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!

Addenda and power relations

I’ve got an article coming out next year in Cataloging and Classification Quarterly with the utterly unscintillating title “Name authority control in institutional repositories.” For those few who might actually care, I am told that the issue should come out in April 2009 as v. 47 no. 3/4.

That’s not the interesting bit. (Trust me, I wrote the article and even I am not sure it’s interesting… though it’s found a couple readers already.) The interesting bit is what happened around rights.

C&CQ is published by Taylor and Francis. Their copyright transfer agreement is a pretty typical “we own your firstborn child in perpetuity” deal; the author can use her article herself, and can make it available at her institution, but that’s it.

I got an email from the issue editors yesterday morning, from which I will quote (sans permission):

Some of you expressed concerns about the inconsistencies between the copyright transfer form and the T&F statements on author rights. Several of you attached an author addendum to the publication agreement– a practice T&F ordinarily does not allow.

I’ve heard quite a bit about publishers turning down addenda. I read a blog post last week (which I can’t find, me and my steel-sieve brain) about the usual excuse being that publishers don’t have time or energy to run every single addendum past their lawyers, so they don’t accept any at all. The post I read last week pointed out rather acerbically that libraries have to deal with bizarre and inconsistent licensing deals from publishers, which is utterly true—check the Chronk or lisjobs.com for “e-serials” or “e-resource” librarians if you don’t believe me; licensing is most of what those folks do. The response from publishers was “well, we don’t have the resources to spend on lawyers.” The blogger’s response? “Well, if we didn’t have to deal with your licenses, we could spend more money on your materials!”

Which is true as well, but for my purposes beside the point. What I’m interested in here is the power relations. Publishers can shove ridiculous licensing terms at libraries because the negotiation there is anything but a libertarian’s egalitarian ideal. Publishers have the upper hand and they know it, because they have what patrons are demanding that librarians can’t get anywhere else.

A slightly later bit of the email from the issue editors read thusly:

Taylor and Francis will accept the SPARC author addendum for all authors
of papers in this special issue of CCQ.

Well, now. Isn’t that interesting, from a power-relations point of view. Faced with the worst-case possibility of yanked articles (open-access types are bulldogs) and a dead-in-the-water special issue, not to mention browned-off editors and authors, Taylor and Francis folded.

I don’t think this will work every time. Special themed issues are special; one can’t just put another article on the fast track to replace an article that’s been yanked, as one can with an ordinary journal issue. Librarians are special too; some of us are tenure-track and need every publication we can muster, but some of us aren’t and can therefore afford to be stubborn about things like rights.

Even without that stubbornness, though, it’s worth noting that author addenda put publishers in the uneasy position of saying “no” to authors, even refusing to publish an article, over something that is palpably unrelated to the article’s quality. Given publishers’ highminded avowals of existing purely for the furtherance of quality scholarship, I think the cognitive dissonance created in authors’ minds by addendum refusal is probably a good and useful thing… even though addenda themselves have proven to be weak sauce in the rubber-meets-road sense of literature hitting the Web. One more evidence of shifting power relations…

I should shamefacedly confess that despite my non-tenure-track status, I wasn’t one of the ones fussing about the copyright transfer. I’m living proof of the hypothesis that at least part of the OA citation advantage has to do with authors making their better articles OA. I’m not ashamed of the C&CQ article, mind you, but I’m also aware it’s not my best work ever. (I have to stop doing my best work so damn early in my career. I’ll never top the London presentation for sheer impact, and I doubt I’ll ever top Roach Motel either.)

Still, I signed me a SPARC addendum and sent it in. Free rights!

My Father the Anthropologist; or, What I Offer Open Access and Why

In 1980 or thereabouts—I was eight or nine—my father the anthropologist started yet another rant about serials cancellations at his university’s library while he drove the family somewhere in the family car. He thought the problem an artifact of library underfunding, I remember. I don’t recall that he ever did anything about it save rail bitterly on the subject to us, his captive, powerless, and resentful audience.

At the inaugural meeting of the Open eBook Forum in 2000, David Ornstein and Janina Sajka explained what they hoped electronic books would accomplish. Amid the faux-visionary fluff and the crass dollar signs, one hope they expressed made me vibrate: that for the first time, a visually-impaired person would be able to walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble and buy a book off the shelf just like anyone else.

Access to human knowledge and creativity. Access for the wrongly disenfranchised. Access. I loved markup, I loved text, I loved design, I loved standards work—but then and afterward, it was the access argument that kept me engaged with electronic books. My father the anthropologist, his own eyes not what they had been, understood and endorsed that argument at once.

I certainly know how reassuring accurate, authoritative medical information can be. When my father the anthropologist went to the hospital for bypass surgery, I looked for every scrap of reliable information I could find about what he’d have to go through, what his chances were, what would happen afterwards. Information is hope for helpless bystanders.

I know what information gaps mean to the efficacy of medical care, too. I started my quest to treat my repetitive stress injury when my hands and wrists hurt so badly I couldn’t sleep some nights, nor survive a day’s work without severe pain. The open web, obvious misinformation aside, contained little more than nonsensical and insulting condemnations of RSI sufferers as malingerers, as well as blatant advertising of invasive surgery on the websites of orthopedic surgeons.

My primary-care physician insisted on old-fashioned treatment modalities before she would refer me anywhere. I paid for and endured weeks of wrist braces that I knew would not relieve my pain because I had tried them, as well as a tennis-elbow strap that left me in such agony that I refused to put up with it longer than a day. I did achieve a referral at last, and physical therapy turned out to be the right treatment. As I healed, the new search skills I was acquiring in library school, along with the access that being a student entitled me to, helped me discover that the medical literature understood why my doctor’s initial recommendations had been wrong. Why did I waste time, money, and pain over my inability to produce reliable information to assist my medical provider in treating me appropriately?

I can only be glad I wasn’t suffering from anything life-threatening, like artery blockage.

I was slotted into an online course in “Virtual Collection Development,” taught with patient lucidity by Jane Pearlmutter, my first semester in library school. Among the readings was “The Librarians’ Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the ‘Big Deal’” by the University of Wisconsin’s own Ken Frazier. There it was again, this problem of serials cancellations, framed in terms so transparently sensible that I could only exult.

Later in the semester came a unit on open access. It would be nice to say that lightning struck and I knew that was what I wanted to do with my professional life, but it didn’t and I didn’t. Of course I was intrigued; I knew several for-profit journal publishers from the worm’s-eye view of an erstwhile lowly data-conversion peasant. I wove the complaints I remembered from my father the anthropologist, my own experience in scholarly publishing, and what I learned in class into a rich, detailed mental tapestry, and I felt real hope that open access was an answer I could take back to him that he would understand and appreciate. Discovering that I would shortly join the profession backing open access only confirmed that library school was the right choice for me, even should I not work in the open-access niche myself.

When I landed my first library position just after graduating, I called my father the anthropologist. His first question was “How much will you be paid?” I declined answering. His second question was “What’s your title?”

“Digital Repository Services Librarian,” I said, with pride and no little amusement.

On the other end of the line, a lengthy silence.

My father the anthropologist used to buy lab equipment out of his own pocket, rather than struggle with byzantine university purchasing procedures and skeptical departmental scrutiny. Rightly or wrongly, he was convinced no one would understand or support him and his work, but he refused to knuckle under. He would do what it took, spend what he had to, to further the research he fervently believed in.

I have bought quite a bit out of my own pocket too, rather than charge it to the libraries that have employed me. I have bought color inkjet printers, various sorts of expensive paper for brochures and bookmarks and whatnot, and poster printing. I have bought software that I use for work-related purposes. Once I bought an expensive print run of a color brochure because an opportunity came up to distribute a lot at once so suddenly that I didn’t have time to print and fold them myself as I usually did. I bought a cross-country trip to an important repository conference when I was de facto between jobs. I bought a laptop on which I do repository-related work when the occasion warrants. I have bought buttons with images of Mars on them, because when you’re handed a golden acronym you might as well make the most of it. Like as not the libraries I have worked in would have paid for some or all of this—I never asked.

I have read, written, rewritten, commented, and debugged code in Java, Python, and XSLT. I have tweaked JSPs, murdered unnecessary HTML tables, and rewritten CSS designs from the ground up, swearing sulfurously at various versions of Internet Explorer. I have edited metadata in XML by hand. I have translated Endnote records into Dublin Core. I have screenscraped ugly HTML and cudgeled it into legible metadata. I have screenscraped yet more ugly HTML for transformation into preservation-worthy markup. I have built convoluted SQL queries slowly and carefully from the inside out, run them on production databases with fear and trepidation, and once or twice cleaned up after them when I’ve gotten them wrong. I have typed cargo-cult incantations at command lines to keep server software running and upgraded, and raked Google for answers when some incantations didn’t work as promised.

I have stared at lengthy CVs with a sigh, and then waded resolutely in to clear rights on as many of the publications as I could. I have searched SHERPA/RoMEO and Bowker’s Books in Print. I have hunted down agreements from publisher websites. I have asked faculty for their copyright-transfer-agreement files, and tried not to let my smile grow too pained when they told me they don’t keep such things. I have explained the difference between preprints, postprints, and publisher PDFs to politely incredulous auditors. I have read scads of legalese, and interpreted it as best I could. I have read and pondered the words of librarians and lawyers who understand the legal fine points much better than I. I have made some risky calls, likely some wrong ones. I haven’t been called on the carpet for them… yet.

I have held one-on-one meetings and demo sessions with faculty and librarians. I have designed and produced brochures, flyers, slideshows, posters, web pages, wiki pages, and one mini-movie. I have presented at innumerable campus expos, showcases, lectures, symposia, conferences, and workshops. I have called and written my elected representatives. I have blogged. I have written articles and self-archived them, sometimes after polite and fruitful discussions with publishers. I have run any number of failed efforts toward building a community of practice among repository managers, each new attempt the triumph of hope over experience. I have cold-called librarians, faculty, department chairs, deans, and administrators. I have been to more meetings than ought to fit in the three years I’ve been doing this.

You needn’t be obsessed like my father the anthropologist and me. Believe me, that’s the last thing I’d recommend to anyone. If you cannot find even one thing you can do in the above list, though, I wonder about you.

I once explained to a pleasant elderly faculty member that the repository didn’t easily allow changes. “It’s like a roach motel,” I said. “Files go in, but they don’t go out. Once they’re there, they’re stuck.” Suppressed chuckles from librarians in nearby cubicles greeted that statement, and I returned from ushering the faculty member out to find that my colleagues had good-humoredly dubbed me the Innkeeper at the Roach Motel.

I loved the sobriquet, despite the unhappy truth of its depiction of institutional repositories. I have never liked telling faculty members that my services couldn’t do what they needed, and I’ve had to tell them that often and often. Worst of all, I couldn’t envision my services as anything my father the anthropologist would find useful, compelling, or even comprehensible; the promise of green open access was fading fast in the unforgiving floodlights of faculty diffidence. I looked around the open-access community for understanding and a path forward, but I found little to help or reassure me.

My father the anthropologist and I are alike in one way at least: we don’t suffer fruitless systems in silence. In one way at least, we are different: I cannot content myself with complaining to the powerless and uninvolved.

I don’t think there’s a community I operate in that my gadfly ways haven’t irked or even alienated. My library school. My librarian colleagues. DSpace developers. Green open access. Library bloggers. The DSpace Foundation. Library coders. Repository managers. The open-access community in general. While I accept all this as the price gadflies pay for being pests, it is no source of pride, nor is it pleasant. I have feared for my job, and like as not I deserve to. I have feared that the career I find myself in will not exist in five years’ time, and I have wondered uneasily whether my own behavior has hastened rather than forestalled that eventuality. I have been cautioned, questioned, belittled, berated, cut down to size in public, stepped cautiously away from, set up as homo stramineus, misquoted, deliberately or carelessly ignored—and much of it I have richly earned.

I have also been heeded. I have also made change. Not much, perhaps; certainly not all the change I wanted to make, wanted to show my father the anthropologist, wanted to offer the world. Even so, change is my gift to them and to you: my gift I offer in my much-abused hands on this Open Access Day.

Rodin, La Cathedrale

Rodin, La Cathedrale.
Photo by Wallace Grobetz, via Flickr and the Creative Commons.