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Librarians Working Inside Out: An Open Access Week Interview
Posted On October 25, 2016
Heather Joseph is the executive director of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). SPARC is sponsoring this week’s ninth annual observation of Open Access Week (Oct. 24–30), a worldwide event held to celebrate open access and advocate for further progress toward its goals.

I visited with Joseph at SPARC’s Washington, D.C., office for a wide-ranging conversation about past progress, the state of open access today, the road ahead, and how open access could change the role of academic librarians. Our discussion has been condensed and edited.

Dave Shumaker: Heather, thanks for letting me visit SPARC today. I understand that this year is the ninth annual Open Access Week. How has the event developed over those years?

Heather Joseph: It’s amazing that we have Open Access Week at all. It actually started as Open Access Day, and it was initiated by students. A group called Students for Free Culture, which was formed around Creative Commons, approached us about promoting awareness about the cost of scholarly journals. It was just 1 day, and it involved 11 campuses in the U.S. and one in the U.K. The students did very small events, such as setting up tables in the libraries, where they exhibited journal covers with large price tags attached, to make people aware of how much scholarly journals cost. The day was a great success, so the next year we extended the opportunity into a weeklong event and began to provide a central clearinghouse on our website, where we share resources and ideas for locally organized activities.

Shumaker: How has the theme changed, and what are some of the highlights coming up this year?

Joseph: Initially, we needed to focus on introducing the idea of open access, so our first theme was Open Access: What Is It? Over the years, as the movement has advanced, more people understand the basic concept of making scholarly research freely available. The call to us has been to focus more on specific aspects, so we are doing things such as highlighting the potential impacts in specific disciplines. This year, the theme is Open in Action. We chose it to reflect where we are in developing open access. We’ve built the journal outlets and repositories. We’ve got the licenses. What we need to do is cultivate the behavior that actually makes research objects open. So this week will be centered on highlighting the little things that you can do as an individual all the way up to what the large things are that research funders and government agencies can do to make open access a reality.

Shumaker: I understand that Open Access Week has gone global as well.

Joseph: Yes, it has. Open Access Week has been a terrific channel for us to reflect more accurately the global nature of research and scholarship. The idea that there would be events in many countries all over the world, the fact that it has become a global self-organizing community, was unimaginable at first. Here at SPARC, we do some central coordination; we put out some resource materials, and people in 140 countries around the world run with it. They organize events and develop policies. We’re a U.S.-based organization, but we have counterparts in Europe, Africa, and Japan. It’s been a great opportunity for us to understand how others approach the concept of open access, as well as share what we’re doing.

Shumaker: What are some examples that highlight what people will be doing this week?

Joseph: I really like some of the things that may seem like small-scale activities. For example, a student may not feel that she can organize a big event—but she can identify one person, one faculty member, a department chair, or a dean to approach and have a conversation about open access: Do they support it? Will they publish their next article in an open access journal or deposit it in a repository? Although it’s a small action, if it’s replicated on campus after campus, it can have a big impact. Some campuses will be competing on how many objects they can deposit in their institutional repositories during the week. Everybody loves contests, and this helps us demonstrate the utility of institutional repositories. While all this is going on, here at SPARC, we’ll be blogging each day at to highlight events.

Shumaker: So it’s really about using social media to raise the “market share” of open access.

Joseph: Exactly. We’re aiming to combine lots of small actions to build the presence of the open access movement. We’ve made tremendous progress in building the infrastructure, but we feel it’s not being used as much as it should be. And that’s because researchers currently are not rewarded as well for open access publishing. A key concern for academic researchers is the promotion and tenure system. We’re not trying to change promotion and tenure, but we’re trying to start conversations that lead to open access publishing being rewarded in that system. We see open access as being in the best interests of society, of science, of institutions—and we want it to be equally in the best interest of the individual researcher.

Shumaker: Are there examples of universities establishing successful open access initiatives?

Joseph: A number of campuses have adopted open access policies or principles. The first were Harvard and MIT, and the trend has spread to a number of other institutions, both large and small. Typically, though, they are more like broad statements of principle favoring open access publication, and they’re often not enforced. That’s why we’re focusing on building up the usage of the open access tools we already have.

Shumaker: Open access is a challenge for federal agencies too, isn’t it?

Joseph: Yes, it is. The agencies fund a tremendous amount of research, but in many cases, they don’t know what publications are produced as a result. We’ve worked hard on policy advocacy to change this situation. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been the leader, of course. Beyond NIH, we’re heartened that this year, in response to a directive issued by the Obama administration mandating tracking and open access for research output, 16 of the 19 agencies have announced policies on this and have begun to put them into practice. Funding to implement these policies fully is still a challenge, but I’m optimistic that it’s going to get done.

Shumaker: Let’s talk about the current development and future of institutional repositories. There’s been some discussion recently that they have some challenges.

Joseph: Institutional repositories are here to stay. They’re experiencing some growing pains, but they’re not an endangered species. They are growing up and getting to the next stage of development. One aspect we really need to focus on is to update our repository technology. Our current technological approach dates back to the early days of the World Wide Web. It was appropriate at the time, but it needs to be updated. Then, we thought of the repositories more as digital libraries than as web-native services. As a result, they are not fully discoverable, which is a barrier to having them fully populated and fully used. So, it’s not a small-scale issue, but it can be fixed.

Beyond discovery, we want the next generation of repositories to be integrated with the native workflow of the web. We also need to think about whether every campus needs a repository and how better to integrate and interoperate the repositories we have. The Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) hasn’t been explored and implemented as fully as possible and hasn’t produced the level of interoperability we need. Another issue is combining internal and external content into our library repositories. MIT is one institution leading some innovative work on this idea.

So we need a technical upgrade and some pilot projects on new approaches to interoperability. If we address these needs, institutional repositories will continue to be an important tool for institutions to retain control over their scholarly output. Open access is increasingly appealing to administrators who see the institutional benefits of retaining control over the scholarly output. Instead of academic authors giving rights to the publisher and then the institution trying to regain rights to host in a repository, the model might be that the institution hosts articles in its repository—like an institutional archive—first, and then publishers can obtain limited rights to include articles in their publications.

Another model that’s being explored is to spread the idea of preprint servers for academic disciplines. Physics has done this, but other disciplines could go this way. Scholarly associations could provide repositories for the publication of research. There could be review and commentary within those repositories, and articles could go through the traditional peer review and publication system afterward.

Shumaker: That sounds like a fundamental change in the scholarly communication system.

Joseph: Yes, scholarly communication is the system we’re supposed to be reforming. Communication denotes having an open dialogue. You’re having a conversation: Is it private or public? Is it two people or a room full of people? Right now, there’s only one way to have that conversation, and it’s bilaterally within the closed environment of journal peer review. But maybe scholarly conversation needs to be more than that. We use the internet collaboratively for all kinds of other activities, so it seems natural to explore ways we can use it to facilitate new modes of scholarly conversation. And if there’s an additional byproduct that we can recognize the scholar in new ways, rather than just getting the paper into a particular journal or getting a certain number of citations, then what are the forms of impact that we want to recognize?

Nothing precludes continuing with journal submission and publication. But that’s a slow process, and these other forms of communication overcome the delay on the front end in making scientific results available. This goes beyond a narrow idea of “open access” to a more robust picture of “open scholarship” or “open science.”

Shumaker: We’ve seen actions by the commercial publishers, such as Elsevier’s acquisition of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) not too long ago. What are your thoughts on the role of the for-profit sector?

Joseph: Clearly, the for-profit scholarly publishers will continue to have a role. I think Elsevier is an example of a company working on shifting its business model away from focusing solely on exclusive control of scholarly output. It’s getting involved in the scholarly workflow end to end, from data management and analysis tools, building quasi-professional social communities, through to publication. For the open access community, this means we too need to think in terms of the full workflow, not just open access for articles, but for datasets and other research outputs, so that the academy retains control over its product.

If the for-profit sector can provide tools that improve the scholarly process, that’s to the good. But our concern is that the academic community should retain control of its own outputs—either its data or articles—so that the research can be shared widely and made freely available. Ultimately, the successful solutions will make the job of the scholar easier, not harder, and will ensure that scholars continue to receive just rewards for their work.

Shumaker: Heather, to close out our conversation, let’s connect open access back to the role of librarians. As open access grows, do you see it affecting the role of librarians? What’s your vision of how their work will change?

Joseph: I do think open access will change librarians’ role. We touched on this earlier when I described the initiatives at MIT that have librarians monitoring faculty publications and making sure they are shared and accessible. It’s a change from working “outside in” to working “inside out.” Here’s what I mean. The librarians’ role is essentially facilitating the scholarly conversation. Traditionally, we’ve focused on picking the best content to bring into our institutions—into the library collections—so that it’s available. In the open access environment, if we’re doing our jobs, we’ll focus on pushing out the quality intellectual output from our institutions. We should be helping our researchers make available whatever content they want to share. That includes articles, datasets, and versions and sections of their work. Plus, we’re helping to make sense of that material. We’re making it discoverable and trackable. All the things we do now with the collections we bring into the institution, we should be thinking about how to do those things with the knowledge being produced within our institutions, so that it’s available to the world.

Shumaker: Heather, that image of the librarian working inside out is a great point to end our conversation on. Thanks again for sharing your insights today. I’ll be checking out all week to keep up with everything that’s going on.

Joseph: Please do. And come back next year for the 10th annual Open Access Week.

Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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