SSP 2014: Engaging With Stakeholder Perspectives
by Jill O'Neill
Are the goals and values of academia and content providers—whether scholarly societies, commercial entities, or university presses—completely at odds? Is it possible for publishers, librarians, and educators to arrive at a mutually acceptable and sustainable solution to the challenges currently felt in scholarly publishing? Fortunately, entrenched practices and tensions in this environment are being met with equal levels of enthusiasm and energy as evidenced by the nearly 1,000 attendees at the SSP (Society for Scholarly Publishing) 36th Annual Meeting in Boston earlier this year.
It's a complex balancing act for publishers and librarians, however. One session at the conference seemed in particular to illustrate the atmosphere in which most members of the information community find themselves. Organized and moderated by October Ivins, principal of Ivins eContent Solutions, and part of the Stakeholder Perspectives track, Simpatico or Star-Crossed Lovers? Scholarly Communication and Scholarly Publishing Seek to Rekindle Common Passions brought together seven representatives of researchers, libraries, and publishers. The group was asked to respond to two questions: In terms of scholarly communication, what challenges would you most like to explain to other stakeholders? And what is it about your role that is misunderstood?
New Digital Challenges
Addressing the first question, Amira Aaron, associate dean for scholarly resources at Northeastern University, raised the very immediate and practical challenges that most people within the library community face, which are:
- Library budgets, which are not keeping pace with increases in content pricing
- Administrators and faculty who are not fully attuned to current issues and changes in scholarly publishing
- Content licensing agreements that impede the mission of an institution, most specifically those licensing agreements between content providers that mandate some level of exclusivity (Whether that exclusivity governs full-text content or the associated metadata, for Aaron, the trend is worrying.)
Aaron has a depth of expertise in the world of scholarly publishing, having served both in academic libraries as well as in the commercial sector in a vendor role. Now, as an administrator, she's expected to balance the daily needs of her institution and the demands for changing existing practices in an evolving information environment.
Korey Jackson, Grey Family Chair for Innovative Library Services at Oregon State University, is one of those who is calling for changes to existing practices. From his viewpoint, his greatest challenges are the barriers to innovation posed by conservative adherence to traditional forms of output—that is, books and journals. Emphasis on such traditional formats limits innovation in newer forms that might actually be more serviceable in fulfilling the needs of a particular discipline. Yet entrenched requirements for tenure and promotion that govern the behavior of younger scholars (who might be eager to innovate) impede acceptance and adoption. Striking a positive note, he suggested that libraries and publishers might usefully work together in building acceptance and the promotion of new content formats as well as in leveraging better analytics for the purposes of demonstrating influence and impact. The two sectors might collaboratively develop better means of assessing contribution and value.
That call for collaborative innovation was echoed by Peter Froehlich of Indiana University Press. He called for a more thoughtful attendance to the needs, wants, and recommended improvements expressed by prospective partners, whether they are scholars, librarians, or other industry professionals. “We need to agree upon the mechanics, crowdsource them, build them as shared systems, and then move into innovating” tools that support the discovery of new forms of communication and the expanded use of data so that institutions can begin to rethink their requirements for tenure, he said.
Keith Seitter, of the American Meteorological Society, noted his interest in reshaping practices for the benefit of science and scholarship. Picking up on a passing comment by Froehlich, who noted that publishers are in an ameliorative role of improving content as it passes through their hands, Seitter pointed out that his society is eager to see its members deposit the published version of a record in a university repository, rather than a prepublication version. Such a small shift would be in keeping with service to scholarship rather than just a perpetuation of error through the citation of an uncorrected prepublication manuscript.
The need to work out sustainable models for both society and commercial publishers was raised by Terri Teleen of Wiley. Her company partners with many societies to support the publishing operations of smaller entities, she said, and those scholarly societies must remain aware that they are supporting a business even as they are torn between the preservation of publication revenues and demands for open access (OA) from their members. At the same time, Teleen agreed with Jackson that current requirements by tenure and promotion committees represent both a challenge and an opportunity.
Turning to the concerns of the active academic, the first researcher to speak did so with dual perspectives emerging from her role as both an academic and a librarian. Jean Bauer, of Brown University Library, noted that her current role in digital humanities essentially consists of building and maintaining OA databases on the web. The faculty projects she focuses on are new forms of publication in which the objective is “to get it up and walking, and let it loose.” From the perspective of the faculty, what is critical for such projects is visibility and the capacity to constantly iterate as a nonstatic form of publication far removed from the more traditional monograph.
Representing a different discipline and a different perspective was Bauer's counterpart on the panel, Rich Kesner, a business professor at Northeastern University. Kesner was also concerned with the issue of nontraditional formats but more so from the perspective of identifying formats that would work in less traditional classroom environments. His challenge was how best to create a context for learning. In the past, he (or his colleagues) would have turned to a textbook, but Kesner noted that there seems to be a gap between publishers' understanding of a true online learning environment and an electronic textbook. The two are not synonymous.
The panel was then asked to respond to the second question: What was most misunderstood about their roles? The response was interestingly varied.
Bauer pointed out that digital humanities is not the product of a single individual but of a team, one that includes project, subject, technical, and graphic design managers. Digital humanities work is edited and shaped by this collaborative approach, and the publishing process is inherent to the effort.
Kesner similarly emphasized the collaborative nature of his work with colleagues and content providers in creating material for the classroom. Even in something as minor as the creation of a slide for use in the classroom, he has to worry about the impact of copyright. If one object for his slide is from Microsoft and another element is found on the web, it takes a team to determine what is usable. His idea is that we need to work out the issues surrounding sharing.
The publishers discussed the need for the information community to recognize that it costs money to do what publishers do. Despite bad publicity and confrontational exchanges, Teleen noted, as did Seitter, that publishers are working toward the creation of a sustainable publishing environment for scholars and researchers. There is value-add from peer review and the correction of pernicious errors, but publishers feel that they have failed in expressing their value-add to those who rely on their services.
In response to Kesner's comments on sharing, Froehlich noted that if everything had complete metadata associated with it, he wouldn't have nearly as much concern about sharing between scholars. It is the loss of protection that makes publishers nervous. At the same time, he emphasized that publishers need to be attentive to the pain points raised by librarians, scholars, and researchers and to be mindful of what they are developing and why. By doing so, they might lessen their own need to place restrictions on the usability of content.
Keeping Up With Now
Jackson noted that capital is generally the area in which conflict arises between publisher and librarian. It's not that libraries don't understand the role of capital, as so many believe. That said, he acknowledged that much of the rhetoric surrounding OA is counterproductive.
The conversation then returned to Aaron's daily need as an administrator to balance concerns of innovative approaches to capturing and disseminating emerging research with the tensions of the “now”: trimming expenditures and negotiating new agreements with content providers. Aaron insists that publishers need to understand that libraries are not trying to “put the squeeze on.” It is her professional obligation to point out to vendors the reality that library funding doesn't proportionally increase according to expansions elsewhere in the university budget allocations. As an associate dean, she is actually providing publishers with good intelligence as to where their current practices impede future success. Refocusing attention on which specific contractual clauses present barriers for the customer can actually be beneficial if properly attended to. Perhaps publishing professionals might revisit some of the more troublesome practices she referenced (double counting of full-time equivalents, and exclusivity of content on platforms, etc.) and recognize that their latest content and platform enhancements aren't compelling selling points if institutions require more intangible improvements to existing arrangements (such as flexibility in pricing and more precise estimations of usage).
The key words at SSP this year were “collaboration” and “innovation,” with the recognition that there is resistance to those concepts when they are added to the overload of day-to-day activity. There was an emphasis on hardworking entities that are trying to build new conduits and useful supports amid the demands of the well-known and well-entrenched. The greatest enthusiasm and energy at SSP tended to come from those least encumbered by unquestioned institutional practices or legacy systems.
Dan Cohen, of the Digital Public Library of America, and Jill Cousins, of Europeana, spoke at length about their organizations' collaboration at web scale, the importance of open APIs in creating new forms of information resources (as well as Twitter bots), and other critical aspects of supporting interoperable infrastructures. Without taking anything away from the various cultural archives that share images from their collections, these platforms allow users to create collections, collages, and “tours” that offer new understanding of historical events and environments.
While providing access to cultural heritage has its own significant set of challenges, figuring out how collaboration and innovation work in practical terms can be fraught with complexities if you're the middleman, as libraries and publishers find themselves to be. As Kerry Kroffe, from the Institute of Physics, noted in a session on OA mandates, behaviors and expectations vary widely across disciplines and geography. Neither publishers nor librarians wish to impose additional burdens on the working researcher because that is whom both groups seek to support and serve. And yet, frequently, new requirements in the interest of broadening access do exactly the opposite. In a session that discussed the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States (CHORUS) and SHared Access Research Ecosystem (SHARE) initiatives, librarian Linda Plunket noted that the SHARE notification system was primarily intended to streamline the process of researchers' reporting to institutions and funders on the status of research outputs.
As with so many conferences that are targeted to the information community these days, the unspoken assumption underlying every presentation at the SSP meeting was that there is a clock ticking in the background. Both libraries and content providers recognize that if they do not somehow develop better systems for serving the needs of the research community, some startup entity may emerge from a garage or warehouse with an innovative, cost-effective approach that better addresses the researcher's workflow.
At the same time, there was surprisingly little acrimony, fault-finding, or name-calling among the various stakeholders at this event. Perhaps equally surprising to some might have been the amount of camaraderie and the attitude of inclusion.
The final takeaway (in a year when there was little news pertaining to devices, business models, or other forms of disruption) was that those who are working in the realm of academic libraries, education, research, and information remain aligned in their passions for sustaining and advancing scholarly communication.