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The Role of the Library in 21st-Century Scholarly Publishing

Kate Wittenberg

(Kate Wittenberg is a consultant in scholarly communication and electronic publishing. From 1999 to 2008 she was Director of the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia University).


As research and scholarship move increasingly into the digital arena, the processes and organizations involved in the publication of this work must evolve as well. The changing landscape of libraries, publishers, and scholarly societies; university views on tenure and digital scholarship; the emerging role of search engines; and the continuing development of information technology have created a need for radical rethinking of the roles of the major players in scholarly communication. We need to understand how users create, discover, and evaluate information, as well as the real and virtual environments in which they do their academic work, in order to plan our scholarly communication and e-publishing strategies for the future. In the past, discussions of change in scholarly communication have often focused on the use of new technologies. Going forward, the conversation needs to focus on the less technical, but perhaps even more complex, issues of changing user needs, different organizational structures, new kinds of jobs, and partnerships among the key organizations involved in knowledge dissemination.

One of the key players in the changing information landscape is the research library and its professional staff. With their deep understanding of how to organize, store, and deliver information, the tools and functionality that add value to digital content, and the changing habits of users, librarians have the potential to play a leading role in moving forward with new models of scholarly communication. With the additional benefit of a robust and stable information technology infrastructure, the research library is in a position to provide both the platform and many of the skills needed to enable the creation of new forms of scholarship and to disseminate the resulting content to a wide audience of users. Whether the library can or should take on this role depends upon a number of factors, but the primary issue is how its leaders see the library’s role in the new information landscape, and whether they can establish effective partnerships with publishers, faculty, and information technology organizations within their institutions. The challenges that lie ahead are too complex to be solved by one player. They can be addressed effectively only through collaboration, and the creation of new kinds of hybrid organizations and staff. Whether research libraries will be part of these new organizations depends on the role that they carve out for themselves in the rapidly evolving environment.

New Publishing Models for New Readers

Scholars and students have become technically skilled consumers of digital information, and they have high expectations regarding its format, functionality, and delivery. This makes it essential that we redefine the appropriate role for publishers in this information environment. We must begin to understand the strategies that scholars are using in creating their work and the most useful roles for information professionals such as librarians, information technology staff, and publishers. First, we will need to incorporate a new perspective into the traditional publishing process by acknowledging scholars as active collaborators in the creation of new kinds of resources within their disciplines. As publishers, we must begin to view ourselves as researchers who play a role in leading innovation in a discipline through the creation of new models of scholarship, tools, and dissemination, but we will do this as collaborators with our authors. We will bring to the table an understanding of the scholarly process, peer review, editorial development, technical capacity, and users’ needs. As our authors come with a vision of the possibilities presented in a multimedia publishing environment, publishers will have to develop an equally innovative vision of their role in this collaborative process.

Authors and their publishers will share in considering questions such as the following: Must scholarly narrative necessarily be presented in linear form? Are there new ways to present an “authorial voice” while allowing readers to structure the way in which they encounter a work? Are images and data supplementary evidence for points made in the text, or can they now become central organizing structures of a work? Is there value in being able to search thematically across many different works of scholarship in order to connect information in new ways? What new kinds of resources can be created by integrating research and teaching materials? And can digital publications actually become a place where collaboration occurs, thus creating yet another form of publication in the process? All of these questions, which are still theoretical in most fields of scholarship, become critical once the answers can actually be implemented in a digital publication. But what are the skills and attitudes that publishing professionals must possess in order to help authors sort through the questions and come up with useful and practical answers?

First, editors (who are normally on the front lines in terms of encountering authors during the research, planning, and writing process) must start to see themselves as researchers who work with authors in creating new models of scholarship rather than as staff who react to scholarly work once it is submitted in completed form for publication. Second, editors must begin to think more creatively about the organization and presentation of information in terms of how readers encounter their publications. Editors will need to educate themselves in the use of digital resources and how this use changes the way in which we present scholarly content and tools. The publication process must become a shared endeavor in which authors, librarians, information technologists, and readers form a team that relies on the skills, experience, perspectives, and habits brought to the table by each of its members. This is an area in which there exists a tremendous potential for librarians, with their expertise in information architecture, cataloging and indexing, and content management, and their understanding of the changing habits of users in their search for information.

Will librarians become editors? Will editors become librarians? Or will a new type of job emerge that requires expertise in both of these fields? The new model for publishing requires someone who understands the intellectual environment in various disciplines, identifies the scholars working most productively in those fields, and works with those scholars to enable the successful completion and publication of a scholarly work. It also requires someone who understands the role of metadata, search and discovery, and preservation and access. A position that brings together these two kinds of experience would open exciting possibilities for creating new models of publishing appropriate for the current environment.

A Focus on Users

New publishing models have emerged from a variety of sources, including research libraries, government-funded projects, professional societies, and commercial publishing. One element that is common to several of these models is a strong focus on users-their emerging needs and preferences in doing their work-and less concern than in the past with publishing within traditional categories such as journals, books, databases, and reference works. These new initiatives demonstrate an interest in providing resources, information, tools, and services that fulfill the needs of the user; whether or not the resulting resources look like traditional publications is of secondary concern. What is important is that the product satisfies a user’s need to access important content in his or her field, and that includes the tools and functionality that make the content timely and useful. In this new publishing model, the greatest measure of value becomes the content’s utility and functionality for a defined set of users, rather than any “objective” measure of quality.

In creating these kinds of publications, libraries have an advantage over traditional publishers in that they have fewer preconceived notions about what the market requires. Rather than attempting to re-create traditional print publications in digital form, they can focus on disseminating information and services that respond to users’ needs in whatever form seems most appropriate to the content. Because librarians can think like users as a result of their experience in responding to scholars and students, they will be in a strong position to chart the way for new models for shaping and delivering scholarly information.

Information Literacy

An important issue to consider in new publishing models is the complex relationship between the “closed” world of the researcher’s traditional work environment and the “open” world of the Web. The vast amount of information now available can be either a benefit or an obstacle to effective research, writing, and teaching, depending on how successfully users manage this information and how they are able to make it relevant to their own work. While some scholars clearly demonstrate a desire to explore freely and contribute as participants to the vast array of content and tools available through the Web, it is becoming equally clear that in many cases they would like some level of selectivity and guidance concerning how to identify and then evaluate the information they find. They also need assurance that they will receive academic credit for the work that they disseminate through this environment. In their Web-based social environments, scholars and students are using sophisticated mechanisms for sharing information in collaborative spaces. Increasingly, they are using these networked spaces as a means for communicating with colleagues, and some publishers are already creating collaborative spaces to accompany their content. An important issue to consider going forward is how to make such environments useful for scholarly research and dissemination.

These discussions raise the larger issue of information literacy in the emerging digital environment. How will publishers help users separate high-quality, peer-reviewed content from other information that is easily available through search mechanisms? How do publishers “brand” their material in the digital environment? And are users actually creating new ways of evaluating content that are different from those with which publishers are comfortable? For example, in many social networked environments the community itself decides whether to allow a new participant the status that permits certain levels of access and its associated privileges (e.g., the ability to read and exchange profiles and messages, participate in conversations, edit previously posted content). Many users have become comfortable with this method of evaluating content credibility, which imitates, in many ways, the trusted-peer models used in evaluating social interactions, such as asking a friend what new musical groups are good or where to go on vacation. The question of whether this community-based evaluation model will translate to the assessment of scholarly and educational content, however, has yet to be answered.

This system for establishing credibility in a social networked environment is in sharp contrast to the top-down peer review system used for years by the academic world. The traditional system leaves the end user out of the quality assessment process, as it is handled before content ever appears in final, published form. In this system, the authority to establish credibility rests with the publisher rather than with the community of users, and increasingly may be in opposition to the community-based model. As scholars continue to use and develop networked environments, the status of having one’s work approved by a community’s members may exceed the credibility gained through traditional peer review. As this process evolves, we may see a broader transformation in which research and scholarly publishing become a process of participation in a community rather than of receiving the imprimatur of an “expert.” In this case, publishers will have to confront the issue of how to allow peer networking, participation, and interaction to take on increasing value without lowering quality standards or disseminating erroneous information through a scholarly or educational publication. Here again, librarians, who have historically connected scholars and students to appropriate content, may emerge as key players in the process of evaluating content.

The Role of Information Professionals

It is clear that mechanisms for creating, finding, and evaluating scholarly content are undergoing rapid development and change in the current digital environment and that new models for academic publishing are needed. It is still unclear, however, who will create the new models. Will the traditional arbiters of content quality, such as libraries and scholarly publishers, step up together to propose new models? Or will scholars establish and implement systems for assessing credibility and disseminating their work on their own? If the library and publishing communities can move quickly to incorporate users’ interests in new forms of scholarship, collaboration and community-based networks, and multimedia technologies in designing new scholarly resources, they will be in a much stronger position.

Developing these kinds of publications, however, will require a change in mindset within the established library and publishing communities. Professionals in these fields will need to initiate conversations with each other, as well as with new players and partners. Developers of Web-based social communities, commercial search engines, manufacturers of electronic devices, and scholars themselves will necessarily become advisors and collaborators. Market research (for publishers) and outreach (for libraries) will include arranging focused discussions with scholars and students, participating in ongoing academic conversations concerning publication and criteria for tenure and promotion, and engaging deeply at many levels with the scholarly research community.

The Need for Experimentation

It will be important for publishers and librarians together to engage in experiments that test various models for creating and disseminating content. They might, for example, develop Web-based resources that allow easy transitions between a scholar’s research at an early stage of development, a reference to the same scholar’s body of published work through a more formal library, and a further reference to a collaborative community in which colleagues in related fields offer their perspectives on the work being presented. In such an environment, users might have a choice of reading the early-stage writing or research data, searching or browsing additional related resources in a larger digital library, asking for guidance from a librarian who is a member of the virtual collaborative community, or communicating directly with the author regarding his or her research findings. As scholars have the ability to examine the provenance, authenticity, and the multiple contexts from which items in their research environment arise, observant and innovative publishers will be able to understand how to provide and structure content in ways that are appropriate to the evolving needs of users.

Such experiments might also shed light on the relative value that users attach to the evaluation of information by peers, librarians, and publishers. In addition to discussions concerning appropriate technology and design, this conversation needs to include a focus on less technical, but perhaps more intractable, issues: changing assumptions about quality and credibility of content, reconsidering attitudes toward peer review and academic advancement, and acknowledging authors and readers as active collaborators in the creation of new kinds of scholarly resources and publications.


Another area requiring attention and leadership is the development of innovative and effective business models for sustaining digital resources. Business planning plays a critical role in this environment and provides one of the most interesting areas for experimentation. Business planning in this field requires having a grasp of real costs. Models for covering those costs include subscription-based revenue streams, open access funded by university budgets, or grant funding for individual projects or collective infrastructure/staffing. All these projects come with significant costs, whether we call the resulting resources open access or revenue-supported projects.

Going forward, we will need new business models that support the innovative and collaborative e-publishing partnerships that are starting to form. In developing these models, we need to make a clear distinction between cost-recovery mechanisms for not-for-profit publishing and the pricing practices of the large commercial publishers (that is, the discussion needs to be more than a simple debate over “open access” versus “price gouging”). Someone has to pay for all this work. Whether we call it publishing, institutional repositories, or scholarly communication, there must be a source of funds to develop and maintain these projects and the professional staff who make them work. If we ignore this fact, we will never move ahead in this discussion. To make progress in this area, we need to engage in an honest and reality-based level of discourse that acknowledges the needs of both libraries and publishers and that moves beyond divisive rhetoric.


For many years, publishers have operated as self-sufficient businesses, with the publishing processes taking place within the confines of the organization, and being done by people with traditional publishing experience. Now we need to bring in new skill sets not only for the design, production, and dissemination of scholarly products but also for the management of collaborations and partnerships and for the operation of a complex organizational structure. The keys to moving forward effectively include an ability to understand our users and their changing behavior, a willingness to experiment, and an appreciation of hybrid organizations that take advantage of skills contributed by players with diverse backgrounds and experience. Leadership of such a team will require an understanding of the various players and the value of their contributions, as well as a clear and imaginative view of the future information landscape. It will at times be difficult to accept the changes that collaborations bring and to manage them productively, but ignoring the challenge will mean the possible loss of an opportunity for both publishers and librarians to make an important contribution to the landscape that is being created.


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