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February 2007
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April 2007

No More Print?

Over on the liblicense-l list, Mark Leader, from the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) has just posted a question:

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) is considering discontinuing the print version of its journal Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBC). We welcome comments from the library community about the value of print journals and the adequacy of LOCKSS, Portico, and PubMed Central as archives of electronic journals. We are also curious about whether librarians would be interested in a print-on-demand option for obtaining archival print copies if regular print subscriptions were discontinued.

The impetus for discontinuing the print edition is a desire to reduce author charges, especially for color figures. The cost of producing the print edition greatly exceeds revenue from print subscriptions. Author charges (page charges and color charges) are the largest source of revenue for the journal. In effect, authors are subsidizing the print subscriptions.

(There's more to his post, which you can find here.)

At my institution, we're canceling as much print as we can anyway.  One of our criteria is the adequacy of the  preservation/archiving  plan, and I'm glad that Leader mentions several.  I'll confess to a fondness for LOCKSS, largely because of the philosophy behind it.  The National Library of Medicine has a statutory responsibility to preserve the biomedical literature, and I have a great deal of confidence in PubMed as a perpetual archive.  I'm not as familiar with Portico, but it seems to be pretty promising.  My advice to ASCB would be to participate in all of them.  We're still early enough into all of this that we don't know what the best long-term solution will be.

We're also concerned with perpetual rights to material should we ever end our subscription/license altogether.   The notion of offering a print-on-demand option for archival copies is an intriguing one, although not one that I think we'd avail ourselves of here.  As Leader points out further on in his message, ASCB considers the online journal to be the journal of record anyway and  "[m]ore than 60% of the articles include supplemental data or videos online."  I'm not sure why someone would want to keep archival copies of the print issue under those circumstances.  We'd just want to be sure that we have some kind of binding agreement that would insure electronic access to the material that we've paid for.

We certainly don't need to keep the print to satisfy our user base.  Two years ago we stopped getting any print for our ScienceDirect titles.  I did not get a single question, comment, or expression of concern from faculty or students.   We've reached the point where librarians tend to worry a lot more about the print than the people who use our libraries do.

The kind of publishing model that ASCB typifies (and many of the Highwire Press/DC Principles journals are similar) has contributed, over time, to my questioning of the all-or-nothing approach to open access.  Their institutional subscription rate is $578/year for 5400 pages, so they can hardly be accused of contributing to the serials prices crisis.  Given the nature of their publication it is unlikely that anyone who would need the material for their research or educational purposes is in an institution that doesn't provide access, and it's hard for me to fathom the urgent need of some member of the general public for articles from the two months worth of issues that are embargoed before they make everything free anyway.  Why shouldn't institutions help to keep the costs to authors down by paying a very reasonable subscription fee for one of the best journals in the field?

I have, from time to time, asked hardcore open access advocates why a journal like this needs to be immediate open access.  I have yet to hear a convincing argument.


We're All "Digital Services Librarians" Now

I'm a bit puzzled by the invitation to participate in a discussion about Electronic Resources Access & Management Systems (ERAMS) at the upcoming ACRL meeting that appeared in my inbox from one of the discussion lists a few days ago:

We are looking for the first 50 participants who are willing to visualize a library not focused solely on print resource management and willing to go out on a limb and conceptualize the library which is focused on user access and management of online resources & services.

'Scuse me?   "Willing to visualize a library not focused solely on print resource management"?  This is a radical notion?

I have a hard time believing that there is an academic library in the country whose representatives to the ACRL conference are not visualizing a library not focused solely on print resource management.  And does it really require a willingness to "go out on a limb" to "conceptualize the library which is focused on user access..."?

So I went to the website that they've set up at, and while there's not a lot there yet, it looks like a good place for some discussion of these issues.

But I'm still baffled by the rhetorical stance.  I'd have to go back and check, but it's got to be at least a dozen years ago that the AAHSL directors first held a workshop on licensing electronic resources, recognizing that this was going to become a larger and larger component of our work.   When we hired R2 Consulting to do some work for us three years ago, it was because they'd been doing workshops on e-resource management & workflow for several years.  These issues have certainly permeated the program at the Charleston Conference for longer than the five years or so that I've been attending.  This is not exactly new.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that the challenges don't still exist, and maybe creating another web community devoted to them is a good thing, but the way they phrase the questions makes me feel like I'm in a bit of timewarp.  Maybe I'm just missing something.

One of the three posts currently up on the site raises the question of whether or not we should be creating "a new department focused solely on electronic."   Again, job descriptions like "digital services librarian" etc., have been around for over a decade.  I've always been sceptical that it's a good idea in the long run, although for some libraries it may be a useful first step.  As digital resources become more and more predominant, every person working in a library is going to have to deal with them and every job is going to be affected.  The creation of a "Digital Collection Services Department" suggests, to the rest of the library staff (and presumably to the users of that library) that dealing with e-resources is only the purview of those folks over there -- those weird techy librarians.  The rest of us should continue to focus on the print resources that we know and love and rather than adapt our processes and workflows to incorporate the rapidly increasing amount of digital content, we'll set up parallel workflows that focus only on digital.  (And then we'll have to figure out whose job it is to deal with the print textbook that is only the tip of a website iceberg.   For example).

In the long run, I fear that the library that takes that approach is going to end up with bigger human resource management problems down the line, and have a more difficult time bringing everybody along.  If we really are determined to create organizations that are "focused on user access and management of online resources and services," then everybody in the place has to be a digital services librarian.

Nonetheless, the website looks like it has potential, and there are some smart and experienced people behind it, so it may come to play a useful part in the discussion.  I just wish it didn't look like they think this stuff is so radically new.


At that session in DC, one of the publisher reps described being in a working group meeting, with a librarian on either side of him, both of whom told him that FRPAA would be just the first step, that if they could get the 6-month embargo enshrined, the next thing to work for would be the elimination of embargoes altogether.

Anyone who believes this, but argues publicly that publishers should have no complaint about FRPAA because the embargo is designed to protect their subscription base, is arguing in bad faith.  They should not be trusted.  They should not be listened to.

Unfortunately, there's so much noise in the discussion that it is very difficult to assess what people really believe based just on what they say.    The publishers have decided it is safer not to trust any of 'em.  That's probably a sensible position.

I am, intentionally, committing a version of the same fallacy when I say, "the publishers".   I have long been convinced that there is almost no statement of the form "Publishers [verb] [clause]" that can possibly be more than trivially true, because of the vast variety of business models, objectives, sense of mission and organizational pressures affecting publishers.

So let me put it this way -- individual people with whom I have had conversations, who work for publishing entities and have expressed concerns about FRPAA, seem to have a lot of trouble trusting that the proponents of FRPAA are not acting in bad faith.    And I'm hard pressed to say that I blame them -- even though individual people with whom I have had conversations, who are FRPAA advocates and believe in the benefits of it, actually ARE acting in good faith.   

I don't know how we get around this.   I wonder what the impact would be if proponents of FRPAA were willing to go on record that, for federally funded research, a six-month embargo is sufficient to meet the needs and moral demands of open access.  Maybe I should start my own petition:

We, the undersigned, believe that the results of federally funded research should be made freely available to the public within a reasonable period -- generally six to twelve months depending on the discipline and other relevant economic factors -- and we encourage scholarly societies to develop policies and practices to make that happen.  We further believe that subscription revenue plays an important and useful role in managing the scholarly communication process and we pledge to support the activities of those not-for-profit entities that actively develop policies that minimize subscription rates.  Finally, we believe that there are research potentials that can only be gained when copies of scholarly papers are deposited in robust, interoperable archives, and we encourage scholarly societies to make such deposits, but only when the policies of such archives are designed to protect the brand and quality control mechanisms of those scholarly societies.

Nah.  Nobody'd sign.


FRPAA reservations

I’m not as bothered by the notion of more government involvement in the scholarly communication process as some of the publishers among the DC Principles folks are.  I suppose this is due to my long association with the National Library of Medicine and the respect and trust I have for the people who work there.  Nonetheless, those who blithely dismiss the concerns expressed by the publishers as nothing more than venal obfuscation should reflect on the current administration's track record in supporting the free and open dissemination of scientific information – the EPA libraries debacle is only the tip of a very ugly iceberg. 

The recent Elsevier/HHMI deal, and the similar one with the Wellcome Trust, might give some people pause as well – would supporters of FRPAA be as enthusiastic about it if the end result is a system in which the commercial publishers are paid a couple of thousand bucks each for depositing the author manuscripts in PMC or some other open archive?  Why is that a better deal for taxpayers than having authors publish their work in society journals that already make their content freely available after an embargo period?

My biggest reservation about FRPAA, however, is one that I actually haven’t seen addressed, although I’ve discussed it with some of the academic leadership here.  If we end up with a requirement that papers reporting federally funded research must be deposited, institutions are going to have to set up mechanisms to insure that this actually happens.  I’ve been watching what my university has gone through over the past couple of years to improve our collection and verification of effort reports – required by the federal government to verify that researchers are actually spending the time working on sponsored projects that they're being paid for.  This has been a huge investment of time and energy and money, and we’re still not quite at 100%.  Complying with a public access mandate is going to require another significant layer of administrative management.  This is an area where I think librarians can be very helpful, but make no mistake, it will require substantial investment, particularly for those institutions that receive the major portion of federal funding.  Is the cost worth it?  Well, we haven’t had that discussion.

It’s unfortunate that support for FRPAA has become such a litmus test for open access.  It seems to be a given that if one supports the notion that taxpayers should have better access to the results of federally funded research, then one must be a supporter of FRPAA.  This is certainly the case with the petition that is currently being bandied about.  But isn’t it possible that one could support the notion that the government "can and must act to ensure that all potential users have free and timely access on the Internet to peer-reviewed federal research findings" (as the petition says) and still think that FRPAA is poorly drafted legislation, rife with the potential for negative unintended consequences?


We spent quite a bit of time talking about "authentication" -- the role that publishers play in vetting material, managing peer review, essentially saying, "this is the stuff that's worth checking out."  The economic model that has sustained publishing in the print world ties revenue to distribution, but in the digital world, distribution is easy (although, as has been pointed out to me by publishers, presentation is still complex).  So I keep trying to figure out a way to develop a business model that ties revenue more directly to the peer review function.

I imagine something like this -- young, ambitious physiologist goes before the tenure and promotion committee.  They've got a list of the papers that they've written and deposited in various open repositories -- young physiologist has been hard-working and prolific.  Chair of the committee looks through the list and says, "But where are the papers that have been vetted by the American Physiological Society?  How do we know that any of these are any good?"

In this version of an alternative future, APS has gotten out of the distribution business, but has become the most respected source of the imprimatur in physiology.  Want to get the stamp of approval of the best of your peers?  Send your paper to APS, and they'll put it through their (vastly improved from present day, as long as we're dreaming) peer review process.  It comes back with their seal of approval (with authenticated metadata so that regardless of where it is deposited it is easy for somebody to find and verify it).  After all, it's not that present-day ambitious young scientist wants to get a paper into Nature because they've got the best distribution system!  It's because they are respected as presenting the material of the highest quality.   

How might such a system work economically?  It could be done on a paper by paper basis, similar to the transaction model of publishing used by PLoS or BMC.  One can imagine that in that case, there' d be an incentive for young scientist to only send their very best work to APS -- you wouldn't want to spend the money on having your piece reviewed unless you were as sure as you could be that it would pass muster.   Alternatively, if an institution is a hotbed of physiological research, it might be in that institution's interest to contract on an annual basis with APS to handle review of everything that its young scientists produce.     My department of biophysics becomes an institutional member of APS, and one of the benefits is access to their imprimatur process.

When I floated this idea down the long conference table, the publishers were quick to point out the difficulties inherent in moving to such a system.  Well, of course!  It's a massive disruption from the current system, and any such disruption is going to result in some current players having to put more money into the system, and some current players ending up with less.   

But one way or another, massive economic disruption is happening.  The current system is changing radically, and that is not going to stop.  The question, it seems to me, is whether we can devise a system in which we are paying more directly for the most essential element of the process -- peer review and the stamp of authenticity -- rather than using what is now the least important part of the process -- distribution -- as a proxy.

It's going to be tough, no question about it.  But I would love to see librarians and the people who run scholarly societies putting their heads together to see how we might make such a system work.  We have the same interests at heart.


Taking Time For Conversation

Last Thursday, while I imagine that the Elsevier execs who had sealed the deal with HHMI were giving thanks for the leaders of the open access movement, I spent the day sequestered in a small conference room on the FASEB campus in DC.  Hosted by Highwire Press and the DC Principles Coalition, this was the second session billed as a "conversation" between librarians and society publishers.  There were about a dozen of each, and it was refreshing to be able to actually pursue some ideas at length, and work through areas of considered agreement and disagreement, rather than engaging in the kinds of potshots in press releases and on discussion lists and blogs that are  generally a substitute for conversation.

Clearly, everyone who was in that room is deeply committed to expanding access to scholarly information as far as possible.  It was pointed out that the Highwire Press publishers comprise what is the largest archive of freely available articles in the world,  with well over a million and a half articles, from many of the most highly cited journals, available now, and more added everyday.  Thirty-seven of the journals make their content freely available upon publication, and 235 make their content available after an embargo period, most often of 12 months, although a few have longer delays and a number have shorter.

However, because those publishers who are also part of the DC Principles Coalition are opposed to government mandates such as FRPAA, they are considered the enemies of the open access movement, even though among them they provide a huge amount of high-quality open access content.   I can understand their frustration.

As was pointed out early in the day, though, the open access movement is a socio-political movement, and not entirely rational.  So what we were attempting to do was to find some areas of common ground on which to build a discussion of what kind of scholarly communication world we would like to see, what is the place of subscription revenue within that, and what are the opportunities for librarians and publishers to work together to create the kind of future that serves all of our interests well.

I'm hopeful that we'll be able to do some follow-up from this meeting and keep the conversation going.  I came away from the day renewed in the belief that if we could have more of this kind of real conversation, we could get past all of the line-in-the-sand rhetoric that currently makes enemies of people who ought to be allies.

Unintended Consequences

It is certainly ironic, although not particularly surprising, that one of the results of the open access movement has been to provide Elsevier with a new revenue stream.   Ironic, because, as Ray English noted in his presentation at Charleston last year, at least some of the passion with which librarians embraced open access was driven by their frustration and anger at Elsevier's pricing policies.  Not surprising, because if anybody is going to figure out a way to turn the changing terrain of scholarly publishing to their advantage, it is going to be the smart people at Elsevier.

As I've noted before, I have nothing against Elsevier  and the other commercial publishers.  I have good friends who work in that sector, and many of the people are just as dedicated and high-minded about what they're doing as any librarian.  In my dream world, I'd like to see the commercial outfits out of scholarly publishing (and all of the people who work for them happily making money and good lives elsewhere) only because I think that universities, scholarly societies and other not for profits could do a perfectly fine job of taking care of scholarly communication needs, while keeping all of the money within the system, rather than siphoning some off to shareholders.  But since we don't live in my dream world, the commercial publishers are every bit as much our partners in this enterprise and we should be treating them as such.

But it's hard for me to see how the HHMI/Elsevier agreement (or the similar agreement they have with the Wellcome Trust) meets any of the fundamental goals of the open access movement.  The author's manuscript versions get deposited in PubMed Central, which is a good thing, I suppose.  But it's still a six-month embargo.  It's also the case that for those journals six months should be sufficient to prevent significant (if any) cancellations, so Elsevier gets a public relations boost and a new revenue stream to boot.   It is certainly a good outcome for them.  Perhaps, if librarians had worked harder to encourage faculty to publish in, say, the Highwire journals that make their content freely available after an embargo period anyway, things might have turned out differently.

Librarians Unbound

I posted a brief comment last night over on the ALA Techsource blog in response to a mini-manifesto by Karen Schneider about LC's Bibliographic Data meeting that was held yesterday.   She makes many good points, but what actually sparked my note was a couple of spots in which she commits what I think of as the major semantic fallacy bedeviling librarians today.  To wit:  "a librarian complained to me that he was having a hard time catching his library's attention on new digital initiatives" and "Libraries across the country are increasingly asked to justify their existence"....

I'm sure what she meant was that the librarian in the first quote was having a hard time catching the attention of the colleagues that he worked with, and that it is librarians that are being asked to justify the existence of their libraries.   We use this shorthand all the time, and in an earlier age, it probably didn't matter much.  But as we struggle with the changes of the digital world, this careless equivalence of librarians and libraries matters a great deal.

My favorite phrases in the piece are where she refers to "the librarian as information artisan—a professional creating and using tools to manage information" and harkens back to the "bold days when we saw our central roles as defenders and curators of our cultural heritage."  I like the notion of librarians as artisans (although "creating and using tools to manage information" is unnecessarily narrow and restrictive), and I believe with all my heart that the core of our existence is indeed as defenders and curators of the cultural heritage.

But not the defenders and curators of libraries.  And that's where the distinction becomes critically important.  For all of the long history of librarianship, building collections, building libraries, and developing services that were centered around those collections and those physical spaces were the best means that we had to fulfill that core function.  But as so often happens in human endeavors, we eventually confused the means for the end.  Librarians are correct when they worry that libraries are becoming less relevant -- and I think of our forebears in the scriptoria, laboriously copying texts, viewing the arrival of the printed book with great alarm.  Who would need well designed and run libraries anymore, when just about anybody would be able to own their own identical copy of a printed book?  Surely, Gutenberg's diabolical invention was the deathknell of librarianship.

We have got to get it into our heads -- and into the way that we speak -- that libraries are no longer the be-all and end-all of our existence.  They will remain important, they will continue to require good librarians to tend them -- but if that's all that librarians focus on, if we endlessly fuss about how to get people to use our libraries, we will not be looking creatively at the things that can now be done in the digital world to fulfill our key cultural roles.

Librarians need to free themselves from the tyranny of the library.  This is hard, I know.  All of us in the field, to one degree or another, love libraries and feel emotionally bound to them.  But they are only a means.  Libraries don't do anything -- librarians do.