Last month Bepress announced that Elsevier would be its new parent company. The news is at once not surprising (Elsevier buys scholarly communications companies with regularity) and a shock to many open access (OA) advocates … especially those that manage institutional repositories (IRs) and library-published, OA journals. DigitalCommons, a Bepress product, is a leading provider of hosted IR and journal publishing software. It has been the solution of choice for libraries that would rather not deploy open source or custom built software … a task that requires access to servers and a degree of technical proficiency. Some have decided that purchasing access to a hosted software provider, like DigitalCommons, is a more efficient use of time and money.

On its face, the decision to go with DigitalCommons seems logical and even wise in many circumstances. A smallish academic library strapped for resources, time, and even (in some cases) access to edit their own websites, probably isn’t ready to download and install, maintain, and upgrade an open source, locally hosted library publishing system. While DigitalCommons might not be cheap, it’s probably easier and maybe cheaper than getting access to a server and acquiring the expertise to run DSpace, Fedora, or OJS.

But the real price of choosing a for-profit provider is off the books. Every penny given to a commercial solution is a penny that leaves what could have been contributed to a truly shared scholarly communication system. When money departs from our campuses (even in exchange for OA services) it is a loss – there’s a hidden tax levied on that purchase. The university “community” is poorer for the purchase even when the for-profit service appears to be slicker than what is available from open source and non-profit solutions. We are poorer because we have fewer resources with which to build our own houses and manage our own affairs.

What does it take to get academic libraries and universities to look past immediate for-profit solutions in favor of building a more sustainable open scholarly commons? I don’t think this is simply the free-rider problem that all efforts to build a commons face. Rather, it’s a lack of vision. Librarians (and pretty much everyone else that works for an employer) want to be the person that found the solution to a problem. We don’t want to be the person that defers the solution in favor of the slow work of building a stronger commons. And, so, we act in short-term self-interest at the neglect of the longterm health of the community.

I’m not blaming Bepress’s customers – given the moment and the choice, I’d probably have gone with Bepress too. But, I am lamenting a lack of vision, particulalry among a sector of the library profession that is so often driven by the values of equitable access and knowledge sharing. Even in the OA movement, we are prone to short-sighted decisions that may result in access for some instead of shared access for many. DigitalCommons got people online quickly and gave them the tools they needed to launch a repository, but when libraries chose that approach they did so without helping the next library (one that might never have the resources to pay for DigitalCommons) to do the same. Thus, a library that could afford to hire the people to run open source software was admitted the IR-party … and a library that could afford to pay Bepress was also admitted to the party; everyone else was (and is) mostly shut out.

The Bepress sale is, for me, a moment of realization (or a maybe a reminder) that merely participating in the OA movement is not enough. As hard as it might be for some librarians, it takes more than just persuading a few reluctant authors to post a work online. Likewise, using open source software and systems to support a library’s work is not enough, libraries must support the commons. Libraries and librarians must choose to redirect resources and time in a way that builds infrastructure for all. It will not be an easy habit to start and it will not result in speedy solutions to immediate problems, but it’s worth it in the long run.

Jere Odell, CC-BY.