From Library Babel Fish, October 22, 2013

I have been known to chide academic librarians who can’t be bothered to make their work open access. It seems hypocritical for professionals in our field to advocate for open access without practicing it ourselves. It’s also detrimental to our discipline. Most research in our field is undertaken in order to improve practice. Many academic librarians work in libraries that don’t have access to many LIS journals because our collections are shaped around the curriculum, and we don’t offer degrees in the field. It’s hard to improve our practice without access to the discipline’s research findings. Besides, if we go through the relatively simple steps to make our work open access, we’ll have experiential knowledge about the process that will help us help scholars in other fields who want to make their work available to all

This isn’t the first time I’ve called on librarians to walk the walk. It probably won’t be the last. Scholars in our field have an increasing number of options these days, with many new open access journals. Our flagship journal, College & Research Libraries, is now fully open. Preprints are made available on acceptance, the final copy is OA, and even the back issues have been digitized. In addition, most toll access LIS journals allow authors to publicly archive pre- or post-prints. The barriers to opening our scholarship are low.

I was a little surprised at some of the pushback I got via Twitter. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. I’ve heard it before, pretty much every time open access is under discussion in other disciplines. It tends to fall into a pattern:

  • It’s not ethical to ask young scholars to put their future at risk.
  • We ought to reform tenure and promotion criteria, but until that work is done, we shouldn’t be so pushy about open access.
  • Reform tenure? Yeah, right. Ain’t gonna happen.

In addition to the usual objections, two other issues came up. One was usefully thought-provoking and the other was . . . well, a perennial debate among academic librarians.

One Twitter correspondent asked about books and book chapters. Does my finger-shaking include them? I replied that I thought they were a bit different. There are fewer open access options available to authors who want to put together a book, books are often more lendable than journal articles through interlibrary loan without incurring copyright permission fees, and unlike the majority of scholarly journals, book publishers tend not to allow self-archiving or pre- or post-prints. At least they don’t unless you ask, and getting an answer can take months.

I got called out on that – aha! isn’t it hypocritical to say articles must be OA, but not books and book chapters? Um, yes, actually. So let’s push the boundaries there, too. Why not? The more publishers are asked about self-archiving options, the more likely they will have an answer that doesn’t take months of negotiation. Some book publishers, such as our own association’s imprints, let authors keep their copyright and only ask that authors don’t preempt their publication by putting material freely online before their release date. This does not appear to harm their ability to publish books. I myself won’t publish scholarship I can’t self-archive regardless of format, and I haven’t for years. If enough of us take that position, we’ll make it easier for everyone else.

The other issue deserved a more thoughtful reply than the rapid-fire and shortest-of-short-forms Twitter enables. As the “but we can’t because TENURE!” debate was under way, a librarian who I respect immensely and who is an impressive scholar in her own right asked whether tenure is worth it – for both librarians and for the field. Many academic librarians are not on the tenure clock but are rather on an administrative, academic professional, or a quasi-faculty appointment, and there is often debate about which status is more conducive to our work and our lives. Some librarians argue that being forced to do research takes time away from real work. Others argue that it promotes too much useless prose produced under pressure.

Here’s what I think: tenure is always worth when it’s handled responsibly. Tenure is a remarkable social contract between a scholar, who has to demonstrate her or his worth, and the greater society, which in return will benefit from having a group of highly-trained, highly responsible, highly ethical experts who are free to probe into unpopular areas and share controversial findings with their students and with the broader public without fear of losing their livelihood. It’s an act of trust that depends upon high standards. In  my experience, it asks librarians who are party to that contract to do valuable work by being systematically curious, sharing results beyond her or his immediate community, and improving local practice through the kind of testing and probing that good scholarship promotes but which may not happen if it’s not valued and supported.

Too often, tenure hasn’t been handled responsibly. Even in institutions where teaching matters tremendously, publications often carry more weight because it’s more easily measured by outsiders, and that’s so much more pleasant than having to make hard decisions amongst ourselves. The methods commonly used to decide which publications provide evidence of scholarly promise are about as valid as reading goat entrails when predicting whether a scholar will continue to support the mission of an institution for the rest of his or her career. Oh, we assign numbers as we read the entrails: must have a book from a university press, or hey, let’s make it two to show how rigorous we are; must have a certain number of articles in journal with an impact factor of X or higher.

We do this because we’re not confident that we can actually assess a scholar’s worth, or we don’t trust each other to make a fair assessment, that by somehow attaching mumbo-jumbo to the process we’re being even-handed even though we know perfectly well that impact factors are bogus, that university presses can’t and shouldn’t be asked to determine tenure decisions, that we’re responding to an exploitative overuse of dreadfully-paid contingent scholars by raising the stakes for the few remaining positions.

When we hear “we can’t make our research public because our tenure process requires that we hide it behind paywalls” (which is what “can’t make it open access” means in reality), then the sensible response isn’t “let’s abolish tenure.” Tenure may seem a  brute and blind machine, but it’s actually a human system that we created, and we can change it.

There is a connection between tenure and open access that we don’t always notice. We should make our scholarship public because research is done for the greater good, not for our careers or for a tiny handful of people who are just like us. When we tolerate a system that requires us to work on lots and lots of things that we can’t (or don’t bother to) make public, perhaps neglecting our teaching and community service in the process because we’ve gotten the message that it’s less important, society has no reason to grant us the remarkable social contract that is tenure.

Tenure is both ideal and practical. We need to demonstrate we’re worthy of protection and, in return, we need to enact what that protection provides – a chance to probe and explore and reveal for the common good. Generating piles of publications that very few people can afford to read is an insult to that ideal, and is impractical, besides.


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