v30 #3 Little Red Herrings — Uncommonly Odd

by | Jul 10, 2018 | 0 comments

by Mark Y. Herring  (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University) 

About the time you think you know where things are going, they go somewhere else.  I had that experience recently with our institutional repository (IR).

About five years ago, we stumbled into bepress’s Digital Commons.  I had argued for one for about a decade, but no one really understood what I was talking about, and honestly, I probably ham-fisted the explanation.  But then came one of those unfunded mandates for which administrations — local, state, and federal — are so famous. I mentioned bepress to a quondam administrator who had just come from another institution that had it.  The off-the-cuff remark worked like magic. A light turned on and we were told to “get it.”  After much toing and froing about who was going to pay for this (only this year has it been added to our budget in a permanent kind of way — let us say in heavy pencil for now), we did get it.

The next few years we labored — really labored — trying to help faculty understand that publishing in our IR in no way jeopardized their publishing chances elsewhere.  On the contrary, we argued, it actually increased them. And not only for them and their work, but also their students and their students’ work.

Some faculty never got on board.  They were convinced that whatever showed up in our IR, with or without an embargo, put an end to any hope of publishing, and, subsequently, tenure.  I explained copyright, not really being an attorney, but having stayed in my fair share of hotels, as it were. Transformative works, the fact that publishers would insist on rewrites and so on didn’t do a lot of good.  The most exasperating discussions had to do with theses. While our students were encouraged to submit them to dissertation abstracts or similar entities, they were cautioned not to put them in our IR.

It took a great deal of handwringing, pleading, begging and more, but eventually most came around.  We hired a delightful young librarian to whom I credit most of the good will, coaxing and cajoling. There followed about three or three-and-a-half years of IR dolce far niente, as it were.  Everyone seemed pleased.  In fact, we had more than our share of success stories.  The helpful dashboard that comes with our digital commons also impressed more than one faculty member.

Once up and running, we began uploading past theses and all went well.  We had one small hiccup with a graduate who asked that we erase all evidence of a thesis he had written many years before, but we embargoed it instead for about twenty months.  We never knew why but guessed it had something to do with maturity of craft. Still, we argued it was a record of work that had to be preserved.

While I did not do this with every opportunity, I often sent the powers that be our headlines:  surpassing various download thresholds, our recognition for various papers in various disciplines, and our papers that had “topped the charts,” so to say.  Frankly, we were all feeling doggone good about ourselves.

And then, this spring, as you have doubtless surmised at this point, and as we surpassed 100,000 downloads, the wheels wobbled significantly, and nearly came off.

I got a very anxious email, freighted with gloom, from a faculty member about what we were doing and why.  The email came to me, surely, but also to about two dozen other faculty. I gave my usual explanation, replying to all, and explaining about how the IR works, why it’s important, and even added a plug for open access.  Following the email, one of the other faculty emailed me back that she knew I could explain it better than she could and all would be well. Again, I felt pretty good.

Not so fast.  Another email came, explaining that I had missed the point and that tables, PowerPoints, posters and so on simply should not be deposited.  These represented works in progress and letting those cats out of the proverbial bag would spell doom for faculty trying to publish.

I went back over my explanations, taking more time to explain that surely that would not happen.  I explained that acceptances to papers often required many rewrites, and whatever we deposited would not be the same as what appeared later.  I also pointed out that many IRs had both pre- and post-prints included. Another faculty member chimed in that oh, no, that business about posters and PowerPoints and data are all things that must be held secret.  Apres moi, le deluge, and all that.  That publishing might take three or more years and someone would beat them to the punch.

I didn’t help matters making the case that surely researchers who might well look at anything in our IR would cite it, but if there were some who wouldn’t, well, they’d likely get hoisted on their own petard.  I tried talking about copyright and derivative and transformative works. I came off sounding as if I wasn’t respectful of researchers everywhere, hardly my intent. More emails followed and the two faculty claimed they could not in good faith deposit anything like posters, PowerPoints, and the like.

I must admit that at this point I despaired of making any further headway.  I responded finally that I respected their decision although I disagreed with it.  I pointed out that our IR was entirely voluntarily but not using it not only proscribed one’s influence, but also constrained open access.

This small episode has taught me that however far we have come with open access, we are still very far away from making any permanent inroads.  I know this isn’t the case everywhere, of course, but I also know that our faculty aren’t the only ones with these concerns. We are a teaching institution, and while research is important, it is not sine qua non.  Good teaching is.  

Still, the allegiance to conventional publishing continues to hold — stranglehold — most faculty.  It’s baffling, too, when you consider that conventional publishing hoovers out research from our institutions of higher education, pays nothing for it, copyrights the materials for themselves in perpetuity, and then charges a fortune for that research to reappear in libraries on those same campuses where those faculty work.  An outsider who hears this calculus finds it ridiculous; we in academe not only find it normal, we often protect its survival.

We have made great strides from where we were when I began this profession forty years ago.  And that makes me optimistic. Nevertheless, events like this one remind me that we still have a long way to go.  



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