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Engaging Librarians in Scholarly Communication

There are some phrases that irritate us all. For Alan Singleton, editor of Learned Publishing, that phrase is “scholarly communication.”

In his January editorial, Scholarly communication — can we have our name back? Singleton takes issue with how such a broad phrase has been co-opted to stand for the promotion of open access.

The phrase is often found in the titles of many conference talks, library websites, journal articles, road shows and resource kits developed to support the “scholarly communication librarian,” whose role is to educate faculty and advocate for change in scholarly communication.

Singleton thinks its time to take “scholarly communication” back to its broad, encompassing meaning.

‘Scholarly communication’ properly defined is so much wider, and indeed more fascinating, than this modern quasi-definition implies.

A physicist by training, with a stint as an engineering librarian and a long and varied career history in the publishing and subscription industry, Singleton doesn’t single librarians out for their co-option of the phrase. He writes:

Publishers can be equally guilty of hubris in their estimate of the extent of their involvement or importance in scholarly communication. What they are typically involved in is one part of the formal communication system.

In the early 1960s, two psychologists, William Garvey and Belver Griffith, set off to understand science communication. Their goal was to understand the causes of, and ultimately propose solutions for, the “scientific information crisis,” which was shorthand in the 1960s for a rapid increase in scientific articles, a proliferation of new journals, and an inability of researchers to stay abreast with all the developments in one’s field.

What is refreshing about their articles [1, 2], is that Garvey and Griffith understood that science communication was much more than just formal publication.  If we consider the journal article as a means of disseminating new findings, we are missing the point. Most transmission of new science takes place informally, they maintain. By the time an article is published, it is essentially old news.

Like good social scientists, Garvey and Griffith considered scholarly communication to exist within larger social, economic, and technological frameworks, and considered these dimensions to evolve with the needs of scientists. They were sympathetic to librarians, who they saw as an indispensable component in helping to mediate formal communication with other scientists through the published record. But the relationship stopped there:  Scientists didn’t need to be educated by their librarians about scholarly communication.

During the mid-1990’s — the infamous dot-com bubble — it became very unfashionable to use the terms “library” and “librarian.” Library schools began re-branding themselves as “I-schools” and a whole host of other names lacking the unfashionable “L-word” came into vogue, like “Knowledge Centers”, “Learning Resource Centers”, “Information Commons” and “Collaborative Technology Spaces”.

In 1995, my first library job was “Information Technology Specialist,” a title I later requested to be changed to “Instruction Librarian,” as the latter didn’t require me five minutes of explanation to describe what I did. Many of my colleagues who were called “Metadata Specialists”  still refered to themselves as catalogers.

Shortly thereafter, my library school, which added “Information Science” to its name in the 1980s, removed the word “Library” from its program.  They are now a breed of hybrid schools that include related disciplines like Journalism and Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Computer Science, and Continuing Adult Education.

While the etymology of “library” derives from a place to store books and “librarian” as the caretaker for those books,  I can understand how librarians are as keen about transforming their image. Libraries today are much more than just storage buildings for books.

Yet, “Scholarly communication” is neither place nor person-centric. It describes an entire system, of which libraries and publishers play limited –albeit important– roles within the formal sphere of academic communication. Understanding that role, and its relationship with other functional roles (e.g. authors, readers, editors, publishers, research foundations, academic societies, department heads, provosts, etc.), provides us with a more balanced–and less egocentric– view of the entire scholarly communication system.

In the short-term, co-opting an important-sounding concept for a very narrow purpose improves one’s legitimacy. In the long-run, however, it can be damaging, as the intended audience (faculty members) become keen on how the phrase is being used and its intended message. The conspicuous absence of faculty at these scholarly communication workshops may be indicative that it is time to rethink one’s strategy. It may be time to give “scholarly communication” back.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


7 Thoughts on "Scholarly Communication — Can We Have Our Name Back?"

Let’s hear it for humility!

It’s important for publishers to understand that the most important way that scholars communicate is by talking to each other, and the most important role of a scholar’s article is to be talked about.

Phil’s case, or rather Alan Singleton’s case, seems to be built on one event and one example. It’s not my impression that ‘scholarly communication’ has become a synonym for open access, although this association might be explained simply by OA being the latest twist invigorating the wider theme of scholarly communication.

To look at this from another angle, what is damaging among faculty is to co-opt the term in the cause of the scholarly communication ‘crisis’, or the serials crisis to give this its shorter and more familiar name, to motivate the cause of OA.

I’m mostly an outsider to the library sciences and the publishing industry, so I can only speak as to what is happening in the biological and geological sciences. But out here, at least, I have never made the connection between “scholarly communication” and “open access”. In fact, I find use of the word “scholarly” so rare in my field that the term is a red flag when I run across it.

Surely there is a more nuanced understanding of the term “scholarly communication” within libraries (or presses) than this argument would suggest. I certainly have not encountered such a narrow purchase on the term within my work at the California Digital Library, where we routinely engage in efforts to support the “lifecycle” of scholarly communication. This lifecycle approach assumes a fundamental diversity of content and a wealth of research and dissemination practices. The goal is not to reduce complexity but to enable it to flourish – within practical and scalable limits, of course!

ALPSP publishes Learned Publishing in a toll-access (subscription) journal, automatically limiting the discussion. Ever heard of the serials crisis brought on by publisher desire to commodify and exponentially profit from commercial scholarly publishing? He starts out with the premise “scant chance” and there is a reason. Now taxpayer access is on the rise, and moving publicly financed scholarship into public view was an uphill battle. Non-public scholarly communication is private communication..regardless of what you want to call it.

Since when is scholarly communications just about open access for the library community? Consider ARL’s scholarly communications workshop. There’s coverage of much more than open access or the journals pricing crisis. Other topics do consider the role of faculty and the publishers, such as advocacy, working with faculty on author rights, working with the university press, developing copyright policies, etc. Most academic library scholarly communication websites or specialists deal with all these issues – or should.

Both terms can sometimes be problematic to faculty, because especially non-native speakers do not always know what you mean, and if you are a non-native speaker yourself (which I am), it is not always easy to explain such semantic subtleties to, say, a trilingual group of editors. In the discussions on OA and OER (and related topics), I think faculty could (and should) be more involved, since they perform various roles in the information value chain, and should be the ones that eventually benefit most from developments that foster their disciplines. Which brings me to the following: I personally prefer using ‘scholarly information’ over ‘scholarly communication’, since the latter is something that academics generally do between themselves (as stated in previous reactions). But perhaps this combination of terms also bears strange connotations?

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