The topic of Ada Emmett’s very first class in library science was scholarly communication reform — a branch of library work that has had a profound impact on the course of her life.
“I thought, ‘If this is what librarians do, then I want to be a librarian,’” she said.
This class was where she first learned of the unsettling trend in scholarly communications of work becoming increasingly less available.
A number of factors account for this trend, including mergers within the publishing industry, which lead to less competition and higher prices for the works. Publishing companies no longer view themselves as a way to communicate information but rather as a means to generate profits, she said.
“As scholarly information becomes commodified, access to it goes down,” said Emmett.
Increased prices for scholarly works coupled with declining budgets for universities has forced many libraries to drop journal subscriptions, further limiting access to information.
Last year, Kansas University paid $4 million in journal subscriptions.
“Knowledge belongs to society at large, and it is the quintessential public good,” said Marc Greenberg, chairman and professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, and a leading proponent of scholarship reform.
“Another way of thinking about it is this way: We all subsidize research (the advancement of knowledge) in various ways — through taxes, tuition or donations to private foundations that foster research,” Greenberg said. “Why should the public be charged again to access a scholarly article?”
It was also in her first library science class where Emmett learned about the role librarians could have in reforming the system.
“For me it is a question of social justice,” said Emmett, noting that scholars rarely get paid by the publishers either for the articles, or to review and edit the works.
Her interest in reforming scholarly communication led her to seek a master’s degree in library science at the University of Washington. After graduation, she accepted a position as a science librarian at KU.
Although her current position at the Center for Digital Scholarship did not exist when she arrived in Lawrence, Emmett knew the university was heading in the right direction under David Shulenburger, who began working to reform the way scholarship was disseminated during his tenure as provost at KU.
In 2003, Shulenburger began planning a digital repository where university scholars could publish their work. In 2005, KU ScholarWorks was launched, where digital copies of articles and works produced by KU professors are available to anyone with access to the Internet for free.
Currently, there are just over 6,700 documents in KU ScholarWorks, which includes full-length manuscripts, articles and interviews.
“We have several books that are no longer in print, and the professors wanted to make them available to other scholars,” Emmett said.
More material is added continually. Several years ago, KU master’s and doctoral students agreed to place digital copies of their theses and dissertations in KU ScholarWorks.
Although the repository is still in its infancy, signs are that it is performing its mission to make scholarship more widely available to scholars, policy makers and the public. Statistics Emmett has collected indicate that there have been over 2 million searches of the database since 2009, and over a million downloads have been made by users across the United States and from around the world, including in Kazakhstan, Iran, and Vietnam.
In 2009, members of the KU faculty again declared their desire to have their scholarship available to the public by adopting an open-access policy, meaning that the faculty publicly committed to supplying digital copies of all of their journal articles to KU ScholarWorks. KU was the first public university, and one of only a handful of U.S. institutions, including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, to have such a policy.
“There is a philosophical uniformity among the faculty to show support for this idea, a real ‘coalition of the willing,’” Emmett said. “Practically, however, it has taken a little longer to realize the mission.”
Funding agencies such as the NIH have recently gotten on board with the reform movement, now requiring scholars to put a copy of their research findings in an open repository as a condition of receiving funds.
“Publishers are learning to live with this new arrangement,” said Emmett, saying that the journals still hold copyrights to their final published version of the material, which includes their formatting and pagination.
“It feels like a fair compromise (balancing) the needs of the publisher with the needs of the citizens that ultimately fund the research,” she said. “The public can view the refereed version and the publisher can still make profits on the final version of record.”
Emmett calls her position one of the “public faces” of the open access movement at KU, working with faculty members to help them understand the publisher agreements they sign and the rights they should fight to keep in order that their work can be shared in KU ScholarWorks. “I feel like a midwife helping professors to give birth to this new entity,” she said.
Despite downplaying her role in the endeavor, those at KU understand the importance of Emmett’s work at the university.
“Without Ada’s vision, dedication and leadership it is hard to imagine that KU would have advanced as rapidly on the open access front as it has. She has created a working coalition of knowledgeable colleagues to drive the effort forward, not just at KU, but nationally and internationally as well,” Greenberg said.