Of groundhogs and sequoias

Lately my life has had a certain resemblance to that of Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.”  Like Murray, I seem to be repeating the same pattern in my daily work life over and over.

The basic pattern is this.  I am asked, often with a colleague or two, to meet with a faculty member or group of faculty members.  Sometimes this is at my home institution, and sometimes it takes place on a campus I am visiting.  Wherever they happen, the conversations follow predictable lines.  Yes, we agree, the current system for publishing scholarly articles, dominated by a small handful of commercial giants, is inequitable for authors and does not serve the best interests of scholarship.  Yes, open access offers many benefits for authors, institutions and society.  From there we usually begin to detail the various ways that open access can be accomplished, including the challenges and advantages associated with each model.  We always have the sustainability conversation, in which I try to convey the sense that we are involved in lots of experiments right now but the one thing that seems pretty clear is that the traditional model of scholarly publishing is itself not sustainable (which most folks realize).

Often the faculty authors and editors with whom we talk have specific horror stories to tell, specific ideas about how to get scholarly publishing on a better track, and specific worries about how the transition will be made.

In spite of the repetition, I enjoy these conversations. I learn a lot from hearing about the particular experiences of authors and editors, and about their notions of what a better system would look like.

There is another, more important reason that I do not resent having to have these discussions over and over again.  I constantly remind myself that the ideas about publishing and open access are beginning to filter down into our faculties and they are beginning to turn their attention to how to change the system.  This is a remarkable development, and it is a reminder that the 11,447 scholars who have signed the Cost of Knowledge pledge to boycott Elsevier (as of this writing) are really just the tip of an expanding iceberg.  Many others have not signed that pledge, which is often mistakenly assumed to be just for mathematicians, but have become more aware of the problem and, more importantly, ready to seek alternatives, because of that public campaign.

I think we have reached a point where we are no longer having to sell the idea of open access.  There is widespread acceptance that that is the way that all or most scholarship will be distributed in the near future.  The discussions we are having now focus on specific advantages of OA, like altmetrics, the mechanics of the transition, and the ways in which costs can be managed.

One specific question that arises in every conversation is how the promotion and tenure process will have to change as open access becomes the rule rather than an exception.  Part of the answer is to point out that several forms of open access are entirely compatable with the traditional evaluation techniques in P&T processes.  But as digital scholarship becomes the norm for many researchers, there is a growing awareness that P&T is going to have to change to take account new forms of scholarship.  It is not open access per se that will drive this change in P&T, but rather these new approaches to scholarship for which openness is an added benefit.

In this context I was delighted to see the recently released “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in the Digital Humanities and Digital Media” from the Modern Language Association (there is a story about the guidelines here).  To be perfectly honest, there is little in the Guidelines themselves that is groundbreaking; they are commonsense suggestions about how scholarship should be evaluated, with some really good, specific attention to uniquely online aspects.

What is important here is not so much what the Guidelines say as who is saying it.  It is very important that the MLA, one of the oldest and largest scholarly societies in the U.S., is taking notice of the changes that are happening in scholarly communications.  As with the faculty open access conversations, this is evidence that change is penetrating the academy broadly and deeply.  The revolution in scholarly communications will not, in the end, by accomplished by librarians; it will be accomplished by scholars, authors and their scholarly societies.  That those groups are beginning to notice the need for change and to engage in the debates about how to accomplish it is a significant step forward.

I say “revolution” with tongue in cheek here.  Perhaps some of us once expected a rapid conversion, a flipped switch that would change the scholarly publishing world to open access, but that is not going to happen.  Our world will be changed through many conversations, lots of experiments (some of which will not succeed), and the growing activities toward change of scholars, universities and societies.  I recently talked with a colleague who expressed some doubt whether a career in academic librarianship really made a difference, and I assured her that, in my opinion, we need to see ourselves as sequoia farmers.  We make small contributions and sometimes see very little growth.  But over time (and, in this case, place) the progress is substantial and the results can be gigantic.  And just occasionally — I think we are in one of those moments — we get to witness a growth spurt.

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