By Curtis Brundy (Iowa State University)
The Iowa State University Library is active in national and international efforts to transform scholarly communications and, in the process, to advance our own land-grant mission to share the knowledge Iowa State creates with Iowa and the rest of the world. Our library is recognized for its work around transformative open access agreements that enable our researchers’ articles to be published openly. We have invested heavily in green open access as well as in staffing and infrastructure to support the sharing of research data. And we work closely with our campus partners to ensure Iowa State faculty have access to the tools and support services they need to produce and disseminate research of the highest quality and with the highest impact.
I serve as the Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Communications and Collections at Iowa State, which puts me over the library’s innovative efforts to advance open access and open data, and also over the library’s collection budget. Through my role leading in these areas, it has become inescapably obvious to me that efforts to advance open access, increase data sharing, and even to control journal costs, are fully entwined with efforts to reform research assessment.
Researcher behavior, not surprisingly, is directly influenced by the incentives established by research assessment. Where researchers publish is widely influenced by how promotion and tenure committees perceive journals in the field. Publication in the right journals is taken as an indication of producing quality research. The difference between publishing in the “right” journals and the “wrong” journals can mean the difference between career success and career failure. This profoundly impacts not only the way research is communicated, but also how it is practiced and even funded.
Journal-based research assessment has its own particular negative effects on libraries that may not be widely recognized. A pernicious and long-standing consequence is the impact it has on journal subscription pricing, especially for top-level prestige journal brands. Robert Maxwell, founder of Pergamon Press, recognized early on that scholarly publishers compete on authors, not on sales. Research assessment that uses the journal as a proxy for research quality helps deliver authors and their submissions to the right journals. This delivers, as well, greater ability to charge ever higher prices. After all, price is related to prestige and prestige is affirmed, if not created, by journal-based research assessment.
Library services that seek to support, encourage, and advance open access, open data, and open educational resources (OER) can also be negatively impacted by journal-based research assessment. For example, open access journals may be bypassed in favor of paywalled journals that hold more weight with promotion and tenure committees. Similarly, the extra effort needed to work with a data librarian to prepare and publicly share a data set may not make sense if the data set will not count toward advancement. Likewise with the creation or adaptation of an OER.
So what are librarians doing and what might be an appropriate role for them in improving the way research is assessed? This is actually a tricky question for many librarians, who, depending on their institution, may or may not be subject to the research assessment culture and rules they might seek to reform. While many librarians have faculty status, this is far from universal. However, because of their central role within most research universities, libraries and librarians are uniquely positioned to help move the needle on research assessment reform. Here are three possible opportunities for librarian involvement and action.
Librarianship is a profession grounded in principles. The American Library Association adopted its first Library Bill of Rights in 1939. Equitable access to information. Privacy. Free expression. These ideas animate and inform the approach librarians take to their work, which can easily take the shape of advocacy, outreach, and education. Librarians can and should bring these skills to bear in advancing the reform of research assessment. On many campuses, librarians are well-placed to bring forward the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) for discussion and signing. At Iowa State, our library signed the declaration this spring – becoming only the second U.S. library to do so – and we are now working with campus partners to bring DORA forward for consideration at the campus level. Since most U.S. universities have not signed DORA, librarians have a great opportunity to raise awareness about the need to reform research assessment by bringing the declaration forward on their own campuses. I would encourage them to do so.
Information science is the academic umbrella under which sits both bibliometrics and library science. Most research libraries employ librarians knowledgeable, to some extent, in bibliometrics and alternative impact metrics. In addition, many libraries offer online guides that explain and provide resources on these topics as well as best practices. Librarian expertise in these areas can and should be called upon by university administrators as they seek to reform research assessment and move away from limited and discredited metrics like the Journal Impact Factor.
For too long, the connection between high journal prices and the prestige that results from journal-based research assessment has been unacknowledged and unexamined. Promotion and tenure committees should know what their library pays for the journals they require for advancement. While publishers have made a practice of requiring confidentiality language in their agreements to limit libraries knowing what one another pay, nothing stands in the way of a library sharing this information within their own institution. Libraries should provide departments not only with the current prices paid for the “right” journals but historic prices as well, so the often unsustainable inflation trend line is also understood. Journal price awareness could lead some committees to exhibit price sensitivity when deciding which journals to require. And it may lead researchers, other things being equal, to rethink their venue of publication.
The use of journal-based metrics like the Journal Impact Factor in research assessment has helped ensure the dominance and longevity of a print-aged relic, creating a cascade of negative consequences. The ill effects on scholarly communication are not difficult to find. Journal-based research assessment contributes to the dominance and high profit margins of large commercial publishers, who are experts at cultivating and marketing their prestige-rich title lists. It has helped create and maintain the unhealthy financial dependence some non-profit scholarly societies have on their own publication operations, which, for many, provide a large contribution to overall revenues. And journal-based research assessment erects an additional hurdle in front of any attempt to change how research is published and shared. Thankfully, action is underway on some fronts. We have DORA. And librarians have started working directly with societies to help with the transition to open publishing models. But on most campuses, the coalition (faculty, research officers, administrators, librarians, and department chairs) needed to move the needle on research assessment reform has yet to come together. Librarians have every reason to take an active role in help making this happen.