This morning my friend Scott Plutchak testified before a subcommitte of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology about opportunities and challenges for 21st century scholarly communication. He was one of several panelists, all of whose testimony is collected here.
Scott presented his usual argument--that we need to recognize and balance the legitimate interests of taxpayers, librarians, scientists, and publishers; and that most open access initiatives are tame despite all the radical rhetoric. Open access doesn't really seek to change the publishing paradigm as we've known it, it merely seeks to get more PDFs into more hands more quickly.
To quote from Scott's testimony: "But framing the question as, 'How do we get better access to the peer-reviewed reports of research?' is merely a pale version of the question that we ought to be asking, which is, 'How we do we take advantage of digital technologies to develop a robust and innovative scientific communication infrastructure that fully takes advantage of the potential of 21st century digital technologies?'"
I agree with this completely. The problem is that it is very vague. Just like with the word "informatics," nobody knows what "21st century digital technologies" really means. But we've all read PDFs and we all know this is what researchers want from the library. And so we frame the debate in familiar terms, even if those terms are very small-bore.
At one point in his remarks Scott briefly recounted the inception of scholarly communication; born in 1665 as a public exchange of letters between scholars. By 1665 we had movable type and binding, and thus the scholarly journal was born. Scholarly communication arose from within the research community, and eventually an infrastructure of publishing and library services grew up to support it.
The only way things will change, the only way we will finally take advantage of those 21st century digital technologies, is if researchers once again change the paradigm. There will always be a need for vetting and quality control, but that does not mean that the only conceivable way to achieve this is via a peer-reviewed journal. We're still confusing form with function, because our mental models for what counts as scientific communication are so entrenched.
But that will change--maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of our lives. Ultimately, this change will have to come from researchers themselves.
What does that mean for librarians? Do we just keep licensing big bundles of PDFs until the scholars tell us to stop already? Do we wait passively for this tipping point to occur or do we actively help to tilt the scales? I fear we're set up for passivity by personality, history and tradition. But the only way for us to thrive, not merely to survive, is to become more bold and active.