Libraries and Learning

Just Business

August 8, 2017

One of the reasons so many librarians felt angry about Elsevier’s acquisition of Bepress is that Elsevier has become an enemy of libraries and what they stand for. Elsevier would, naturally, disagree, but their business practices, like those of four other giants (Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer/Nature, and SAGE) seem predatory and destructive from the library perspective. As they have grown bigger, their power has grown, and their prices and negotiating power makes libraries incredibly vulnerable. Not just libraries: a lot of books have not been bought because these five publishers gobble more and more of static library budgets.

But there’s another reason that deserves some unpacking. Bepress is just a very attractive but empty platform without the stuff we put in it. Libraries that chose it did so in order to help their communities make things – and make them public. We paid for a useful box to put stuff in, and because it’s our labor and our stuff that made Bepress worth acquiring, it feels as if somebody stole our stuff.

Mind you, platforms matter. Bepress was attractive, relatively easy to use, and was smart about aggregation and discoverability. The open source alternatives available are not an option for small libraries that don’t have technical staff (and when you’re small, there’s a good chance HR and higher administrators decide what happens with library positions. If someone leaves, that line may vanish. If you say you want to convert an existing position to do tech, the powers that be might decide that line should be given to the IT department. Sometimes you have to advance with one arm and part of another tied behind your back.) Tactically, outsourcing your tech needs to Bepress was a sensible way to move forward. Moving forward means fighting the big guys with their big deals by helping faculty and students publish without them, by taking on new roles within existing constraints, by trying something rather than simply wring our hands about the serials crisis. So it was taking on Elsevier by making things that could be shared on our terms.

Libraries are used to vendors changing hands; merger mania is in full swing among library vendors. It’s a pain, but it’s what it is. There’s something different about having a platform that hosts stuff you helped to build sold out from under you. This is why people get upset when Facebook and Twitter and Instagram change up their rules, or when Amazon buys Goodreads after Amazon failed at social. It’s a reminder that our stuff, our creations, our hard work curating and formatting and building community, is incredibly valuable – but it isn’t ours.

This, of course, is exactly what got us in trouble in the first place. By letting large profit-oriented publishers take over society journal publishing and scholars’ copyrights, we became hostages to an unsustainable business model. Now there’s another business model on the ascendant, one that gives us places to show our stuff while gathering data in the background. We’re quite used to that business model, one that turns us into self-marketers. Sure, it’s kind of creepy, but the way we live now demands metrics and these platforms are all about public performance and building reputations. The big-money journals may have cornered the status market, but paywalls interfere with public performance and no longer function efficiently for reputation-building. That’s why these big players are now big on open access – with hefty fees for making an article in a high-prestige journal open ($5,000 is in the ballpark) or smaller fees for publishing in new mega-journals busy churning out stuff. Being big helps – they already have the infrastructure, and they’re pivoting because that’s where the market is going. People want their stuff not just published and locked up – they want it public.

Roger Schonfeld has written about why the Bepress acquisition made sense for Elsevier and why libraries’ inability to think strategically about the future is a serious leadership flaw. In recent decades, shortly after libraries used new technologies to share cataloging work in new ways and make interlibrary-loan infinitely more efficient, publishers got into the technology-for-sharing act and libraries grew used to shifting from ownership of collections to access, leaving the development of tech infrastructure to others. We traded rights we’d had in exchange for access to more stuff. We also grew used to patrolling our borders, because that was part of the deal, and we got less practiced at working together to meet common needs.

Now, as scholars and scientists grow impatient with paywalls, we’re in danger of ceding the future to the biggest for-profit publishers if we don’t come up with alternatives. And here’s where, for me, things get sticky.

Not many libraries, regardless of who leads them, are in a position to shift the enterprise from a local focus to a fully outward-facing one. MIT is certainly giving it a go, and so is Michigan, but we’d need a groundswell among wildly diverse institutions to pool funding and vision to build something that is public but not ours, something that isn’t simply a response to the demands being made of us at home. We’re really good at service to our communities and we have a set of strong shared values, but we’re kind of terrible at saying “hold my beer: we can solve that big hairy world-wide problem.” Not all libraries have been able to develop tech talent – partly because of the hands-tied thing but also because library culture isn’t always kind to people with those talents. And let’s be real: scholars and scientists resist solutions that are library-based. They don’t see us in that role and selling them on the idea that we’re going to lead the change would be a difficult challenge.

What I think might be our best strategy is to play to our strengths – service (including willingness to organize and sustain things) and values – while supporting in every way we can open access to knowledge that is consistent with our values. We may or may not be the ones who write the code and build the new platforms, but we can get going by strategically redirecting our resources on those projects that are promising – arXiv, the new preprint servers springing up, Humanities Commons, etc. – while making sure access doesn’t get sold as a nifty way to amplify reputations and enhance productivity for a price.

Schonfeld thinks libraries are too focused on content, not scholarly workflows, and recommends leadership training that focuses on strategy and business development. Leadership is something I’m skeptical about simply because don’t think librarians are positioned to lead this change so much as to support it vigorously and guide it gently. I’m also not sure I would call this “business development” but rather development of a financially sustainable and morally responsible approach to doing the things we care about using our skills and resources and convictions. Maybe the shorthand for those things these days is “business” (given how much planning things that will cost money is now called “developing a business model”) but I like to think librarians and scholars are increasingly ready for something radically different from business as usual.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.