Ethical Publishing Choices and the Librarian Researcher

by DeDe Dawson @dededawson
Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

As librarians we have a unique vantage point on the scholarly publishing market – both as publishing researchers ourselves and as our institution’s agents in acquiring content from publishers. We are perfectly situated to appreciate the dysfunction and unsustainability of the current for-profit system. And I believe we have a professional obligation to raise the awareness of our university colleagues about this issue. Certainly many of our faculty colleagues already have some level of awareness, but the details and extent of the problem remains mostly hidden to the average person outside of libraries.

In the past month or so I have been riveted by the steady stream of news and analyses of the University of California (UC) system’s cancellation of all Elsevier journal titles. It is not that the UC system cannot afford the big deal subscription. UC is actually taking a principled stand with their key goal being “securing universal open access to UC research while containing the rapidly escalating costs associated with for-profit journals.”

The UC libraries have worked for a decade or so now to raise the awareness of the faculty on their campuses of the problems with the current publishing system and the benefits of a transition to open access. So, the faculty are largely supportive of the stance UC libraries took with Elsevier. Some have even started a petition to boycott Elsevier in support of open access. Those who have signed resolve to publish their work elsewhere and to refuse to donate their time as reviewers and editorial board members. The free content and labour provided by the authors, reviewers, and editors is why commercial scholarly publishers are so extremely profitable. As Adriane MacDonald and Nicole Eva of University of Lethbridge note: It’s time to stand up to the academic publishing industry.

This is not just a library problem. And solutions need to come with the active involvement of the community of authors, reviewers, editors, and readers. Authors, reviewers, and editors in particular have real power! As Lorcan Dempsey ends his recent blog post on the UC cancellations:

“The UC action has galvanized attention. For Elsevier, the financial impact may be less of an issue than the potential loss of participation in their journals of UC authors, editors, and reviewers. This is because of the scale of the UC research enterprise. For faculty elsewhere, it is potentially important as an exemplary event – the example of UC authors may have more of an influence than the exhortation of their library. For other consortia and libraries it is a call to action.”

What about us? As librarian-researchers, those most aware of the problems in the current system, do we have an ethical obligation to lead by example with our publishing, editorial, and reviewing choices?

Personally, I think so. For years I have chosen to only publish my research in open access journals and I will not donate my time as a peer reviewer or editorial board member to closed-access, for-profit journals either. I consider this an ethical and values-driven decision. Having said that, I recognize I am in a privileged position as a tenured librarian (though I made this decision well before I achieved tenure), so I will not judge those who feel they need to publish in certain titles for career advancement. I only note that this in itself is the underlying reason for this dysfunctional market: the incentive structures in academia are extremely problematic. If we could let go of our addiction to “high impact” and “prestige” journals, and instead judge research by its own merits (not the package it comes in), then we could free ourselves from the grip of the Elseviers of the world. But I have already written an entire blogpost on that…

I’ll end with a reminder that the C-EBLIP website hosts a list of peer-reviewed LIS journals, those that are open access are identified by the orange open lock symbol!

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.