Beyond Academic Journals: Addressing the Barriers to Scholarly Communication

By etoole

In late November, I chose to attend a panel on experiments in academic publishing hosted by the Scholarly Communication Program at Columbia University. Each of the three panelists addressed the issues faced by the academic community in the publication and distribution of scholarly work. The forward-looking discussion focused on strategies for reworking the funding structure of academic journals and alternative systems for the dissemination of research works.

The first presenter was Mackenzie Smith, University Librarian at UC, Davis. Her presentation focused on the unsustainable costs associated with maintaining academic journal collections from the perspective of someone in her position as university librarian. Due to the combination of inflating costs of subscriptions – which have been rising at a rate of 5% to 8% a year – and stagnant or shrinking library budgets, the number of libraries capable of affording such collections is decreasing. To address this problem, Smith assessed various alternative systems which hold the potential to reduce costs and improve access.

To begin, Smith compared North American and European models of academic publish. The model we are more familiar with in the US relies on libraries to pay the cost of publishing through subscriptions. In Europe, researchers (or, more likely, their institutions or grants) pay what is called an Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in journals which then provide open access to scholarly works. On the contention that the international nature of academic work forces the adoption of uniform publication systems, Smith proceeds with an investigation into how a global APC-funded, open access system would impact large North American research universities such as her employer.

It was found that, if the processing charge for all research publications in a given year was covered by UC Davis, the cost would amount to almost double the annual journal subscription budget. Furthermore, shifting the burden of publishing costs to those institutions which produce the most research would disincentivize publication without resolving the problem of funding. Her research also showed that the attitudes of academics to the acceptable amount of processing charge depending on where the money was coming from. Broadly, they were insensitive to the cost of publication if funds were derived from institutional sources or the library budget. On the other hand, if this cost was taken from their discretionary research or departmental funds, they tended to be much more frugal. In conclusion, Smith suggested that this price-sensitivity could be leveraged to initiate competition between publishers and induce them to lower their processing charges.

The second presenter was Kevin Hawkins, Assistant Dean of Scholarly Communication for the University of North Texas Libraries. His presentation focused on future strategies for collection and proper usage of “big data about published research.” Hawkins was concerned that such a quantitative picture of the academic publishing would could improperly inform the evaluation of different fields and be used to marginalize certain fields based on their poor performance in the realms of purchasing, licensing and online usage. His presentation thus focused on developing a “consensus framework” and some sort of cooperative of “libraries, scholarly societies, publishers, aggregators, and other stake holders.” Membership would provide entities with the relevant big data while also stipulating adherence to a code of conduct which would prohibit its misuse.

The final presenter was Peter Muennig, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at Mailman School of Health. His work was directed at the development of a free journal which requires neither subscription or publication fees that reworks the structure of incentives to encourage peer-review and commentary by verified scholars. Broadly targeting scientific research, OurJournal will combine text-mining and other automated techniques to connect articles in need of peer-review with scholars whose research interests match the article’s subject. The software then sends an automated “natural language” email to potential reviewers who will receive increased presence on the platform. The novelty of Muennig’s project is the use of a digital/social platform to expedite the lengthy peer-review process, the way it ensures the visibility of less established contributors and its optimization for hand-held devices.

Overall, the panel gave the impression that the academic publishing is in crisis. Conventional academic publications are increasingly unaffordable even to the university libraries whose mission is to provide students with access to a wide range of current academic works. It is hard to grapple with the fact that the scholarly community which both publishes and consumes all of these works is mediated by a dysfunctional system of publications which sets financial barriers to either the transmission or the receipt of knowledge produced.

While some of the presenters proposals gave hope for an improved solution, I was left wondering – likely because of my lack of prior engagement with issues of scholarly communication – why the tactics focused on restructuring funding of journals or creation of new journals. Instead, now that the means of distributing information are exceedingly cheap, why not abandon the publishers altogether? Muennig’s platform seemed to come closest to this by rejecting money altogether. However, his platform is still understood to be an open access, free and online journal rather than a wholly new model. At the onset of the panel the  host encouraged the audience of scholars to make use of Columbia’s Academic Commons and noted that “note everyone has the privilege that we have to have access to the information and we want to increase that access through the AC.” I hope that, after the collapse of the current regime, this sort of scholarly communication network will prevail and remove all barriers to access both within and without research institutions.

Powerful or Professional?: A visit to the New School’s University Archives

By etoole

As I rang the doorbell at the end of a corridor deep in one of the New School’s campus buildings, I was hardly given the feeling of having arrived at a place of great power. I had set up an appointment with the University Archivist to conduct an informational interview a week hence and had envisioned something quite different—or, at least above ground. Instead of a grand place proper to the “power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies,” (Schwartz & Cook, p.2) I was received in a neat and very plain space about the proportions of a conference room.

The layout was divided by open bookshelves which almost reached ceiling height into three parallel areas according to their function. The dividers stop short of the edge of the room to allow for a small walkway on either side. The first such section is primarily used as a working space for researchers where they are provided large tables on which to spread out their documents of interest. In times when no researchers are present or expected, this space may also be used for meetings or as an auxiliary space for archival processing.

The second, middle space had been set up as the offices of the University Archivist and her assistant. A pair of long desks framed the inside of this cordoned off area, each stretching the length of the bookshelves.  Two large iMac’s occupied the desk nearer to the back of the room, where the staff worked on finding aids and description work. The desk on the opposite side was left clear of any permanent items so they would be available for boxes which needed to be close at hand while working on the computer.

Behind the office area was the third space set up for storing, finding and processing documents. The back wall was made up of eight to ten large archival storage cabinets that moved along tracks in the floor as the archivist spun a ships wheel-shaped lever. Another table was set up near the cabinets for quick pulls from storage. Though this modern, compact shelving system provided several hundred linear feet of storage, approximately nine-tenths of the archives are hosted off-site on the other side of the Hudson River. The materials kept on-campus had either been requested in advance of future visits by researchers or were slated for processing/re-processing. The arrangement of the space was an almost perfect representation of its intended function: the ignoble and tedious tasks of re-foldering and arranging documents, describing and providing access to collections.

Judging only by appearances it is easily understood how Archivists come by their reputation as “objective, neutral, passive (if not impotent, then self-restrained) keeper(s) of truth.”(Ibid., p.5) The two-thirds of the archives – the office and storage areas – which are the domain of the archivist are laid out for tasks related to the preservation and retrieval of documents instead of analysis of their content which was relegated to the research space.

However, while the archivist typically does not produce research or build collections, the power to determine which collections would be either accessioned or relegated to the dumpster of history belongs mainly to the archivist. This is done in accordance with a document known as the institution’s collection development policy which details the purview of an archives’ collections. Typically, the parameters of a University Archives are fairly established, including materials of permanent value which are deemed relevant to notable alumni, faculty or institutional history. In certain cases, the committee responsible for deciding the scope of collection development will also accession materials which may not be related to the institution per se but to a subject area which has special significance to the university. In the case of the New School, whose most notable division is Parsons School of Design, it was decided that collections related to fashion and graphic design would be given special consideration during the appraisal process.

From this it clear that the archivists generally have some role in modifying their institution’s collection policy. Although the archives’ focus —  whether an institution, corporation or subject area – determines much of what is to be collected, archivists have further power outside of official policy in appraising a collection for accession.  Until recent decades, this has meant that archives “systemically excluded records about or by women from their holdings and, as institutions, have been willing agents in the creation of patriarchy by supporting those in power against the marginalized.” (Ibid., p.16) As a reflection of hierarchical social relations constructed on the basis of gender, race and class, there was created a strong tendency to preserve on that historical evidence which originates in or supports the master narrative. In the contemporary context, this may have the effect of rejecting collections for accessioning based on the archivist’s own prejudices as they inform the worthiness of preservation regardless of whether the materials fall within an archives’ scope of interest. Thankfully, as the archival profession has developed — growing increasingly self-conscious about their role in providing historical evidence to researchers in the distant future — a tendency to counteract the layers of historical exclusion by seeking out marginalized records has also grown. Archives, despite their pretensions of a neutral, professional outlook and humble, dusty circumstance do wield some power over what will be preserved.  Of course, archivists are still both limited to the documents which have been collected in the first place (often skewing towards those with greater resources) and directed by the research interests of those they serve (historians, the public and other collection committee members). The true power of the professional archivist to balance the elite-skewed record of events can be located in the actual appraisal process when applied to individual collections.


1)Schwartz, J.M. & Cook, T. Archival Science (2002) 2: 1. doi:10.1007/BF02435628

A Political Economy of Librarianship???

By etoole

William F. Birdsall, in his “A Political Economy of Librarianship,” laments the fact that libraries have not been an important part of the “emerging national and global information infrastructures.” (Birdsall, p.1) Instead, governments have largely looked toward private enterprise to generate the means by which citizens are provided access to the so-called information highway. While I certainly share his dismay that the public institution long charged with providing public access to information has coasted through the arrival of the information age, the remedy he proposes – to develop a political economy of librarianship — is strangely misguided.

Birdsall begins by describing the “ideology of Information Technology,” supposed to be at the root of the wrongheaded information public policy which is the target of his article. This ideology builds on the drive of politicians to deliver society from the industrial to the information age by creating a space for a deregulated market for information and information services in which firms compete in the realm of e-commerce and development of information technologies. Furthermore, individuals assume the role not of citizen but of consumer, fulfilling his duty to buy goods in the “internet mall.” Certainly, this cuts a librarian to the core. To a professional whose main charge is to provide access to informational material, it would seem that the new world brought about by the merger of computers and telecommunications should provide universal access to all kinds of digitized media, or possibly provide citizens with a more transparent and direct relationship to their government. It should be used for good, not commerce.

But this phantom IT ideology which exists only for Birdsall is reminiscent of a much better established ideology, that of Neoliberalism. The notion can be summed up in the following three axioms: cut government funding of public institutions and programs (austerity); limit government interference in the market (deregulation); and, whenever possible, consign the functions of the state to private enterprises. By viewing the problem through this broader lens, with the impact on comparable public institutions brought into view, the analysis can move beyond the politics of the library and seen instead as a more generalized flaw in the present attitude of government. If, as he says, “Libraries are marginalized as institutions serving the public,”(Birdsall, p.5) they are certainly not the only ones. What about Public Schools, the worst of which are being depopulated and overtaken by private charter schools? Or Public Universities, whose state funding has been reduced from the major portion of the budget to a pittance in recent years?

Birdsall proceeds from his diagnosis, always staying within the realm of the library, to call for the development of a political economy of librarianship. This is to be accomplished through the alliance of academics and practitioners who will unite to somehow spur a reinvestment in libraries and bring them to the forefront of the knowledge-based economy. Maybe I am overly skeptical, but I think a couple of freshly minted academic papers on the “Ideology of Information Technology” will not be enough to reverse the trend of the state limiting the role of public institutions and throwing the reins to private enterprise.

To add insult to injury, Birdsall, who seeks “a political economy of librarianship [that] could examine, for example, the validity of the premises of the ideology of information technology, how they have become incorporated into public policy, and whose ends are being met”(Ibid., p.7) gives the name praxis to the creation of the proposed theory. Praxis is typically understood be mean the realization or embodiment of a theory in a – typically political – act. Writing more papers does not qualify as taking action. And, to reiterate, it is a mistake to confine analysis of this problem to the particular institution of the library. If one seeking to take action can understand the similar effects of the neoliberal ideology on other public institutions, the possibility of a dialog across those institutions begins. Rather than “providing a common ground bringing practitioner and researcher together,”(Ibid., p.7) why not build alliances between librarians, professors, teachers, etc. to counter the marginalization of the institutions you hold so dear and the assault on public goods in general? That would, at least, merit the name praxis.

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