Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The big bad package

Another opinion piece on how technology has changed libraries, this time focusing on the shift to licensed content and its perceived effect on services:

"Libraries are early and enthusiastic adopters of digital innovations. But these innovations bring the values of the marketplace with them. Through innocuous incremental stages, academic libraries have reached a point where they are now guided largely by the mores of commerce, not academe.

Commercialization has impinged on two core facets of university libraries—their collections and their user services. The ownership and provision of research materials, especially academic journals, has been increasingly outsourced to for-profit companies. Library patrons, moreover, are increasingly regarded simply as consumers, transforming user services into customer service. Both developments have distanced libraries from their academic missions."

This fairly damning article comes from Daniel Goldstein, a subject Librarian at UCD writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes at length about how big package ejournal licensing has eroded the value of traditional library services, removing the specialist librarian as a vital part of academic life and simplifying the services libraries offer:

"By outsourcing ownership to mega-vendors, libraries have introduced the commercial interests of the journal providers into what had been an internal academic transaction between a library and its patrons. Purveyors of e-journals provide access to their titles on sites that are designed to bolster brand recognition and encourage repeat visits. This practice is good for business but not for scholarship. It is common to hear library patrons say that they found information on "Informaworld" (the platform of publisher Taylor and Francis) or "ScienceDirect" (Elsevier's platform) and not to know the name of the journal in which the article was published. Students especially have become purveyor-dependent, when they should be familiarizing themselves with the best literature, in the best journals, regardless of who sells it."
My first thought on this is, does it matter, as long as they get the content they need? But it does. The journal in which an article is published should indicate the authority of the piece based upon the journals' editorial credibility. To some extent, journal vendors are possibly unwittingly eroding the value of peer review. He also warns against the same problem occurring with ebooks:
"It is time, now, to articulate a plan for e-books that better serves the needs of the academic community. University libraries should opt out of the e-book market until it conforms itself to the values, needs, and wallets of academe."
Pretty radical stuff. Its worth taking the time to digest and read. I've often felt that ejournal vendors have forced us to arrange the digital library by publisher, rather than by subject or author. Goldstein also warns against the 'good enough' data that Librarians increasingly fall back on when dealing with digital material. This is also a strong argument, although one I don't always buy. After all, access to full text will surpass even the most well constructed metadata. That said, getting accurate metadata to run a library link resolver remains a real challenge.

There is an interesting response in Library Journal, focusing on open access as an alternative and the problems faced in both getting material available and readers aware of its existence.

Its strikes me that open access for pre-prints, at least in its current institution-centric form does not have all the answers. As Goldstein notes, scholarly publishing is still a legitimate commercial concern, and peer review is a costly process, I can't personally see how open access publishing on an institutional basis could solve the big package problem. Institutional repositories themselves certainly have other vital roles to play, notably that of digital preservation.

A new business model for licensed content may help, moving away from the big deal packages. A colleague who deals far more with this kind of thing recently suggested an interesting alternative to me, which I have since given some thought to:

Social academic platforms such as Menderley are transforming the way academics share citations, and also full text articles, (be it possibly illegally in some cases). Why not simply plug article purchasing from vendors directly into there, but marry that up with shared institutional funds? Academics could purchase articles directly from Menderley, Pubget, Scopus, Web of Knowledge or a library discovery service such as Summon using pools of institutional funds, some or all of which was previously spend on packages.

Once an article has been purchased using shared funds, the full text is then made available to everyone from their institution, either via the vendors' website and/or stored locally on an institutional licensed content server, similar to the LOCKSS and Portico initiatives.

Placing article level selection in the hands of the user is a great idea, allowing collections to grow and diversify according to the academic needs of an institution. The negative issues around big deal purchasing and vendor-exclusive deals could be partly sidestepped. Certain core titles for all disciplines could still be automatically purchased for all by the institution (Nature), and any titles already purchased in perpetuity (such as an archives package) could be added.

We could see two or three purchasing models in operation, rather than just one.

In this 'shared itunes for papers' model, what role is there for the librarian, now selection has been devolved? The above scenario would still need administering financially, with access management and article availability issues to be taken care of, as well as any local storage of content. Its not really so different to the current work of our library's' ejournals team, all that's changed is the selection model.

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