Many small academic libraries across Canada and the United States have developed Open Access subject guides for their websites in order to educate patrons about OA and related scholarly communication issues such as copyright. However, research on how undergraduate students use subject guides largely points to the trend that they actually don’t use them—so why bother with making an OA subject guide? Who is using it?

What is a subject guide?

Subject guides — also referred to as pathfinders, LibGuides, or research guides — typically contain bibliographic information on resources important to a particular discipline. Unlike a bibliography, however, they are often not comprehensive and usually just cover the basics required for understanding a particular discipline. Subject guides began being used by patrons in libraries around the 1970s and, since then, have become a staple for most academic libraries covering a wide variety of disciplines. These tools are very useful to librarians, who can refer to them in reference encounters and during library training sessions and can also experience career benefits from authoring a subject guide themselves.

Why your Open Access subject guides are not used by undergrads

It is appears that subject guides have become more valued by librarians than by the students they are intended for. While often a valuable resource for students to use for beginning research, completing assignments, and becoming familiar with a new discipline, most students don’t actually use subject guides. Some of the biggest barriers to students using subject guides include the fact that they often don’t know they exist or that they generally prefer to use tools such as Google to find information for their coursework. For students who do use subject guides, they are often only looking for a specific resource rather than browsing for general information.

This poses some concerns for academic libraries developing subject guides designed to educate patrons on Open Access and other issues relating to scholarly communication. Undergraduate students are highly motivated by coursework when it comes to accessing library materials — and so if students are barely using subject guides tailored to helping them with their assignments, can we really expect them to browse an OA subject guide seemingly without a specific purpose?

Like discipline-based subject guides, I think undergraduate students need to be introduced to an OA subject guide through a library instruction session or reference encounter in order to become aware that it exists. However, it seems unlikely that a student will need to use an OA subject guide unless their instructor specifically requires they use OA resources to complete an assignment or they are an alumnus who no longer has access to your institutional database subscription.

Who needs Open Access subject guides?

I’ve discussed the importance of applying Open Access to specific patron experiences and needs before, and this rule still applies when developing subject guides. While undergraduate students might not have a specific need for understanding Open Access other than to support it as an initiative, graduate students and faculty who are publishing research have a pressing need for understanding Open Access for the following reasons:

  • They need to understand their rights as authors when publishing their research.
  • They need to be able to evaluate Open Access publishers in order to determine if they are legitimate or a scam.
  • They need to understand any obligations to their institution and funders to comply with Open Access publishing requirements.

This final point is increasingly important as more universities are developing institutional repositories and more funders are requiring that research be published in an Open Access format. Make sure your Open Access subject guide has information on the requirements for your institution as well as any major funders (i.e. the Tri-Council Agencies in Canada).

Reaching the right patrons with your Open Access subject guide

Graduate student and faculty use of subject guides is not an area which has been heavily researched in library science. However, I can only assume that similar barriers exist for these populations using subject guides as with undergraduate students: if they don’t know that an Open Access subject guide exists, they also won’t know it is a useful reference tool for understanding how OA impacts their research and publishing activities.

Some tips:

  • Place your Open Access subject guide in a high-traffic area of your library’s website.
  • Perform outreach to faculty to ensure they are aware of the subject guide and can refer to it in their supervision of graduate research.
  • Design a brief Open Access information session (including reference to your subject guide) and find opportunities in graduate student orientations, classes, or workshops to deliver it.

Examples of Open Access subject guides from small academic libraries

Claremont McKenna College – Claremont, CA

Claremont Colleges Library has several guides for copyright resources, information on Open Access publishing, Open Access resources, and open resources organized by subject. The information in these guides is quite good, and the navigational tabs are also relatively easy to understand. This is important, as having poor or difficult-to-understand navigation is a common complaint for subject guides in general.

Mount Allison University – Sackville, New Brunswick

Mount Allison University’s Open Access library guide provides information on Open Access in general, OA collections, institutional repositories, copyright and author rights, grant-related policies, and OA journal evaluation. The section on evaluating OA journals, in particular, is valuable and unique among Open Access subject guides.

Mount Saint Vincent University – Halifax, Nova Scotia

Mount Sain’t Vincent University’s Open Access subject guide includes information on OA publications, funding agencies, OA and the academy (including information on predatory OA publishers), public domain in Canada, how to support OA, as well as additional information and videos on OA. I am really glad to see information and warnings about predatory publishers in this guide to help remind graduate students eager to publish that not all Open Access journals are benevolent.

Pacific University – Forest Grove, OR

While not as comprehensive as the other examples, Pacific University’s guide to Open Access keeps its information simple and to-the-point — making it easy to quickly browse and understand. It includes additional information on faculty resolutions in support of Open Access, funder mandates, as well as events listings for upcoming workshops. Because it is nested in with other information about scholarly communication, visitors can learn more about their rights as authors generally — not just in the context of Open Access journals — as well as Pacific University’s institutional repository Common Knowledge. One could argue that having the OA guide located in the library services section of the website could make it difficult to find — but I don’t think it is any different than having it located with the subject guides. Frankly, neither of these locations make perfect sense to me for what their intended uses are.

So, should you create an Open Access subject guide?

It is great that so many institutions have a permanent home for information on Open Access on their library website. I would encourage anyone thinking of creating an OA subject guide to consider if a “subject guide” is really the format that works best for their patrons — or is it just what everyone else is doing?

The most important thing to remember is that you can’t just create an OA subject guide and hope patrons will visit it. Remember to incorporate it in with other forms of outreach in order to guide the patrons who need it (i.e. graduate students and faculty members) to it. This also includes integrating Open Access resources throughout your library website and catalogue, rather than simply dumping them all in the subject guide alone — which I will be talking about in my next post.


Sources / Further Reading:

Featured image by UBC Library Communications via Flickr Creative Commons.

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