Twitter Inter-Library Loan, Article Sharing, and Open Access

I’ve got to weigh in on this Twitter Inter-library Loan (ILL) thing that happened last week. If you are unfamiliar, this Storify lays out its creation and the discussion around it nicely.

It’s always interesting when you see an “open’ initiative like this that is met with widespread excitement from researchers and hand wringing from library staff. The responses from library staff to this Twitter ILL account/service seemed to involve one or more of these four reactions:

  1. Libraries already do ILL and we do it well. You’re trying to crowdsource and create a volunteer-based workforce when all these expertise are already there, you’re just not using them.
  2. You wouldn’t need to request articles if you published Open Access. Open Access is the real solution here. Twitter ILL is just a half-measure that does not solve the real problem.
  3. This isn’t a new idea. Similar services like this already exist, e.g.  #canihazPDF, The Open Access Button, UnPaywall. Use those!
  4. Libraries handle ILL because of thorny copyright issues. A lot of this stuff you share is going to break copyright, the real solution here is to rely on your library (#1) and publish open access (#2).

I think there’s some truth to the above, but I also think the way we engaged in these conversations shows some of library twitters worst tendencies: Open Access Shaming, Library Elitism, Copyright Fear-Mongering, and User Blaming.

I’m guilty of all these too! I’m hoping I can correct that here. I think Twitter ILL can work together with Libraries to encourage our mutual goals openness, discovery, and access.

#1. Use your Library for ILL instead

Let’s start with the fact that researchers have been crowd-sourcing and sharing research from day one. This isn’t new. Just like so many researchers now discover research outside of the library, researchers are also looking outside the library for access to these articles:

This is why libraries have scholarly sharing provisions in their licenses with publishers. Researchers share stuff without going through the library and it’s rather important they do. As great as Library ILL services are, using alternative methods are a good way to get access to articles faster and build relationships with researchers working on similar topics. Also what about researchers that need access to articles outside of work hours? Or researchers without a library?

Library ILL services have come a long way, there’s still a lot of problems. A large number of libraries still use restrictive copyright interpretations and provide researchers with print copies when they want the electronic version. There is a still a lot of older material out there that’s not digitized. Waiting on digitization, especially for older books which need to be handled carefully, can take a few weeks. Libraries really can’t/don’t retain copies of digitized chapters that they can lend when needed, but researchers can. Why wait a few weeks for a chapter to be digitized when another researcher already has a digitized copy and can send that to you?

There’s also quite a few vendors who actually have more restrictive approaches to ILL than they do for scholarly sharing between researchers. Take Elsevier for example. Elsevier is notorious for restrictive ILL clauses. However they freely allow one-off article sharing for individual use if you are a researcher with an institutional subscription (See ScienceDirect’s Responsible Sharing Overview). Or look at Springer-Nature’s SharedIt.

All this to say, in quite a few cases it makes more sense for a researcher to use a scholarly sharing method via twitter, rather than ILL.

I’m not trying to undersell ILL here! It’s just far from perfect and we will get nowhere pretending it is. I work in ILL. Researchers love our service and are always amazed when we track something down that they have looked and asked everywhere else for. I think this is what ILL services will evolve into in the future, as open access and the boom in literature reviews continue to grow: Tracking down hard to find citations. Forensic Bibliographic Reconstruction via experts like the ILLinator.

I believe that should take care of the argument put forward in #1. Scholarly Sharing is an alternative for ILL. It’s ok for researchers to use it and in many cases we should encourage it. The Library doesn’t exist for the Library’s sake. It exists to make researchers job easier. If they found a better way to do it then good on them.

#2. Open Access is the real solution

Ok, now for #2. That Twitter ILL is a half measure and Open Access is the real solution. First of all, a systematic change toward open access isn’t easy. On Library Twitter we often pretend it is and shame researchers for not publishing open access. Often calling them complicit. Y’all! The Journal of Academic Librarianship, one of our leading journals, is not open access. If we can’t do it, then what right do we have to guilt trip researchers who aren’t doing it?

Routes to open access are getting clearer and easier though! Things are changing! One of the cool parts of the Twitter ILL debacle was that there were librarians who responded with helpful explanations and links about open access. Some good, old open access educating was done that day. This is what we should be focusing on. Twitter ILL was a great chance for some critical information literacy development.

Now, I do realize Open Access Advocacy Burnout is a powerful thing. A lot of us have been fighting for this for a long time and only making annoyingly slow progress. However, I still regularly come across researchers who know very little about open access. We don’t want to scare these researchers away with our well developed snark and engage in user blaming.

Two final thoughts on #2: Even if we went fully Open Access immediately today, there would still be substantial amount of archived material that is not open and would need to be requested via ILL. Also – and say it with me now – being open does not necessarily mean the full-text is discoverable. At my library we get a large number of requests for open access content. We still have long way to go on info literacy, open access discovery tools, and metadata. We are working on it though!

There will always be a need for scholarly sharing. I regularly email authors directly for articles that I can’t ILL. I always try and ask them to make a version of their work open access. Similar to what the Open Access Button does. This is why I think article sharing and open access work so well together. Show the authors how they can mass share their work without requiring an unnecessary amount of request emails.

#3. There are other similar services. Use those instead.

The more services the better. Researchers can pick which one works best for them.

#4. You can’t break copyright!

Saved this one for last on purpose. I’ve already made the point that some vendors allow more expansive sharing for peer-to-peer sharing then for ILL. Also if you look through the Twitter ILL feed, all of the sharing seems to very clearly fall under fair use/dealing.

This is the thing with copyright and fair dealing. There is always a risk when sharing things. It’s never black and white. This because the context of the sharing matters (Will it hurt the copyright holder? Does the benefit caused by the sharing outweigh what harm will be done?) and why fair dealing guidelines can appear to be vague.

It was pointed out a few times in the Twitter ILL discussion that a fair number of library resources licenses don’t allow for fair dealing. If researchers share this content they will likely be breaking fair dealing. This is why ILL should be handled by the library, because we know how to navigate what can and can’t be shared.

There’s a large problem here. Generally researchers (rightly) think they should be able copy and share small amount of works. How do we communicate to them that they can’t, without asking them to contact us every time they want to make use of something? If you’re a big library consortia, you can maybe build the infrastructure for showing users their user rights for that content. But most of us our screwed when it comes to this stuff. We can chose between a general restrictive approach to sharing – i.e. Don’t share anything or contact us when you need to – or a non-restrictive approach – i.e. Most resources you can share under fair dealing. If you are unsure, please contact us.

I think it’s pretty clear that libraries should chose the latter of the two options. As I’ve argued elsewhere, there is a strong case that fair dealing usurps licenses and even if it doesn’t legally, it should morally. As library staff, our duty is find that appropriate balance between creator rights and user rights. It’s a fine line (and maybe not one that should even be drawn [Large PDF!]) but the status quo leans away from users rights to creator rights, and we need to try and correct this.

This is all to say, we should be encouraging researchers to push on copyright and learn to do this risk analysis and right balancing. When we start telling researchers they are likely breaking copyright when they are sharing things, we are complicit in creating this unbalanced copyright system. This should be another educational moment. Not a chance for copyright fear mongering. We should inform them about what copyright allows and how they can help us change the system.

A Personal Conclusion

Sorry this one ran a little long. I needed to rant. I’m not trying to call any one on Library Twitter out here. I did all the same stuff above. I’m doing this mostly for me. We all have been fighting these open access and copyright battles for so long that it’s easy to burnout and see a potential Ally as a Foe.

Twitter ILL is a good initiative. Let’s use it as an opportunity to do outreach about open access, copyright, and other ILL services. To teach researchers about the larger picture of scholarly communication. The outreach and critical discussions around Sci-Hub have been amazing. We can have similar discussions here. Let’s also use Twitter ILL as a chance to improve our library services.


About Ryan Regier

Doing Library Stuff. Follow me on twitter at: @ryregier
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1 Response to Twitter Inter-Library Loan, Article Sharing, and Open Access

  1. Pingback: The Future of Library Access: Open Access Linking and “Hybrid” Interlibrary Loan | A Way of Happening

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