For the public good: our values in a changing scholarly communication landscape

This is a collaborative post by Lizabeth (Betsy) A. Wilson, Vice Provost for Digital Initiatives and Dean of University Libraries; Denise Pan, Associate Dean for Collections & Content; Chelle Batchelor, Interim Associate Dean, Research and Learning Services; Director of Access Services; Tania P. Bardyn, Associate Dean & Director, Health Sciences Library; Corey Murata, Director, Collection Analysis & Strategy; Gordon J. Aamot, Director, Scholarly Communication & Publishing; and Elizabeth Bedford, Scholarly Publishing Outreach Librarian.

Like many of you, we have been following the negotiations between the University of California (UC) and the giant commercial scholarly publisher, Elsevier. UC’s announcement that they have broken off talks with Elsevier has sparked a wave of interest and commentary reaching beyond the walls of the academy. In a blog post by our colleagues at Duke and Iowa State University, they called this a movement, “closer to a tipping point in the ongoing struggle to correct asymmetries in the scholarly information ecosystem.”

Librarian consulting with students, looking together at a laptop computer.
Librarian Reed Garber-Pearson (left) consults with UW students in the Research Commons.

There is a disconnect in the scholarly publishing ecosystem between the creators of scholarship and the ownership and distribution of scholarship, especially with mega-publishers like Elsevier. Researchers publish their findings without the expectation of additional compensation in the interest of advancing human knowledge and building careers. Researchers also evaluate each other’s work for free by doing peer review. But the results of this scholarly output are almost always controlled by publishers and usually hidden behind paywalls.

While the breakdown of the UC/Elsevier negotiation is big news, it is just the latest in a growing list of cancellations by our peer institutions of publisher “big deal” journal packages. In its Big Deal Cancellation Tracking list, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) provides the names of institutions and the packages they have recently cut. These cancellations are a reflection of the widening gulf between for-profit publishers’ demands to continually increase package cost well beyond the rate of inflation, and the ongoing erosion of support for higher education. In her annual address to the University of Washington last fall, President Ana Mari Cauce highlighted the unsustainability of the funding model for higher education in our state. While UW Libraries has been fortunate to receive strong support from the faculty and University, we can see that gulf forming.

With the Libraries in the implementation phase of our recently developed 2018-2021 Strategic Plan, it is valuable to step back and reflect on our values as we think about this changing landscape of scholarly communication and our future negotiations with publishers. Among these values are a focus on sustainability, equity and user-centeredness.

  • Sustainability: While we are committed to providing collections and resources  for our students, faculty and researchers, we are unwavering in the knowledge that we must be good stewards of allocated funding to support research and teaching at the University of Washington. In our negotiations with publishers, we continually balance researchers’ needs with fiscal responsibility. Working collaboratively with our campus community to build collections can accelerate scholarship and learning through responsive collections.
  • Equity: We believe the current proprietary, closed, for-profit scholarly information ecosystem is broken, exclusionary and undermines the democratic ideals of liberal education. We view access to information as a social justice issue, and for-profit publishers’ unsustainable pricing models, demand for nondisclosure agreements and insistence on paywalls hinders the pursuit of knowledge, impedes our support of an informed citizenry and restricts research for the public good.
  • User-centeredness: Our commitment to users remains at the forefront of our collections strategy and decision-making. We know that scholarship is a conversation — and that research progresses only when scholars have an understanding of what has come before and are able to share new knowledge. Because our library collections form the lifeblood of this conversation, we are keenly concerned with ensuring UW scholars have access to the materials they need to progress their research.

The negotiations between UC and Elsevier are part of an accelerating, worldwide movement to transform scholarly communication, to ensure knowledge is shared broadly and without barriers, and to further enhance inquiry and discovery. We applaud UC’s attempt to explore new and different models for providing access to scholarship. And we stand in support of finding new pathways to build and negotiate transformative models that create collaborative and sustainable long-term solutions. As stated in our Strategic Plan, UW Libraries works to advance research for the public good because we believe that “UW research attains its greatest impact on our most pressing global challenges when we advocate for open, public and emerging forms of scholarship.”

Looking at libraries strategy with open eyes

In recent months, many new strategic initiatives have sprouted across the university to share the fruits of UW-conducted research. They all grow under the philosophy of open—the movement to make information publicly available online at no cost to readers. Here’s a review:

  • The Tri-Campus Digital Scholarship Group was charged to formulate a broad and unified vision to support new, creative forms of scholarship that leverage digital media—from technical infrastructure to classroom pedagogy.
  • The UW Press administratively joined the UW Libraries in March and is already collaborating with the Libraries and other academic institutions to produce open monographs.
  • The Open Educational Resources Steering Committee was charged to raise awareness about open educational resources, and to support their use and creation. To date, four UW faculty have received grants to create open textbooks, and the Libraries is piloting the Pressbooks open book platform.
  • The Scholarly Communication Outreach and Education Team (SCOUT) will identify and prioritize key training and education needs in the area of scholarly communication. A subgroup has begun assessing information needs among librarians and will eventually plan outreach to the broader UW community.
  • The Faculty Senate approved an open access policy to further UW’s goal to make its research and scholarship freely and widely available. The policy intends to promote the visibility, accessibility, and preservation of faculty work.
  • The new Libraries Open Access Policy Implementation Team will determine how best to enable the faculty policy, starting with foundational aspects that the public will never see: technology, infrastructure, expertise, and researcher workflow. The team will later plan and promote services to faculty.

These endeavors are in direct alignment with the the Libraries Strategic Plan, which references several open initiatives explicitly and generally promotes open values. Advocating for open scholarship, increasing opportunities for student learning, increasing access to interdisciplinary and multi-format resources, and leading efforts on open educational resources are all called out in our Strategic Directions.

Equally important is how we progress toward our goals. We will place users at the center and value creativity and—as a learning organization—learn from our efforts and make adjustments to improve as we progress. We will be curious, communicative, and collaborative.

It takes all of us to do this work, as many skills are needed and the UW is vast territory. It’s also worth noting that we have two teams, one group, and a committee but no task forces among the charges above. It’s our ongoing work to leverage changes in scholarly communication to “accelerate inquiry, creativity, and learning for global impact and the public good.”