Open Access … Open A&I? Thoughts and Questions

This blog post was inspired by “The Ebook Cargo Cult” a blog post by Brett Bonfield over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe. He had quite a bit to say about ebooks, but I was struck by his initial discussion of libraries losing their hold on the abstracting and indexing (A&I) of journal articles early in the 20th century:

To date, the decision to hire firms to provide abstracts and indexes for our serials is the largest mistake libraries have ever made, leading inexorably toward the indexing and eventually the archiving of newspapers, magazines, and journals being controlled by a small group of commercial enterprises.

In Bonfield’s analysis, this was inevitable as there weren’t enough libraries to cover all that was published, and large scale cooperative efforts were not yet underway. This got me to to thinking if there was a way that libraries could take back A&I … and if they should even try. Here are a few thoughts and questions on this regarding, in particular, independent or small open access (OA) scholarly journals published by university departments, research groups, etc. These journals may be publishing on their own with editors posting to their own websites or they may have some support from a university press (becoming rare), scholarly publications office or library (becoming more common).

I would think that these small journals with no or limited support would be vulnerable to being overlooked as an information source because they are not bundled into publisher journal deals that are then loaded into discovery services, the “one-stop shopping” research point for students. So unless a student or researcher knows to search these journals specifically, their resources may not be found. The hot word right now seems to be “discovery” so I’ll go with it.

For libraries that are shedding subscriptions and/or their journal big deals, such as SUNY Potsdam’s library and chemistry faculty, open access journals are being used to pick up some of the slack. So how do librarians direct their users to articles in the smaller OA journals?

The two ways that come to mind are the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and proprietary online databases. DOAJ lists open access journals from all over the world. If the journal provides article abstracts and keywords, those are searchable; if not, DOAJ merely provides a link to the journal’s website. Journals can also be browsed by general subject area. Is this a good substitute compared to access one gets from specialized databases such as PsychInfo or Literature Online? I don’t think so, even when journals provide DOAJ with abstracts and uncontrolled keywords (I could write a whole post on the lamentable state of some abstracts, and probably will sometime, but back to the open access journals).

So are all independent or small OA journals even represented in DOAJ? I did a quick non-scientific search of five of these journals that I’m familiar with. Only four were in DOAJ. The fifth was Australian and had been around since the late 90’s. Perhaps Australia has its own open access thing going, but even if they do this journal was not in DOAJ as well. So how does that journal get found by people interested in its topic but who don’t know it exists? Google? Good luck–it doesn’t make the first three pages of results unless you add Australia to the topic search. Not every small OA journal can be found in DOAJ … or even on the web unless you know the title, and I’m interested in the situation where researchers or students haven’t yet learned about the journal or don’t want to spend the time searching each little journal separately.

Of course some of these OA journals, perhaps many, are covered by A&I services. If an OA journal is being indexed by one of the big databases, that means someone else other than the author/editor/publisher is providing this metadata–good deal for them, right? Well … have they checked on their journal lately? Is the database basically up-to-date on the publication or lagging way behind? Interdisciplinary journals can be vulnerable to being handled as non-priority in discipline-oriented indexes.

Gaps in coverage by proprietary databases such as those described above can be covered by improving searchability on the web at time of publication by including metadata along with articles. This metadata can include controlled vocabulary subject headings, uncontrolled keywords and abstracts to describe the content of each article. Note for open access devotees, this added value would benefit all a journal’s readers, not just those who have access to proprietary A&I databases.

Editors and groups that publish independent OA journals must want librarians, scholars and students to discover articles in their journals. To aid this discoverability, they need strong metadata, both in content and in how it is deployed. The Internet is a big place, and robust metadata helps people find scholarship. Better data describing each and every article improves findability not only by search engines but also on the journal’s own website. Now editors aren’t usually metadata experts while I assume those that have publishing support may get some help in this area. But all are likely to have access to college librarians, some of whom have extensive metadata experience.

To avoid the discoverability problems mentioned above—some of which are outside of editorial control such as how quickly a journal is indexed by a proprietary A&I database—independent or small OA journals can publish metadata with each article on their website or publishing platform. Who will create and code this metadata? Editors or their publishing support can seek collaboration with college librarians or even work with freelance professional indexers. While these services may add to the cost of the journal, enhanced discoverability also should help boost a journal’s impact making it more attractive to prospective authors. If a small OA journal is lucky enough to have publishing support, the university press or publications office should be helping these journals publish with quality metadata. I would hope that any journal receiving publishing support from a library would already have this.

If editors/publishers of these OA journals decide to use a controlled vocabulary for metadata, supplemented with carefully chosen keywords if necessary, all the better. Librarians or indexers can help them make decisions about this. Information professionals should be able to suggest freely available (more open access!) vocabularies to use if editors don’t already know of ones in use within the field(s) covered by their journal. I would be remiss to the mission of my website if I didn’t give a plug here for linked data and its abilities to link between controlled vocabularies on the web.

I have been away from the academic library end of things for some time now, and the scholarly publishing landscape has changed. But from what I can tell from my reading, both formal and informal, I believe librarians can play an important role in improving discoverability of independent or small OA journal articles published at their institutions or by their faculty. How this would work would likely vary depending on size of institution, number of open access journals published, size of library, institutional politics and who knows what else. I doubt there is a one-size-fits-all solution here. But given the creativity of librarians and their support for open access, I think they could find a way to help improve access to their institution’s OA journals through better metadata creation and management. In the end, it comes back to help the librarians–and their users–discover those same articles.

There’s lots more questions to be brought up here and answers to be worked out if librarians and OA publishers want to take back control of enhancing access to their journals. After all, what is access? Isn’t more than just letting the world know a journal exists? I hope so.

What have you seen happening with libraries and A&I? I’d be very interested to hear what people are doing. Or is it not worth libraries getting into it at all? Please share your thoughts below and thank you for reading!



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