November 28, 2006

Meeting hostile resistance to repositories

Filed under: Repositories — Neil Godfrey @ 12:23 pm

Tonight I encountered my first hostile, not just negative or indifferent, but hostile reaction against the repositories we are working to help establish, and it was from an academic.

What I am relating here is not just a gripe but hopefully a number of messages for repository managers. Some of the issues are not new to most of us, but the depth of feeling in relation to some of them and the anecdotal report that the hostility is widespread in one department at least, will be of concern and worth some serious thought and followup, even if only for reassurance that at least in our own institution this is story is more fiction than reality.

On asking my academic friend how many of her peers shared her views she responded that “most” do, “everyone” does. A major reason, she belaboured, was the time factor, just one more thing for highly pressured academics to do, they just don’t have the time. When I explained that faculties can decide to choose a mediator such as a research assistant to enter the data she despaired that such a workflow would not happen in her department with their particular dean in charge.

I think I tried to squeeze the ‘Google’ word in while she spoke, only to cop the retort: “But what if you DON’T WANT your article found by Google!!!”

So she spoke of a more galling personal experience, and what follows is from the best of my memory of the conversation about 2 hours ago: my friend began by asking me how long a publication is up there and if she can change it or ask it to be removed, citing how she had sent an article to be deposited but asking it to be delayed because it was still pending publication (she was pouring out her experiences and impressions of the process) — meanwhile the publisher she had first expected to publish it did not, then potential publishers were changed a couple more times before it was published, and meanwhile she had revised the preprint she had originally sent to the repository because it was full of errors — and she is embarrassed to see that that error-ridden preprint is the first thing that comes up in a Google search. I assured her of course that she could request her article to be removed or replaced, so she wanted to know how she goes about that, who does she see to do that.

Yes, I did ask her if she knew the benefits of repositories, and she impressed me by rattling them off one by one as if reading straight from a page of a repository sales blurb: “yeh yeh yeh, googlable, searchable, accessible, download statsable, citable, preservable, etc etc blah blah blah.”

Then she hit me with the political reason, and this was a new one on me. Till tonight I have only heard positive murmurings about the repository and how it will hopefully have the potential to at least assist in some measure with DEST reporting. I learned tonight of the other side to that. While academics recognize the importance of reporting for financial grants that does not mean they necessarily approve of it, and it seems at least some see the new RQF around the corner as a serious threat to their independence and as an unwarranted extension of government power. Is the respository push seen by our presumed clientele to be coming from the wrong side of a political battle between universities and the government since Nelson was minister?

And no doubt as a result of some of the publicity lines by repository advocates, she saw the repository as integral to this threat. She saw the repository deposits meaning the government would have access to all the work each individual academic was publishing and for whom and what themes and arguments they were advocating.

I suddenly felt ill as if I on the Road to Damascus and suddenly struck down by the thought that I had all along been persecuting the one I thought I had been devotedly serving. Here was someone (not just another academic but a personal friend in this case) seeing me employed as an agent of a KGB style Big Brother political push to ultimately control academics. (I even thought I heard a voice in my head commanding, “Don’t ever mention the repository and RQF in the same sentence ever again, ever!”)

Luckily the company was larger than the two of us and the conversation took a turn at that point. I finally had time to think through some of the implications of what she had been saying.

As I said earlier, much of what she had said was not a new concern, and obviously they are areas where we need to stop a moment and decide how to work smarter on. But her last point was a new one for me. I would like to check out more academics to see how widespread her perceptions are. I think it is often easy for people in the library profession to want to push to potential clients with what wonderful and ever expanding services they can offer, which is fine — but within professional guidelines. My experience has been that it is sometimes easy for some librarians to be tempted to promise too much and meanwhile lose sight of other professional standards and the total professional environment, seeking their identity in degree of service opportunities at the expense of some of their professional respect. (Certainly not all go that far by any means, and I am only speaking of some aspects of my experience as a librarian.)

While discussions among repository builders and coordinators have referred to various arguments among academics that must be overcome, and that some academics are more willing than others to get involved, they have all spoken of “the academics” as a single body of clientele. Maybe that concept needs rethinking. Maybe in our efforts to be seen as “service providers” we have not fully engaged academe as a whole with their deeper professional, and political, concerns.

Is my friend a solitary Cassandra and would we be entering her fictional world to take her seriously? Or would we be doing her, her colleagues, ourselves and even the future of repositories a genuine service by taking more than some Freudian psychoanalytic interest in her warning cries?

One thing is for sure. I had been looking around for some way to get a theme or handle on my workflows presentation that I am preparing, and I now have a new angle for at least one part of that presentation. But I’ll save the details of that for the day it’s delivered.

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