The Experiment (film)
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Back in 2006, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. From the pulpit of my semi-regular column in Against the Grain, I invited contributions to what I hoped would be a whole new column in that publication: a series of “How We Done It Bad” reports from libraries.

Here was the logic behind my proposal — everyone publishes reports or does conference presentations on things they’ve accomplished in their libraries, whether the accomplishment is the creation of a popular new service, a successful reorganization, the redesign of an important workflow, or even the elimination of a task formerly considered essential. Such presentations and articles are commonly referred to as “How We Done It Good” pieces. Vendors and publishers do the same thing, offering conference presentations and lunch meetings that focus on new and emerging products or the refinement of old ones.

As great and often useful as such pieces and presentations are, it occurred to me that what might be even more useful (or at least useful in a different way) would be cautionary tales, or “How We Done It Bad” pieces.

  • Did your library attempt to eliminate a no-longer-essential task, only to find (gulp) that it was still essential after all?
  • Did you introduce a new service, only to find that it actively enraged your patrons and you had to publicly and speedily backpedal?
  • Did you reorganize a library division only to find that the new structure failed in amazing ways you could never have anticipated?

Tell us about it — not for our amusement and schadenfreude (well, not entirely), but so we all can learn from each other’s mistakes without repeating them.

What was the response to my invitation? Crickets. If I recall correctly, I may have gotten one tentative message from a potential contributor, and maybe a couple of private emails saying “Hey, great idea!,” but no actual contributions. A year later, one library blogger was asking whatever happened to my proposal. Five years further along, the answer is still the same — either no one has made any mistakes worth mentioning, or no one is willing to mention them publicly.

Not that I’m shocked by the lack of response. It’s embarrassing to admit we’ve failed, and for some members of the scholarly information stream (like publicly-traded companies) it may not be possible to talk about failure in a public forum. It’s one thing for a librarian to stand up and say, “We tried eliminating an entire functional unit but had to reinstate it; oh well, lesson learned”; it’s another thing for a company with shareholders to make a similar public statement.

On the other hand, maybe companies are letting their fears get in the way of success. The other day, I came across an article in the online magazine Knowledge@Wharton. It quotes consultant Daniel Zweidler, who believes pharmaceutical companies might be able to save billions of dollars each year if individual companies would publicly share information about failed experiments in the early phases of research. He argues that a “failed” experiment is really just “an experiment that gives us negative information,” and goes on to argue that if 90% of drug experiments fail and those results are whisked away into a vault of secrecy, that means that drug companies are wasting 90% of the useful information that could be derived from their research.

Assuming that Zweidler is right, are drug companies and scholarly publishers similar enough in the right ways for this line of argument to apply to publishers?

Possibly. On the one hand, publishers don’t compete with each other in quite the same way that drug companies do. Drug companies tend to sell products that are roughly substitutable — if you have hay fever, you can buy Claritin from Schering-Plough, or Zyrtec from Pfizer, or a generic version of one of those products from some other company. Claritin and Zyrtec aren’t the same drug, but they fill the same function. The same is true for drugs that treat high blood pressure and diabetes and any number of other ailments; there will be multiple drug options, each of them formulated differently, but each of them treating the same problem.

The same isn’t true with scholarly books and journal articles, because copyright holders have true monopolies. You may be able to get articles on the general topic of molecular biology from several different publishers, but those articles are all unique and each treats a different “problem”; you can’t get the information contained in an Elsevier article from any publisher other than Elsevier. So it’s difficult to imagine the public disclosure of error affecting sales to customers.

On the other hand, publishers do compete for authors, and authors tend to care about how well a journal or a publishing house is run. A potential author who hears that Publisher X has been conducting crazy-sounding experiments in platform design or manuscript processing does have choices as to publishing venue, and might easily choose to go with a publisher who seems more stable – whether because that publisher genuinely takes fewer risks, or because it simply doesn’t discuss its risk-taking publicly.

The bottom line, I think, is that it’s probably not realistic to expect profit-seeking (or even revenue-seeking) entities to parade publicly the dirty laundry of their failures and misbegotten experiments. But we in libraries have every reason to do so, and should do it much more freely. And I plan to put my money where my mouth is in my next Scholarly Kitchen posting, in which I’ll discuss the lessons (some of them bitter) that we’ve learned so far from purchasing an Espresso Book Machine.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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