Like most members of my profession, I voted to remain in the European Union and I’m as concerned as everyone else about the implications of Brexit for higher education. However, the campaign did lead me to reflect upon an earlier period in my career, nine years ago to be precise, when I was, briefly, involved in an EU-funded library project.

In 2006, I started work at UCL as their Subject Librarian for Economics and Political Science. This happened to coincide with the launch of a project called Network of European Economists Online (NEEO), which was carried out under the auspices of Nereus, a consortium of European social sciences libraries of which UCL is a member. It was co-funded as part of the European Union’’s eContentplus programme, which aimed to “make digital content in Europe “more accessible, usable and exploitable””. The overall budget for eContentplus was €149 million. NEEO cost about €2 million, of which half came from the partner libraries.

Simply put, the objective of the project was to create a multilingual website called ‘Economists Online’ which would be able to cross-search and link to academic papers held in each library’s institutional repository. In this way, a powerful new resource would be created which allowed people to access economics research from some of Europe’s most prestigious universities. As such, it can be seen as part of the broader ‘open access’ movement which argues that academic articles should be made freely available to other researchers and the public, and not hidden behind journal paywalls.

As part of my new role at UCL, I found that I was to be a ‘work package’ leader, responsible for the communications and marketing of NEEO and Economists Online. This entailed attending several pre-launch, kick-off and then project meetings throughout 2007, which meant that I travelled, in the space of a few months, to cities such as Vienna, Madrid and Prague. Each one was attended by forty of fifty other Euro-librarians. Some were the Directors of very large university libraries, evidently big players on the continental open access scene; others attendees were institutional repository managers or subject librarians like me. Colleagues from UCL accompanied me and library staff from LSE, Oxford and Warwick were also fixtures on these jaunts. These gatherings, spread over two or three days, would typically include some time for sightseeing, a visit to the host’s library and an often boozy meal in the evening.

Not that I was complaining! I was being given the opportunity to visit places I’d not been to before and, although I became jaded by them surprisingly quickly, initially each trip was very enjoyable.

I did, though, have some misgivings. For a start, the carbon footprint of each get-together was hard to ignore. We all flew in and out of our destinations each time. If you multiplied the number of attendees with the frequency of these meetings, it amounted to an eye-watering total of individual flights. At no point was the option of Skype conferences considered.

However, I was more troubled by the gap, painfully evident, between the hopes of my fellow librarians, who would speak of an impending “revolution in scholarly communications”, and the attitude of academics, who seemed, with the odd exception, rather unmoved by the whole thing. The success of Economists Online hinged entirely on enough of them depositing their work in their university’s repository; without that critical mass, it would never become a resource that people used. But, in fact, economists already had their own open archive of articles called RePEc. It looked rather basic and lacked some of the features that librarians love, but it seemed to work well enough. Why, they might wonder, did they need anything else?

Early on, I was tasked with meeting the head of the UCL Economics department and his deputy and persuading them that Economists Online was really something they should contribute to. This was at the height of their discipline’s prestige, just before the crash of 2008. They received my pitch politely, but without any evident emotion, until I mentioned, by chance and in passing, that LSE researchers were fully on board with it. And that was all it took! Suddenly they exclaimed that, of course, they must be involved too! It taught me a useful lesson about influencing academic colleagues but it did not augur so well for the future of the project. From what I could gather, the situation was not much different elsewhere.

This academic indifference began to assume, at least for me, the proportions of an elephant in the room.  However, as a junior member of the team, it seemed impossible to articulate my concerns. After all, we’d promised “50,000 journal articles, a third full text” and, anyway, we could hardly hand all the money back. We simply had to hope that economists would come round eventually.

My involvement with NEEO lasted only about a year as, in early 2008, I took a job as a library manager at the University of East London. However, I would often note jealously the location of the latest project meeting (Geneva sounded nice) and followed its progress from afar.

Economists Online was eventually launched in 2010 but no records were added after 2012. It was discontinued in 2013 due to “changes in the information landscape”. Until recently, Economists Online retained a rather melancholy presence on the internet, like an abandoned house, although it is now closed down completely. The NEEO site itself seems to have been taken over by spammers. RePEc is still going.

On an EU web page, a statement by Dr Paul Ayris, Director of UCL Library Services, argues that the project was successful since it led to more material being made available online, boosted repository development and enabled the sharing of expertise. All of that is true, but I think it is reasonable to say that, on its own terms, NEEO was a failure. It failed in the end because the librarians driving the project were unable to to persuade enough academics that they should deposit papers in their institutional repository.

There is no shame in this failure and the project was not without any value. I understand how public money is distributed and that not all undertakings funded will be a total success. It is certain that many of the individuals and organisations involved in the project learned valuable lessons and made good contacts for the future. From a personal point of view, it was an interesting experience which I am grateful to have had.

I know this. But then I think back to that extra slice of cream cake washed down by another glass wine in that lovely Prague restaurant, and I can’t help wondering what the voters of Sunderland would have made of it all.

Dessert by Jirka Matousek on Flickr.

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