Book review: The Future of Scholarly Communication (Shorley and Jubb)

[This review appeared in the 24 July issue of Research Fortnight, and is reposted here by kind permission. For subscribers, it is also available here.]

Perhaps the one thing on which all the contributors to this volume could agree is that scholarly communication is changing, and quickly. As such, it is a brave publisher that commits to a collection such as this — in print alone, moreover. Such reflections risk being outdated before the ink dries.

The risk has been particularly acute in the last year, as policy announcements from government, funders, publishers and learned societies have come thick and fast as the implications of the Finch report, published in the summer of 2012, have been worked out. It’s a sign of this book’s lead time that it mentions Finch only twice, and briefly. That said, Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network, and Deborah Shorley, Scholarly Communications Adviser at Imperial College London, are to be congratulated for having assembled a collection that, even if it may not hold many surprises, is an excellent introduction to the issues. By and large, the contributions are clear and concise, and Jubb’s introduction is a model of lucidity and balance that would have merited publication in its own right as a summation of the current state of play.

As might be expected, there is much here about Open Access. Following Finch, the momentum towards making all publications stemming from publicly funded research free at the point of use is probably unstoppable. This necessitates a radical reconstruction of business models for publishers, and similarly fundamental change in working practices for scholars, journal editors and research libraries. Here Richard Bennett of Mendeley, the academic social network and reference manager recently acquired by Elsevier, gives the commercial publisher’s point of the view, while Mike McGrath gives a journal editor’s perspective that is as pugnacious as Bennett’s is anodyne. Robert Kiley writes on research funders, with particular reference to the Wellcome Trust, where he is head of digital services. Together with Jubb’s introduction and Mark Brown’s contribution on research libraries these pieces give a clear introduction to hotly contested issues.

There is welcome acknowledgement here that there are different forces at work in different disciplines, with STM being a good deal further on in implementing Open Access than the humanities. That said, all authors concentrate almost exclusively on the journal article, with little attention given to other formats, including the edited collection of essays, the textbook and — particularly crucial for the humanities — the monograph.

Thankfully, there’s more to scholarly communication than Open Access. The older linear process, where research resulted in a single fixed publication, disseminated to trusted repositories, libraries, that acted as the sole conduits of that work to scholars is breaking down. Research is increasingly communicated while it is in progress, with users contributing to the data on which research is based at every stage.

Fiona Courage and Jane Harvell provide a case study of the interaction between humanists and social scientists and their data from the long-established Mass Observation Archive. The availability of data in itself is prompting creative thinking about the nature of the published output: here, John Wood writes on how the data on which an article is founded can increasingly be integrated with the text. And the need to manage access to research data is one of several factors prompting a widening of the traditional scope of the research library.

Besides the changing roles of libraries and publishers, social media is allowing scholars themselves to become more active in how their work is communicated. Ellen Collins, also of RIN, explores the use of social media as means of sharing and finding information about research in progress or when formally published, and indeed as a supplementary or even alternative method of publication, particularly when reaching out to non-traditional audiences.

Collins also argues that so far social media have mimicked existing patterns of communication rather than disrupting them. She’s one of several authors injecting a note of cold realism that balances the technophile utopianism that can creep into collections of this kind. Katie Anders and Liz Elvidge, for example, note that researchers’ incentives to communicate creatively remain weak and indirect in comparison to the brute need to publish or perish. Similarly, David Prosser observes that research communication continues to look rather traditional because the mechanisms by which scholarship is rewarded have not changed, and those imperatives still outweigh the need for communication.

This collection expertly outlines the key areas of flux and uncertainty in scholarly communication. Since many of the issues will only be settled by major interventions by governments and research funders, this volume makes only as many firm predictions as one could expect. However, readers in need of a map to the terrain could do much worse than to start here.

[The Future of Scholarly Communication, edited by Deborah Shorley and Michael Jubb, is published by Facet, at £49.95.]

Just how important is the monograph for history ?

Back in January I posted about the visibility or otherwise of collections of edited essays, suggesting that whilst this form of publication may be as good as invisible in the sciences, we need to view the humanities (or at least history) differently.

In reply Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) gave some intriguing numbers from an analysis of her citation patterns. In a recent review article in neuropsychology, she had cited 84 journal articles, 3 chapters, and one book. What’s more, she finds herself now very reluctant to cite anything that isn’t available online (which includes most books and edited collections.)

By way of a counter-example, I here extend the analysis of my own citation patterns that I began in that post. (For details of the data, read it here.) Here I’m interested in the balance between journal articles, books, and edited collections.

There has been much debate about finding a viable business model for Open Access monograph publishing in the humanities. Anecdotal evidence abounds, which chimes with my experience, that the ‘big book’ remains the Gold Standard for senior scholars; the once-in-a-decade intervention that changes the game. Lower down the food chain, the perception still rules that it is impossible for a young scholar to secure the vital first academic job without the book-of-the-thesis.

So much, so familiar. But there remains a real lack of data to back up this near-universal intuition, and to establish whether readers think as highly of the monograph as authors, publishers and research assessors think they do. And so, I looked at my own citation behaviour over the last few years, to answer the questions: how much do I cite monographs, as opposed to journal articles or papers in edited collections, and how old are those books when I cite them ?

The answer to the first of these even I found surprising. Here are the numbers:

Category Proportion of citations (%)
Books 59.4
Edited collections (and individual articles therein) 23.4
Journal articles 11.7
Theses 2.0
Other 3.5

I had expected the monograph to loom large, but not to the extent revealed in these figures. I was also very surprised that I cited more chapters in edited collections than articles in journals, which were an amazingly low proportion of the total.

It’s also interesting just how old some of these monographs I cite are. The mean age of a monograph (at the time I cited it) was 17.5 years, with a median of 14.5. Some, in specialist areas, are still current after 40 years. This would suggest that any embargo-based scheme of Green OA for monographs would have to include very long embargoes indeed to satisfy publishers, which suggests that Gold would seem the way to go.