It is admittedly quite boring to read yet another piece that lays out the value that publishers bring to the world. Over the last few years, the world of academic publishing has turned into a political campaign, mirroring the lack of rational thought, hubris, entrenched positions, and political rhetoric that is supposedly the hallmark of politics, not academia. Amidst the bluster, we have all missed perhaps the most important piece of all.
Just as in the weirdly fascinating political campaigns that are unfolding before us this year, there is a lack of understanding by the publishing elites on all sides of shifting ideologies of an individual’s relationship to information on the web. If we were to listen carefully to the pulse of an academic, we would understand that most researchers just do not care about open access. They do not care that a publisher exists. They do not know, and in fact do not want, or need, to know the value that a publisher provides. They do not have an ideological position on library funding, or that authors should be able to publish for free and readers should be able to read for free. What does exist, in abundance, is a sense of ubiquity of access. There is an expectation of sipping coffee in one hand, with a device of some sort resting on your lap, and being able to cruise for information. If you are unable to find it quickly, there is then a level of frustration. If you find a bit of it, and then face a user experience equivalent to the torture you can experience of customer service telephone choice trees that take you down a twenty minute path, only to cut you off at the end of the tree, then what are you going to do? That’s right, you will most likely take the path of least resistance, which at the moment appears to be Sci-Hub. The criminality of Sci-Hub does not even enter your mind. The fact that you are reading an article, stolen from a library that has paid good money for the article, does not enter your mind. You now can do your work, and all else be damned.
Publishers just have not grappled with this sense of ubiquity. We see a similar sense of disconnectedness in the political campaigns for the Presidency in the US this year. On the one hand you have a conservative establishment that is somewhat disconnected from those they serve. On the other you have the so called radicals, who prey on those frustrations with simplistic and emotionally catchy messages of change and doing away with what we know and slogans such as the meaningless but hard to argue with “making America great again”.
Of course there are issues that academics care deeply about. An academic’s ability to think, to have information at hand so that they can do good research, to have a path to career success, and to be able to teach effectively are perhaps the driving forces that matter most. Academics in fact are not against publishers, and while perhaps not thinking deeply about what a publisher does during conscious hours, value publication, value impact, value the appreciation and interaction of their peers. I can guarantee you that when looking for a reference to a paper or scholar, at no moment in the quest is there a political thought about the value of open access, or indeed the value of a publisher.
Politicians and funders of course have their own priorities, and much of the drive to gold open access has no moral good attached to it, but rather a recognition that here is another way to shift the financial burden of Government to the individual, especially if that individual is not funded. Yes, OA is in many ways a libertarian argument, a move away from big government to the power of the individual. Yet just like in our political world today, when you place the burden on the individual, there is a fallacy at work. We rely on our infrastructure – the schools, the roads, trains, healthcare, environmental standards, etc. If a publisher is successful, no one will “see” what you do. Success, for the publisher is to be invisible. That’s a problem, because it allows people to devalue a publisher’s work, just as no one knows or sees what the health department does in restaurants, but enjoys the benefits of safe food without much thought.
In publishing you cannot just devolve the power to the individual without creating an infrastructure. Sci-Hub provides ubiquitous (illegal) access and decent user experience. In his excellent presentation at STM in Frankfurt in 2015, and here in his Scholarly Kitchen article entitled “Dismantling the Stumbling Blocks that Impede Researcher Access to e-Resources”, Roger Schonfeld elegantly showed a group of startled publishers how labyrinthine a user’s experience can be when trying to follow a path to find a paper he needed. Roger told us what deep down we know:
- The library is not the starting point
- The campus is not the work location
- Proxy is not the answer
- The index is not complete
- The aggregator is not current
- The link resolver is not omniscient
- The PC is not the device
- User accounts are not well implemented
Amidst rhetorical politics, both conservative and radical, the user – the academic – needs more from us. If we want to demonstrate the value of the publishing process we will not do it by telling it, rather through building tools around our valuable content that are just so indispensable that the value becomes apparent and open access and the lure of pirated sites become irrelevant.
As a final thought I leave you with Roger Schonfeld’s four takeaways, that I feel bear repeating:
- Understand use of your platforms and content in the academic library context
- Set expectations for how quickly content appears in discovery services and aggregators. Communicate this effectively with link resolver knowledge base partners
- Eliminate stand-alone mobile interfaces and interfaces
- Support a user account that allows you to better understand and serve researchers.