Open Access is just the Beginning…

By DeDe Dawson
Science & Scholarly Communication Librarian, University of Saskatchewan

Lately I have been making lots of presentations on open access (OA) to faculty, administrators, and other campus groups. Mostly these presentations are well received, but often there is some push-back too. The majority of the push-back is related to stubbornly persistent and widespread misunderstandings or misinformation about what OA is (and isn’t) and how it can be achieved. I can handle that. But occasionally, I also get the “OA is too radical” kind of push-back. This I can’t handle. Because really, OA is just the beginning…

Let me explain.

One of the main reasons we need OA is because the current system of scholarly publishing (especially for journals) is dysfunctional, unsustainable, and inequitable. It has become this way because academia has handed over control of the scholarly literature to large, commercial publishers that care primarily about ownership and revenues (some “non-profit” scholarly publishers are no better). These entities have systematically bought up smaller publishers and society publishers resulting in an oligopoly.

“This consolidated control has led to unaffordable costs, limited utility of research articles, the proliferation of western publishing biases, and a system in which publisher lock-in through big deal licenses is the norm.” (SPARC, 2017)

OA gave the possibility of some relief. But now these same publishers are co-opting OA. They have cleverly incorporated OA as an additional revenue stream in hybrid journals and new OA megajournals. And academia is spending more money than ever, not just on astronomical subscriptions – but now also on article processing charges (APCs) for “gold OA.” All to buy back, or make accessible, research that has already been paid for by grants and faculty salaries. This is not how it was meant to be! OA is still achievable without hemorrhaging more and more funds to commercial publishers. This money can be better spent.

We currently have a system for “green OA” – posting manuscripts in institutional or subject repositories at no cost to authors or readers. We could conceivably bypass traditional journals entirely and simply use networks of interoperable repositories as the infrastructure for scholarly communication, overlaid with platforms to manage peer review and promote discoverability, etc. Academics already provide the content (research papers), and the quality control (peer review, editorial work). And academic libraries can provide the technical infrastructure, curation, and long-term preservation. COAR’s Next Generation Repositories initiative advocates for something along these lines:

“COAR’s vision is to position repositories as the foundation for a distributed, globally networked infrastructure for scholarly communication, on top of which layers of value added services will be deployed, thereby transforming the system, making it more research-centric, open to and supportive of innovation, while also collectively managed by the scholarly community.” (COAR, 2017)

I know, I know, this is not exactly simple. We have considerable ingrained academic culture and incentive structures to contend with (prestige journals and Impact Factors anyone?); but it is worth striving for as a long term goal to free our institutions (and our research) from the commercial overlords. The enormous amounts of money currently tied up in overpriced subscriptions could eventually be redirected to supporting this infrastructure and there’d likely be remaining funds to reinvest in more research or student scholarships.

The trouble is commercial publishers are now seeking to control this infrastructure too. Elsevier has been pretty transparent about its new strategy of buying up software and platforms that support researchers at all stages of the research lifecycle. Examples include Mendeley, SSRN, and bepress. They have also developed Pure, a current research information system (“CRIS”), to sell to university administrators for research assessment and analytics. Elsevier is clearly attempting to enclose all key elements of the research enterprise – to sell back to us (at inflated prices no doubt). This feels strangely familiar… ah yes, it is what they’ve already done with the scholarly literature!

Academia must get ahead of this trend for once. We must be as strategic and cunning as the commercial entities. We must collaborate across institutions and nations. We must maintain control of the infrastructure supporting the research enterprise. The first and most basic step is to financially support open infrastructure as David Lewis suggests in his 2.5% Commitment:

“At the end of the day, if we don’t collectively invest in the infrastructure we need for the open scholarly commons, it will not get built or it will only be haphazardly half built.” (Lewis, 2017).

So, OA is just the beginning. Now we need to move on to supporting open scholarly infrastructure owned and controlled by the research community. We cannot allow this to be co-opted too.

Further reading:
Accelerating academy-owned publishing – In the Open blog post, Nov 27, 2017
Join the Movement: The 2.5% Commitment – In the Open blog post by David Lewis, Sept 29, 2017
The 2.5% Commitment – Short white paper by David Lewis, Sept 11, 2017
Elsevier acquisition highlights the need for community-based scholarly communication infrastructure – SPARC news release by Heather Joseph and Kathleen Shearer, Sept 6, 2017
Elsevier’s increasing control over scholarly infrastructure, and how funders should fix this – SV-POW blog post by Mike Taylor, May 22, 2016
Tightening their grip – In the Open blog post by Kevin Smith, May 20, 2016

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.

Information Privilege and the Undergraduate Student

by DeDe Dawson Science Library, University of Saskatchewan

Privilege seems to be one of those things that you don’t realize you have until you no longer have it. This is not the case for some types of privilege of course. Someone’s race or gender will, in most cases, not change during their lifetime so privileges associated with these traits may be difficult for many to recognize. But someone’s ability to access information is likely to change.

One of the most frequently asked reference questions at an academic library is actually from recent graduates: “Why can’t I access e-resources anymore?” Libraries work hard to make access to electronic journals and literature databases as seamless as possible… so much so that undergraduates often don’t realize that they are using articles paid for by the library. Not until they graduate and lose access that is.

A bright and enthusiastic undergraduate student was my guide recently for a tour of the Canadian Light Source on the University of Saskatchewan campus. She explained to our group that scientists don’t pay to use the beamlines since they are conducting academic research, whereas companies pay by the hour. The distinction, according to our guide, is that the company is conducting research for their own profit whereas the academic is going to share his research in scholarly journals that everyone can read! I might have thrown up a little at that moment. But I did not want to hijack the tour by climbing on my open access soapbox right then. Reality will come crashing in once she graduates. Or… she could continue on to grad school, and then maybe on to become a faculty member, at large, rich institutions in the Global North and remain oblivious to the information privilege she currently enjoys.

Luckily, there is a growing awareness of this privilege among academic library users:

My intention in sharing the anecdote of the tour guide is not to shame the student. I was no different as an undergraduate (actually she’s a lot brighter than I was!), and her misunderstanding is understandable. My intention is to highlight the importance of teaching undergraduates about the scholarly communication ecosystem… and all of its warts: including its financial unsustainability and inequity of access. The Information has Value frame of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education can serve as a guide in this.

For years now I have incorporated such messages in my instruction sessions. I clearly tell students that we are lucky to be at a relatively wealthy university, so we have access to X number of journals, and X number of databases that the library pays for. Students and researchers at smaller institutions or in developing countries are not as lucky. Even members of our own community who are not affiliated with the university are not as lucky (including others on the tour with me that day).

When teaching database-searching I am hyper aware of the irony of it all. Sure, these database-specific skills of controlled vocabulary searching and refining of results lists will help students in completing that upcoming assignment – but what good are these non-translatable skills when they graduate and no longer have access to that expensive resource? Only a small portion of our students will go on to grad school and use that database again.

This is why I now include a brief discussion of Google Scholar in these classes as well: emphasizing that it is also a useful resource – and will likely be the only one they have access to once they graduate.

I am far from the first to recognize this problem: see Char Booth’s excellent blog post On Information Privilege in which she describes an information literacy session she taught:

…I opened by challenging the fallacy that information is free by diagramming the library’s multi-million dollar materials budget against the “open web,” then facilitated a discussion about the implications of a system in which significant areas of knowledge are available to a privileged few (e.g., them). This may seem like a counterintuitive approach, but among my students it was a literally jaw-dropping illustration of a paywall that none of them knew existed. Choice responses (mirrored in other classrooms where I’ve used this approach) included:

“Why in the world does it cost so much?”
“It doesn’t make sense!”
“You mean all libraries have to pay like this?”
“Why can’t we use this stuff after we graduate?”


I feel strongly that we librarians have contributed to this current dysfunctional scholarly publishing system by (well-meaningly) sheltering faculty and students from the costs. This has emboldened publishers to aggressively inflate their subscription fees beyond inflation (and beyond reason) because they know that the end users are blissfully unaware… and because they know that librarians have a strong service ethic and will bend over backward to provide our patrons with the resources they need.

Let’s pull back that curtain now. Undergraduates are our future researchers and our allies in advocating for a more sustainable and equitable system. Even if undergraduates don’t go on to become researchers they will be tax-paying members of society funding that research. They should understand the system that their money funds and demand change.

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.

Peer Reviewing as a Foundation of Research Culture (Or, how not to be that peer reviewer)

by Heidi LM Jacobs
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

When you talk to published scholars, everyone has a horror story to share about a bad peer reviewer. Stories can range from the amusing to the incredulous. Over the years, I’ve had some excellent peer reviewers: these are readers who take the time to read my work carefully, see what I’m trying to do, and then find ways to make my article better. My work is always better because of those reviewers and I am grateful for them. But I’ve also had reviewers who lean more toward hurtful or harmful rather than helpful. Here are some of the comments I’ve personally received in the past few years that would fall into that “less than helpful” category:
• “Maybe you could talk to a faculty member on your campus who could teach you how to do research.”
• “Writing down your own thoughts about teaching is not research. You can’t just make statements about what you think. You need to use surveys and data to make claims.”
• Entire review: “Uninteresting. Unpublishable. Reject.”
• “I know very little about this area and don’t work in the area writer is talking about. However, if the writer explored [an entirely different topic] it would be a much more interesting article.”
I should note that all of the responses above are from peer reviews of articles that went on to be published and well-received elsewhere; one even made a “best instruction article of the year” list. As someone who has been sending papers out for over twenty years, I’m able to shrug those awful reviews off, send my work out again, and move on. Increasingly, however, what bothers me most about getting these reviews is imagining what it would be like to be a brand new scholar sending her or his work out to reviewers and receiving feedback like the above. It takes courage and trust to send our work out and when we receive harmful or hurtful feedback, the will and courage to send it out again diminishes considerably.

Our goal as reviewers should be—above all—to be helpful: helpful to the writer by giving him or her concrete strategies to make their work better and helpful to the profession by encouraging, nurturing, and mentoring our peers to publish top-notch work.

By being “helpful,” I want to underscore that I do not mean that reviewers can only say positive things and avoid anything that points out limitations of the work. Not pointing out, for example, that the literature review needs work or that a paper lacks focus might seem “nicer” but is not helpful either to the writer if she or he wants to continue to publish certain kinds of articles or to the profession in whose best interests it is for us to produce strong, rigorous, well-crafted scholarship. That said, we need to be cognizant of the ways in which we give feedback and the impact of that feedback.

In recent months, I’ve talked to colleagues about what makes a good peer review. Here are a few things we have come up with:
• Respond to the article that the writer submitted and respond to the piece in front of you. Do not try to get authors to rewrite their article into what you would have written, explore a different topic, or use a different methodology.
• Remember you are responding to a person who was as nervous, anxious, and vulnerable as you were when you sent out your first article. Don’t hide behind anonymity and blind reviews. Never say anything in a blind review that you wouldn’t say if your name were known or you were talking to this author in person.
• Peer reviewing is not only about evaluating, it is also about mentoring, nurturing and building a community of strong scholars.
• Think about the peer review process as a teachable moment. Give writers concrete, specific feedback they can use to make their articles better. If the article lacks focus, say something like, “Your article could be better focused around a central argument. On page four, you write _____. This strikes me as a solid summary of your piece, perhaps you could organize the article around this central idea.” No one ever wants to be told they need to do more work but giving someone concrete suggestions on how to make improvements makes revisions seem much more do-able.
• Understand that, increasingly, library research uses diverse methods and approaches. It is true that quantitative and qualitative research methods have traditionally been the dominant mode of scholarship in our field but there is a place in our scholarly literature for all kinds of methods. Don’t reject a piece simply because of its theoretical or methodological approach. Our profession will be stronger if we embrace the diversity of methods and approaches.
• Use criteria that are both appropriate to the journal and to the method the author employs. If the author submitted a quantitative paper, by all means, examine their statistical methods and their findings. If the author submitted a theoretical piece, consider their ideas fully and the logic of their argument.
• A peer reviewer is not a copy editor. If you notice the article is full of awkward sentences and typos, it is not your job to go through and fully edit and proofread the piece. Rather, you should note to the author and to the journal editor that there are a significant number of typos and/or awkward sentences and that these must be addressed.
• Have and maintain high standards but find ways to help authors reach those high standards.
• Finally: generosity is key. Always find something good to say about a piece. Be generous with your expertise and your understanding of what makes an article great. Help others achieve excellence.

As librarians become more active in scholarship, more and more of us will be taking on roles as peer reviewers. In this development, we have an opportunity to build a strong, supportive network of reviewers who can help us build a stronger body of published scholarship and a strong research culture.

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