Bridge photo
Navajo Bridge Spanning the Colorado River at Highway 89. Clayton Fraser, 1990. Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record Collection (National Parks Service).

The Scholarly Kitchen is a space for professionals in diverse and eclectic scholarly communications fields to discuss, debate, opine. But it’s also a space where scholars can learn about these fields and about scholarly communications businesses that are critical to the ways their work is being produced, circulated, and consumed. As with any professional domain, the amateur and the generalist – which is what scholars are within the field of scholarly communications — will be at sea in the technical details. But as both producers and consumers of scholarly content, it’s become even more important for scholars to have a sense of the broad outline of how the industry works.

Three weeks ago Alice Meadows and I co-authored a piece on “Seven Things Every Researcher Should Know about Scholarly Publishing“. Two days after the “Seven Things” post, Ann Michael hosted an “Ask the Chefs” forum on the biggest misconceptions people have about scholarly publishing with equally robust observations from the Chefs and from commenters. In a previous Ask the Chefs forum, the question was whether an advanced degree in an academic discipline is necessary for professionals in scholarly communications, particularly publishing. These and plenty of other Kitchen posts and musings around the web point to some angst about the gulf between what scholars do and what scholarly communications professionals do, and how much one knows and understands about the other. Scholars on the one hand, and publishers, librarians, and a myriad of other scholarly communications specialists on the other need to find more than a few narrow bridges across this divide.

I shared many of those misconceptions and I had to learn — or learn a lot more about — those seven things in just the past few years. In 2013 I was an academic historian moving into a position at the Omohundro Institute where I’m responsible for oversight of both a journal (the William and Mary Quarterly [WMQ]) and a book program.  I’d been a publishing scholar, I’d worked on a journal, of course I’d used many libraries including most importantly my own university library — and I’d started reading about scholarly communications more broadly. I quickly learned how small was the humanities slice of the scholarly publishing world, and how awkwardly positioned humanities publishing was in many dimensions of changing funder and governmental policies about how and where scholars should publish. After years of listening to departmental library liaisons talk about faculty priorities for materials, and appreciating wonderful relationships with librarians who steered me as a researcher to materials I needed for my work, in my new role it became absolutely clear that conversations between librarians and scholars need to go beyond those questions. I also learned how generous colleagues who were already wrestling with these issues in academia and in scholarly communications could be. I spent a lot more time in conversation with librarians, publishers, editors at other journals, and program directors at other organizations. And then I lucked into further conversation through the Kitchen.

For me, two broader issues of difference and similarity quickly stood out: the potential impact of different national standards for the production and evaluation of scholarship, and the core commitment to the importance of scholarship that cuts across disciplines, fields, and national borders. The kinds of requirements that a singular system of higher education such as exists in the UK can impose on transnational scholarly exchange is troubling. On the other hand, wherever you look and whatever the issue being debated, the significant role and potential role of scholarship for society is a common theme. That is important common ground.

We can see the importance of differences and similarities in other dimensions of scholarly communications, too. There are sharp divergences between the ways that STEM and HSS fields operate, but there are also differences within each broad category. But given STEM’s significant slice of the scholarly publishing pie, there is no indication that scholars in STEM fields are any more conversant than humanists with the infrastructure and issues in scholarly communications. A few academics are highly conversant on such issues as metrics and open access (OA), and those who write about them seem to be read widely. But for the most part, as Josh Piker, the Editor of the WMQ, commented about his own movement into editing: “for all the thinking and talking that we academics do about publications, we know remarkably little about how scholarly publishing works. Our perspectives tend to be either too granular (based on our own personal experiences) or too global (based on both a hazy sense of a generalized crisis and a disinclination to think about discipline-specific scholarly publishing ecologies).”

The middle distance turns out to be critical. It’s important to know, for example, not just that libraries are challenged by rising subscription prices, or even that those high prices are largely confined to STEM journals and published by for profit publishing concerns, but that those same large publishers are doing very well indeed in the world of gold open access. As Jim Grossman, Director of the American Historical Association points out, it’s also important to be conscious of the language we use. “If something is not open access,” in the common and yet incredibly imprecise parlance, “that does not mean it is not accessible. The term “pay gate” simply means that it’s akin to a product on a shelf in a store…Nobody refers to the cereal on a grocery store shelf being “behind a pay gate.”  We need better terminology.

Perhaps the single most important thing I’ve learned over the last years and particularly in my last year writing for the Kitchen is that the things that scholars say and demonstrate that they value are often contradictory in large measure because of this middle distance problem. I’ve used examples and comments here and elsewhere from my own discipline, history, but this is not a historians’ problem or a humanities challenge, but something that cuts across disciplines and fields. As distinctive as the ways that STEM and HSS scholars conduct their research and publish it are, we have a common investment in the quality of scholarship and in sharing it as widely as possible. That does not mean OA all the way. It also, for example, doesn’t mean that blogging is bad or white papers aren’t a viable and important way of sharing research. It simply means taking care for the ways that different groups of scholars operate makes scholarship viable, and that taking care requires some basic literacy in the world of scholarly communications. As the Kitchen’s Editor in Chief, David Crotty has noted, scholarly publishing is a service industry. It aims to serve what scholars and the academy (mainly, though of course there are scholars outside it, too) wants.

Publishing sessions at professional meetings tend to focus on the perennial “how to get published” questions and, more regularly recently, on the tantalizing potential for public engagement. We are exploring the potential for a different focus that brings some of the issues here, and scholarly communications professionals to talk about them, directly to scholars. Wednesday, April 13 from 9-12 a group of Chefs and friends are hosting an event at Columbia University. “Calling All Content Providers: Authors in the Brave New Worlds of Scholarly Communications” will feature David Crotty, Rick Anderson, Alice Meadows, and Rebecca Kennison, and I’ll be doing introductions. We’ll be talking about different aspects of the scholarly communications business specifically for early career humanists. And we’ll be live tweeting using the hashtag #4ContentProviders, too, and we hope many of you will join us on Twitter if not in New York.

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and Professor of History at the College of William & Mary. She is a scholar of early American and Atlantic history working on gender, family and sexuality.

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5 Thoughts on "What I Learned on the Way to the Kitchen"

Don’t forget the government funders, where the OA policies and systems are still just emerging. That is where I came from and we knew very little about scholarly publishing. (TSK has been a great help to me in that regard.) CHORUS is building good bridges but more needs to be done.

One of the dangers of having the conversation monopolized by one group, viz., those involved with STEM journal publishing, is that it becomes all too easy to assume that what works well in one domain, such as CC BY, works just as well in other domains, such as HSS journal publishing. And then there is the whole question of how OA does and should operate for monographs, which play a quite different role in HSS fields than they do in STEM fields. This is one reason I drafted the AAUP Statement on Open Access, so as to steer the conversation toward consideration of the needs outside of just STEM journal publlshing.

Thanks, David and Sandy, for your comments. Just to be clear the event we’re doing tomorrow and the post in general only means to use OA as one example of many aspects of scholarly communications. This is one though of course in which some people are very well versed, but also one in which I think a lot of people aren’t– which isn’t to say that if they knew more they would commit to x or y only that knowing more is both helpful and, I think, important.

Understood, Karin. The Kitchen on the road is an exciting prospect. I hope someone reports on the interests and positions expressed by the attendees.

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