Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Exception That Proves The Rule

Chris Bourg, who moved from the Stanford Libraries to be library director at MIT, gave a thoughtful talk at Educause entitled Libraries and future of higher education. Below the fold, my thoughts on how it provides the exception that proves the rule I described in Why Did Institutional Repositories Fail?.

The whole talk is well worth reading, but I will focus on just the part that relates to the MIT Library's strategy. Chris introduces it thus:
many libraries, MIT included, are re-thinking the way we provide collections to our communities ... by applying the “inside-out” framework offered by Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC.
This framework describes:
a pivot from an old model of libraries where we went out into the world and collected all the stuff ... that was written and published elsewhere, put it on our shelves and loaned it out 1 at a time to our students and faculty; to a new model where we focus on being a trusted repository and disseminator of the research outputs of our own scholars.

In the inside-out model, libraries take responsibility for gathering up and organizing the research and teaching outputs of our own scholars, and making it available to the world.
This places an open access institutional repository and publishing platform at the heart of the library's mission as defined in an MIT Task Force's recent report on the Future of Libraries:
The overarching theme of the Task Force’s vision is that the MIT Libraries must become a global library for a global university. We conceive of the library as an open platform serving the needs of our communities. Through this open global platform, we will disseminate MIT research to the world.

We want to do this not just because of a philosophical sense that it is the right thing to do, but also because open access facilitates the verification, replication, reinterpretation and application of research.
Compared to most institutions, MIT has been extremely successful at their mission of populating an open access repository:
Right now, a remarkable 44% of recent journal articles written by MIT faculty members are freely available online through our institutional repository.

As we make progress on the recommendations in our Future of Libraries report, we expect to increase not just that percentage, but also the kinds of research outputs available and the kinds of MIT authors whose work we disseminate.
And MIT has acknowledged how important it is to:
create content platforms that are for use not just by people reading articles one at a time, but also by machines and algorithms.
Why has MIT succeeded where others haven't? Fifteen years ago (500-page PDF, see Chapter 14):
MIT’s then-president Charles Vest publicly supported the launch of OpenCourseWare in the most visible form possible. On April 4, 2001 the president held a press briefing at which he announced MIT’s intention to make the educational materials from virtually all MIT courses freely and openly available. This announcement led to a front-page story in the New York Times and a flood of subsequent publicity. Notably, President Vest did not describe OCW as an experiment or even as an initiative. Rather, he described it as a permanent feature of the MIT academic program. He also made clear his confidence that OCW would not be competitive with MIT’s enrollments for traditional education.
I remember hearing a presentation at the time explaining the OpenCourseWare concept and understanding how it supported MIT's marketing and branding strategy. President Vest:
clearly delineated the distinction between educational materials and the processes of teaching and learning.
MIT's strategy was to decrease the value of the course materials, which could be disintermediated by the Internet and, in doing so, enhance the value of the experience of attending MIT, which could not be. The open access courses were, in effect, advertisements for MIT. They emphasized MIT's superiority as an educational experience to potential students worldwide, and this was strategically important for MIT. Their superiority rested to a considerable extent on attracting the best available students. Lesser institutions would not realize this strategic benefit, but would face pressure to follow suit.

With 15 years of open access courseware as a "permanent feature of the MIT academic program" it is easy to see how depositing papers in an open access repository could be part of the MIT's culture. And similar strategic thinking supports it. Making MIT's academic output more accessible to the global public than the competition's enhances MIT's marketing and branding in the same way as OCW. The journals have no interest in, and don't, promote MIT as a brand and an institution.

Chris envisages MIT as an example for others to follow:
Now imagine if all, or even most ... research universities and organizations, committed to doing the same thing, at scale. And imagine if the content platforms we built for storing and disseminating our universities’ research outputs, were all compatible and interoperable and built on a common set of standards and metadata practices.
But this would decrease the strategic value of open access to MIT and, as I wrote in Why Did Institutional Repositories Fail?, misses:
the key advantage that subject as opposed to institutional repositories have for the user; each is a single open-access portal containing all the pre-prints (and for arXiv.org essentially all the papers) of interest to researchers in that subject. The idea that a distributed search portal built on OAI-PMH would emerge to allow IRs to compete with subject repositories demonstrates a lack of understanding of user behavior in the Web.
So, while I applaud Chris' goals and MIT's culture, I think there are serious obstacles to replicating them at scale as Chris suggests. My questions would be:
  • What would motivate institutions lacking MIT's culture and strategic advantage to exert the, much greater, efforts to emulate MIT's still less than 50% success?
  • Even if motivated, why wouldn't these institutions outsource their IRs to commercial publishers, who have a vested interest in preventing interoperation providing access even to legal copies they don't control?
  • Even if they didn't, who would provide the unifying portal that would aggregate them all?
  • Why would this aggregated portal displace successful subject repositories such as arxiv.org or SSRN?
  • If it did, why wouldn't it be bought (or out-competed) by a commercial publisher, as SSRN was?
I don't see these issues being resolved in ways the Chris and I would like without University Presidents forcing their institutions' culture open as President Vest did at MIT. If you have other answers, please post them in the comments.

PS - Chris' earlier talk at Harvard is also well worth reading.

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