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- Life and death on the coral reef: an ecological perspective on scholarly publishing in the health sciences


If we accept the application of a biological ecosystem as a model that aptly fits the publishing world, we must pay attention to the chain of interdependencies in that model and not just focus on one factor, such as open access versus for profit. We must acknowledge the complexities, our incomplete understanding of the fragile dynamics, and the danger of well-intended but ignorant meddling. How often have we been amused or offended by faculty who grow impatient with information access problems and who then insist there is a quick and immediate fix that librarians have been too blind to see? Such simplistic solutions often stem from incomplete information and a myopic vision of what is important or what is useful. Librarians are not happy when users try to bully us with some flawed and short-sighted solution, and we can expect others to respond in like fashion if we are the ones guilty of proposing a radical change, apparently based on our own self-interest.

Serving on the library advisory board for the New England Journal of Medicine has taught me a great deal about the realities of publishing and introduced me to things I had never before considered. We must understand and acknowledge the factors that drive society and for-profit publishers and the behaviors that produce an irrational or combative response because those factors feel like threats to the other party. And we must recognize that the food chain is what it is. Various creatures play essential roles in that chain, and the chain may break down completely if certain functions do not occur. The shark plays a useful part, and we should not expect it to turn into a delicate damsel fish just because that would be more convenient for us.

MLA's members need to become better informed about the whole process of scholarly publishing, from all sides of the process. We need to talk more with faculty colleagues, administrators, and even publishers. We need to reject overly simplistic solutions. We also need to craft persuasive arguments that honor the perspectives of others and that focus on common principles and desired outcomes that will allow us to reach agreement on how to attain those outcomes. Mutualism involves reciprocal benefit, something rather close to the values of our profession. Publishing is undergoing both evolution and revolution all around us, and we must be thoughtful as we both reshape and adjust to the new environment.

Braude's 1996 Doe lecture gives us hope that librarians possess the essential adaptability required in this digital onslaught [7]. And we have other invaluable assets. In his book, Information Ecology, organizational strategist Thomas Davenport talks about the continual evolution in information, scoffs at the ineffectiveness of libraries as passive repositories of printed information, and summarizes the attributes of the ideal information staff [39]. Not surprisingly, Davenport's preferred attributes mirror much of the essential knowledge and many of the essential skills MLA advocates for and imparts to its members: knowledge of the basic business and the organization, knowledge about diverse sources and uses of information, skill with information technology, political savvy and leadership, and interpersonal skills.

None of these attributes allow passiveness; all require action on the part of the individual. Writing in the March 2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a dean from the University of Illinois at Chicago urges us all to be much more assertive. Dean Stanley Fish confesses he has been very vocal about elected officials and decisions makers in higher education, calling them “ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, [and] slipshod.” Fish says that “campus administrators have been diplomatic, respectful, conciliatory, reasonable, sometimes apologetic, and always defensive, and they would have done much better …if they had been aggressive, blunt, mildly confrontational, and just a bit arrogant” [40].

Librarians share that predisposition to reasoned discourse, and decades of distress over serial pricing have gotten us nowhere. When interviewing guests who seem trapped in a cycle of repeatedly ineffective behaviors, popular television psychologist Dr. Phil asks, “And how is that working for you?” The answer, of course, is that the described behavior most definitely is not working, and the person needs to try another technique.

In the present environment, pricing schemes are in flux and many volatile factors affect the environment. Personally, I did not have much at stake when VHS and Betamax versions of videorecording technology were fighting to the death, but the publishing realm is our particular ecosystem and we must take action and risks. Coral polyps are brainless and spineless. Librarians cannot afford to be either.

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