Intersection 1: Economics of the Distribution of Scholarship

The changing nature of scholarly publishing, and the education of students to be knowledgeable consumers and content creators

1.1. Publishing Is Becoming Pervasive

The economics of the distribution of scholarship in the digital information age has been a core topic for scholarly communication education and outreach programs geared to faculty and graduate students. Yet it is highly relevant to our undergraduate students in their roles as users of content for their educational work and as creators of content. Graduate students, undergraduate students, and many faculty use electronic information tools to share aspects of their professional and educational works in a way that can be defined as publishing, even though it appears to be far removed from traditional publishing in the print world. They are more likely now and in the future to experience content of all kinds as digital, easily available, reusable, and shareable. Students as well as faculty are content creators and content users, shifting between those roles in many aspects of their work.

Publishing is no longer the purview of specialists, and the traditional definitions are being challenged. Yet traditional economic models have tended to inhibit the broad access and reuse made possible by digital publishing technologies. The term publishing may be too narrow in this context, as our users experience this as the distribution of knowledge and art in many forms and under many business models. However, we will use the term publishing in this intersection to cover digital means of dissemination of all kinds of knowledge.

As an essential part of our work with students and faculty on all aspects of information literacy in the digital world, we need to work with our communities to ask and understand the big questions that span the scholarly publishing environment and touch on new ways of approaching teaching. These big questions are:

  • How is information in the digital age created and published?
  • Who owns this information, who controls it, and who can access it?
  • What should we teach about this rapidly changing information environment, and what are the most effective ways to teach it?

Scott Warren and Kim Duckett (2010) elaborate on these questions noting that “As the information landscape continues to grow in complexity, it is becoming increasingly important for students not only to be able to locate and access useful information but also to understand the forces that shape the information they consume.” (p. 350)

1.2. What and Why We Teach About the Economics of Publishing

Scholarly publishing functions as a “gift economy” where authors, peer reviewers, and editors volunteer their labor for the prestige it brings, not for financial remuneration. It is important for us to help students and faculty recognize that most scientific, scholarly, or artistic work done within the academic setting is not undertaken primarily for direct economic profit. Nevertheless, publishers profit from scholarship, and have incentives to limit access, while scholars are more concerned with their work being discovered and valued. Librarians can help students and faculty understand that this information ecosystem inhibits their access to needed materials and limits their ability to control the dissemination of their own work.

Scholarly communication programs frequently include workshops and seminars on author rights and copyrights for faculty and graduate students, and information literacy programs frequently focus on how undergraduate students can best discover relevant content, apply it to their work, evaluate it, and cite it properly. Due to the changing economics of publishing, teaching librarians must develop new criteria of quality, since “library owned” is no longer a sufficient determinant of quality, due to the growing amount of high-quality, peer-reviewed, scholarly material free for use.

On the other hand, however, the economic system also creates barriers to access for undergraduate students. Students experience a time of abundant access while they are enrolled as students on campus but more limited access when away, even with remote access technologies. They experience a great loss of access when they graduate. It is thus important to educate undergraduate students about the whole life cycle of information, including the economic frameworks that govern their access while students and the barriers to access they may encounter in other parts of the world or in their careers outside of academia.

1.3. Transition from Publishing to the “Life Cycle” of Information

For contemporary students in particular, the “life cycle” of information is better described as its “social life.” This includes those basic functions facilitated by any scholarly communication system – formation, registration, evaluation, dissemination, preservation, reuse, and subsequent measurement of impact. These functions are still important to each evolving form of scholarly communication, but they are being accomplished through a variety of different channels. Registration can now be accomplished by having a “version of record” on deposit in an author’s institutional repository; evaluation can now involve both traditional peer-review and crowdsourced post-publication review. As the Internet allows scholars to reach much broader and more diverse audiences, this life cycle of research can become a more genuine “social life” for information.

Librarians play a unique role in teaching faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students about the complete life cycle of information through educational programs geared to different disciplines and levels of student learning. Undergraduates are now likely to be required to work collaboratively on a wiki or to write a blog for a class as the first steps in a writing or research assignment or even as the final product. Librarians who have become more involved with student-run journals find that working with undergraduate students as authors, editors, and publishers is an excellent way to teach about the economic, technological, and legal aspects of publishing, emphasizing the traditional life cycle of scholarly information. Librarians working with graduate students writing their dissertations find opportunities when helping with the copyright questions that arise as the students use the journal articles that they previously published or wonder about reuse of figures from other works.

1.4. Online Learning and Teaching Materials

The emergence of open online courses challenges traditional models of closed print distribution of educational materials. It also provides an important example of the intersection of concerns about publishing with concerns for new ways of teaching. Open online courses require that content and teaching are merged in new ways, reused, and shared. Even before the development of open online courses, access to and use of materials specifically developed for the educational market have been key areas of intersection between scholarly communication and information literacy. Librarians supporting courses frequently handle questions of copyrights, access, and use of content in the educational setting. The movement to open educational materials provides a rich area for education about open access, Creative Commons licenses, and restrictions of commercial publisher licenses.

1.5. Technological Disruption to the Economics of Traditional Publishing

Technology has been both a disruptive and an enabling force in the economics of publishing of all kinds of materials, scholarly and educational, and has challenged conventional definitions of scholarship, ownership, and authorship. The traditional perception in academia is that the published item is the ultimate and preferred vehicle for all things scholarly. Today, it is possible to view and interact with multimodal journals (e.g., Kairos), fieldwork (e.g., Open Fieldwork Project), and lab notebooks (e.g., UsefulChem Project). The boundaries between disciplines are shifting, allowing for new inter- and multidisciplinary work (i.e., OpenLab) and for new areas of academics, such as digital humanities. The nature of collaboration between scholars and experts is a longstanding, permanent fixture within scholarship. Technology and the resulting push toward openness (e.g., open access, open science, open source, etc.) allow additional voices to chime in to scholarly dialogues.

Take, for example, the success of Galaxy Zoo, an open astronomy project in which over a quarter of a million people – experts and amateurs – have provided more than 60 million classifications of galaxies. Another example of crowdsourcing for scholarly purposes is the PolyMath Project, conceived by Professor Tim Gowers in an effort to explore collaboration within mathematics. The end result of the PolyMath Project was a published paper with more than 40 authors. Scholarly communication specialists follow these trends closely, and subject specialist librarians track them in their fields and discuss them with faculty.

1.6. Publishing as Pedagogy

Undergraduate students are learning and becoming scholars and creators in this new economic and technological publishing environment. The projects described above are examples of creative approaches to new ways of publishing research and disseminating knowledge that make fascinating case studies for undergraduate students to use in their class projects in writing or communications courses. Such examples could be used in information literacy programs as part of class-based instruction to inspire the development of new pedagogical approaches. Publishing as course work is becoming more pervasive, and provides an ideal opportunity for active learning.


Sidebar: Students and Publishing

Students at Macalester College embrace the active involvement required to publish a journal through the course “Engaging the Public: Writing and Publishing in American Studies.” The students are responsible for producing an issue for the online journal Tapestries: Interwoven Voices of Local and Global Identities, published on Macalester College’s Digital Commons. “I’ve always been really interested in reporting and in sharing my writing, so I thought it would be great to work on Tapestries,” says Lauren Elizabeth Johnson, ‘13. “It’s all about redefining scholarship and using many different avenues to do that.” (Macalester College, 2012)


These opportunities in the digital environment require a greater awareness on the part of information seekers, users, and creators of the conditions that underlie the specific information they are seeking and using. The faculty, students, and staff in our institutions play many roles, from seekers to creators. Our teaching programs need to encourage and nurture our students to question the level of expertise employed to review a specific work, and the legal conditions that govern reuse of that work. It is equally important to consider who else has access to this information. If the student is using materials on healing techniques in Nepal, that student should also be wondering if the healer in Nepal can read the same journal article reporting on his work. If the student is working on the impact of mountain top removal in Virginia, the student should also be asking if the local community members have the same access to information about the environmental health impacts.

Although these questions have always been important in understanding how scholarship works, the digital environment makes them both more pressing and much more amenable to answers through new models such as open access. We best position our faculty and students to benefit from the changing economics of publishing when we provide collaborative leadership, information, and education on these issues. To do this, we need to build powerful alliances in our libraries between information literacy and scholarly communication expertise, programs, and activities.


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