The Library, The Academy, and Scholarly Communication

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A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Guest post by Rachel Fleming-May, associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s School of Information Sciences

In a previous life, I was a public services librarian and departmental liaison at an R1 university. As liaison I worked with faculty and students from disciplines I was pretty familiar with, such as Classics (my undergraduate major). I was also assigned to liaise with faculty and students from disciplines I was less comfortable with, like Interior Design (regrettably, my consumption of HGTV programming did not render me qualified for this assignment). I became effective at providing instructional and reference services for undergraduate students, but I found providing research assistance and collection management support in the fields with which I was less well-acquainted far more challenging. I could have made it easier on myself by figuring out the product, process, and practice of scholarly communication in each discipline I worked with.


Scholarly Communication—Product, Process, Practice

Because scholarly communication is so central to both academic libraries and the academic enterprise, many of the courses I teach focus in some way on this topic. For example, I just wrapped up the most recent iteration of the course Sources, Services, and Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences (yes, this is an excessively long title). In addition to discussing the significant scholarly resources germane to each of several disciplines, we discuss the epistemological structure of each discipline. How is knowledge created? How is it shared? How is it evaluated? In other words, what is the nature of scholarly communication in each area? At some point in the distant past, someone (regrettably, I don’t recall the source) shared a model that frames scholarly communication as having three dimensions: product, process, and practice. I have always found this to be a particularly helpful approach.

The Product: Which “information containers” does a specific discipline prioritize or privilege? Are journal articles the coin of the realm? Monographs? What are members of the discipline expected to produce for tenure and promotion purposes?

The Process: How is scholarly content created by members of the discipline? Does the discipline value peer review, or is editorial review more common? Is it standard operating procedure to present research at a conference, then write up findings for publication in a journal?

The Practice: What cultural assumptions shape scholarly communication within the discipline? Why do some fields use double-blind submission, but in others authors are expected to enclose a cover letter (that includes information about previous publications) with their submissions? Why do conference presentations in some disciplines look so very different from others? 


Disciplinary Distinctions in Action

I will never forget making a presentation on a history interest group panel at the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) Annual Conference. My colleague, Dr. Cindy Welch, is a historian by training and invited me to participate. I did my research and prepared my PowerPoint (Lots of images! Not too much text!), and upon locating the room was surprised to discover that none of the other three presenters had slides to share. Instead, my colleagues had written papers, which they read to the audience. I can safely say I’ve never—before or since—attended a conference presentation that did not feature a visual presentation (for better or worse).

Let me stop and make sure I’m not giving the impression that these were not good presentations—they were excellent. My co-panelists’ papers were very well-written and interesting, and all were very engaging presenters. I must admit they were far superior to my effort; I forgot to bring my water bottle to the podium and nervous energy desiccated my mouth to the extent that my speaking voice was rendered somehow croaky AND raspy. I croak-rasped through the remainder of my presentation and skittered back to my seat.

As entertaining as I hope my humiliation is, the important part of this anecdote is the dramatic difference between the approach my co-presenters—trained as historians—took from my more standard social sciences presentation style.


Why does this matter?

Although it has since changed, at the time of the ALISE conference meeting I’ve described, presentations were not accompanied by a paper published in proceedings. Rather, presenters’ scholarly contributions to the conference consisted of the brief abstract submitted as a proposal and the presentation itself. This was not the case for my co-presenters, who came from a more humanistic research tradition: they had written papers, which they could either submit for journal publication or set aside to languish in the shadow realm of grey literature. So much of scholarly communication as a product depends on the processes by which it is conducted within a specific discipline, or even sub-discipline. In turn, those processes are informed by disciplinary practice.

What does this have to do with the academic library? I can think of a number of ways in which librarians might use this approach to framing scholarly communication to conceptualize their approach to service. Doing so would mean asking questions like the following:


  • What are the five most important journals for the discipline and each significant sub-discipline?

  • What publishers are especially influential? Which should be avoided?

  • What are the important scholarly organizations in the field?

  • Which conferences are considered especially valuable venues for participation?

  • Do the important conferences issue a print or electronic proceedings?


  • What is the standard review process for the influential publications in the field? Peer review? Single- or double-anonymous (blind)? Editorial review?

  • For monographs, how do authors enter publication contracts?

  • What role does sponsored research play in the discipline?

  • How important is the currency of a scholarly product to the discipline?

  • Is data generally made publicly available for re-use?


  • Is there a conference-to-journal publication pipeline?

  • Is it okay to simultaneously submit a single manuscript to multiple journals or publishers?

Much of scholarly communication as practice has to do with norms and expectations vis-à-vis tenure and promotion. For example:

What types of scholarly products are prioritized or privileged for tenure and promotion purposes?

How is “impact” or “influence” determined?

Is it acceptable to submit one’s dissertation for publication as a monograph?

Do scholars typically publish alone, in small groups, or in large groups?

What is the discipline’s attitude toward open access publishing?


The Role of the Library in the Academy

So…how would this have helped me serve my patrons? Let’s think about some of the ways to consider the dimensions of scholarly communication through the lens of collections as well as services:

Collection Management: Product

  • Does the library subscribe/have access to all important journal titles?

  • Are materials from “important” publishers on standing order?

  • What about proceedings for the important conferences?

Collection Management: Process

  • Does the library offer any support for data archiving?

  • Is there a robust collection of resources to support and inform the research process?

  • Are materials processed and made available in a timely fashion?

Collection Management: Practice

  • Does the library provide any resources to help scholars and administrators determine the impact of individual journals, conferences, or publishers?

  • Does the library add records for open access titles to the online public access catalog (OPAC)?

  • Does the library purchase every monograph published by its institution’s scholars?

Services/Support: Product

  • Does the library liaison belong to any of the discipline’s significant scholarly organizations?

  • What about attending their meetings/conferences?

Services/Support: Process

  • Does the library offer any workshops to support grant writing or any other aspect of scholarly publishing?

Services/Support: Practice

  • Does the library provide assistance with copyright negotiations or author fees for open access (and/or other) titles?

  • Does the library consult with faculty about publication placement, including helping determine measures of impact or influence?

Of course, many of these ideas will not be new to many of you; so many who work in scholarly communication are doing a truly impressive job and are staying several steps ahead of their faculty colleagues. Perhaps we might consider this post more a collection of suggestions for the accidental interior design liaison librarian. I know there are probably still some of you out there. For everyone else, I hope I’ve offered a useful way to think about scholarly communication as a primary point of overlap in understanding the role of the library in academia.

Rachel Fleming-May is an Associate Professor in the University of Tennessee's School of Information Sciences, home to UTK's ALA-accredited MSIS program. Prior to earning her Ph.D., Rachel worked as a public services librarian at the University of Alabama and at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Her research and teaching interests include academic libraries and librarianship, assessment, information services, and foundational concepts in LIS.

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