Monday, August 23, 2010

Of downloads and lemmings

Following is my contribution to a recent discussion on the American Scientist Open Access Forum on the topic of downloads:

What the institutional repository does with respect to download counts, is to direct traffic to the university's site. This will increase the university's web presence and hence emerging institutional web impact assessments, likely to be of increasing importance in years to come.

Having said that, I would also like to point out that there are serious dangers to scholarship that come with over-emphasis on the numbers. What is popular from a scholarly perspective at one point in time is not necessarily what is important.

One way to think of this: imagine that we humans are like a group of lemmings rushing madly towards a cliff (given the climate crisis and our limited attention to this, I would argue that this is a reasonable comparison). Any lemming that says (or writes) about - how to get to the cliff even faster - is likely to be well-heeded (and cited, if it is an academic lemming). On the other hand, the scholar who looks ahead and sees the cliff and shouts off (or writes up for a peer-reviewed lemming paper): "Hey! Cliff ahead! Should be change direction? " may not get much attention immediately. (Later on, after the early birds have gone over the cliff, could be a different story).

Another important point: one real danger of usage statistics is the potential for usage-based pricing. If we go this route, it is just a matter of time before some of us impose limits on reading. If the undergraduate research project becomes a cost item, there will be a strong incentive to limit research and/or eliminate research projects. When one copy of an article can easily serve anyone, anywhere, it would be a shame to go this route. (Thanks to Andrew Odlyzko for pointing to this danger).

For a more in-depth look at this topic, please see my book chapter, "The implications of usage statistics as an economic factor in scholarly communications", OA copy in the SFU IR at:

Comment: if there is one single possibility that tipped the balance for me to become an open access advocate, it is the spectre of usage-based pricing and the evil that this entails, at least for scholarship.

Wanted: a don't-be-evil online music store

Update August 23: has been suggested. Interesting - DRM-free music, but on the other hand an ongoing monthly financial commitment, which I don't like, with emusic reserving the right to change the terms and conditions at any time. Not sure about this, but definitely much better than itunes.

Much as I like the idea of the convenience of buying music online (whether for download or CDs), I can't bring myself to sign the itunes agreement. This agreement says that I can only use what I buy in Canada, and apple reserves the right to use spy technology to enforce this. Nor am I keen on purchasing through Amazon, since I don't see an easy way to filter out music produced by companies that employ evil sue-their-customers-even-kids techniques and/or who advocate for evil copyright protection. Perhaps an Amazon "no-RIAA members" button would suffice?

Given the popularity of the international Pirate Parties, maybe it's not just me?

On the other hand, maybe I should just create my own music.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Open access advocacy for the procrastinator

Best excuse for procastinating I've come up with in a long time: what do you mean, this won't be open access? Suitable for authors of all toll access publishers.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Worlds of differences between publishers (economics 101)

Many librarians have never studied economics. Now that we are playing a key role in transforming scholarly communication, we need to know a little about the topic, at least as it applies to the stuff we work with. This is true whether we're in library management, collections, or at the front lines working with faculty on scholarly communication issues. This post is the first in a series designed to provide an easy reading introduction to librarians on this topic and for this purpose, called Economics 101.

Today's topic introduces the concept of the worlds of differences that exist between publishers. I will be using one of my favorite examples - since it is both so extreme, and from LIS. Emerald's Library Management, with a subscription price of Euro 11819 according to Ulrich's (that's 15,138 USD by today's conversion rate), costs about 190 times as much as ACRL's College and Research Libraries (similar in number of peer-reviewed articles per year), at a maximum non-member non-US rate of 80 USD. While this is an extreme example, it nonetheless illustrates an important point: the journals of the for-profit commercial sector can cost not only more than the not-for-profits, the commercials often cost a very great deal more.

This is important, because if we would like to see a healthy, affordable future for scholarly communication, we need to understand and support the often small, not-for-profit publishers, whether they are our own, as in the case of C&RL, or help our faculty members to see the importance of supporting such journals in their own disciplines.

Following are a few ways to think about this:

  • When it comes time for renewal, budgets are tight, and of course we want publishers to keep their prices down. But does it make sense to ask the same sacrifices of a publisher of a journal that costs only $80 and another very similar journal that costs more than $15,000?
  • If we thought about the important work that ACRL does and how low that $80 subscription ($70 in the U.S., by the way) is, and asked ACRL to double the price for C&RL, and negotiated with Emerald for a 1% decrease in the cost for Library Management, we would save money (1% of $15,000 is $150 - $80 for doubling the cost of C&RL). We would save $70.
  • Or, why not ask Emerald to be just a bit more reasonable, and halve the price of Library Management to just $7,500 U.S.? This would save us enough money to pay for subscriptions to 94 journals like C&RL.
The irony is, that when we explain the dire straights of library budgets to publishers, it is the ACRLs of this world who are the first to step up and assure us that they will keep prices flat.

A simple way to keep this difference in mind in the field: when comparing journals or publishers and their pricing changes over the years, keep in mind the actual price - not just the percentage of increase or decrease. A 1% increase to C&RL is $.80; a 1% increase to Library Management is $150, almost double the full subscription cost of C&RL.

This post is the first in the series Economics 101. While the examples here are subscription-based journals, overall the purpose of understanding the economics is transitioning to open access. What's the connection? Publishers that have never gouged anyone, but have rather always kept their prices reasonable, often (like C&RL) have a well-deserved reputation for high quality. If they depend on library subscription dollars - let's help them to make the transition to open access. When I talk to people involved with many of these journals, what I hear is that many of them would love to make such a transition - they just need a little help, and if librarians step up to help them, many would welcome the help.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cultural Studies: for-profit journals cost up to 10 times more than not-for-profit

Striphas analyzes the relative costs of journals from different publishers in cultural studies, and finds that the journals produced by commercial publishers cost from 50% to 1000% more (10 times the cost) than the not-for-profit university press journals, with the average price at Sage the highest at $853. Striphas' analysis on why addresses added value to the publisher databases (bells and whistles for searching), but notes that the main reason is because publishers can charge this much, because of the inelastic market. The section on alienation in this article is useful for those working on author's rights.

Citation: Striphas, T. (2010). Acknowledged goods: Cultural studies and the politics of academic journal publishing. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 7(1), 3.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Open Access for Canada - for Canadian impact

As librarians across the country know, it is not easy for searchers to find information about Canada. Recently, in a discussion about the Canadian Census, someone pointed out how much more open and useful the U.S. Census data is. Have a look - it is impressive indeed. The point was, that this Canadian admitted to doing research using U.S. Census data rather than Canadian data for their grad thesis, just because it was too hard to find Canadian data. A story that reference librarians are all too familiar with. Update August 7: Allison Martell explains why she used American census data rather than Canadian for her undergraduate project, because the Canadian data were not usable.

When American information is easy to find, and Canadian information almost impossible to find, what ends up happening is that Canadian researchers end up helping Americans with their problems, even if they want to help us with ours. If Americans thought about this and wanted to reciprocate, they'd have a hard time finding our information and probably give up.

The U.S. already has a strong mandatory open access law with the National Institutes of Health, and discussions are well underway to extend this to all U.S. federal funding agencies. Canada had better get going on our own OA mandates and make our work visible, quick, or we'll end up becoming even more marginalized from a knowledge standpoint. This anecdotal view is a good fit with the author impact advantage illustrated in Steve Hitchcock's excellent bibliography of studies on this topic.

Canadians who are advocating for the return of the mandatory long form of the census: why not add to the list of the demands that the data be made just as open and usable as the U.S. Census data is?