SPARC 2014: A Transformative Experience

This post is part of a series on highlights and key takeaways from the 2016 SPARC MORE Meeting.

For Erin McKiernan and Josh Bolick, being among a passionate group of open agenda advocates at SPARC 2014 in Kansas City was an inspiring experience. Both returned to the SPARC MORE Conference this year in San Antonio and shared how that first conference has impacted their work and future career plans, and shared their stories with us:

Josh Bolick, scholarly communication librarian, Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright, Watson Library, University of Kansas.

When Bolick attended SPARC’s 2014 meeting, he had recently finished his master’s in library science and was working at Florida State University. He was eager to learn more about free access to research, which was a relatively new concept to him. “SPARC was the community I wanted to engage with professionally, and grow,” said Bolick. “Scholarly communication is the thing that I find motivating and interesting.”

At the conference, Bolick noted he was on a hardcore networking mission, introducing himself to others and engaging with the many participants he had met via email later. “I think of SPARC 2014 as when I ‘arrived’,” said Bolick. “It was formative. I knew that all those people I met were available to me to ask questions. Instead of trying to figure it out on my own, I could reach out to these incredibly accomplished people and incorporate that feedback into shaping our own programs.”

Hearing the stories of researchers, such as McKiernan, who embraced Open Access empowered Bolick and others to return to their universities and share their commitment. “It sets an example that these things are possible – to publish in an open manner and be successful in their career,” he said. “A lot of researchers don’t know that’s possible.”

In August, Bolick accepted a new job at the University of Kansas (KU), the first campus in the country to adopt an open-access policy. Bolick has been active helping to host events during Open Access Week and encouraged KU to join the Open Textbook Network. To engage undergraduates in the conversation about open educational resources, Bolick put out a giant piece of paper at the library and invited students to write down how the high cost of textbooks impacted them. Many comments were about how students had dropped classes or decided not to take certain classes to avoid the expenses of books.

“It confirmed national trends at the local level,” said Bolick. “We are able to show faculty that this is not an abstract problem. It’s a real problem that is happening right here, and influencing student success and retention.”

Bolick says being part of SPARC 2014 helped him grow in his career, defining how he views open and works with researchers on campus to promote it.

Erin McKiernan, professor in the Department of Physics, Biomedical Physics Program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

McKiernan came to the SPARC meeting in 2014 filling in for a colleague who couldn’t make it at the last minute. The turn of events introduced her to SPARC and to professionals who validated her efforts to work in the open as a researcher.

Active on Twitter and blogging, McKiernan had been writing about Open Access since 2012. Talking about open issues with colleagues in her discipline or in the research community, McKiernan said she doesn’t get the same level of support as she felt at the SPARC conference.

“I got this confirmation that what I was thinking was right and there were people really needing me to stick up for this and excited to hear researchers were getting engaged with these topics,” she recalled. “I went home feeling, ‘Yes, I’m doing the right thing, I’m thinking the right way. Not only that, there is his huge support network that I had no idea knew existed….I thought, ‘I’m not crazy.’ That makes a big difference. All of us walked away with this energy.”

McKiernan said connecting with SPARC and attending subsequent OpenCon meetings have built up her networks, and provided community calls and Liservs to help exchange advice about establishing repositories and OA policies. “That momentum you initiate at the meetings gets sustained throughout the whole year. That’s something unique you don’t see at other conferences,” she said.

At the 2014 conference, McKiernan publicly shared her pledge to only publish in open-access journals and provide reviews for publications that were open. The announcement generated lots of inquires and led to setting up Why Open Research and FAQ resources explaining how to operate as a research in the open space.

“As more researchers decide to take that first step and see success, we will start building on that,” she said. “It’s encouraging to see researchers are generally reacting positively to the pledge.”

Presenting at SPARC 2014 was a major professional stepping stone for McKiernan that raised her visibility and led to many invitations for speaking engagements.

“I love going to these meetings because I love having these conversations. I don’t think any of that would have happened had I not accidently ended up here,” said McKiernan. “It all started here with the SPARC meeting, and it grew out of that.”

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