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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2011


ISTL Was OA Before OA Was Cool

David Flaxbart
Viewpoints Editor
Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship

Copyright 2011, David Flaxbart. Used with permission.

While charged with writing a Viewpoint column marking the fifteenth anniversary of Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship (it's actually the twentieth anniversary if you count our pre-web predecessor newsletter), the topic of Open Access (OA) kept popping into my mind. ISTL is and has always been an open-access publication intended to benefit library practitioners the world over. It has a wide international readership and some of our articles get a lot of hits and quite a few citations. (Certainly more readers and hits than a pricey commercial competitor that shall remain unnamed.) It's run entirely by volunteer labor and generously hosted at no charge by the University of California at Santa Barbara Library.

ISTL is something the Science and Technology Section and ACRL can be proud of. We were walking the OA walk before OA was even a thing, and OA still is the exception among ALA division publications. And that begs a question: Why have librarians been so slow to adopt the open access model for their own publications, all while preaching the OA gospel to researchers in every other field? Why are most of the top journals in our field still locked behind the expensive paywalls of the most OA-unfriendly publishers in the world? If we can't manage to liberate them and make our collective work open and sustainable, how can we realistically expect biologists and engineers to do so?

Of course, we need to be honest about the true benefits of Open Access. Let's face it, most of its promise has turned out to be overstated. It's unlikely that OA will radically remake the world of scholarly communication, nor will it have much positive effect on libraries' bottom lines. It may not confer a "citation advantage" that some claim it does. But we can be fairly confident that it does widen readership, and that in itself is a worthwhile goal.

Journals used to have to worry a lot about where they were indexed. For instance, ISTL is not indexed by Thomson-Reuter's Web of Knowledge. (Neither is the competitor, anymore.) In the old days this might have been a handicap to discovery. But Google Scholar is making rapid inroads against traditional A&I services, so this is not such a big deal anymore. Our content can be readily found, and full text is just a click away.

A lot of brickbats have been thrown at the Library Literature in recent years, with some justification. Critics accuse it of lacking intellectual and statistical rigor, of being too survey-oriented, self-repeating, and too often poorly written. It can be dominated by how-we-done-it-good preening, and is prone to navel-gazing. (Do we really need another survey of librarians' attitudes toward tenure? No, we don't.) It's afflicted with way too many articles that one might call "elaborate statistical demonstrations of the blatantly obvious." To be fair, librarianship is not medicine or physics: there probably aren't any breakthroughs in the offing. It's a process-oriented profession, and its literature can't help but reflect that.

Still, every now and then I run across an article that engages me and makes me think about what we're doing and how we can perform our jobs better, or understand more about the environment in which we work. That's the kind of contribution we want to attract to ISTL. It doesn't have to be earth-shaking, but it ought to be empirical and elegant, original and insightful, and most of all useful beyond the author's immediate sphere. Not too much to ask, no?

Our corner of Libraryland is faced with an array of daunting existential and economic challenges, and to meet them we need both the wisdom of veterans and the insights of neophytes. So next time you have a eureka moment and write something up that's worth sharing, whether a peer-reviewed tour de force or a bold opinion piece, think about your potential audience and send it along to us. Don't hide your work behind an overpriced firewall. Don't give away your copyright for no reason. ISTL belongs to STS, but it welcomes contributions from our colleagues everywhere.

Our readers are also our authors, and we thank them all for making ISTL an outstanding success for fifteen years. Here's to the next fifteen!

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