We’re all familiar with this classic humorous example of a false syllogism:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. X is something.


  1. X must be done.

The logical error underlying this syllogism is obvious: since something can refer to just about anything, the fact that something must be done doesn’t mean that any particular something is, in fact, a specific thing that must be done.

Over the years, I’ve been interested to notice that this exact faulty syllogism underlies the advocacy for myriad current initiatives around open access and open science. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to any example of such initiatives generically as Project X.) In my roles as a collection-development officer and administrator at various academic libraries over the past 25 years, I’ve been approached regularly by advocates for one Project X or another, and the logic they present when arguing that my institution needs to get on board generally follows this structure:

  1. Your library wants (or should want) to promote the public good.
  2. Project X promotes the public good.


  1. You should provide material support to Project X.

stubborn dog resistent puppy tugs on leash

Why Don’t We Get on Board?

While the libraries I’ve worked for have sometimes provided support to these initiatives, sometimes we haven’t. And I’ve found that when we decline to provide material support for Project X, the response from Project X’s advocates usually arises from one (or both) of the following two assumptions:

Assumption 1: You Obviously Don’t Care about the Public Good

This critique of non-participation is baked into the syllogistic argument outlined above, which assumes that if the library in question really were interested in promoting the public good, it would naturally support Project X, because Project X promotes the public good.

There are two problems with this assumption, though. The first is that it should be obvious to anyone that the number of projects promoting the public good vastly outstrips the resources of any individual institution, which inevitably means that every institution is constantly engaged in the difficult process of trying to decide which of those projects will receive the institution’s material support and which ones won’t. Since resources are limited, the decision to support any one of them entails, unavoidably, a decision not to support another – probably equally worthy – project. (And unfortunately, decrying “scarcity mindsets” and “zero-sum thinking” won’t change the stubborn reality of resource limitations.) Furthermore, the decision to provide material support to an external project that supports the public good will inevitably mean redirecting local resources away from internal projects that not only support local priorities, but may also advance the public good in other ways. This means that rather than reflecting a lack of will to support the public good, it’s entirely likely that the organization’s decision not to provide material support to Project X actually reflects its desire to advance the public good by supporting different initiatives.

The second problem is that beyond the institutional challenge of having too many worthy projects to support and too few resources to support all of them, it’s also true that not all projects are equally worthy. Sometimes when an institution says “no” it means “we think this project is great, but we’re already supporting all the great projects we can” – but sometimes it means “we don’t agree that your project is worthy of our material support.” In this case, the institution’s response is rooted not in a lack of interest in promoting the public good, but in principled disagreement as to what initiatives or programs will best promote it. And this is the institutional response that often elicits a reaction based on a second assumption:

Assumption 2: You Clearly Don’t Fully Understand Project X

Sometimes, when an institution declines to support Project X, the project’s advocates will assume (and sometimes actively assert) that the institution’s lack of support for it must reflect a lack of understanding of Project X – because surely, if the project were truly understood, material support would be forthcoming. In this case, the answer “no” is typically met with an offer to provide additional education or training, or a request to meet with someone higher up in the organizational hierarchy.

The problem with this assumption should be obvious: fully-informed, reasonable people of good will may disagree on the worthiness of any project. Those who deem the project unsuitable might agree with its goals, but feel that the project, as constituted, is poorly suited to achieving those goals. Or they might agree with the goals in principle, but not feel that they’re important enough to justify the resources being requested. Or they might even fundamentally disagree with its goals. Any of these positions could, theoretically, arise from a lack of understanding of the project – but it shouldn’t be assumed that they necessarily come from a lack of understanding. They may reflect a perfectly adequate understanding, coupled with genuine, principled disagreement. (In rare cases – hear me out, now – they could even reflect understanding that is superior to that of the project’s advocates.)

Why These Reactions Are Counterproductive

Advocates for Project X need to understand that responding along either of these lines – You don’t care about the public good or You don’t understand the project – is almost always going to be counterproductive and will undermine their advocacy efforts. This is true for at least three reasons, each of which represents what I’ll characterize as a Reality Problem, a Politics Problem, or both:

First, these reactions are irrational. This is a Reality Problem: both of these reactions proceed from premises that are likely to be false and that lead to invalid or at least unreliable conclusions.

Second, these reactions are condescending. This is a Politics Problem. No matter how right you may be in fact, if you convey to your potential supporter the message that you see them as either morally deficient or fundamentally uninformed, you undermine the effort to enlist them in your cause.

Third, these reactions are ignorant. This is both a Reality Problem and a Politics Problem – a failure to grasp the real fact that no matter how publicly-minded an institution may be, the demands of public welfare will always outstrip its resources and will therefore force difficult choices between various public-minded priorities, and/or the fact that lack of support does not necessarily reflect a lack of understanding.

All of this leaves unexamined a deeper question for any academic library: that of alignment with its host institution. When the library is funded by (and in fact operates as an organ of) a larger academic institution, it seems reasonable for its funding body to have some say in how the library’s money is spent – which suggests that when the library is considering allocating the institution’s resources to the support of a project designed not to further institutional mission directly, but rather to achieve a social or political or economic goal outside of the institution, the library would be wise to ensure that the goal in question is shared by the institution.

But that’s probably a topic for another post.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


14 Thoughts on "What (Not) to Do When Libraries Won’t Get on Board"

Mostly fair. There’s no obligation for a library to support arxiv or support SCOSS. And doing one does not oblige them to do another.

I think to expand on one of your points – many open access/science initiatives are run by radicals whose visions far exceed their capabilities. Supporting them is risky and institutions may have very principled reasons for not wanting to waste their money on something that will almost certainly not work. However, I should also note that didn’t stop Octopus getting a million from funders so I guess anything is possible.

My main role is trying to understand the attitudes and practices of early career researchers specially in relation to scholarly communication and more recently on the impact of the pandemic [ciber-research.com/harbingers-2] . We know that Plan S did nor take into account the views of researchers. From what I know of researcher attitudes OCTOPUS seems to have got its big grant without consulting any body representing them. I am not suggesting that there is not a lot of good in plan S which has morphed somewhat since it was first announced or in OCTOPUS which is likely, if it goes ahead, to cause a lot more difficulties to the research community. After all it is the research which is important rather than the researchers as a distinguished Oxford librarian explained to me many years ago. I was trained as a publisher and it is what researchers tell us they want which is of paramount importance. I am sure that librarians think in much the same way and that Rick’s reception of these schemes will be influenced by his patrons.

“Sometimes, when an institution declines to support Project X, the project’s advocates will assume (and sometimes actively assert) that the institution’s lack of support for it must reflect a lack of understanding of Project X – because surely, if the project were truly understood, material support would be forthcoming.”

This particular problem is epidemic across all spheres of life today. Even here at The Scholarly Kitchen it is routinely assumed that lack of support for an idea or a cause can only be due to a failure to understand the issue or the brilliance of the proposed solution. But the author is correct when he notes that some of us simply have different priorities, or competing interests, which we are tasked with serving.

I could see this easily transposing onto the publisher perspective to sign on OA pilot deals as well. The publisher has to decide, without completely price gouging all authors through increasing APCs, are they going to invest in global initiatives to advance open science (like marketing to support journal flips to OA)? Or, use that same revenue to invest in individual institution OA pilot agreements? Either clearly advance the open science movement, but the first assumption on merit is valid here. Too many great projects with (arguably) little to invest to cover all these initiatives.

With regard to assumption 2, when publishers are not ready to make sign that individual institution agreement, I would think it does not mean that the publishers do not support an institution’s OA goals, or think that the institution does not know enough about OA. In this case, it is possible that an analysis of all of the required institutional infrastructure needed to support an OA agreement (which must be built and maintained by some sort of institutional administrator(s)), uncovers the costs of committing to OA outside of just signing a transformative deal alone. Some libraries are not financially or philosophically equipped to handle such a large shift; others are.

Very amusing, also spot on. Begging the question: if a library doesn’t want to fund these schemes, then how will they fund OA? Simply by funding only OA for their researchers: BPC/APC/transformative deal? Or: not at all?

Assuming a growing number of EU article output will become available OA following the growth in transformative deals in key countries, at some point North America will have to keep up to stop their own output from falling into oblivion – no OA, much less citations, no good. Or is it just the IF that still matters anyway?

A pessimist would potentially see a risk for the library in foregoing OA — if indeed OA becomes predominant, and publishers become providers of services more than of content, where does that leave the library except as an expensive and obsolete middle man. I wonder to what extent this strand of thought plays a role in the decision of some libraries to fund these schemes.

Begging the question: if a library doesn’t want to fund these schemes, then how will they fund OA?

Your question assumes that funding OA is (or should be) the goal of any particular library. It may be, and it may not be. I think we can take it as given that there can be a variety of strategic orientations towards OA among libraries, and among the institutions that fund them.

To be fair, the evidence that OA leads to an increase in citations is highly disputed, largely because very few are randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and nearly all fail to control for confounding factors (such as that better-funded labs are more likely to both be able to produce work that is highly-cited and able to afford OA charges). Where RCTs have been performed, no citation advantage is observed. As a recent meta-analysis concluded (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0253129):
“Because of the limitations of the quality of the studies in our review, it is not possible to draw definitive conclusions and recommendations for authors deciding whether to make their work OA.”

Thanks for this Rick. I agree with Paul Cooper that this analysis applies to every Project X in every field. Your post offers a great framework for considering– and sometimes rejecting– worthy concepts, while also helping those rejected to understand the rejection.

Not too different than the difficulty of selling obviously superior Kirby vacuum cleaners or complex but useful Enterprise software: if one cannot articulate how Project X helps the buyer achieve their known critical goals, the sale is very difficult. This is not the buyer’s fault. Adding to the to-do list something you (seller) thinks is a _new_ critical goal is time consuming and usually fails given slow deal velocity. Fine if you are into advocacy but not if you are trying to make a number.

I agree it is important for libraries to have alignment with institutional mission. We have found, at Iowa State, a public land grant, that there is both mission alignment in supporting open type investments and support from campus. Iowa State’s journal negotiation principles, which were unanimously endorsed by our faculty senate, are an example of this. They state we will prioritize open access and other methods of open dissemination for research outputs. Further, and we are not alone in this, we have a renewed institutional focus on equity, which is another point of mission alignment for some of these types of open investments. It would be wrong to assume libraries investing in open are not supporting institutional mission directly and are, instead, pursuing external political, social, and economic goals.

It would be wrong to assume libraries investing in open are not supporting institutional mission directly and are, instead, pursuing external political, social, and economic goals.

Couldn’t agree more. Wise librarians will always be keeping an eye on their institutions’ missions and strategic priorities and ensuring that their own priorities and strategies are in alignment with them. It sounds like you guys are doing a great job of that at Iowa State, and kudos for that.

It’s also a problem when Project X is imposed by the man and researchers are told to deal with it. Take yesterday’s post by Victoria Ficarra and Rob Johnson about the forthcoming RCUK open mandate. I do hope that UK researchers are okay with the provisions being proposed, but given what we know from surveys about their general dislike for CC-BY and their concern about zero embargoes for STM (a mere 12 months for HSS), I suspect the final mandate will end up being a bit more accommodating. Here, the clash between administrators and researchers involves a different set of dueling perspectives, with the man insisting “this is for the common good,” and researchers saying “define ‘common,’ because this solution clearly isn’t for the good of my research.” The common ground we’ve been talking about in OSI for years now is where this conversation should be focused—not endlessly debating the merits of existing ideological solutions but working together to come up with new evidence-based approaches that truly advance our common goals and allow us to move off the dime and actually do something with open.

Good points being made, but it feels like this is being framed as a problem with ‘open’ initiatives when it seems like this is a problem for all initiatives. Try to sell something in a poor way and it probably won’t get bought. That could be about anything, from subscriptions to APC memberships to getting new shelves for the books. Is the focus on open initiatives here because libraries only get approached about open projects these days or another reason?

The focus is on open initiatives precisely because my own experience has been that when we (libraries) are approached to underwrite a project, the project is invariably an open initiative. These solicitations shouldn’t be confused with sales pitches, which are a different issue entirely, because they constitute an offer of products or services in exchange for money. What I’m talking about in this post are invitations to provide financial support to worthy projects, ones that don’t involve (or at least don’t depend on) selling a product. If they did involve selling a product, they wouldn’t be open initiatives and wouldn’t require free-will offerings of financial support.

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