A recent discussion on an e-mail list, about university open access policies, raised the issue of trust. The participants correctly noted how important it is that there be some level of trust between faculty, administrators and the library (which is usually charged with managing an open access repository once a policy is in place) in order for an open access policy to be adopted and successfully implemented. Inevitably, the comments brought out the irony that faculty authors often seem very suspicious about administrator motives when debating an OA policy — fearing that someone is trying to “steal their stuff” — yet are perfectly willing to give that “stuff,” in its entirety and for no remuneration, to commercial publishers. And they do this even though it is obvious that commercial publishers do not share the fundamental values of academia about research and access.
When one looks a little deeper, it is easy to see, I think, that academic authors do not really trust the commercial publishers either; we hear lots of wry comments about how absurd the current system is, followed by a shoulder-shrug expressing resignation. It is absurd, but it is what we have got. “Trust” is probably the wrong word for what authors feel as they give away their work.
Perhaps it really is just resignation in the face of how things have been done for hundreds of years. There was a fine column published recently in the Educause review that encapsulates this scholarly stagnation with a story about a Buddhist monastery where the practice of tying up the monastery’s cat, begun because it disrupted the abbot’s lessons to novices, continued for centuries, through many successive abbots and cats, until it came to be invested with a false sense of significance. Mark Edington makes the case that we have become unreasonably wedded to a system that once had considerable utility for a set of circumstances that no longer exist, and are reluctant to embrace the changes needed for our new environment. There certainly is an element of “tying up the cat” in our continued dependence on commercial publishers and our willingness to pay them to do things that, in many cases, we can now do better and more economically ourselves. It is simply easier to do what we have always done, and to let the dissemination of scholarship remain in the hands of those who have done it for us for 300 years.
It is not that we exactly trust commercial publishers, nor do we exactly distrust them. We may recognize that the values and goals of the commercial publishing business are different from, and even in conflict with, the best interests of scholarly authors and of scholarship itself. Perfectly nice people, working to advance their own interests as best they can, come in to conflict as the conditions for research and teaching change. And a real ambivalence is created because of how interwoven the parts of the academic enterprise are. More than just inertia is a work; important aspects of the academic enterprise remain interlocked with traditional forms of publication.
Most obviously, the rewards system in higher education, which by definition has worked well for many of our most influential faculty, is highly entwined with traditional journal and monograph publishing. In the digital age, when we can actually learn so much more relevant information about the uses made of an individual scholarly article, it may be absurd to continue to look at impact factor and the “brand name” of the journal as evaluative measures, but the systems we have built around those factors are well entrenched. Change seems inevitable, but it will be slow. One of my major concerns is the cost of this snails’ pace, and the danger that “the usual suspects” will succeed in co-opting the new opportunities and convincing us to pay them for open access and alt-metrics, when we should look for ways to save money and preserve more local control over these new, digital opportunities. An example of this danger can be found in the “Open Access Roundtable” sponsored by the Copyright Clearance Center that warned about the complexity of article processing charges. The CCC, of course, sees itself as a solution to that problem, while the role of universities is simply to pay others, through them, for the benefits of open access.
Late last year Jason Schmitt, a professor at a small liberal arts college, posted a column in the HuffPost called “Academic Journals: The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology in History.” He makes a good point. It seems odd that academia, which should be in the forefront of leading managed change, should be propping up a technology that has outlived its usefulness. We would laugh at people who continued to buy buggy whips well into the automobile era, yet we, as academics and librarians, are in danger of becoming those very laughing-stocks. Schmitt focuses on ideas for change laid out by Sam Gershman and John Bohannan and stresses the societal obligation we have to make the knowledge created in our colleges and universities more accessible.
Of course, trust is a key element in moving toward the open access future that Schmitt, like so many others, envisions. The systems we are moving toward will not be simple; it will involve multiple and diverse business models, and accommodation for lots of different needs. We will need to decide what parts of the scholarly communication system we can take over on our own campuses, where we should focus collective funding, and what elements might still be most reasonably “outsourced” to commercial firms. These decisions will be difficult, and different on each campus. At each stage we will need to decide who we trust; who are the right partners for this part of the journey.
The key to those trusted relationships, I think, is common values. As we move toward a more open future for scholarly communication, we need to focus on what are the best interests of scholarship and of individual scholars. The best way to overcome distrust between faculty and administrators, for example, is to ground the conversation on shared or complementary needs and goals — faculty want maximum attention and impact for their work, and administrators want to build and protect the reputation of the institution; open access, implemented thoughtfully, can bring those goals into alignment. Libraries, which are traditionally highly-trusted entities on campus, must keep their focus where, I hope, it has always been, on making teaching and research easier and better. In all of our conversation about changing the system of scholarly communications, we should keep that goal as our foundation. Even more importantly, we need to “walk the talk.” In our decisions about how we spend our money, especially, we should be guide by, and be seen to be guided by, those best interests of our scholars and our institutions. I firmly believe that those interests will lead us, by the shortest reasonable route, to our open future.