By Ellen Finnie

In the MIT Libraries we’ve just launched a new and innovative approach for our scholarly communications program — and for our collections budget: the collections budget is now part of the scholarly communications program.

Yes, you read that right: through the vision and leadership of new Associate Director for Collections Greg Eow and Director Chris Bourg, the collections budget has been incorporated into, essentially under, the scholarly communications program. Not the other way around.

We made this change because we want to use our collections dollars — in a more systematic and strategic way — to transform the scholarly communications landscape towards more openness, and toward expanded, democratized access.

I like to think of this as voting with our collections dollars, an idea I first grasped through Michael Pollan’s powerful and influential prose about food:

Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and ‘value’ or they can nourish a food chain organized around values—values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote—a vote for health in the largest sense—food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.”
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Pollan has encouraged us to leverage consumer power to transform food systems toward health for people and the planet. In the MIT Libraries, we believe that by adopting this vote-with-your dollars approach to spending our collections budget, we will be contributing to transforming the scholarly communication system towards a healthier environment for people and the planet, too.

This will mean, as Pollan suggests, assessing value in a broader, more holistic way than relying primarily on traditional measures like list price versus impact or cost per download. For as Pollan points out, when evaluating cost, we need to incorporate full costs in our assessments.   Some foods come cheap but cause health or environmental problems that are not included in the price we pay. In the same way, some pay-walled purchases may seem to offer value in the moment, but may cost us dearly in lost opportunity through artificially limited access, less efficient science and scholarship, and the resulting slower progress working on the greatest problems facing humanity.

In making a more holistic and values-based assessment, we will be using a new lens: assessing potential purchases in relation to whether they transform the scholarly communication system towards openness, or make a positive impact on the scholarly communication environment in some way, whether via licensing, access, pricing, or another dimension. Of course, like shoppers in the supermarket, we’ll need to view our purchase options with more than just one lens. We have finite resources, and we must meet our community’s current and rapidly evolving needs while supporting other community values, such as diversity and inclusion (which I will write about in a future post). So the lens of transforming the scholarly communications system is only one of many we will look through when we decide what to buy, and from what sources. How we will integrate the views from multiple lenses to make our collections decisions is something we will be exploring in the coming months – and years.

I hope others will join us in this exploration, though we recognize not all libraries will feel positioned to do so. The MIT Libraries are relatively well-resourced, and are privileged in having a bit of wiggle room to take this values-based approach. Our aim is to use that privileged position to act for the collective good. Ultimately, though, as Pollan tells us — and as the evolution of food markets has demonstrated — the power to transform a market comes not from one individual, or one library, but in the aggregated purchases all of us make, placing our votes for healthier options.

Ellen Finnie

Leads the MIT Libraries’ scholarly communications and collections strategy, including efforts to influence models of scholarly publishing and communication in ways that increase the impact and reach of MIT’s research and scholarship and which promote open, sustainable publishing and access models. She is a strong supporter of therapy dogs in libraries!

Comments (15)

  1. I love this approach! I have shared your piece with my staff to start a conversation as to whether we could develop a similar approach and strategy, although perhaps not putting it under Scholarly Communication, but looking at a more holistic approach. We already support open access initiatives in a number of different ways and this may help to better articulate with our campus actions that we have taken and make take in the future. We have been talking about ways to rethink how we spend our limited dollars with a budget that remains flat and this is a thoughtful piece that may help generate some discussion. I like the concept of “we will be using a new lens: assessing potential purchases in relation to whether they transform the scholarly communication system towards openness, or make a positive impact on the scholarly communication environment in some way, whether via licensing, access, pricing, or another dimension.” So , many thanks for sharing.

  2. I know I’m rather biased, but this is really terrific. All credit to Greg Eow, Ellen Finnie, and the entire team for imagining this and then making it so. Can’t wait to see what comes of this.

  3. Bravo! to Chris, Greg, and Ellen for their new and fantastic stance on important issues in scholarly communication. What an inspiring read! MIT Libraries has it absolutely right: smart strategies such as their new structural model and “vote-with-your-dollars” methodology will put the library (and hopefully all libraries) right where it belongs – in the driver’s seat, leading our community to greater openness, transparency, and democratized access. Le buíochas ó chroí uainn!

  4. Although I come from a pretty small academic library with almost no scholarly publishing influence I want to share my support for your efforts. Bravo and thank you for your current and future contributions.

  5. This is really inspiring! I think libraries like my own that are at the other end of the funding spectrum (not at all “well-resourced”) also have a strong incentive to move in this direction. Shifting limited resources toward a more sustainable system of scholarly communication seems a more fiscally responsible practice (even if it’s done out of necessity as much as on principle).

  6. I wholeheartedly applaud your decision and recognition that “MIT Libraries are relatively well-resourced, and are privileged in having a bit of wiggle room to take this values-based approach. Our aim is to use that privileged position to act for the collective good.”
    While we may not have the same privileged position at my institution, your approach is certainly fodder for discussion both within and outside the library. Kudos, MIT!

  7. Very happy to see MIT taking this approach and encouraging, in general, more holistic views of collection development. I’m wondering what metrics or other forms of evaluation you expect to use to measure success as you move forward with this?

    1. Metrics and assessment are of paramount concern to us. It’s early days so I don’t have a fleshed out answer for you at this time. We’ll be working closely with our collections assessment librarian to identify ways to assess and evaluate our efforts.

  8. We at Tufts are trying to use what “wiggle room” we can spare to support initiatives that advance explorations of new types of markets in support of the common good. We support things like Knowledge Unlatched, Luminos, BMC, Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices. And when we don’t acquire things that we think have bad models but good content we make a point to let the vendors know why.
    I think there are many collections folks in the community who want help thinking about how to weigh those other lenses – who want to learn how to think like Michael Pollan. I’m glad MIT is starting the conversation. I look forward to hearing much more!

  9. Congratulations on this new initiative, Ellen (and crew). I do have one question: I can imagine a situation in which some faculty members come to you and say: “We really need the library to subscribe to Journal X,” and you guys look at Journal X and say “Oog, subscribing to this journal goes against everything we’re trying to do with our scholarly communication program,” and the faculty say “Maybe so, but we’ve really got to have access to it in order to do our work.” In a situation like that, where you’ve got multiple legitimate needs and values in competition with each other, what criteria will you apply in order to decide what to do?

    1. It’s great to hear from you with this important question, Rick. One way to answer it is to extend the metaphor from organic food shopping by offering an example from my own life. I make an effort to buy organic and locally-grown food for values-based (as well as health) reasons. But as a long distance runner, I also buy little packets of energy gel that certainly don’t meet Pollan’s rules for eating: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. ” I agree with — and try to follow — all of Pollan’s 7 rules for eating, but when it comes to fueling during a training run for a half marathon or marathon, or for recharging in the middle of a road race, those little packets do the job in a way that my grandmother’s foods would not. I’m just a slow recreational runner, but for an elite runner, the trade-off would be clearer and more important.
      Another way to answer the question is to say that we will be emphasizing moderation. We are not suggesting that one lens be exclusive or necessarily even primary – but rather that we will approach our purchases with thoughtful consideration of competing viewpoints and values, and try to make wise choices based on all the lenses we use. And as I hope was clear in the post, meeting our community’s current needs remains a paramount concern. That is not changed by the addition of another lens.
      I realize this admittedly squishy answer, and you asked about ‘criteria,’ which is more defined. Our collections decision-making processes are beginning to provide examples of how we will work through decisions where values are in tension. We are only at the beginning stages of working this out culturally, intellectually, and practically. But down the road, we may be at a place where we can talk about criteria.
      I had hoped to acknowledge this in the post by saying that how we will integrate the views from multiple lenses to make our collections decisions – in other words, how we will resolve tension between values– will take us time to work out. I’m delighted to see that Ginny Steele has proposed one kind of mechanism in her comment. This idea generation and sharing is exactly what I hoped would come from the post — and I very much appreciate your question and engagement, Ginny’s idea, and all the other comments as well. I hope this is the beginning of many such conversations!

      1. That’s a great answer, Ellen, and it reflects what I think is a wise and well-considered approach. Congratulations again!

  10. Congratulations, Ellen! This is a great move, and we’ll all look forward to hearing how it goes. BTW, the same question Rick asked above went through my mind when I read your post, but then I thought that perhaps a part of your approach will be to set annual goals for the percent reduction you’d like to see in expenditures for high-cost journals. You could then target those journals and the faculty who use them to try to change publishing habits. That way you could choose to spend the remaining dollars on the journals faculty really need while increasing the amount of the collections budget spent on new, more sustainable models.

    1. Ginny, thanks so much for this really interesting idea. This kind of dialog and idea sharing is exactly what I hoped would emerge from the post. I really appreciate your giving this thought and formulating a possible mechanism. To be continued, I hope!

  11. […] Finnie has shared some exciting news coming out of MIT libraries: their collections budget is now under their scholarly communications program. This will potentially give collections librarians the flexibility to significantly shift the way […]

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