Academic Movers Q&A: Emma Molls, Championing Open Access Publishing in the Library

Emma Molls, currently the director of open research and publishing for the University of Minnesota Libraries, was named a 2021 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for their work with open research. LJ followed up with Molls to learn what they’ve been up to since then.

Emma Molls head shotEmma Molls, currently the director of open research and publishing for the University of Minnesota Libraries, was named a 2021 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for their work with open research. LJ followed up with Molls to learn what they’ve been up to since then

LJ: What have you been working on since being named a Mover & Shaker in 2021?

Emma Molls: I’ve been doing a lot of the same work, but recently I moved into my new position. Now I’m the head of a unit within the libraries that, I think, in 2021 did not exist. It’s a department that pulls together a wider collection of expertise and services dedicated to open access and open research. My work has extended to include research, data services, information management, and open access publishing, specifically through our publishing program. I now have a little bit more of a holistic approach to open research, whereas before, it was specifically focused on publishing. I’ve backed up a little bit to look at the larger picture of all the open access and open research projects we have at the university, which is significant.

What does that larger-picture view look like?

I was always plugged into the largest umbrella of open access—what that means for readers who read it and who try to access information, all the way to what that looks like for the type of subscriptions and relationships we have at the libraries with our commercial or vendor products. Then in the beginning of 2023, I zoomed into thinking about how can we impact larger changes across research, working in library publishing. It’s really about seeing the intersections and connections to other services we have in the library. I’m thinking about the research lifecycle, our relationship to researchers on campus as a library that might not necessarily have to do with the journal they’re publishing in, but might have to do with their approach to research. I’m thinking a lot more holistically about research outputs while I go back to the closer view.

Did looking at research more closely after stepping back to take in the big picture give you different insights?

That’s a great question. When I first started in libraries, we were promoting this thing called open access. We were excited advocates about that, but we didn’t quite know how to get to the point where we could say open access is the default or the norm. Ten years ago, our approach was scattershot, more [about] educating, [trying to] get faculty members or researchers to understand that by publishing in a subscription journal they’re closing off their potential audience. It was making the argument by having a specific tool in our hand.

The reason I was so excited to make the move to library publishing was because we were saying, “Here’s a path to get you to open access. You can publish with a library as your publisher. We have some shared infrastructure that we use across our library. We can leverage our expertise as metadata wranglers, as copyright experts.

Did that appeal to researchers and faculty members?

It was an underdog. People didn’t know if it was a model that would make sense. We were overshadowed by the big journal publishers out there. But the past six months have been fairly intense in that we’re noticing a real call, globally, for what’s been termed diamond open access, which is exactly what a library publisher is. We’re not charging authors or [requiring] article publication fees. Now we’re starting to see more understanding of our viability within the open access movement. That’s been incredibly exciting.

Ten years ago, in the world of open access, what we heard was, “The only path forward is to flip those dollars from subscription fees to author pay fees.” And it seemed that was all we would have. Now I think there’s a real renewed energy in thinking about how the research landscape works and what really is in the best interest of researchers and research. Even in 2021, that was certainly not the tune that was playing the loudest when we talked about open access. I’m excited because I think it solidifies library publishing. It allows us to really think about that infrastructure and imagine what is the library’s place in things like data curation, for example.

I realize you don’t have a crystal ball, but what are some possibilities for open access in the future?

I think we’re going to continue to see researchers have more autonomy in the system. We used to know that there were university presses that were staffed by subject experts, and it felt community-owned, for the good of research. Then we stepped into this very corporate model of a giant conglomerate that publishes everything, and it’s less about the research and more about the business: We can’t do something progressive with how we distribute research, because it’s going to impact our bottom line. Certainly, money is a real thing, and we have to address that. But I think we’re seeing researchers who collectively are going to have more autonomy and louder voices saying, “This is what’s really going to work for our research community, and it’s not going to be the thing we’ve been doing for the past 20 to 30 years.”

What are researchers saying about increased interest in open access and open publishing?

It’s been a lot different in the last couple of years. We used to have consultations with faculty members all the time, and there would always be a meeting where someone says, “Open access sounds like a risk to me, and I’m not in a position to take a risk. I need tenure. I need to do what’s expected for the safety and security of my job.” Some people still have those feelings. But now they’re seeing that there’s space to do something a little more creative. Or if I’m writing a research paper or entire book about a group of people, it feels ethically wrong not to have that group have access to the thing I’m writing about. And that’s not something that we as librarians are telling our faculty members. Those concerns are bubbling inside [the researchers] themselves, or coming from other meetings they attend that are pushing conversations about research ethics, about access. We have a lot of equity conversations in higher ed that we didn’t used to have. That’s true across disciplines.

If you could give advice to other librarians trying to get the open access message out, what would it be?

Leverage those faculty members who are really in the know about new policies coming out. A useful method is to say, “How can we use one relationship to grow other relationships on campus?” At the University of Minnesota, that feels like a daunting task because we have however many thousands of faculty members. But start with what you know works.

Also, focus on what you can actually do. We have a well-staffed library here, but there’s not one librarian per researcher. It becomes thinking about scale and sustainability. For me in my role, that’s publishing services, data curation, other research and data services. We think about how we take what we have and make sure we’re prepared for even the next five years.

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