Barbara Opar and Barret Havens, Column Editors

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) is one of the organizations promoting Open Access Week, which takes place from October 20th through October 26th this year. They want us to be excited about having free and unfettered access to articles from thousands of scholarly periodicals. And I am! Who, among architecture librarians and architecture faculty wouldn’t be? But I’m also overwhelmed, because as librarians and faculty, it is our job to make sure that we’re guiding students to quality information (and using quality information ourselves!). And, though by most definitions, open access means online access to scholarly research, it isn’t always easy to determine whether a free online periodical is scholarly. This problem is compounded by the sheer volume of free periodicals out there, some of which would like to be perceived as scholarly, yet are not scholarly at all.

You may have encountered that sheer volume of periodicals, including some unfamiliar or questionable titles, as you have navigated the online resources of your academic library (or even mine). Even though we have the best of intentions, librarians are partly to blame for this. In order to provide access to as many periodicals as possible, some of us have added packages of hundreds or even thousands of freely accessible online journals to our holdings so that they will show up in our indexes, our library catalogs, and even our databases via a link resolver when full text articles aren’t available through the native interface of the database itself (the latter case includes The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, which doesn’t include full text–though, according to the Avery Library website, they are investigating the possibility of doing so in the future).

Among those massive packages of freely accessible journals that many academic libraries have incorporated into their holdings is the Directory of Open Access journals, which has its own criteria for vetting journals for reliability and making the somewhat subjective judgment of what is “scholarly.” However, some of the packages of journals that libraries have incorporated into their holdings aren’t associated with any organization that exercises strict oversight over quality control. They are simply packages that Serials Solutions or other companies that a library contracts with in order to manage access to online periodicals have made available.

Take, for instance, the package, Freely Accessible Arts & Humanities Journals, which is comprised of 1,262 periodicals currently. Included in that package are the titles Conservation Perspectives, which is published by The Getty, and Metropolis (which, though it is not a scholarly journal, is one that many of us would recommend for use by our students). But if a library adds the complete package Freely Accessible Arts & Humanities Journals to its holdings, along with quality publications like Conservation Perspectives and Metropolis, they will have added some publications that many of us might think twice about recommending to our students. For instance, Art Bin.

Unlike the websites of most scholarly publications, the Art Bin website offers no information assuring readers that it is affiliated with a university or a scholarly or professional organization. Nor is there any reference to a peer-review process or editorial criteria. Some articles in Art Bin do discuss art, but many cover random topics unrelated to fine arts such as the use of fluoride and mercury in dentistry or the history of distance learning (with no mention of its ramifications for the arts or architecture-related disciplines). Many librarians use Ulrich’s International Serials Directory to verify whether a publication is scholarly and/or peer-reviewed. However, Ulrich’s designates Art Bin as an “academic/scholarly” publication even though it seems to fall quite short of deserving that designation. Furthermore, Ulrich’s lists The Journal of Natural Pharmaceuticals as both “refereed” and “academic/scholarly.” Yet, that publication was one of many journals identified by a sting operation (“Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”) for agreeing to publish the results of a bogus and quite far-fetched cancer study. So I have to take Ulrich’s recommendations with a grain of salt.

So, though all we intended to do is provide access to lots of high quality free and/or open access publications such as Metropolis and Conservation Perspectives, some libraries, mine included, have opened a Pandora’s box. In many fields, there are additional tools, beyond Ulrich’s, for judging the quality of publications. The Social Sciences Citation Index, for example, identifies high impact social science publications. There is no such resource in our subject discipline to help us to determine which among the hundreds of free online periodicals are scholarly and which are just free junk.

One solution to this problem would be simply to not enable access to these packages of journals. But since many of the journals in these packages are truly open access (scholarly and perpetually free), and even some of those that don’t qualify as open access are still high-quality, that would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Another solution would be to enable access to only those individual titles that the architecture librarian has determined to be reliable (Serials Solutions provides the option to choose journals from these packages title-by-title). But given the sheer volume of periodicals to investigate, this would be a full time job and many of us are spread too thin to accomplish this. Furthermore, new titles are being added to packages like Freely Accessible Arts & Humanities Journals on a monthly basis so the process of vetting the titles included in these packages would be ongoing.

Yet, if we don’t do the work of hand selecting titles from these freely available packages, it seems like the responsible thing to do would be to give our own students a “buyer beware” warning about the periodicals that their academic libraries have made accessible.  That just doesn’t seem right, does it? If we do decide to take on the task of vetting these titles, a lot of work must be done. This job is too big for a librarian. It is probably too big for any single group of librarians. It is likely to require collaboration between AASL and other relevant groups including the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS). Are there other solutions I haven’t considered? Has your school developed a way to deal with this challenge? Please let us know.

Barret Havens, Outreach and architecture subject specialist librarian, Woodbury University