RUSQ, Open Access, and Me

In the past week or so, there’s been a bit of a tempest in a teapot surrounding the journal Reference and User Services Quarterly (RUSQ), the peer-reviewed journal of the Reference & User Services Association (RUSA), itself a division of the American Library Association (ALA).  I’ll try to tell the story as clearly as I can from the beginning, though others (to be cited below) undoubtedly tell parts of the story better.

Back in 2006, RUSA announced, with a press release, that going forward, RUSQ would be open-access.  Or, more precisely, that in addition to the print journal, there would be an online “companion” at where full-text articles would be posted simultaneously with the print publication. Quoting then-and-current RUSQ editor Diane Zabel, the press release says that “[g]uided by the philosophy of the open access movement, the online companion is open to all users, not just RUSA or ALA members.”

Fast forward to summer, 2011: faced with ongoing production costs for RUSQ, the RUSA board approved a decision to end the print version of RUSQ and go online-only, beginning with volume 51 (Fall 2011).  In addition, they approved a change in platform from the blog-powered to the MetaPress (owned by EBSCO) platform.  The board also approved a one-year embargo on new issues of RUSQ, citing the fact that a subscription to the journal is one of the benefits of membership in RUSA, and that the embargo is a way of preserving revenues and underwriting production costs. This decision was communicated in the Editor’s column in RUSQ vol. 50 no. 4, as well as a short note from the then-president of RUSA (now incoming editor of RUSQ), Barry Trott.

Fast forward again, to last week.  Trying to find a source I needed for another article I’m working on, I went to, knowing that the journal was open access and that I could just yank the full text from there.  Except I couldn’t: redirected to the MetaPress page for RUSQ, and when I tried to find the issue I needed, I found that I was only able to access four issues of the journal: vol. 50 no. 3 through vol. 51 no. 2.

Confused, I posted a query to an online professional network of librarians of which I’m a member, trying to sort the question out.  Over the course of the next seven days, we poked and prodded, checked the Wayback Machine, looked up old blog posts and comments, and sent out messages to members of the editorial board asking what was up.  I even took screenshots of my Google Reader feeds to assure myself that yes, the blog had, at one point, existed, and I hadn’t been imagining the whole thing.  Some blog posts were written in medias res, and then updates were added as additional information came to light.  If you want to watch the confusion and eventual resolution unfold in real time, this thread from the Library Society of the World sums it up fairly well and includes links to most of the things I’ve linked above, as well as additional information and commentary.

Eventually, Barry Trott commented on the Library Loon’s blog and, speaking for himself and Diane Zabel, clarified the situation: apparently, the crux of the confusion was an error in the MetaPress settings that restricted access to content that should have been open, and that error has (as of this writing) been corrected.

So, tempest in a teapot, all better now, right?  Well, sort of.

What does this have to do with me?  Well, last summer I submitted an article to RUSQ, which I’m delighted to say was published in volume 51, number 3 this past spring.  At the time that I submitted the article (June 2011), RUSQ was, as far as anyone knew, open access.  By the time the article appeared this spring, however, the actual situation was rather murkier than it had been when I submitted it, though the murkiness did clear itself up fairly quickly.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I’ve made a public pledge that any solo-authored work that I publish will be available through some form of open access: green, gold, fuchsia, something.  Now, I hadn’t formally made the pledge at the time that I submitted the article, but I most definitely considered only open-access journals when deciding where to submit my article.  RUSQ’s change of course left me with the impression that I’d submitted the article under false pretenses. I could accept that RUSA might need to close access to their journal after experimenting with open access, but I felt that the right thing to do would be to close access to future content, not to content that had been submitted prior to the decision to close access. (The actual situation, with the one-year embargo, is a different matter which I’ll address shortly.)

One of the ALA’s watchwords is transparency, and one of the things Barry Trott mentioned in his comment on the Library Loon’s blog was the transparency with which the decision to change platforms had been made and communicated.  While it’s true that the decision was announced in RUSQ vol. 50 no. 4, at the time that the LSW was trying to sort all this out, that issue was, for some users at least, actually behind the MetaPress paywall!  (This issue has been rectified. For now, at least.)  In addition, and this is the more important concern: nowhere in either announcement is the phrase “open access” actually used.  The journal is described as “digital only” and “online only,” and there is mention of the one-year embargo, but that’s it.  I’d be a lot more comfortable with the decision if either announcement, or even Barry Trott’s comment on the Loon’s blog, for that matter, had said something along the lines of “RUSA affirms its commitment to the principles of open access and will continue to make backfiles of RUSQ available on the open web.”

Finally, on the transparency issue, the redirect from to MetaPress raised all kinds of red flags — flags which were raised even higher when it turned out that had, via robots.txt, been wiped from the Internet Archive.  The redirect is convenient, sure, but a) it does nothing for those of us who had in our feed readers, where it simply withered away untended, and b) a placeholder page (or better yet, blog post, so that feed readers would pick it up) announcing the change and making a passive link to the MetaPress site would have done a great deal to clear up the confusion and suspicion.

The last question I want to raise on this matter is twofold: what do we mean by “open access,” anyway, and how permanent is it?  First off, can a journal be considered “open access” if there’s a one-year embargo on new articles?  I honestly don’t know the answer to this question, not being an expert on matters OA.  For my purposes, the one-year embargo is all right; I can still self-archive my article on my own web site (which I’ve done), making an end-run around the embargo and ensuring access to the article should RUSA change its mind again.

Which leads to the second question: what’s to prevent a journal from closing access to content that had previously been open?  Again, I’m honestly not sure.  I mean, PLoS is unlikely to suddenly make a deal with, say, Wiley and start charging $3000/year for access to its backfiles, but that’s because PLoS has staked its reputation on being an open access journal (and a damn fine one, too).  For the other journals, the ones who went out on a limb and honestly weren’t sure if they could make it work — what of them? What if, like RUSA, they decide their experiment isn’t working, for whatever reason, and they need to close access — what, other than the ethics of their editorial boards and the boards of their sponsoring organizations — prevents them from closing access, not just moving forward, but to previously open content?