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?

Three shorts for Spring Break

Three things I’ve been mulling over lately, that probably aren’t enough to justify a blog post on their own but, put together, make a substantial post. Think of this as the tapas of blog posts.

Thing The First

I wrote up a lesson plan recently that contained the directive, aimed at myself, “and go from there.”  I posted this to a social network and then commented, “it’s either zen or chutzpah, and I’m really not sure which.”  My good friend Steve Lawson commented to the effect that that is, in fact, what teaching is: taking students from where they are, to another place.

More practically, however, it seems to describe how I’m approaching more and more classes this semester: I start off by getting the students to explain to me, in their own words, what their assignment is and what they’re being asked to do.  How they describe the assignment tells me a lot about where they are in the research process.1  I try to draw out of them their ideas about what kinds of sources they will need to use in their assignments, and where they expect to find those sources.  Then at some point I ask them, “so what do you most need today? How can we best spend the remaining time that we have here?”  And then, as I said, I go from there.

This approach is really modeled on Steve’s “zero preparation class.”  In my case, it often devolves into yet another “how to find peer-reviewed articles in EBSCO databases” lecture/demo, but at least if it does, I can labor under the illusion that it’s what the students wanted/needed in the first place.  Sometimes, though, we wind up going interesting places — not nearly as interesting as the places Steve’s students go, but more interesting than Ye Olde Database Demo.

Thing The Second

Recently, I taught a class where the assignment was to write a paper in which the students used theories they’d learned in class to analyze specific situations in topics/works that they selected themselves.2  They were also supposed to incorporate at least 10 peer-reviewed journal articles into the paper.  Now, to me, the requirement for outside sources seemed nonsensical: if you’re using specific theories to explain a situation, what do you need the outside sources for?

So that’s where we started in class: I asked them about their assignment, and the first thing they said was “10 peer-reviewed journal articles,” so I wrote that up on the board.  Then I asked again, and they started talking about using the theories to explain the situations, and I wrote that on the other side of the board.  Then I asked, “so how to we connect this (articles) with this (theories/situations)?”  We probably spent a good 20 minutes just talking about that.  The students were clearly as flummoxed as I was, but we struggled through and tried to connect the dots.  The faculty member sat in the back of the room and didn’t participate in the conversation, which was a bit disappointing, but s/he was definitely engaged and pleased with the direction that the discussion was going. I’m not sure I emerged any clearer on how the two pieces were supposed to be integrated, but the students had good ideas, and I think on the whole, the time was exceptionally well spent.

Thing The Third

The third thing I wanted to talk about was prompted by a conversation at the Library Society of the World’s Friendfeed room about  teaching students to sift through a list of search results to a) find what’s useful and relevant and b) use what you learn from those results to refine your search and get better results.  One of the participants framed the exercise as teaching students to navigate a world of information abundance, rather than one of information scarcity, which I think perfectly describes the issue.

I was going to write at some length about my thoughts on this topic for classroom discussion, but really, I can’t do much better than the commentors in the LSW, so just go and read it.  Some day when I’ve done one too many “How To Find Peer-Reviewed Articles In An EBSCO Database” demos for students who I suspect already know how to do exactly that, but don’t know what to do once they’ve found them, I’m going to go all guerrilla librarian on some unsuspecting class and do this instead.  When I do, I’ll be sure to post about it here.

  1. This can often have the bonus effect of making clear to the instructor of the class how much or how little they understand what they’re being asked to do, and how much or how little they need the instruction that the faculty member has asked me to provide in class that day.
  2. I’m being purposefully vague about the topic so as not to identify the course and instructor.

Open Access Pledge

Open Access logo from PLoS, in the public domainOkay, so Barbara Fister linked to me from her spectacular Library Babel Fish blog at Inside Higher Ed, listing me as one of many pre-tenure librarians who’d signed the Elsevier boycott at The Cost of Knowledge.  While it’s certainly true that I’ve signed the boycott, what I haven’t done — yet — is make a larger pledge about my scholarly work and open access.  Barbara’s link challenged me to put my money (and my tenure bid) where my mouth is, so here goes:

Starting now, I will not submit any single-authored work to a journal that doesn’t allow some form of open access.

Now, I’m hedging my bets a bit here, because I’m currently collaborating with several nursing faculty on an article, which we intend to submit to a nursing education journal, and the options for open access in that discipline are…well, virtually non-existent. I’m not the lead author on that piece, and I don’t feel comfortable pressuring them to take a stand that they perhaps don’t feel safe taking.  But by gum, if whatever journal we choose allows any degree of self-archiving, that puppy is gonna get deposited.

In addition, I will not serve on an editorial board or review articles for journals that don’t allow some degree of open access. As my phone is not exactly ringing off the hook with requests for these services, that’s a pretty easy pledge to make, though.

I’m fortunate that for all of my previous work, both in the library literature and in the discipline of music theory, I was able to interpret my copyright transfer agreements such that I can self-archive either the final version or a pre-print on my own web page, which I did for Open Access Week back in 2010.  But moving forward, I’m going to make sure that I’m not just fortunate but deliberate in my publishing choices.  Because it is a choice, one that we as scholars usually think of in terms of prestige; we need to start thinking of our choices as exercising our power in the marketplace.

And hats off to my colleagues Abigail Goben, Jason Puckett, Amy Buckland, and the others Barbara mentions in her blog post, who have similarly pledged to keep their work open to the public.

So how about you?

Beyond “good sources”

It’s been a long time since I’ve given a simple yes or no answer to the question, “would this be a good source for my paper?” but lately I’ve been getting even more nuanced in my answers (and probably the students are getting even more frustrated with my unwillingness to give them a straight answer!) by expanding greatly on my “that depends” answer.

First of all, I’ve been getting the impression for some time now that students conceptualize two kinds of sources: “good” sources and “bad” sources. “Good” sources, of course, are things like peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles. Most of them recognize this, or can learn to recognize it pretty quickly.

“Bad” sources are more complicated; they can generally suss out the random Geocities-esque pink-background-animated-gif kind of kooky web site. Some of them know that hoax websites exist because in high school (or, heaven help them, in college) a teacher or librarian showed them one and used it as an example of What Not To Cite.  But what about a newspaper article? Does it matter if it’s from the Washington Post or the Lafayette (IN) Journal and Courier?

What about a blog post?  Does it matter if it’s some random person’s blog, or the blog of a respected authority — or, for that matter, a blog at the New York Times?

And then there are sources that fall between those cracks: a whitepaper (written by, say, the UN World Food Programme, or the Heritage Foundation, or the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office).  Statistics from various sourcesERIC documents and digests.

So when the student asks me, “is this a good source?” my first response isn’t “yes” or “no,” but rather, “it depends on what you’re using it for.”  Or another way to put it, which is the way I’m trying to get my students to think about writing from sources: “what do you want this source to accomplish for you? What do you need it to do in your paper?  How will it function in your argument?”

Because if what you need the source to do is demonstrate that Methodology A is effective at addressing Problem B, then yes, you probably do want peer-reviewed scholarly literature. If, however, you want to demonstrate that the mainstream media often casts Issue C in terms of Stereotype D and Dichotomy E (when in fact it’s far more complicated than that, etc. etc. etc.) then the New York Times is your go-to source.  (You may also want to throw in, say, the Washington Times and the Village Voice as examples of slightly less-mainstream rhetoric.)  A discussion forum post full of ((((hugs)))) and LOLs and twinkly-angel .gif images might be exactly the right source to illustrate the effects of Illness F on real people, and the impact of online networks of support in mitigating the stigmatization associated with that illness.

So it’s all about the purpose to which you intend to put the source, which is, in my experience, a hard leap for students to make from high-school writing, which from this angle seems to be mostly about marshaling sources that agree with you. It also places me perilously close to the line between teaching research skills and information literacy, and teaching rhetoric and writing.  It might be over that line, actually.  But I can’t help stepping there when helping students, and I wish I had better skills for explaining it and helping students to make that leap.

Google Books as index

This is going to be blindingly obvious to probably about 90% of my readers, but to the 10%1 for whom it isn’t, it might be a bit of useful knowledge.

I was teaching a class last week that focused primarily on print sources, and I was showing the students a selection of the books that had been put on reserve for their course.  One of the students asked, “are any of these books, or the other resources for this class, available online?”

Good question!

So I popped over to Google Books and showed them how many of the reserve books were online, but in “limited preview” or “snippet view” only.  One book, published in 1926, was out of copyright and therefore available in all its cover-to-cover glory.  So this was an enlightening diversion into the legal and economic ramifications of Google Books.

But one of the features (er, bugs, really) of some of the mid-20th-century books that this particular professor had put on reserve was their abysmal, or nonexistent, indexes.  Since the students would be combing through them looking for references to very specific items and issues, the lack of indexes was going to be a significant stumbling block for them.2

Enter Google Books as index. Side-by-side with the print edition, search Google Books for the term you’re interested in, and even if the book is only available in snippet view, you still get the page references for where that term is mentioned. And, even better than a back-of-the-book index, you can see the immediate context for the term, which will help you sort through all the references and see which ones are most relevant to your needs.

Like I said, this is probably blindingly obvious to most, but it was the first time I’d put two and two together to articulate this use of Google Books, and it was clearly news to the faculty member I was working with, as well.



  1. That would be, what, about 1/2 of a reader?
  2. Not to mention students’ general lack of understanding of the existence, purpose, and use of indexes.

Philosophy of Librarianship

There’s a meme that’s been going around lately about people’s philosophy of librarianship.  Since I had to write a statement to precisely that effect1 just last month for my pre-tenure review portfolio, it seemed an easy thing to toss mine off here.

Part of my statement of philosophy had to do with continually asking students “how do you know that,” which I’ve already written about here. The other part is essentially this: If I can get students to consistently ask, and vigorously pursue answers to, the question “why?” then I’ve done my job:

  • Why is this author making this claim?
  • Why can’t I find out who published this website?
  • Why are academic journals so expensive?
  • Why did I get a bunch of unrelated articles in my search results (and how can I change the search to eliminate them)?
  • Why do nurses use APA style but historians use Chicago style?

…and so forth.

It’s a very limited philosophy, to be sure, and there are many many many aspects of libraries and librarianship that it leaves out. But it’s what keeps me coming back to my office each morning.


  1. Actually, the form I was responding to said “Philosophy of libarianship,” which made me tempted to use that spelling consistently throughout the document, but somehow I didn’t think the Rank & Tenure Committee would appreciate the joke.

Why it matters how faculty view librarians

I love it when my friend Vardibidian blogs about libraries, because he always has such intriguing and thought-provoking things to say.  Yesterday, he had a post that very neatly connected some dots surrounding the recent Ithaka S+R report and its contention that while library directors prioritize the library’s role in facilitating teaching and learning, faculty see the library’s role primarily as a purchasing agent.

What was great about V’s post was that he offered a compelling argument as to why this is a problem, which is essentially, that faculty who view the library primarily as a purchasing agent won’t necessarily think to recommend to their students that they go talk to a librarian when they’re having trouble with their research.

And that is a problem, because the research that I did last fall, which will be published in the Spring 2012 issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly, shows that students who are encouraged by a librarian (in the context of library instruction in their courses) to ask at the library for help are not statistically more likely to do so. But students who are encouraged by a faculty member to ask for help are more likely to do so — lots more likely.

So this is a problem, and one that we probably need to address head-on.

How do you know that?

I just finished up writing my pre-tenure review portfolio, and one of the things I wrote about in my “philosophy of librarianship” statement was asking students, repeatedly if necessary, “how do you know that?

It’s a fantastic question to ask, when you’re trying to get students to think critically about the sources of information they find.  You’re essentially asking them to provide credible evidence for their claims (those claims being, in this case, “this is a good source to use for my paper”) but in my experience, saying, “you need to provide credible evidence to support your claims” gets blank looks, while saying, “how do you know that?” really gets them thinking.

Here’s how it might play out:

Student: This web site is a good source for my paper.

Me: How do you know that?

Student: Well, the author of the site is a noted scholar on the topic.

Me: How do you know that?

Student: She’s written several books on the subject.

Me: How do you know those books are legitimate works of scholarship?

Student: Well, on the web page for the books, there are quotes from other people praising the books

Me: How do you know those people are scholars and not the author’s friends or disciples?

…and so on, at each stage of the process, continually challenging the student to justify her conclusions, dig deeper, and question her own assumptions.

I’m going to try to remember to ask this question more often when I’m teaching evaluative skills — or even basic navigational things, like “how do you know which article to select from a results list?” — this semester.

ACRL Webcast: Classroom Assessment for Information Literacy Instruction

So, remember those two presentations I did last fall?  Well, I’ll be reworking and expanding that content, and delivering it as a webcast for ACRL’s e-Learning program on Tuesday, July 19, at 2:00 p.m. EDT:

Classroom Assessment for Information Literacy Instruction: Are They Learning What You’re Teaching?

If you want to learn more about formative assessment in information literacy instruction, you might find this to be a useful learning opportunity! One of the ways I’ll expand the content is to respond to some of the ideas generated in the minute paper assessments from when I gave the presentations – those ideas were also what inspired the Conference Talkback series of posts here.

(Full disclosure: I get a portion of the registration fees for this event, but I’m planning to sign my check over to my employer.)

Seven years of librarianating

So I looked up the other day and realized that I’ve been a professional librarian for seven years now.  Wow. How did that happen?

I got my degree in May of 2004; spent two years working at a Fellow at the NCSU Libraries; moved to South Bend and worked for a year as a CWIL Fellow; took six months off to have a baby; and now I’ve been in my current position for three and a half years.  Which all adds up to seven years, if you do the math.

So that’s a lot of why I still feel like a relative newcomer to the profession: I’ve only just started to get my feet under me in my current position (and the brass ring of tenure is still almost three years away), and the three and a half years I’ve worked here is the longest I’ve held any job, ever.1

I also hang with a pretty ambitious and talented bunch of librarians, some of whom are widely-recognized experts in their specialties and sub-specialties, so my relative lack of recognition and expertise contributes to my own sense of Judy-come-lateliness.2 I’m constantly surprised that people who I think of as, if not senior librarians and mentors, then at least role models, actually got their library degrees after I did: people like Jason Puckett and Dorothea Salo.

Then there are my classmates from UNC-Chapel Hill, Jason Griffey (Head of IT for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga library and ALA/LITA tech-blogger-dude) and Jean Ferguson (Head of Reference at the Perkins Library at Duke).  Jenica Rogers (Director of Libraries at SUNY-Potsdam) has been a librarian longer than me, but thanks to the expedient of not dithering around for six years obtaining a completely useless graduate degree (as well as a lot of hard work) she’s both a library director and much younger than me.3  Iris Jastram is also simultaneously younger than me and a more senior librarian.

Put all this together with the fact that I’m the youngest librarian (and newest hire) by a considerable margin at my current library, and you can begin to understand how confusing it can be to realize that, hey, I’m maybe not such a n00b any more.

  1. I realize that, at my age, this doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of my previous work history. It doesn’t bother me much.
  2. For the record, I am perfectly okay with my relative lack of recognition.  If I were the kind of person for whom ambition and recognition were important, I’d’ve stayed with the NCSU Libraries, where such are highly valued.  But that’s not me, and I’m better off where I am.
  3. Actually, I can top that: in 2005, while I was still in my first professional position, I went to ALA in Chicago and ran into a woman who I’d known as an undergrad while I was doing my first graduate degree. She was a library director too, way back in 2005!