Nick Houlahan
[email protected]
Technology in Scholarly Communication
In academic scholarship and academic libraries’ endeavors to support it, the
role of computing and information science is ubiquitous. The economic pressures
within the scholarly publishing industry, combined with the professional demands
within the academy to publish or perish, has created an environment where the
traditional channels of scholarly publishing often work against the intentions of
scholarly communication. Computing technology has offered potential solutions to
make scholarship more dynamic, responsive, and true to the intention of spreading
knowledge to the communities who desire it. There are several fronts to this
endeavor, but I will only briefly discuss two: university libraries’ hosting publishing
programs and the trend of research itself moving onto open platforms for wider and
freer dissemination.
There are many electronic publishing initiatives that university libraries
have taken up that result in wider dissemination of scholarly material. For example,
the University of Michigan has its own publishing division where it has an imprint
called digitalculturebooks, a great resource to find how the digital world and new
media is impacting scholarship, teaching, and culture at large. These books are all
free to read online, making for wider distribution channels. There are also other
initiatives such as MIT’s arXiv project that publishes scholarly articles on theoretical
and applied sciences. This site has become a go-to publisher for scientists and
mathematicians who want to publish their work quickly to receive credit for new
ideas as soon as possible. It also links articles with identifiers to group them by field
for browsing. Another major initiative is the California Digital Library that partners
with all UC libraries. Its mission includes offering scholars direct access to content
by their UCe-Links feature, handling large-scale digital preservation projects, as well
as hosting many digital archives.
These are just a fraction of the projects that are happening in the university
publishing industry where libraries are taking up computing solutions to create
and/or disseminate materials for their communities. To find out about these
sources, I follow the journal Against the Grain, whose volume 20, issue 6, had a
whole issue dedicated to these sorts of developments and the Journal of Electronic
Publishing. In addition, the organization SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic
Resources Coalition), which is a leading consultant for libraries interested in
participating in these sorts of projects, hosts useful material on their website.
Furthermore, a report issued by Ithaka S+R and published in 2007, offers an
important assessment of how university publishers need to adopt more
technological solutions to keep up with the use of computing in scholarly
New and interesting developments are also happening with the use of
computing to aid the production and sharing of research itself among academic
communities. One interesting project outlined by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her book
Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy is the
use of a blog-based publishing engine called CommentPress that allow authors to
receive comments on their work during the production process itself. There are
problems of organizing this commenting feature in a way that keeps the work
coherent and there are open questions about the authority of the text. However, it is
an interesting solution to the problems that are tied to traditional peer review,
where only two or three readers offer pre-publication feedback during a lengthy
process, while the rest comes after publication in the form of reviews. Fitzpatrick
directs Media Commons that offers material on new publishing platforms, which is a
good place to discover more about this kind of work. The Institute for the Future of
the Book is another organization that is exploring how traditional publishing is
taking advantage of technology to disseminate material that would have been
impossible before computing.
These kinds of projects, both publishing initiatives at university libraries and
initiatives to harness the ways scholarly communication is moving to networked
platforms, are two exciting ways that scholarly publishing and research are
changing and modernizing in today’s and tomorrow’s digital world. They open new
ways of thinking about what it means to even publish a work, if that work is
constantly evolving and never quite finished. There are also practical questions too
about how to preserve and organize these alternative modes of scholarly production
for better retrieval and linking. Linked data and the semantic web are offered in the
literature as a solution to bring like projects together into a searchable network. But
this may require too much buy-in from stakeholders without foreseeable rewards.
What certainly is true is that computing and information science is not just a
supplement that helps the academy do research; it changes the possibilities of
research itself by changing the ways that scholars engage with each other and the
very works they produce. Libraries will certainly have challenges ahead in figuring
out a way to collect, preserve, and make discoverable this material for future