LIS professional ethics and online academic publishing

It seems Elsevier, the quintessential ‘Big Deal’ publisher is under more heavy fire at the moment with a growing petition of academics boycotting the Dutch firm. In a recent interview, Elsevier themselves have recently published a clarification on their approach to Open Access following a dip in share price.

The debate has gone mainstream with the Economist and Wired both covering it in detail. As LIS professionals, you really have no excuse not to be tracking this. (Here is a great background read on ‘the big deal‘ package and a wonderful summary of everything the Elsevier Boycott stands for from ‘Fake Elsevier’.).

One recent post from the ‘Library Loon’, ‘what you can and can’t ask Librarians‘ struck a real personal chord. It nicely explains the conundrum librarians face with the Big Deal journal package:

Elsevier sells multi-journal packages, and like coffee drinks at Starbuck’s, they come in large, immense, and ginormous sizes, all overpriced. Nor are they mix-and-match; libraries can’t substitute journals they want for journals they don’t. It’s pure take-it-or-leave-it.

(Economists consider this a sneaky way of force-selling crappy journals that would never make it in a sole-subscription world. The Loon believes the economists quite right.)

So when you tell a librarian “stop subscribing to Elsevier journals!” you are thinking a dozen or so journals in your field, while the librarian has no choice but to think about several hundred journals running the entire gamut of disciplines. There’s a word for what would happen to that librarian if he acceded to your request, without the full knowledge and consent of the rest of the institution. That word is “fired.” If the librarian is only a little unlucky, that word is instead “lynched.”

I rather have to agree with this even if it seems a bit simple. We have been buying this stuff mostly because academics wanted it! The author also mentions professional ethics in the piece.

That issue aside, librarians have been trained not to consider the ethics of information production in their journal purchases. Library schools discuss instead gauges of usage, disciplinary accreditation, search-site usability, accessibility (sometimes; not often enough, in the Loon’s opinion), and the same hollow bibliometric measures that faculty wrongly rely upon. Who else trained librarians to act this way? Faculty, of course, considering librarians little more than walking wallets. See “fired” and “lynched” above.

Its the reference to ethics here that gave me pause. After all, the ALA has an ethical code. In the UK, we have a professional Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics managed by CILIP, (n.b. I’m no longer a member of CILIP, resigning my chartership some time ago due to various reasons).

I first covered professional ethics during my Masters and again during Chartership. In both cases, we had to refer to vaguely theoretical exercises such as stocking copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ or supplying books on how to commit suicide to people who are having a bad day. The more I think about it, the more ‘Big Deal’ purchasing and other online licensing deals could be considered as excellent use cases for studying and applying such ethical principles. I wonder if LIS courses are doing so?

Looking explicitly at the UK CILIP guidelines, I’m then wondering where ‘big package’ purchasing and the growing related conception of the ‘science poor’ stuck behind a pay wall stack up against our principles. To consider a few:

2. Concern for the good reputation of the information profession.

I would argue that buying big packages has hurt our image in the longer term, even though its done at the behest of others. Signing large long term license deals with no real get-out to publishers with 36% profit margins has not helped our professional image.

3. Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

This is tricky. Publishers making stuff available online in the firstplace is arguably a massive advancement of access to information. Placing it behind a £30 an article pay-wall whilst we remove the print copies from the shelves is not. At least some libraries negotiate walk-in access for eresource subscriptions.

4. Provision of the best possible service within available resources.

I would argue that we could do more here to push our readers changing needs to publishers, especially around turn-around of publication and computational access to full-text and datasets for mining. These issues are technical and complex, but LIS professionals need to get a handle on them if we are to remain relevant to our readers. Simply not understanding is not good enough.

5. Concern for balancing the needs of actual and potential users and the reasonable demands of employers.

This principle would certainly need to be considered when signing up for a big package. It refers to a balance rather than ruling in favour of one group, something that is hard to achieve.

7. Impartiality, and avoidance of inappropriate bias, in acquiring and evaluating information and in mediating it to other information users.

As the Library Loon stated, we are trained to assess quality and validity of material, not the ethics behind its production and sale. Is this something we should be doing, are we really doing it via Open Access? How can we do so and remain impartial?

9. Concern for the conservation and preservation of our information heritage in all formats.

Currently, online publishing models make it hard for librarians to preserve digital material. We are using and funding services such as LOCKS and Portico to do so. In the long term, we cannot rely on the publishers to do this for us.

10. Respect for, and understanding of, the integrity of information items and for the intellectual effort of those who created them.

With peer review literature, this is difficult as rights are often signed away. Open Access awareness raising is still a vital. We should respect the role publisher play in publication, but should also recognize that the author comes first. Educating academic publishers about open access options is one way to go, although its also really hard.

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