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A few years ago I was attending a library conference where, at the end of one of the concurrent sessions, an impromptu unconference sprang up on the evolving role of librarians. At the time, I had only recently become aware that some librarians were talking about moving into publishing themselves. When I received a text message asking me if I’d like to participate in the discussion, I went along, eager to learn a new perspective.

The discussion was good, but some of the talk seemed to me more concerned with disrupting commercial publishers than catering to specific scholarly communication needs. I remember being a little disappointed when one librarian expressed the view that in the age of the internet, publishing should be easy and shouldn’t cost a lot of money. After all, they reasoned, if you put an article up on wordpress, that’s publishing. Of course, publishers do more than simply putting an article on the web, even if some of those activities are a function of publishing being a competitive business (for example, maintaining a publisher brand), rather than being necessary for scholarly communication itself.

I had been half expecting the librarian publisher movement to fizzle out, or perhaps reduce in scope to just creating archives of grey literature and PhD dissertations for use as a campus resource. Recently however, a number of conversations with librarians have caused me to take another look at the role of librarians as publishers.

Supporting small print-based publishers and bringing them into the digital age

In 2011, the Association for Research Libraries (ARL)  commissioned a report by October Ivans and Judy Luther of Informed Strategies to discuss the role of library publishers in supporting small print-based journals and bringing them into the digital age. In the report, the authors contend that libraries are well placed to support niche scholarship through endowment-funded publishing programs. They also point to the pressure that libraries are under to reduce print subscriptions and cater to patron preferences for electronic access. They explored the criteria by which library publishers should select candidate journals, and avoid those which really have no supporting community. The report goes on to describe the requirements for a successful publishing program, including choice of platform, search engine optimization and the development of lightweight workflows.

The ARL report noted that at that time, librarian publishing was still in its early stages, describing the field as ‘evolutionary’. Although two-thirds of ARLs were offering some form of publisher services, many of the programs were exploratory. As the authors state: [the] level of funding, and the experience of the staff determine the extent of services offered. Some programs were as simple as a PDF hosting service.

The Evolving Landscape and Some Misconceptions

Four years later the second edition of the Library Publishing Directory (2015), edited by Sarah Lippincott, tells a very different story. The directory is a non-exhaustive collection of 124 case studies of library publishing programs (111 based inside the US and Canada). According to Lippincott’s analysis, around 90% of library publishers work in collaboration with academic departments and faculty on campus, drawing on in-house expertise to form editorial and review boards. In return, the library supports research from their own institutions by providing an avenue for publication, particularly in niche research areas. While many library publishers (68%) also work with student journals such as university law reviews, the perception that library publishers ‘mostly publish student research’ isn’t backed up by the numbers.

Library publishers aren’t just serving as a publication venue for their own faculty, postdocs, and students. More than half of all library publishers provide services to organizations off campus, such as scholarly societies and research institutes. A good example is Columbia University Library, which publishes 17 external journals including Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (pMLA), which incidentally, is a subscription journal. Interestingly, less than 60% of titles published under contract are open access, suggesting that library publishing is maturing as a business and is no longer (if it ever was) purely about disrupting subscription-based publishing.

Library publishing services remain lightweight and low cost, in effect carving out a niche in the market for themselves. However, they’re beginning to offer an increasing range of traditional publishing services including; metadata assignment (80%), peer-review management (25%) and marketing (41%), as well as services that some publishers would consider highly innovative, such as audio/video streaming (44%). It will be interesting to see how the balance between remaining lean and offering peripheral services plays out over the next few years. Importantly, over a third now support dataset management. The comparatively high proportion offering this service reflects librarian awareness of the need to support funder mandates for data sharing, which I will explore more fully in my next post.

It’s sometimes thought that library publishers, unable to afford expensive SEO programs, will never be able to make their content as discoverable as commercial publishers and platform vendors. In reality, library publishers have been paying more attention to this issue than many may realize. Librarian publishers are working with web scale discovery layers to supply meta-data and SEO strategies are an active area of research, as libraries acknowledge that readers won’t necessarily come to a library portal to search for content but may arrive from a number of different places. In a recent email exchange that I had with Andrew Wesolek of Clemson University Libraries, he pointed to the tigerprints repository (which is built on popular lightweight publishing/repository platform, bepress Digital Commons) as a nice example of SEO. Here, a Google search returns the repository version of a paper above the Science Direct instance of the same article. Wesolek told me that the majority (55%) of their traffic comes from Google, while 14% are direct visitors (for example, readers who have bookmarked the repository).

What will the Future Hold for Librarians as Publishers?

I recently spoke with Charles Watkinson, who is associate dean for publishing services at University of Michigan Library and Director of University of Michigan Press. I put it to Watkinson that at the beginning of the librarian publisher movement, there may have been some naiveté and a little hubris. While he admits to being able to see why publishers might think that, he maintains that there has emerged a new type of librarian publisher that isn’t seeking to simply disrupt publishing, but rather to participate in the industry in a positive way.  Librarian publishers have been able to develop their skills and knowledge quickly, he believes, through consultation with both end-users (in the form of faculty at their own institutions) and by forming both formal and informal links with university presses, as is the case at Michigan and other institutions like Purdue.

Librarian publishers have already begun to make a positive difference in the publishing landscape by rescuing small, print-only journals from historical oblivion and providing the technical support and platform services to get them online and more importantly, discoverable. They’re also beginning to offer a wider range of both traditional and more innovative publishing services.

Potentially, traditional and library publishers may begin to converge. After all, publishing entails certain core functions. While Library publishers are expanding their services and learning from their university press colleagues, traditional publishers are learning to become leaner. On the other hand, library publishers may act as a complement to traditional publishers by offering low-cost, subsidized publishing for niche journals and grey literature, or by supporting new forms of scholarly communication like data sharing.

However it plays out in the future, librarian publishers seem to be here to stay. Just as libraries have been learning from university presses and their patrons, perhaps traditional publishers should take another look at what’s going on in the library. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the link between library publishers and repositories as an example of what can be learned from this interesting, new addition to the scholarly communication landscape.

Phill Jones

Phill Jones

Phill Jones is a co-founder of MoreBrains Consulting Cooperative. MoreBrains works in open science, research infrastructure and publishing. As part of the MoreBrains team, Phill supports a diverse range of clients from funders to communities of practice, on a broad range of strategic and operational challenges. He's worked in a variety of senior and governance roles in editorial, outreach, scientometrics, product and technology at such places as JoVE, Digital Science, and Emerald. In a former life, he was a cross-disciplinary research scientist at the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Harvard Medical School.


25 Thoughts on "What’s Going on in the Library? Part 1: Librarian Publishers May Be More Important Than You Think"

A note of clarification here on the journal partners affiliated with the Columbia Libraries publishing program: The 17 partner journals reported for the 2015 Library Publishing Directory include Columbia faculty and student-edited publications, but the PMLA is not among them. Journal partnerships at Columbia are, however, covered by master service agreements, as indicated by the table, which contributed to the reporting error here. Our work with MLA is, instead, focused on the Humanities CORE project (, which aims to bring repository tools for the archiving and sharing of works into a humanties-based community hub modeled on the MLA Commons. Errata will be supplied to the Library Publishing Coalition.

It seems to me that if you have other people’s money to spend, are not required to cover costs nor make any money and in fact can lose money and still publish that you can have an endeavour that serves a niche constituency.

In the short run, this may be true. But if you’re spending someone else’s money, you will eventually be called to account for your activities in terms of your sponsor’s mission. In the long run, library publishing (like any other library program) is only sustainable to the degree that it demonstrably supports and furthers the goals of the entity that is footing the bill.

Or, to use its correct name, “The Amazon Model of International Retailing”. Businesses run like this all the time, what’s your point?

As former director of a university press (Penn State) that was one of the first to merge administratively with its campus library and jointly establish an Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing in 2005, I have followed with keen interest the growth of the library publishing movement, participating in some of the meetings that led to the foundation of the LPC, chairing a session at the 2013 Charleston Conference on library publishing, and serving on the search committee for the director of the new Amherst College Press, launched by the library there to do OA monograph publishing in the humanities. Among the most interesting initiatives in this space is the OA textbook publishing operation launched by SUNY-Geneseo’s library several years ago whereby faculty at that campus are commissioned to write textbooks for use at the university and, potentially, elsewhere. As for library interest in data management, that was highlighted back in 2007 by an ACRL report titled “Establishing a Research Agenda for Scholarly Communication” about which i wrote a two-part article for Against the Grain, which can be accessed here:
Those articles, by the way, are stored on Penn State’s IR along with over 80 other of my writings that are easily discoverable there because of the excellent metadata the IR supplies.

Thanks Phill for this great post. Here at bepress, we’ve seen the maturation of library-led publishing first hand. We invite readers of the Scholarly Kitchen to read a report we published just a few months ago. This report presents detailed data from across all 700 or so journals hosted on Digital Commons and demonstrates how publishing rates and readership statistics can be used to show that library published journals are successful.

Thanks too for the shout out for our hosted publishing and IR platform Digital Commons. We do try to make the publishing experience “lightweight” for the 375 or so institutions that depending upon our platform for their publishing needs. For us, lightweight means fast set up, custom site design, unlimited training and support, unlimited storage, and extensive flexibility supplemented by deep publishing expertise.

Hi Jean-Gabriel,

It’s good to get your perspective on this. To what extent do you think that Library Publishing will remain lean as librarians increasingly offer more and more services? Do you think that library publishers will continue to evolve to look more and more like publishing services venders?

What great questions! I know of only a handful of librarians who provide extra publishing services to their journals such as copy editing, typesetting, and XML conversion. These services are expensive relative, not only to their value, but also to the library publishing budget. For these reasons I do not believe library publishers will en mass evolve to look more like publishing services vendors. New add-on library publishing services will emerge over time but when they do, they probably won’t replicate the services that traditional publishers seem compelled to support today.

I think the name of the game for library publishing today is sustainable growth. The goal is to provide ongoing support to faculty members interested in starting a journal often in an emerging or underserved discipline. Most librarians can only meet this goal by keeping the model lean, where journals receive most but not all of the benefits of traditional publishing at no cost to authors or editors.

Great overview of the state of library publishing Phill. Thanks for this. As you note via both Michigan and Perdue, universities have long had publishing capabilities and expertise in the form of the university press. I’m curious if you have any thoughts as to why universities are undertaking publishing functions in the library instead of locating them where they have historically been housed, in the press? (I realize not all universities have presses, but of course the same question applies – why not start one to manage publishing?)

Hi Mike,

I think that there’s probably more than one aspect to this. One part is that many library publishing programs are off-shoots of Institutional repositories. They have up until now been focused for the most part on making the output of their particular university publicly accessible and supporting the mission of the university through low-cost publishing, although as I mentioned above, more and more are finding opportunities providing more traditional publishing services. Some library publishing programs are acting a little like publishing technology or platform vendors.

University presses, on the other hand, tend to operate more like small society or commercial publishers.

We’re already seeing convergence between library publishing and university presses, it seems like a natural progression, so I suspect that we may see more of that.

The convergence of libraries and university presses was explored in the Ithaka Report (2007) on “University Publishing in the Digital Age.” It has a very useful appendix listing the complementary skills sets of library and university press staff.

The truth is that not all universities presses and libraries get along with each other or are interested in cooperating. Also, libraries tend to be advocates of open access as an approach to publishing, which university presses in general have not adopted yet.

Mike, Your question about why universities like Purdue and Michigan have both UPs and library publishing operations is a good one. In both cases both UP and library publishing are part of the same entity and the difference in their outputs is visualized as being along a continuum: The UP publishes exclusively formal, peer-reviewed, intensively produced, for fee books (and journals) while the library publishing service is used for more informal open access products that have usually undergone only lightweight review and production processes (e.g., conference proceedings, tech reports). In other universities where UPs and library publishers have separate reporting lines, the same sort of differentiation seems to usually exist. At Pittsburgh, for example, the Press publishes exclusively books and the library publishes open access journals, for example. As Sandy points out, the picture is not always so rosy, but there is room for complementary roles on campus.

I would think that Librarians’ natural ability to tag meta-data, index and codify would put them a large leap ahead of anyone else attempting SEO.

I seriously doubt that. In fact, the very opposite is true. Try navigating a library Web site some time.

From the LPC, I wanted to provide an updated statistic for the number of OA journals published under contract by libraries. Since publishing the Directory, I have reexamined the data and found that the real figure is closer to 85%. This is still lower than the 94% of on-campus journals that are published OA, but the disparity is not as staggering as originally reported.

This error came about due to the way we collected data about publication counts, a problem we will correct in future editions of the Directory. I apologize for the error and am glad to have the chance to provide this updated statistic. This and any other errata will also be documented on the LPC website.

Thanks Sarah. That’s less dramatic, but still, the point remains valid that many librarians are becoming more pragmatic about funding their publishing efforts.

It’s University of Michigan Press, not Michigan University Press.

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