news. A doctor of info-sci doesn’t know how scholarly knowledge production works? But then again… from Googling around, it looks to me that Dr. Parmanto is fairly new to the profession. As such, he’d be a logical target for a skeevy publisher: less-developed heuristics (to put it kindly) and a voracious need to prove himself professionally. An editorship is a pretty plum service gig. Taking a wild stab in the dark, I’ll adduce Bentham going above and beyond to hide the skeevy, combined with a failure of professional socialization on the part of Dr. Parmanto’s teachers and mentors. Bluntly, I harbor strong doubts that Dr. Parmanto is the only new scholar, in info-sci or in almost any field you name, who might lack a solid enough understanding of what a journal editorship entails to be able to deal with Bentham’s problems.

So one way to look at this unpleasant situation is as an information problem. If that suggests to you that I think librarians have a role in solving it, you know me entirely too well. In fact, I think we have to get a handle on it, because we are and will continue to be some of the organizations funding gold OA. Imagine the mess, if a well-regarded academic library funneled money to a Bentham! Even by way of (presumably) well-intentioned but (apparently) not-fully-informed individuals like Dr. Parmanto!

Not a mess I would want to be in. But taking a stand gets sticky, too, because (as the wrangle at Maryland demonstrates) the last thing any academic service center wants to get involved in is telling faculty where they can and can’t publish. As gold OA takes on increasing importance, anyone with funds to disburse toward author fees may well land—or be perceived as having landed—in precisely that position. How do we even begin to think about that?

Well, one way is to think of ourselves as research funders, not unlike the NIH or the Wellcome Trust. If we’re paying the money, we deserve a say in where it goes, and we’re well within our rights to say that the like of Bentham or SJI is right out. As librarians, we make collection-development and purchasing decisions based on assessment of information quality, right? (Yes, yes, “when not prevented from doing so by Big Deals and similar less-than-savory practices,” granted.) This is the same thing, just at a different point in the process. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, I’ve just begged a huge question. How do we know about the like of Bentham or SJI? Or, to make the question less black-and-white, what about double-dipping hybrid journals, the ones that will cheerfully take your money to make an article OA, but won’t adjust their subscription fees by a single penny in proportion to uptake of the OA option? Arguably, libraries have a survival interest in not funding those!

I think OASPA’s response to the Bentham situation points to part of the way forward. If OASPA membership becomes a seal of approval for all-OA publishing operations, then it’s dead simple for any library that funds author fees to hold to a policy of “if it ain’t OASPA, we ain’t paying.” This puts a significant burden on OASPA, I grant you—if nothing else, they have to have the guts to kick out a bad apple—but my sense from that post is that they’re at least willing to consider picking up this gauntlet. If so, good for them.

I’m not sure that OASPA membership solves the entire problem, unfortunately… and I don’t know anything about OASPA’s membership structure or finances, so I apologize in advance if this line of thought is completely misguided. What about the legitimate shoestring OA journal charging author fees? Will that journal have the wherewithal to become an OASPA member? If it doesn’t, how is OASPA going to police it? Will OASPA have the wherewithal to take a serious look at every shoestring OA journal, especially ones that aren’t paying members? (The prospect certainly alarms me; that’s a lot of journals. Even limiting the program just to those journals charging author fees leaves a lot of journals.) If OASPA membership becomes the seal of approval, how will shoestring OA journals who need for whatever reason to charge author fees be able to bootstrap themselves?

(This may become an issue for library-hosted OA journals as well. While my current sense is that academic libraries who host journals don’t want to involve themselves directly in questions of quality, preferring to leave that to the sponsoring faculty, that’s not going to stop a library developing severe heartburn if a journal they host turns out to be a dud—or worse, a fraud. Verbum sapientibus. Maybe journal-sponsoring libraries should consider becoming OASPA members? What about journal-hosting platforms such as BePress?)

OASPA probably can’t fix the double-dippers’ little red wagons, either, as double-dippers are unlikely to become OASPA members. It would be nice to have an authoritative list of double-dippers—or, really, a list of hybrid-OA programs that aren’t double-dipping would do just as well. Again, the goal for libraries is to be able to make sensible policy based on trustworthy lists.

Even with all these caveats, I think an OASPA certification program represents a tremendous opportunity for the OA community. Gold OA is still small. It’s much easier to put meaningful quality regulation in place over a small, emerging, prestige-hungry industry. If gold OA manages to do that, then it suddenly has another competitive advantage over toll-access, which hasn’t done so and (given its extent and decentralization) very likely can’t.

If squashing the Benthams and SJIs of this world also results, then hurrah! I certainly won’t shed any tears. One less information instruction burden—because really, who is going to educate new scholars about the publication landscape they inhabit if not us librarians? Clearly there are some information gaps to be filled now!