Author’s Note: At the 2021 Charleston Conference, I was invited to speak as part of the panel: “Progress Through Partnership: The Dolly Parton Rule for Transformative Agreements.” The conversation took as its starting place the quip, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one!” My role was to provide framing remarks in advance of the presentations by other speakers — Mathew Willmont, California Digital Library; Sybille Geisenheyner, American Chemical Society; and Sara Rouhi, PLOS — who detailed the specifics of models they are working on. This is an edited version of my remarks.
Reflecting on the theme of “Paving a New Path,” I found myself deep into the literature on road pavements. It’s actually quite fascinating and “paving a path” turns out to be a very apt metaphor. We hardly think about the roads we drive on and yet they require intense planning and attention to detail. They are incredibly complex in their design and construction, which must take into account a wide range of conditions and context – geology, climate, weather, and planned usage, which itself includes predicting changing human behaviors and preferences, diversions, community planning, etc. The road built for Siberia is not the one built for the Galapagos, which is not the road built for South Carolina, at least not if you want the road to be functional, safe, and reliable for the future. We take roads – pavements – for granted. Well, except when they fail.
Road pavements are designed in layers. You may have observed this when encountering road construction. These layers serve the following objectives, at least according to the 598-page manual on “Geotechnical Aspects of Pavements” from the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation I found myself reading:
- Structural Capacity – providing a strong structure to support traffic loads
- Ride Quality – providing a smooth wearing surface
- Safety – providing a skid-resistant wearing surface
- Durability – preventing premature deterioration because of environmental factors
I think these map well to the considerations I see as we think about transformative agreements, both in the narrow sense of “read and publish deals” but also the broader sense of transforming the financial models of scholarly publishing and access.
How are we attending to questions of capacity to support the demand for publication outlets? What of the quality of the author and reader experience? As well as that of the editors, peer reviewers, etc.? What safeguards are in place to prevent fraud, misinformation, and the like in order to secure and support the safety of the system – the credibility and trustworthiness of science and scholarship? Are the transformative paths sustainable over time; are they durable?
To return to the notion of layers – in pavement these are generally conceptualized as subgrade, subbase, base, and surface. Most drivers are focused on the surface and the primary question of “will this take me where I want to go without damaging my vehicle or injuring the occupants?” Similarly, most scholars likely care little of the details of the contracts, policies, and financial frameworks that underlie the scholarly publishing system. But, as librarians and publishers, we have to attend to the full stack of layers and how they interact and build upon each other.
I won’t attempt a full listing of all of the considerations of pavement as a metaphor for the scholarly publishing system, but will suggest at least a few that I think are central to the current transformational moment and its demands for managing policies, timelines, financial models, and reporting requirements:
- First, I suggest we need more attention to Systems Thinking and Perspectives. It is too easy to focus on a part of the scholarly publishing system and imagine that–if we make one change–the impacts will be contained to just that change. Instead, we must lean into the challenge of thinking about the complete system and how it may respond. The complexities of the system mean that there are unintended and perhaps even undesirable consequences. They may have also been unexpected though I find that there is usually a Cassandra if you look even a little bit. What is the theory of impact for a given change and has it been comprehensively considered?
- Related to this big picture is, ironically perhaps, the nitty-gritty details, the Logistics. Exactly what must be done by who at which point in the publishing process for a given transformative agreement? Increasingly I am hearing librarians and publishers alike reflecting on how they had not realized the level of detailed attention and process adjustments these agreements would require. We have well-honed automated systems to authenticate people as authorized readers but almost all authentication of people as authors is currently done manually and depends on authors themselves understanding more about the technological workflows of publishing than we have ever asked readers to have about the technologies of access.
- I would also like to recommend increased attention to the Drivers of Change. These are great in number and variety and many are, if not opposed to each other, at least not well-aligned. Analysis of these is necessary if we are going to build the kind of partnerships being discussed today. It is easy to be carried along by rhetoric but calling something sustainable or equitable doesn’t make it actually sustainable or equitable. Such labels may not bear up under scrutiny. It is not that I want to regulate marketing copy, I appreciate the role of public relations. But, I do want us to look beyond labels to understanding whether the drivers of a given change and the proposed changes themselves are reflective of our priorities, regardless of what those priorities are or if I personally agree with them, because research on successful partnerships says that collaboration is effective when it is based on shared goals and understandings.
How do we lay down the layers of “pavement” that build up a quality scholarly communications system that is safe and durable and that meets the capacity demands of the scholars of today and, equally importantly, tomorrow?