Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 109: Access to Knowledge for Community Scholars — with Heather De Forest

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Am Johal, Heather De Forest

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Fiorella Pinillos  0:06 
Hola, mi nombre es Fiorella Pinillos, y este es Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded in the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people's. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Heather De Forest, a librarian at Simon Fraser University. They discuss Heather's work with a Community Scholars Program, which provides staff of charitable and nonprofit organizations in BC with access to academic research and knowledge and go in depth about the collective power of academic libraries within the open access movement. Que lo disfrutan.

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Am Johal  0:53 
Hi there. Welcome to Below the Radar. We are joined today by Heather De Forest, the Community Scholars Librarian at Simon Fraser University. Welcome, Heather.

Heather De Forest  1:05 
Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

Am Johal  1:07 
Yeah. Heather, I'm wondering if we can just begin by, why don't you introduce yourself a little bit. You know, besides coming in to do this work at SFU, how did you get into librarianship?

Heather De Forest  1:19 
Oh, sure. Thanks. That is a question for which I think there's always a little bit of a different answer every time I'm asked about it, I think the origin story today. So before becoming a librarian, I was working in Whitehorse at an independent bookstore there. And I was also working at Yukon College teaching in their adult basic education program at that time. And at the bookstore, I had contact with a number of librarians working in Whitehorse and in the communities also, and became interested in librarianship as a direction for myself to go.

Am Johal  1:57 
Yeah and at SFU, so you're involved in running the Community Scholars Program and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what that is, and how long it's been going for, and kind of where the program originated from?

Heather De Forest  2:12 
Sure. Yeah. So it originated with a community identified need for people who work in nonprofits to have access to scholarly publications. Back in 2016, we were approached by someone named Graham Dover who was working at that time for Mindset Social Innovation Foundation. And he had graduated from the PhD Program at the Beedie School of Business at SFU. And found like so many of our graduates do that, after some time, his library access dissipated, disappeared. And this was not a new story to us, our response typically had been, well, you're welcome to come into the physical library and use our resources on campus. But through conversation between him and our Dean of Libraries, Gwen Bird, they came to agree to create a program that would go beyond that sort of cumbersome invitation to, you know, stop what you're doing, pack yourself up, walk down the street, or, you know, get on the bus to access an academic library for the kind of information that we provide. So through a bit of a pilot period, we grew to now have 500 Community Scholars participating in this program, and we have seven major academic publishers who have agreed to participate in it. And we are now five BC Universities strong in terms of librarians providing support to our Community Scholars.

Am Johal  3:40 
Now, I guess the value of being able to remotely access peer reviewed journals that are traditionally behind paywalls, for people doing a certain type of community oriented research, that would be a really valuable asset to have. But I guess it brings up sort of questions around the nature of libraries today, but also sort of the economics of publishing and academic publishing in general, in terms of paywalls, and the economics behind them as well. And just wondering, if you could share some of your perspective on the nature of sort of free access to information and how that's changed over time, and particularly for communities that are outside of the university to be able to access those spaces. If the Community Scholars program didn't exist, there are these barriers in place and I'm wondering sort of, you know, where they come from, or what are the challenges coming in from, the sides that are doing publishing?

Heather De Forest  4:39 
Yeah, lots to talk about with respect to that. So I mean, there's a long history of scholarly publishing that made a certain economic sense early on to be paying subscriptions to academic journals to cover publication costs, distribution costs and that sort of thing. But as we've moved into the digital realm, many of those costs are no longer sort of real costs, I guess. And yet, there's still the profit motive of some of these big publishers to be able to kind of, I consider it sort of an enclosure of a public good, the knowledge that's produced in institutions, being enclosed by private entities, and then sold back to academic libraries, or the occasional other operator who can afford some of these prices. And journal subscriptions can get up into the 10s of 1000s of dollars per year. And certainly, many people will have had the experience of trying to access individual articles, and facing that paywall of, you know, $50, or somewhere around that neighborhood in terms of a cost, which is just not possible for a lot of nonprofit organizations. Particularly when I think sometimes the nature of research is that you're not quite sure if you need the article or not. So you know, paying $50, to find out yeah, that didn't really further any of my aims here, is really challenging. So you very kindly said that, you know, without the Community Scholars Program, there's barriers, but still, with the Community Scholars Program, there are additional barriers to being able to both access and use these publications. So you know, we think that we are doing a good job with removing that paywall and financial barrier. But there's still a lot of things remaining, including, I think one of the big pressures, is time. Time to be able to do the research that's required to sort of sift through the information that is available through the program or otherwise. There's also capacity, the capacity to use the research, if it's within organizations, workflows, and mandates and facilities to be able to do evidence based program development, or how they incorporate the research into what they're doing. I think it's really important also to talk about kind of an affective barrier to using research. So there is a real emotional component, I think, to approaching not just a database, and kind of the frustration that you might encounter with trying to put in the right words and have it spit out what you're expecting to see, but also to approaching scholarship in general, sometimes. So with personal or sort of social historical experiences with connecting to research. There's sometimes distrust of what's there, there's sometimes a feeling of frustration at the way that knowledge is communicated in this sort of specialized scholarly format. So I think those are some of the things that interfere a little bit here.

Am Johal  7:42 
In terms of sort of the buying power of libraries, sort of their collective power as sort of the main purchasers of journal access. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on how that buying power could be utilized to make some of these journals and other publications more accessible?

Heather De Forest  8:03 
Oh, well, that's interesting. So, there's a long legacy within academic libraries of supporting the open access movement. So SFU has a long and deep connection to the Public Knowledge Project, which John Willinsky is the founder of. And so open access publishing, of course, is publishing where there is no sort of end use or charge to accessing these publications and, you know, also, no sort of intermediary library cost to subscribing on behalf of other users also. So in terms of purchasing power, there has, you know, some of our budget goes towards things like supporting article processing charges for individual scholars who want to publish open access, there is still a cost involved in creating open access publications. But in one model of that publishing, that cost is borne by the producers of the knowledge rather than the users of the knowledge. So that's one thing. Now, I don't have all of the details on it. But there have also been major recent cases of large academic library systems opting out of some of the big deal publishing bundles. So just to back it up a little bit. Some journals are subscribed to sort of on a journal by journal basis, and others come kind of bundled as part of what we call a big deal. So that publishers are kind of putting together a lot of their products into one big package that is then bought sort of wholesale, kind of like cable TV bundling, I guess. So a number of major systems have opted out of some of the big deals in response to inflated journal prices, which go up kind of year, over year, over year. We have people within the library who are much better positioned to talk about some of this, you know, they could tell you who those libraries are and you know, the dollar value and all that kind of thing at the drop of the hat.

Am Johal  10:00 
Yeah, but I did generally see there's obviously conversations going on around the kind of economics of all of this and how they play out and the role of purchasing power, particularly of post secondary institutions to help maybe shape some of that policy. I'm wondering around the Community Scholars Program, what are the types of people and organizations that are accessing it right now. I know you probably won't be able to give some examples for privacy reasons but there might be some that you can.

Heather De Forest  10:28 
Yeah. Well, I could give you general categories of kind of user groups. So membership or participation in the Community Scholars Program is by the individual rather than the organization. And so when it comes to individuals, we have recent graduates, long ago, graduates, non graduates, and CEOs or rather EDS, or researchers, all kinds of different positions within organizations. And in terms of who the organizations are, and the spaces that they're working in, it's a really diverse bunch. There are big organizations and small organizations, and they're working in things like social service provision, environmental considerations, research and education type activities, it really runs the gamut. So I'm thinking a little bit about organizations that provide support to seniors, this has been on my mind a lot during the pandemic, certainly the work that they're doing and how they've had to pivot. We have a number of very active community inclusion, community living organizations, a lot of invasive species organizations, there are people that are working on the health of communities, lots of stuff around substance use. These are the ones that are coming to my mind just at the moment, but there's many, many, many different organizations doing different things.

Am Johal  11:50 
And if people wanted to approach you to get access to the Community Scholars Program, what's the process by which people can get access and be approved through the process?

Heather De Forest  12:01 
Yeah, well, if there are folks that are working in nonprofit, or charities registered in BC, who would like to sign up for this, if they have a relationship already with a local university library, so our participating organizations right now are Vancouver Island University, UNBC, Kwantlen Polytechnic University just recently joined us, and UBC. So if there's an existing relationship, it would be great to go in through the librarian at that institution, or SFU, of course, and otherwise, they can contact me directly, and we can talk. 

Am Johal  12:37 
Great. Heather, is there anything else you wanted to add about the program? I know, of course, the location for this program, you'll be based out of 312 Main, but of course, the pandemic has complicated that a little bit. But wondering if there's anything you wanted to add about the program that people should be aware of?

Heather De Forest  12:55 
Sure. Yeah, there is, I think. I think what I would like to talk about is a little bit about how the Community Scholars are using the access that they have and what they're doing with their access to research and speaking in general terms. So having access to scholarly research allows kind of a leveling of the playing field. So when Community Scholars are in conversation with people working in government, or in academia, or other organizations that might be larger and have their own access to some of these publications, it allows them to kind of come to those conversations with the same kind of background and what's being done academically in that area. And we have heard from Community Scholars that they're using the research that they have to shape policy, and for advocacy, to develop programs, and also to make cases when they're looking for funding for their programs too, and also for ongoing professional development. And I think it's really interesting to consider that I think sometimes in academia, we're thinking about people in these organizations as being sort of the ultimate end user of the knowledge that's coming out. And in fact, in many cases, those Community Scholars are acting as knowledge mobilizers, or knowledge brokers to spread the message of what's happening in university research and diffuse it out into the community through the programming that they do, or through presentations that they give. So that's one thing that I think is really important to think about is sort of what kind of impact having access to this kind of work can do. And then I also wanted to talk a little bit about some of the other aspects of the program. So the marquee feature of the Community Scholars Program is this access, so this sort of lets people through this paywall, but we're also really interested in other ways that the program can support the needs of the community scholars and the work that they're doing. So some things that come to mind are needs for other kinds of information. So we've heard a lot about folks wanting to get their hands on open data or open statistics and navigating through how to do that. Also different needs around records management, what to do with the material, the records that their organizations generate, how to manage that, whether that's digitally or sort of paper archival type stuff. And then also during the pandemic, this is not happening quite so much, but also, we have the opportunity to extend some of the space facilities that we have to support community organizations. And one thing that has been really generative, I think, is also the ability to connect Community Scholars one to another, and to kind of use the network potential of the program. So it's been really rewarding. We've had reading groups that we call journal clubs, where we're taking some of the scholarship that we have as a jumping off point and using that as a basis to have conversations with groups that are doing similar work across the province, and harnessing the knowledge that they have from their experience or the research that they've done and putting that into conversation with one another and the academic research. So that, you know, it's not always about privileging academic knowledge, but seeing how it sits alongside other kinds of knowledge.

Am Johal  16:14 
You know, I can imagine for anyone who's a community organizer in the province, working in an area, particularly around policy change, having access to these journal articles is really useful in making the case for policy change, or using examples from other jurisdictions to shape policy here in documents. I'm wondering also what libraries were 20 or 30 years ago, it's just transforming so much in terms of be they public libraries, or academic libraries in terms of what people are asking for, a space that holds books and other forms of knowledge, and places and sights. And this is just one more example of a number of, sort of changes happening across the library system. I'm wondering if you can just reflect a little bit on how you see the changing nature of libraries in general, and particularly academic libraries in terms of the direction they're going to open up their doors to broader publics?

Heather De Forest  17:11 
Yeah. Yeah, I think, you know, there's this movement away from just thinking about access and thinking more towards inclusion. So I think that's very encouraging. I think that we're seeing more of a movement away from the supremacy of textual knowledge and written word, which is also exciting. In the academic library, of course, we've moved from the idea of accessing, certainly from storing and then providing access to the end products of research to thinking more about how libraries can partner in all parts of the research creation cycle. So whether that is, you know, data collection, or partnering on some of the tools of research, analysis, and then also thinking about knowledge mobilization, as well. And I heard a public librarian in the last year or so talking about the kind of overarching goal of public libraries being as a place where people can go to kind of take the next step into creating the change that they want to make. So that really moves it quite away from kind of a repository of objects and into kind of a transformative space and I love thinking about that. I really am excited about some of the activities within academic libraries that help people see themselves as producers of knowledge and not just consumers of knowledge. And then thinking about things like open publishing. So the public knowledge project that I mentioned, has a suite of tools for open monograph publishing and open journal publishing. And then I'm even thinking about things like Wikipedia editing, and how many really interesting faculty members are using the potential for turning assignments into things where the knowledge generated by their students is actually having a contributive effect on the body of knowledge that's more publicly accessible. Yeah.

Am Johal  19:08 
Oh, that's great. Heather, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Heather De Forest  19:13 
Thank you very much for having me.

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Fiorella Pinillos  19:20 
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Heather De Forest. You can find out more about the Community Scholars Program and other open access initiatives in the show notes of this episode. Thanks again for listening and we'll see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
March 09, 2021

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