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.