Digital Commons, BePress, and Elsevier: what is Plan B?

The recent acquisition of BePress & Digital Commons by Elsevier has occasioned a flurry snowstorm of commentary and opinion.  Some of that has not been helpful, even though well-intended.  Sacred Heart University Library belongs to a 33-member group call the Affinity Libraries Group.  We are all private, Masters-1 universities (some with several doctoral degrees), relatively mid-size between the Oberlin Group of liberal arts college libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).

Much of the following is going to be discussed at a meeting alongside or outside the coming CNI meeting in December in Washington DC –but since CNI is expensive ($8,200/year), SHU is not a member, nor are I suspect other Affinity Libraries.  I am hoping that, using one technology or another, the Affinity Libraries can have a conversation as well. 

Affinity Group has changed over the years; we (or they, meaning our predecessor directors) used to meet often, sometimes in quite successful stand-alone events not connected with another event, for example, ALA Annual.  Others have said to me that in some ways the Affinity Group (as it was then) really came down to “professional and personal friends of Lew Miller” (former director at Butler), and while I’m not sure that’s fair, it is accurate in the sense that personal relationships formed a strong glue for the group. As directors retired or moved on, group adhesiveness accordingly changed. I’m avoiding the word or metaphor “decline” here because sometimes things just change, and Affinity Group has been one of them.  No one has been sitting around in the meantime.

We do share a strong commitment to the annual Affinity Group statistics. Perhaps now a discussion about institutional repositories and Digital Commons in particular could garner some interest with attention directed to issues for libraries of our size.

Some of the hoopla surrounding Elsevier’s acquisition of BePress has simply given occasion to express contributors’ intense dislike of Elsevier and its business model of maximizing profits above all else, certainly a justified objection given the state of all our budgets.

I think the anonymous Library Loon (Gavia Libraria) has pretty well summed up various points (though I don’t agree with every one of her statements), and Matt Ruen’s subsequent comment on August 9 is also helpful.  Paul Royster at University of Nebraska—Lincoln wrote on September 7 on the SPARC list:

The staff at BePress have been uniformly helpful and responsive, and there is no sign of that changing. They are the same people as before. They have never interfered with our content. I do not believe Elsevier paid $150 million in order to destroy BePress. What made it worth that figure was 1. the software, 2. the staff, and 3. the reputation and relationships.BePress became valuable by listening to their customers; Elsevier could learn a lot from them about managing relationships–and I hope they do.  BePress is also in a different division (Research) than the publications units that have treated libraries and authors so high-handedly. The stronger BePress remains, the better will be its position vis-a-vis E-corp going forward. Bashing BePress over its ownership and inciting its customers to jump ship strikes me as not in the best interests of the IRs or the faculty who use them. 

Almost every college library has relationships with Elsevier already; deserting BePress is not a moral victory of right over wrong. The moral issue here is providing wider dissemination and free access for content created by faculty scholars. No one does that better than BePress, and until that changes, I see no cause for panic. Of course there are no guarantees, and it is always wise to have a Plan B and an exit strategy. But cutting off BePress to spite their new ownership does not really help those we are trying to serve.

I share Royster’s primary commitment freely to disseminate content created by faculty scholars. Digital Commons has done that for SHU in spades, and has been a game-changer in this university and library, in my experience. I know that many share such a primary commitment; many also share enduring and well-grounded suspicion of just about anything Elsevier might do.  As a firm, their behavior often has been so downright divisive and sneaky (we can tell our stories…)  When I first read of the sale, my gut response was, “Really? Great, here’s big problem when I don’t really want another.”   Digital Commons is one of the three major applications that power my library: 1) the integrated library services platform; 2) Springshare’s suite of research & reference applications, and 3) BePress.  Exiting BePress would be distracting, distressing, and downright burdensome.  As Royster writes, “there are no guarantees.”  Now we have to have Plan B and an exit strategy, even if we never use it.

What I fear most is Gavia Libraria’s last option (in her blog post): that Elsevier will simply let “BePress languish undeveloped, with an eye to eventually shrugging and pulling the plug on it.”  I have seen similar “application decay” with ebrary, RefWorks, and (actually) SerialsSolutions, several of which have languished (or are languishing) for years before any genuine further development.  I watched their talented creators and originating staff members drift away into other ventures (e.g., ThirdIron).  Were that to happen, it would be bad news for SHU and other Affinity members.  Royster’s statement “they are the same people as before” has not always held true in the past when smaller firms become subject to hiring processes mandated by larger organizations (e.g., SerialsSolutions’ staff members now employed by ProQuest).

On SPARC’s list, there has been great discussion about cooperation & building a truly useful non-profit, open-source application suite for institutional repository, digital publishing, authors’ pages (like SelectedWorks), etc.  Everyone knows that’s a long way off, without any disrespect to Islandora, Janeway, DSpace, or any other application.  DigitalCommons and SelectedWorks is pretty well the state of the art, and its design and consequent workflow decisions have benefited the small staff of the SHU Library enormously (even with the occasional hiccups and anomalies). Digital Commons Network has placed SHU in the same orbit or gateway as far larger and frankly more prestigious colleges and universities, and I could not be happier with that.  I have my own SelectedWorks page and I like it.  I would be sorry to see all this go –unless a truly practical alternative emerges.  Who knows when that will be?

In the meantime, we will be giving attention to Plan B –until now we have not had one or felt we needed one (–probably an unfortunate oversight, but it just did not become a priority).  I really don’t yet know what our Plan B will be.

I sense that if OCLC were to develop a truly useful alternative to Digital Commons (one well beyond DSpace as it presently exists), it might have some traction in the market (despite all of our horror stories about OCLC, granted).  Open Science Framework, Islandora, or others hold promise but really probably cannot yet compete feature-by-feature with Digital Commons (at least, I have not seen anything that really even close).  If you think I’m wrong, please say so! –I will gladly accept your correction.