Can You Have It Both Ways?
December 12, 2006
"Myth: Everything is available for free on the Internet."
If there is one frustration I hear more than any other on the part of hospital librarians, it's the need to combat this notion. In the recently released Myths and Truths About Library Services it occupies a central place in the justification for maintaining hospital libraries. And the myth is false, of course -- according to the document, only 30% of the medical literature is freely available on the web, and only 60% of article content published since 1992 is available electronically at all.
A couple of months ago, there was some discussion on the Hospital Library Section list about the upcoming MLA Symposium on open access. Several correspondents said they wouldn't attend such a symposium since they didn't see how it was at all relevant to their situations. They're much more concerned with justifying their existence by trying to convince their feckless administrators that everything isn't freely available on the internet.
Perhaps they should be more concerned about their colleagues at the symposium who will be trying to figure out how to change the scholarly communication system so that everything is available for free on the internet.
I get a similar sense of cognitive dissonance when I hear librarians holding fast to the argument that publishers needn't fear FRPAA because there's no reason to think that libraries are going to cancel subscriptions if there's a six-month embargo. Personally, I think that is largely true -- but wasn't the point of librarian support for open access that it was going to save us money? And how is that going to happen if we're not able to cancel subscriptions? Have we abandoned the notion that we should be supporting open access because it will help libraries financially?
There are lots of these mixed messages out there. The harder that we work for complete open access, the more we weaken one of the central arguments for the value of hospital libraries. Are we working sufficiently hard to frame new arguments for hospital librarians to use in an open access world?
When Ray English spoke at the Charleston Conference this year, he started his talk by referring to librarian frustration at ever rising subscription prices. He went on to talk about the need to support FRPAA, and dismissed publisher fears about what it would do to their subscription base. And by the end of his talk, he was calling for the end of the subscription system. Is it any wonder that publishers are suspicious when he claims that they shouldn't be worried about FRPAA?
I'm just looking for some consistency. It seems to me that if the end point of the open access movement is to have everything freely available on the internet, we had better start coming up with new arguments for the value of hospital libraries, and quick; and we should be honest with the publishers and say that if we get what we want, we're going to quit subscribing to their journals and that FRPAA is just one tactical step along the way.
"...wasn't the point of librarian support for open access that it was going to save us money? And how is that going to happen if we're not able to cancel subscriptions? Have we abandoned the notion that we should be supporting open access because it will help libraries financially?"
While some librarians jumped on the OA bandwagon as a cost-saving philosophy, the original impetus was for better access. Also, remember the original OA ideal was more along the lines of PLoS or BMC--a new type of publishing. The six to twelve month voluntary embargo "OA" is essentially a political response (primarily by society publishers) to the OA movement, and can hardly be considered a new type of publishing, just an alteration to their previous rules. FRPAA (which came about because a Senator got pissed about no access) merely codifies these rules for a small minority of articles.
As we've discovered since OA became a hot topic, it means different things to different people. To expect consistency in the still early stages of this movement is foolish, and a red herring argument.
Regarding mixed messages: why does arguing for complete open access weaken the value of hospital librarians any more than it weakens the value of academic librarians? If all librarians represent is a way to get access, then the people in Purchasing can take over our jobs, whether in medical schools or hospitals. Librarians add value to the information process. If information is easier to get because of OA, that allows librarians to add value elsewhere.
BTW, why can't we use italics in these comments?
Posted by: Bogie6 | December 12, 2006 at 11:32 AM
Regarding my comments about hospital librarians -- I did not mean at all to imply that complete open access weakens the value of hospital librarians. It only weakens the "everything isn't free and on the internet" argument for the value of librarians. I certainly believe that the value of librarians lies in how they, as you say, add value to the information process. If we're serious about trying to create an open access world, then we need to do a better job at making the arguments about where else we add value.
(As for the lack of formatting capabilities in the comments -- damned if I know. I've never bothered to try to figure it out.)
Posted by: T Scott | December 12, 2006 at 12:42 PM
It has been my great pleasure to work with hospital librarians these last few years. They are dedicated people doing great things with very limited resources and even less institutional support.
What do hospital librarians do if everything is free? Sadly, I think the answer is, nothing. That is the down side to technological advance, there are winners and losers and I fear the losers in this case will be hospital librarians. Why do I say this? I say this not because I don’t believe there is no such thing as added services. On the contrary, I think there will be great need for added services and support for users in the hospital setting. However, I think that the technology works against embedding those services in each and every hospital across the land. I can see these services being consolidated in public and private medical school libraries. In the age of the web, there is no need to have a librarian down the hall; support services can all be done remotely from a small office in Lister Hill Library (to use one example).
I truly don’t mean to offend anyone by these statements. I have a great deal of respect for hospital librarians. Almost every hospital librarian I have ever met is hard working and dedicated. Problem is, the dynamics of the web encourage centralisation. I also suspect that the skill sets required for the ‘added support services’ will be very specialised and would be better served by consolidating in a single location and serving the services remotely via the web. I could be wrong, in my heart I hope I am, but I think I will prove to be correct in my assessment.
Posted by: MarkD | December 12, 2006 at 03:01 PM
I'm with Trenchcoat--Open access is about increasing access, not reducing subscription prices. If that happens, great. But it's possible that the money freed up by providing open access to primary research could purchase a whole host of value-added products, meaning no net savings for libraries. So the argument for open access should never rest on reducing library expenses.
Posted by: Marcus | December 12, 2006 at 10:02 PM
I think (hope?) that MarkD underestimates the value of personal contact and the potential value of hospital librarians in the changing world. Our experience here may be illustrative -- everyone in the hospital has access to everything that Lister Hill licenses. One could say that in their environment, everything is already free and on the internet. And yet, we maintain a small branch library, with 2.5 fte (1.5 degreed librarians, one paraprofessional). Some of their work is just helping residents and clinicians find the right stuff for their particular needs, some of it involves working with the committees that are dealing with patient education or electronic medical records and the like. The expertise that they bring is considered valuable enough that the hospital spends a substantial sum every year to keep that operation going. The hospital library is probably becoming less important, but the librarians are more important than ever. I think that's the kind of shift that needs to be made. I agree with MarkD to the extent that some centralization is no doubt occurring and we will see the continuing erosion of hospital libraries -- but in many institutions, there will continue to be important roles for the librarians.
As for open access, subscriptions, and FRPAA, if trenchcoat and Marcus are correct that librarian support for open access initiatives is not based in a belief that it'll help resolve librarians budget woes, then I'm encouraged (I've been arguing for years that we should be supporting OA because it enhances access, not that it is going to make things easier for librarians); but I think they must be listening to different presentations than I am. I'll refer again to Ray English's presentation at the Charleston Conference (which is available online). Ray certainly is one of the leading librarian proponents of open access and his talk represents what I think of the "orthodox" view of open access. In that talk he does clearly claim that the impetus of the open access movement came from librarian frustration at increased prices, and makes a direct link between support for FRPAA and the gradual dissolution of the subscription system. I agree with trenchcoat that it would be foolish to look for consistency in definitions of open access at this point, but that doesn't justify making illogical arguments. I have a lot of respect for the work that Ray has done, but I think there are inconsistencies there that paradoxically weaken the arguments for open access.
Posted by: T Scott | December 13, 2006 at 07:21 AM
Scott, no one would be happier then me if I were proved wrong on this one. However, I suspect that the same forces of centralization that have impacted STM publishing will also impact the library community.
I have read many of your observations on this issue on this very blog. You frequently talk of the library as more then a building. The implication is that the library is now accessed electronically - rather than physically. That is a strong indication of the centralizing trend.
In addition, hospitals have become businesses. The trend in business is to out-source functions that are not central to their business. Many hospital librarians over the years have complained to me that their administrations view ‘educational materials’ as a function best served by medical schools. This view is especially prevalent in teaching hospitals. Medicare doesn’t pay hospitals to provide educational services.
As for the purpose of OA, I am totally in your camp. I have spoken to librarians from one end of the globe to the other. The overwhelming consensus in my not so scientific survey – librarians primarily see OA as a cost cutting measure.
Posted by: MarkD | December 13, 2006 at 04:01 PM
I should clarify: I'm speaking of the "pure" case for open access.
The impetus for open access did indeed grow from librarian frustration with high subscription prices. If subscription prices were not so large, and did not rise much faster than inflation in many cases, librarians would not be such boosters of open access publishing.
But that's a strategic mistake, because open access is about just that--increasing access. Librarians should still support the cause even if our costs do not decline.
Posted by: Marcus | December 13, 2006 at 06:49 PM