Why are librarians hesitant to CANCEL ALL THE JOURNALS?

There's lots of discussion out there right now in the twitter and blog world concerning Bjorn Brembs' call to librarians to jumpstart the mass migration to Open Access by essentially unilaterally cancelling all the journals they subscribe to. This act would force the hands of all the various players in the ecosystem to immediately figure out how to make Open Access work.

Which is a great idea. I actually kind of mused about this sort of scenario a while back in a post called An Open Access thought experiment. Except what I wasn't smart enough or brave enough to do was imagine a scenario where it was librarians themselves who up and cancelled all the journals rather than it just happening.

Why would that be? Well, I think it's safe to say that librarians don't feel they have the power to unilaterally cancel all their institution's subscriptions without some fearsome retribution either from within the institution itself or from elements of the publishing world.

Recently the University of Montreal's library cancelled a big deal and seem to have gotten good support internally. So that's hopeful. By the same token, the SUNY Potsdam library's cancellation of the American Chemical Society a few years back seems to have had strong support internally. It was externally that the blowback happened. So that's both good news and bad news.

Most recently the situation at Brock University in Ontario is an interesting example of what librarians fear will be the outcome of any large-scale cancellation exercise. The Brock library cancelled the Wiley big deal package, with what they thought was internal support. But a firestorm ensued with ultimately the Brock Faculty Association filing an internal grievance to force the administration to fund the library at the level necessary to subscribe to the journals. The grievance has since been dropped, leaving it to the Senate to pick up the pieces, but the implication is clear.

Librarians: Act boldly at your own risk.

Of course, it's not that simple. As a species librarians are rather risk-averse. Institutionally, academic librarians are rarely the most powerful constituency on campus and maintaining the influence we do have is a tricky dance at best. This is not to mention that many librarians are quite happy with the subscription status quo as it more-or-less is. Handling journal subscriptions is a clearly defined role, one that makes us feel important. If that importance is often more in the cynical eyes of the publishers who flatter us than in the eyes of the local communities whom we actually build those collections for, well, that's nothing new.

Barbara Fister has much more on this issue here, Determining our Tech, and in the comments of the post:

Recently Björn Brems suggested that librarians should simply cancel all subscriptions to fix this problem. On Twitter Mike Taylor predicted that things would sort themselves out within three months of the mass die-off of subscription journals. Of course, that ignores the likely fallout: librarians would be fired and possibly arraigned on charges of collusion, the budgets they had devoted to subscriptions would not be reallocated to supporting institutional repositories or any other way of sharing information, and the many scholars who email colleagues for the PDFs they no longer could access would find out their colleagues couldn’t access them, either. Three months for the establishment of a new and better system seems a bit optimistic and based on some serious misconceptions, such as that the scholarly record Is safely preserved in LOCKSS and that somehow the copyrights publishers hold to that material will suddenly be irrelevant as publishers implode. Remember that the majority of books published in the 20th century live in copyright limbo? Yeah. Canceling subscriptions en masse won’t fix that problem.

The Library Loon suggests some ways those on the research/publishing side could perhaps better understand the pressures and constraints that librarians work under:

Kent Anderson works for a scholarly publisher. So does Peter Binfield.

Phil Davis is a researcher. So is Martin Eve.

Why is it so hard for certain portions of the open-access movement to assimilate that libraries and librarians are not monolithic with respect to open access (or, indeed, much of anything else) either?

To be sure, some of the answer to that question is “unconsidered privilege.” Librarianship is a feminized profession; that has profound social consequences vis-à-vis voice and silencing as well as political capital and lack of same. It is hardly coincidence that the loudest voices either spouting absolute nonsense about libraries and scholarly communication or erasing libraries’ contributions to open access altogether have been—universally, as best the Loon can tell—white men.

The Loon can name names if need be. Per her usual practice, she would vastly prefer not to.

Anyone can learn, however. To that end, some suggestions for places to learn about the complex world of libraries, electronic-resource management (as libraries term it), and open access.

Both Barbara and The Loon's posts are well worth reading in their entirety (The Loon refers to me as indefatigable in the post, BTW. I blush.). I couldn't agree with them more.

The paper The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era and Tim Gowers' Elsevier journals — some facts are also both good supplements to this conversation.

To end, I'll compile below as much of the documented history of the Brock case as I could find in a few quick searches online. Thanks to Ian Gibson of Brock University for some insight into their situation. Any misunderstandings remain mine, of course.

I welcome any additions or corrections from colleagues with respect to how I've described what's happened at Brock.

The Brock Library Open Access page is here.

Brock University Senate Meetings & Minutes are here.

As usual, please let me know about any errors or omissions in the list.

Update 2015.06.29. Thanks to input from a colleague at Brock, I have struck out ", with what they thought was internal support".

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If the Brock fiasco teaches us anything, it's a thing we already knew: it's faculty who are the problem. Not librarians, who have no magic wands to wave, and not publishers, who are basically just catching the money academics keep throwing at them. The problem is ignorant faculty too lazy to learn where their scholcomm access actually comes from and self-important enough to throw tantrums if any of it is taken away.

The solution is clear and has been since PubMed switched from a suggestion (3% compliance) to a mandate (going on 100% by now). Faculty and publishers alike will do as they are told by the people who have the money: research funders. Every effort to educate faculty, radicalize librarians or appeal to publishers is a waste of time that would be better spent lobbying funders.

Thanks, Bill. I think you're exactly right.

But...if you cancel subscriptions, you will end with GAPS ON THE SHELVES!!!! Oh no!

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 28 Jun 2015 #permalink

Obviously (I hope), I wasn't calling on librarians to unilaterally (i.e., without faculty support) cut subscriptions. 'Institutions' need to realize the advantage of controlling their own output. Some coordination has to occur for some critical mass to be reached. The subscription system is so hated by now that if a group of institutions make a start, the rest will follow.
The support need not be 100% (how could that even ever be?), also obviously, but there needs to be sufficient support to ensure that not only all the saved funds stay in the library, but also to quell all opposition with well-informed arguments about what the funds are going to be used for, i.e. for everyone's benefit.

By Björn Brembs (not verified) on 28 Jun 2015 #permalink

Hi Björn, your original post is fairly strongly worded so I guess it was easy for me to perhaps misunderstand your larger point. Sorry about that. I'll also agree with Bill above that at the end of the day, neither researchers nor librarians have the incentives to change the system. It's the funders who control the money, so they control the incentives.

Thanks, Pierre. Fortunately my French is good enough to read the posts. Great case studies!

Except for some niche journals run by nonprofit institutions or groups, some of which are online-only, open-access journals charge authors substantial fees, up to a couple thousand dollars. That's fine for people with federal funding, provided publication costs are in the budget - though it's still stressful to consider the complications if the only logical journal for your manuscript isn't open access - but what about the large majority of academic/NGO researchers who don't have a big federal grant? Traditional publishers profited by selling content that researchers supplied for free; now are we actually to be expected to pay through the nose for the privilege of supplying content? In any other context, that model would be called a vanity press.

Well, most OA journals actually don't have author publishing charges. Most are free to publish in. The exception is probably the biomedical field where most OA journals probably do have APCs. I don't think the solution to he higher level problem -- how to get pretty well everything published available without toll barriers to the readers -- is something that can be solved overnight. Nor will it be solved in a uniform way across all the various disciplines. I do think the key players in nudging the system towards openness are probably the funders who would probably like more rather than fewer people to read the research they are funding, usually with public money. Certainly that's the case in Canada.