Crushed by bepress

At the outset, let me state explicitly that these are my opinions, insofar as one can develop opinions of one’s own. There are a lot of assumptions buried in what follows, many of which I am (painfully) aware of. Also, these are initial impressions, but I stand by them as what they are. [Some edits made for clarity.]

The Press

The Press

Elsevier acquired bepress, the company that offers the Digital Commons repository platform, which my institution purchased in 2015 shortly after I was hired, and to some degree at my urging. I am an academic law librarian at a large public institution. I have a little more than two years of experience in the field and in this job. Many academic law libraries have Digital Commons repositories.

At the time we signed on to Digital Commons, we had no mechanism for posting well-described full-text documents to the web. At first, we focused on uploading articles already published in student-run law reviews at our institution and then planned to move on to our faculty members’s scholarship (both published and drafts / working papers / pre-prints). Later, we would add unique collections of primary law documents. In the course of 18 months, I managed the repository and uploaded 6,000+ documents, which have been downloaded 160,000+ times.

Digital Commons offered a mechanism for uploading many documents at once and promised an easy-enough way of mediating document intake. The wider institution was working on a large project with a homegrown repository system that would meet the needs of all university faculty wanting to comply with the (voluntary) OA policy. Our library does not work much with the campus libraries — it is, like many law libraries, an independent entity on campus. Law libraries serve legal scholars, law students, and members of the public. Law publishing patterns, including those for scholarship, are considerably different than those in other areas of study or work, as are the needs of our discipline’s scholars.

I have about eight or ten different job duties, one of which is the maintenance of the repository. Overall, I’d say it makes up about 25% of my job, which also includes teaching advanced legal research, providing reference services to library patrons, working with the OPAC, etc., etc. I have some competence in computing — I know basic python scripting, which I have taught myself since starting this job. I know my way around the command line, too. I am a legal subject-matter specialist (and, not that it matters, a lawyer). And I am terrified.

First, it’s my responsibility to make sure as many people as possible have access to work produced by our faculty and student journals at the lowest cost possible. At the time I advocated we use bepress, I figured that the fee we pay for Digital Commons plus my part-time labor were acceptable trade-offs, in cost, for being able to make a lot of information free for the public to access. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, but the fact is we got a lot of documents up quickly and people accessed them. Digital Commons was a fine solution — not perfect, but functional — but it was, and is, a for-profit publisher. With the Elsevier acquisition, I don’t know if it is as good a solution any more, for any number of reasons: increased cost, negative perception by the faculty, deprecation of the product….

But what are our options otherwise? I see two: (1) my law library joining in with the campus project, where, because of our difference as a law library, we will not likely get what we want (ease of use, control, etc.) and we will compete for attention with other, flashier scholarly areas or (2) joining some kind of pan-law-library consortial effort to build “our” own pre-print and repository management system. For the first, let me say that I admire the hard work and progress that has been made on campus — the university-wide repository is an amazing work of collaboration and engineering. For the second, let me say that I admire the consortial work that has been done preserve legal documents, share resources, and yes, the new partnership with OSI known as LawArXiv, which is still very much in early days.

The question I have is this: will it really be possible to muster the will, buy-in, and know-how to make either (or both) of these non-commercial options worthwhile for my library? I imagine that both will be costly in terms of money and time, and that neither will be as easy or as customizable to my needs as Digital Commons is. But neither will have the stink of Elsevier that is anathema to so much of the academic and legal academic community. I understand that my hard work — hours and hours of creating descriptions and uploading documents will be co-opted and sold back to me by some multinational corporation. That’s life; things are hard, the rich get richer, and we struggle to stay afloat. But I care about my patrons — the public — having access to information in a way that works for them, not for me or for my ideology.

So while the gotchas and the schadenfreude and the quick answers are fun, the truth is that we have a complex problem on our hands, and that there’s lots of work to be done to meet the public’s need not only for legal scholarship but also for other types of legal information. It’s not fun, it’s just hard.