Gavia Libraria

Hearty congratulations, California! or, on magical thinking

The Loon read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the University of California system had convinced (not required, convinced) a whopping 25% of its faculty to put something, anything in its open-access repositories. Her beak hit the ground with a resounding thump.

The Loon wants what they’re having. Whatever’s in the water over there, it’s potent. (Insert your own favorite “wow!” cliché here.) No institution or consortium anywhere has Fewer than five institutions, as best the Loon knows, have achieved a 25% faculty participation rate in an institutional repository in the absence of a mandate—nobody has gotten anywhere near that. Even places with mandates rarely if ever achieve that high a participation rate. Liège probably has. Harvard probably has. Penn State might have. Minho might have1. Nebraska has, and CalTech has improved on the California system’s 25% rate. Fewer than five other candidates occur to the Loon. That’s not many. (Suggestions or contradictions welcome in the comments; the Loon would like to be wrong, but does not think she is.)

For the rest of us, a 1% faculty participation rate would be cause for amazement and rejoicing! Let us also not forget that even the mighty National Institutes of Health could not get more than 4% of eligible NIH-funded papers deposited voluntarily in PubMed Central. (Nor is their current mandate-enabled deposit rate perfect; the last the Loon heard, it was somewhere in the region of 70% of eligible articles deposited.) On Twitter yesterday, Jacob Berg pointed out another worthy consideration: 25% of California system faculty is a lot of faculty who write a lot of articles, so the sheer volume of newly-OA material represented by this achievement ought to be well beyond impressive, more like “staggering.”

So, when the Chronicle says that California faculty are a “snag” on the way to open access (paywalled), the Loon is sorry, but the Chronicle is just wrong and its headline writers should be ashamed of themselves. California faculty are a shining beacon of open-access voluntarism. Their progress is exemplary to us all. Thank you and congratulations, California faculty! The Loon appreciates you and what you have achieved for open access!

The Chronicle’s grossly ill-chosen headline (the article itself is less bad, though far from ideal) is merely the latest example of magical thinking with respect to green open access. Build it [the repository] and they will come. A repository is just a Linux server with some free software under somebody’s desk; it costs nearly nothing to create and run. All the repository needs is a Coordinator. Faculty say they’ll self-archive [quoth Alma Swan, based on a self-report survey], so of course they will. Physics does it, so of course everyone else will. Citation advantages will persuade everyone to pitch in. A mandate means immediate full participation. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Green open access initiatives regularly, witlessly, unproductively get compared to the as-yet utterly mythical land of 100% participation and 100% literature capture. Never are they compared against peers, or indeed any real-world situations. This regularly, witlessly, unproductively obscures real and solid gains, like those in California, and insults those responsible for such gains. (A full quarter of eligible faculty, in a university system as massive as California’s. The Loon just cannot get over that. Astounding.) Of course full participation is the goal. Anyone who thinks getting there is automatic, fast, cheap, or easy, however, is engaging in magical thinking and should not be allowed to write headlines.

Now, then. It’s no secret what’s in the water in California: over a decade of serious advocacy work, technology development, and hardline stances (well and clearly communicated to faculty) against exploitative journal contracts, almost exclusively from the California system’s librarians. Thank you and congratulations, California librarians! The Loon sees you and very much appreciates you and your accomplishments! Take a very public bow; you have earned it!

If you, like the Chronicle, cannot see and appreciate what California’s librarians have done—if you think a 25% faculty participation rate would have happened without them and their more-than-a-decade of advocacy and communication work—you are engaging in magical thinking and the Loon would frankly like to drown you in the nearest available body of water, because you are not helping.

The Loon knows what happens to people working for progress when no progress they achieve is ever, ever enough to escape opprobrium, much less garner praise. While the Loon was still working in libraries, she put years of preparatory work into helping launch a then-innovative grassroots campus initiative, all of this with zero budget and zero participation from library administration. About six weeks post-launch, the Loon and one of her co-launchers were invited to describe the initiative at a meeting of high-level campus technologists. A high-level library administrator was a member of this group and attended the meeting. This administrator knew about the initiative, though had chosen not to help it along in any way whatever.

The Loon and her colleague made their presentation, doing their best to smooth over the undeniable fact that with no budget and no high-level support, the initiative’s communications capacity had been limited and the initiative did not yet have many takers. (Six weeks. The initiative had only formally existed for six weeks!) In the question-and-answer period, guess which detail the high-level library administrator zeroed in on and openly shook his head with a sneer about. Just guess.

The Loon left that meeting with a divided mind. Half of her was simply gutted, destroyed, in anguish—all that planning, all that development work, apparently for nothing. The other half was furious at how her own leadership had openly stabbed her in the (metaphorical) back.

What happened? The Loon handed in her resignation less than six months after that meeting, that’s what happened. (What happened to the library administrator? In a subsequent job interview, the Loon is told, the administrator claimed credit for that service launch. Fortunately for all concerned, the Loon was well and truly gone by then.) That’s what happens when progress, even incremental and imperfect progress, is not seen and not celebrated as it ought to be: the people who actually made progress happen go do something else, and why on earth shouldn’t we?

Does this help progress? No? Then stop all this magical thinking about green open access, compare initiatives against prior initiatives instead of Mythical Full-Participation-Landia, write better headlines, and appreciate progress when it happens. The Loon will thank you for it.

7 thoughts on “Hearty congratulations, California! or, on magical thinking

  1. P. Royster

    Dear Loon,
    I think we have exceeded 40% faculty IR participation rate at Nebraska, and without a mandate, but we are a mediated-deposit rather than a self-deposit institution.
    Still, hats off to UCal and all IRs everywhere. Keep the faith, fight the power, stick it to the Man.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nebraska was indeed one of the Loon’s unmentioned five additional candidates. Congratulations to you and your staff!

  2. Richard Poynder

    Due to the paywall I have not been able to read the Chronicle piece, but I am conscious that there are a number of different ways in which people try to size and compare the success of green OA initiatives, with participation rate being just one of those ways. One consequence of this is that people often end up attempting to compare apples and oranges.

    Moreover, arriving at meaningful figures is often not possible. A more frequent method used, for instance, is to try and estimate the percentage of papers produced each year by an institution that is deposited in the IR. The problem here is that no institution I am aware of currently knows what and how many papers its faculty produce, so any percentage number it arrives at tends to be little more than a guestimate.

    And like deposit numbers, participation rate does not tell us what has been deposited and how significant any such deposit is. Is it one paper co-authored by a researcher who co-authored 10 papers in that year, and was in fact published way back in 2002, rather than 2015/16? And is the deposit freely available to the world today, or is it behind a login wall waiting for a publisher’s embargo to expire at some point in the future?

    And while mandates may increase deposit numbers, they can obfuscate the issue. While the UK’s HEFCE policy has been much lauded, for instance, it is clearly encouraging librarians to conflate deposit with OA. As a result, the HEFCE policy (which allows publisher embargoes) is often simply replacing paywalls with login walls.

    On the question of mediated deposit, I think it has become quite clear that that is the only way to get repositories filled.

    As I say, I have not been able to read the Chronicle. Perhaps participation rate is defined more accurately in there, and these kinds of complexities discussed.

  3. Mike Taylor

    “Faculty say they’ll self-archive [quoth Alma Swan, based on a self-report survey], so of course they will. Physics does it, so of course everyone else will.”

    Actually, it turns out that even physics (on the whole) doesn’t do it. In nuclear and particle physics (as well as astronomy and astrophysics) the deposit rate is about 70% — but for physics as whole, it’s only 20%. I was astonishing (and very disapointed) to discover this. But is certainly puts California’s voluntary 25% deposit rate in a new and even better light.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      The Loon presumes this is due to her refusal to be indexed on search engines. This is unfortunately non-negotiable. The Loon apologizes for the inconvenience.