Public Access, if anybody knows where they are

Your Humble Blogger has been hoping to type something about the death of the Research Works Act. But I was hoping to type something that would perhaps clarify the immensely complicated stuff around it, and I don’t have time to do anything like that at the moment. So I’ll just ask for a tiny bit of it—as I was enumerating, in my head, the many things that a journal publisher does that largely remains undone when scholars put together on-line journals, amongst the things that I hadn’t thought of before is that the publishers often will make it easy for libraries to include on-line works in their digital collections. Perhaps expensive, particularly when the publisher is evil, but easy.

For one thing, the really large (and mostly evil) publishers have their own databases of articles; a library can link to those databases in a variety of ways, including within the on-line catalogue. Of course, an individual on-line journal can contact the library, and then the library can catalogue the thing and link to it, but that’s one of those things that I think gets left undone most of the time. A publisher not only has an incentive to contact the library, but has a big old list of libraries to contact, and perhaps has ongoing contacts with humans who work there. And even then, a link from a catalogue line is a very different matter than inclusion in the big searchable databases; again, I don’t know to what extent a small publisher can get a journal included in such databases, but certainly it’s more up the publisher’s alley than the scholar’s. And, of course, it’s different field to field; PubMed will be very different from Academic OneFile; publishers will likely be doing different tasks, field to field, and have experience in their own fields.

So. While I think most academics and academic librarians would like to have something like PubMed or ERIC, huge government-run databases that will include any upstart (peer-reviewed) journal (after appropriate review), where those do not exist or where they are insufficiently inclusive (and I have no idea if those big government-run databases are really sufficiently inclusive) (and sufficiently exclusive to make their inclusivity useful) or where they do not cover what the journal covers, what is useful to librarians? I mean, yes, it’s useful for a journal not to be published by one of the Bad Guys (and there really are some big bad guys), but beyond that, what’s good? Because Google Scholar just isn’t going to cut it, guys.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

7 thoughts on “Public Access, if anybody knows where they are

  1. Vardibidian

    To clarify: There has been a lot of conversation, sparked I believe by the Research Works Act, which observes that the publisher does not generally pay the writers of the articles, does not generally pay the editors of the journals, and does not pay the reviewers in the peer-review process, and concludes that scholars would be better off taking distribution into their own hands (via the internet) and why do we need publishers, anyway? This is why I was enumerating the things that journal publishers do, and why it occurred to me to ask about how the journal publishers other than Reed Elsevier can get their articles into the hands of people who can use them, and how libraries can be involved in that.

    As I was writing, though, I did rather loosely talk about evil publishers without, as was on reflection incumbent on me to do, specifically saying that most publishers of academic journals are not evil at all. While Gentle Readers could easily infer that from my subject, I should say it: most publishers of academic journals are the Good Guys.

    I should have said and and should say it in large part because that has been missing from a lot of the talk about the Research Works Act. That talk has focused on Reed Elsevier, who are Bad Guys, and it’s good that they are singled out for scorn and derision. But both by neglecting to talk about the Good Guys, and by loosely talking about “Evil Publishers” and “The Publishing Industry” indiscriminately, it has had the effect of tarring publishers of academic journals with a brush that should be narrowly tailored to a handful of Bad Guys. And if we don’t distinguish between companies who behave the way Reed Elsevier has behaved over the last two or three decades and companies who have not behaved that way, then we are discouraging the Good Guys. Which is bad, not only because it’s, you know, wrong, but because (as the post is actually about) it’s going to take an awful lot of creative thinking in concert with libraries, publishers and scholars to get research in front of people who can use it.


  2. Catherine

    Heh. Google Scholar was actually going to be my first suggestion, but you pulled that rug out from under me at the very last moment. 🙂

    So, if I understand you correctly, what you’re asking about is discovery or, essentially, indexing. How and where can publishers of upstart, non-evil journals get their journals indexed (other than in Google Scholar) so that researchers, scholars, and students can find and use them?

    I confess to not knowing enough about the scholarly communications ecosystem to make an informed comment, but I certainly know people who know enough, and I’ll be sending them this way momentarily. In the meantime, I will say that in my limited experience, the large providers of indexing/abstracting databases (EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, et al.) do not appear to be opposed to adding journals to their products, especially their general-database offerings (Academic Search Whatever, ABI/Inform, Academic OneFile). It’s rather like library volume counts, dontcha know: size matters. Particularly if the non-evil publisher in question makes it as easy and inexpensive as possible for the database vendor to include their journals — by, for example, providing clean metadata and abstracts up front, so that the database vendors don’t have to do any actual, you know, work to include the journal.

  3. Steve Lawson

    Hi, I’m a friend of Catherine’s and also a college librarian.

    I tend to have confidence in the disciplinary indexes. I assume that if it’s a reasonably upright journal in literary studies, for example, that the MLA International Bibliography will index it. That kind of index isn’t free to libraries, but it’s usually affordable, and there certainly is “added value” from the work the indexers do to assign keywords, subject headings, and so on. I confess that I don’t really know how the MLA sausage is made, and there may be good reasons to see changes and reform there.

    So it’s possible that I don’t understand your question, but you seem to be asking, “if we blow up the big publishers, how will we find the articles we want?” I’d put some faith in those disciplinary databases. Now there are good reasons to ask why *that* information should be commercial and proprietary, and my only answer to that is, let’s try and solve one thing at a time.

  4. Vardibidian

    Here’s an example to clarify my point: The Journal of Effective Teaching is a peer-reviewed on-line journal of some years’ standing. It’s published out of UNCW. It’s not in ERIC, and it’s not in the EBSCO atoz, and it’s not in my institutions’ catalogue. It exists, and it’s in Google Scholar, but not so’s you would be likely to actually find any of the articles (Catherine—I think Google Scholar is wonderful, actually, for finding copies of articles you already have citations for, but that doesn’t affect these kinds of journals; if I’m wrong and Google Scholar is awesome, please let me know) if you are just doing research in the field.

    I also have to admit that I don’t really know how research is being done on the ground (I’m not a librarian; I just work in a library) other than people punching keywords into the big databases and tracking down citations at the end of the articles they find. And, of course, you could argue that JET could be in ERIC, and probably in ProQuest and EBSCO and Gale as well, and why wouldn’t the people involved make sure that it is in ERIC—but my point is that a publisher would be set up to do all of that stuff, and some guy putting together a journal in some department somewhere is probably not.

    The backlash against Elsevier should absolutely lead to a thousand flowers blooming all over—but that’s going to either lead to a lot of work for libraries, or libraries are going to be without those flowers.


  5. Michael

    Back when I did research, I found a whole lot of articles from citations in other articles, and others by looking for the latest work by researchers who I already knew were doing related work. This is part and parcel of the network effects that prevent new people from breaking into a field unless they have an “in” with the existing dominant crowd.

  6. textjunkie

    I use a combo of PubMed and Google scholar for my research, and never set foot in a library, so I don’t see what the problem is with letting the publishers go hang. The big government-run databases are sufficiently inclusive, and becoming more so all the time. Especially I am ticked at publishers when they are making 30% profits each year over the last few years, at a time when NIH is slashing the actual funding for researchers (the ones generating the content, reviewing the content, and consuming the content) by huge amounts. /rant

  7. Steve Lawson

    “And, of course, you could argue that JET could be in ERIC, and probably in ProQuest and EBSCO and Gale as well, and why wouldn’t the people involved make sure that it is in ERIC—but my point is that a publisher would be set up to do all of that stuff, and some guy putting together a journal in some department somewhere is probably not.”

    I guess I’m assuming that academic market forces will *make* “some guy” be sure his journal is indexed if he wants researchers to find the stuff. I don’t think there will be that much more work for librarians, but I do think that academic writers will need to take charge more of their expectations and assumptions when finding a place to publish. We’ll have to ask “where is this indexed?” along with questions about rights and publication dates and so on.

    Now, there may be practical or ideological or other problems that mean the disciplinary databases aren’t as inclusive or as neutral as I wish they were, and if there’s any evidence to that effect, I’d be very interested in reading it.


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