October 5, 2008

Interview with Dorothea Salo of Caveat Lector

Welcome to the latest installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the library, publishing and scitech worlds. This time around the subject is Dorothea Salo, Digital Repository Librarian at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the blog Caveat Lector. Dorothea is well known for her role in the institutional repository and scholarly communications communities; she's the author of the widely read eprint on IRs "Innkeeper at the Roach Motel," forthcoming in the Fall 2008 Library Trends.

Thanks to Dorothea for her provocative and thoughtful responses. Enjoy!

Q0. Hi Dorothea, would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you ended up as Digital Repository Librarian at University of Wisconsin-Madison?

After burning out of Ph.D candidacy in Spanish a decade ago, I landed a job doing SGML work and typesetting for a publishing-services bureau serving scholarly publishers and university presses. I also took part in the ebook boomlet of the early 2000s, working on the content specification put out by the (then-)Open eBook Forum. In so doing, I met Allen Renear (then at Brown, now at Illinois/Urbana-Champaign), who has been a mentor and friend ever since.

When the ebook market decayed like the rest of the dot-com boom, I looked around to see who else was doing digitization in a halfway-responsible fashion, and where I could apply such skills as I had usefully. That led me to the UW-Madison's library school. I owe immense gratitude to the UW Survey Center, which turned my full-time job into a half-time project assistantship that paid all but the last semester of my tuition.

On graduating in 2005, I hunted several different sorts of jobs, the entry-level library job market being what it is. The job I landed was the inauguration of the institutional repository at George Mason University in Fairfax VA just outside DC.

Now, Mason is a wonderful place with fantastic colleagues and I loved working there. Unfortunately, DC can be a soul-sucking place to live in; it and I just weren't a good fit for each other. So when the repository-manager position opened at the University of Wisconsin, I searched my soul, consulted with my husband, and applied. I'm so happy to be home in Madison again!

Q1. Recently on FriendFeed Steve Lawson asked people what they would like to be interviewed on. Here's your chance. So, what do you think about "libraries' feasible and proper roles in scholarly communication?"

I think a lot of things. I think the institutional repository was a noble and worthwhile experiment, but as a tool for redressing the imbalances in the scholarly-communication system, it is a failure. It may be reborn if the Harvard experiment succeeds, but that very much remains to be seen. This doesn't mean that I think IRs are useless; they don't have to be, though they often are. It does mean that we're going to have to go after the serials crisis in other ways.

I think we libraries have a lot of market power that we are not using properly. I've heard publishers talk about their industry, and what they invariably say is "we will follow the money." That means libraries; as individual subscriptions dwindle, WE are the ones with the money. They'll follow us -- but we aren't leading them toward open access. We're squealing like stuck pigs about the stalemate, yes, but we're not reallocating any of our serials funds to support gold open access. I think this is a serious mistake.

I think I know why we're doing it; it's the same old story about serving our patrons as best we can with the resources we have. (Librarians have a bit of a martyr complex sometimes.) There is also a serious and ugly undercurrent of anti-OA backlash among faculty; maybe Alma Swan hasn't seen it, but I sure have. Librarians trifle with that at our peril, and we know it. So we sigh, and put every cent we have toward subscriptions, and feel backed against the wall.

Even so -- we HAVE stood our ground once or twice, and the publishers blinked. I am thinking of the stand against the Big Deal of three or four years back. We came out of that well, as hard as it must have been to contemplate at the time. We could have and should have built on that -- but we didn't. I want to see us cancelling overpriced journals, regardless of their impact factors or usage statistics, and standing up to faculty when they ask why. We need to say "no" loudly and clearly more often, and we need to divert some of the serials money we save thereby to gold open access. (Some should go back to monographs, of course.)

As a matter of strategy, then, the open-access movement needs to target serials and e-resources librarians with requests for support of gold OA. SPARC needs to take a hard look at propagandizing (for example) NASIG and the Charleston Conference. CNI isn't anywhere near enough, and ALA conferences revolve around the status quo.

I think some of us have futures as publishing support specialists. Open
Journal Systems isn't going away. I don't know how big this will become,
truthfully, but I do know that I trust librarians a lot more than I trust
other potential and actual players in this space. Big-pig publishers lost
credibility as scholarship's dutiful handmaidens long ago, and I'm nearly
as cynical about scholarly societies, which had their chance to stand with
us but stuck by the big pigs instead. A pox on both their houses; if the
scholarly societies are right and open access sinks some of them, I'm
perfectly baffled as to why I as a librarian should care.

I think all of this boils down to one theme, which I have seen expressed in several distinct contexts: librarians cannot remain the warehouse at the end of the train tracks, as we historically have been. We have to become part of the whole process. We're not used to that, but there's tremendous potential in it for us.

Q2. How did get started blogging and what keeps you going?

Ah, yes. I started blogging in 2002, after a nasty contretemps with my then-employer. The said employer hired me because I was a notable voice in the field at the time. Good public relations, don't you know. During the negotiation process, the employer assured me that they had no interest in stifling my editorial voice; being associated with me was enough of a marketing tool.

Yes, I was stupid to believe it. What can I say? I'd been out of the fishbowl of graduate school barely two scant years, and (believe it or not) I tend to believe the best of people until I have my nose rubbed in how wrong I am. The inevitable happened, of course; I wrote and published something that outraged them, they nearly fired me over it, and it scared me badly enough to find another job.

And start blogging. I hadn't run out of things to say, some of them controversial or even damaging, and I understood finally that I needed a place to say them that was clearly and unequivocally mine, firewalled off from employers. The firewall is, shall we say, somewhat permeable and not always as effective as I'd like, but it's worked well enough for the purpose. And I've learned some things too about where the appropriate boundaries are -- which isn't to say I don't still cross them now and again!

What keeps me going? Well, to be stone-cold selfish about it, blogging is the most productive professional activity I engage in, even though I don't actually do it at work! Directly or indirectly, it's sent me abroad twice, gotten me several "wanna write a book?" invitations, several article gigs, and similar opportunities. It's not all gravy; it may have cost me a job once, and I've also noticed that some people are cautious about approaching me professionally because of my pugnacious blog demeanor. (To them I say: yes, I can occasionally be difficult, but far from always, and I try to be worth the trouble!) Roach Motel may actually manage to eclipse CavLec as the first thing librarians know about me as a professional librarian, but we'll see.

Truthfully, the professional notoriety is a pleasant side-effect, but it's not why I blog. I still have things to say, things I can't say at work or in the professional literature. The blog reaches far more people, and a far greater variety of people, than balkanized and toll-access-firewalled professional publication can. I find the blogging form useful for thinking through systems and phenomena I don't fully understand. And I can also express my joy in great blue herons and art festivals and music.

Q3. I find it interesting that you don't allow comments on your blog but at the same time there's often a quite lively conversation on FriendFeed? What's your rationale for not allowing comments on the blog itself?

I've addressed this on CavLec many a time; I think I need to put permalinks for those posts in the sidebar. For all my pugnacity, I am easily frightened and stressed by open conflict, especially in some of the horrendously nasty and frankly evil forms the Internet tends to foster (notably against technical-minded women). I don't want to deal with that in my space. I don't want to become the next Kathy Sierra. I don't want to go through the angst some of my fellow librarian bloggers have with out-of-control comment threads, trolls, and threats.

There's a counterargument, and a good one: my public blog-face is a good deal meaner and wronger than it would be if I had commenters to call me in public on my garbage. Unfortunately, if I threw open comments to all, I shortly wouldn't have ANY public face, because it isn't just the wise and sensible commenters calling me on my garbage who would show up.

There are also bad counterarguments concerning the effect of comments on a blog's popularity. Sure, I coulda been a contenda in the blogosphere if I'd enabled comments. I don't care about being a contenda, and never have. People come to me now and then asking how to write a popular blog; one or two have even asked me how to make money with a blog, though I've never knowingly allowed so much as the teensiest text-ad on mine. (CavLec did get hacked by linkspammers once, but I cleaned that up as soon as I found out about it.) I never answer such people. I don't know and I don't care. That isn't why I blog.

Q4. And why do you think FriendFeed tends to foster more and better commentary that the comments section for most blogs?

Partly because communities self-select. Partly because the FF signup barrier, minor though it is, is sufficient deterrence to eliminate random trolls as well as pack-mobbing. Partly because feed owners can fence their feeds off by making them semi-private (as I have done with my FF) and by hiding or blocking people who get out of line. Partly because FF threads are ephemeral enough not to attract attention whores the way popular comment-enabled blogs do.

I caution adopters that a "private" FF should not be considered private, even if you strictly control whom you permit to see your feed (and I don't). You never know who's going to squeal on you (I learned that one in grad school), so behave yourself. Still, by and large FF is an immense improvement over blog comments.

Q5. Once upon a time, faculty used to come to the library every week or so to check new journals. You could ask them questions, get their input, etc. How do you think libraries and libraries can still reach out to such an important constituency in the age of Google and ejournals?

Get out of the library! QED. Mohammed and the mountain. The health-sciences library director at MPOW has made a career of this to fantastic effect, and I respect him a great deal for it. He doesn't wait to be invited to faculty meetings; he invites himself. By the third meeting, they expect him to be there and value his input -- which is only natural, because he's incredibly sharp and knowledgeable.

What's holding us back from that? Two things, honestly. One is the reference desk, which is an incredible timesink. (Resolved: Librarians can no longer afford to provide synchronous in-person assistance; the ROI is insufficient. Discuss. Now discuss it in the context of other professions, such as law and medicine.) The other barrier is libraries' unbelievably bad habit of holding too many library-internal meetings. Get librarians OUT of those and INTO faculty meetings, and watch faculty learn to value us again.

There's lots of other stuff floating about with regard to embedding librarians in the research process, as we're doing with information literacy and teaching, and I'm all for that and hope to become an embedded librarian someday myself. None of that changes the fundamental proposition: since they won't come to us, we have to go to them. Not hat in hand, not begging -- we walk in as professionals with plenty of value to offer.

And if we can't think of any value we offer, we've got way worse problems than faculty not coming into the library!

Q6. I guess I have to ask a question about IRs: if you could get one message across to faculty at your institution about Institutional Repositories, what would it be?

Asking questions about IRs is such a drag. ;)

Faculty specifically? "Let me help you."

Frankly, though, a more productive message would be directed at my fellow librarians, and would read "I can't do this without you. Help me."

Q7. In terms of the future of IRs over the next, say, five years, what would the best and worst case scenarios be?

Worst case is easy: they are defunded and die. Harvard delayed that, but I don't think they have prevented it. If the software remains obtuse and difficult, if the goals remain socio-culturally impractical, if the services remain under-resourced and poorly understood, IRs are doomed. At a good many institutions, I believe this is inevitable, still; it's just going to take a little longer than I initially thought. The five-year time horizon you specify should suffice.

Best case: IRs shift from "warehouse at the end of the digital train tracks" to a set of services and systems that manage, safeguard, and shepherd the digital products of the research process all the way through, soup to nuts. We have successful examples of this already, particularly in Australia, and Europe is starting to build them as well. In this country, I suspect they aren't going to grow out of IRs -- they'll be part of the funder-initiated and IT-spearheaded movement to cope with research data locally. This is my warning call to libraries: if we're not in on these discussions, we'll be shut out of the resulting services, and that's bad for all concerned. I have heard some stunningly ignorant statements about data curation from IT people at MPOW -- but on the plus side, at least I'm in on those conversations!

Q8. The scholarly publishing landscape is changing pretty quickly these days. What major changes do you see happening in the next few years in terms of some of the major issues such as journal publishing, publishers' business models, the role of scholarly societies, and the open access movement?

You don't ask small questions, do you? (Yeah, well, they're the only ones really worth asking. -John)

I honestly have no idea what the major changes will be, because so far, major changes in this realm have been discontinuous and out-of-the-blue. I didn't predict the Big Deal backlash. I didn't dare predict the trajectory of the NIH public-access policy, and I'd be stupid to predict who might or might not follow their example. I didn't predict Harvard, and I frankly can't so much as guess who will follow Harvard, or even if anyone will. California's experience is the stern warning here, and extrapolating a guess from MPOW, while it could be interesting, doesn't pass my internal sniff test for reliability.

Part of the reason I can't predict these things is that I'm not invited into the right smoke-filled rooms; players in this game tend to play their cards close to their chests, so I have no way of finding out what they're thinking. Part of the reason is that the outcome of any given individual process, as the NIH policy trajectory demonstrates, is fairly random!

All that leaves me with is the obvious. The publishing lobby will continue its stunning mendacity, largely though not entirely unopposed by rank-and-file publishers. There will be more open-access journals. It is likely to become harder to assert that open-access journals are unsustainable, but that won't stop the publishing lobby from trying -- and it won't stop a few gold journals from folding, either. We will continue to argue about citation advantages, and just what a citation is worth. Faculty will continue to feel whipsawed by all this.

Q9. What role so you think social software/web 2.0 will play in all this?

In "The Social Journal," a presentation I gave for publishers in 2006, I argued that in becoming disciplinary markers and quality arbiters, journals gave up the power and usefulness of unmediated, un-gatekept communication, and that is what researchers are now finding on the Web. The long and short of it is that I still think this.

What's happening now is that some of this communication, since it isn't ephemeral the way a hallway chat at a conference is, is being recognized as holding some sort of scholarly value. Young-turk tenure-trackers want their blogs to be included in their tenure-and-promotion packages. Digital humanists of varying stripes are clamoring for their rightful place. Scientists are asking themselves about communicating with the public as a service obligation. Pieces of the scholarly-valuation process, such as
publication lists and citation tracking, are moving into machine-readable forms on the Web.

The sticky wicket is that none of this directly assails the journal or the monograph yet. (This enabled me to make my 2006 presentation utterly non-threatening to my audience, which both they and I appreciated.) Cultural norms and standards in academia are what they are, and it will be a long time -- probably my lifetime -- before they shift appreciably. I do think some of the smaller problems, such as citation and credit for datasets, will be solved relatively quickly. The larger problems, such as the fragmentation and mutability of online conversations and the difficulty of persisting them, are here to stay.

In the main, then, promotion and tenure will happen as they pretty much have for the last century or so, and the outside conversation will happen outside that process, as it generally has. That conversation is becoming more visible and more persistent, and that makes me happy because I don't approve of the way the toll-access world shuts out the public from the research conversation. Call me a curmudgeon if you will, though, but I don't believe the visibility and persistence of that conversation is game-changing.

Though I could be wrong...


Carol said...

Good choice of interviewee here. The result is something I will be recommend to certain persons for their reading list.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Carol. In way, Dorothea chose herself on friendfeed. I'm obviously very glad she agreed to participate.

Dorothea said...

It still scares me when I am added to reading lists!

Anonymous said...

Interviewing at an academic library often resembles a marathon. In addition to a series of meetings with different constituents, most academic libraries require you to give a presentation during this endurance test. Use this presentation, sometimes called a job talk, seminar, or research presentation, to express your enthusiasm and excitement about librarianship and to demonstrate your oral communication skills. As Shively, Woodward, and Stanley (1999, p. 523) state, “Your goal should be to show that you are addressing an interesting issue, have a competent and innovative way of addressing the issue, and are able to put your work in the context of larger concerns.”