Scholarly communications is not static, but rather ever-evolving. The system changes over time in response to a host of factors: technological advances; activism by authors and readers demanding reform; economic and market conditions; disruption in academia such as movements toward greater diversity, accessibility, and inclusion; societal trends like increasing use of social media; and many others. The system does not exist in a vacuum but is always in flux according to the broader world in which it exists.
Consider, for example, how different scholarly publishing looked before the digital revolution. There was no way to share, comment on, or discuss a scholarly article electronically and instantaneously as there is today. Just a few decades ago, if you or your library didn’t have a print subscription to a journal, there was no way to read its articles, unless perhaps you requested a copy via Interlibrary Loan, in which case it have to be identified at another library, photocopied, and sent through “snail” mail in order for you to read it.
In another example, think about how an academic library’s budget affects what scholarship is available to its students, faculty, and staff. As journal prices increase, libraries’ budgets must also expand in order to keep pace with rising costs. If they don’t — and this is not theoretical, but a reality for the majority of libraries — libraries are forced to make difficult decisions about which journals to keep and which to cancel. A faculty member may wish to consult a scholarly article for their research, or in their classroom, only to find that they no longer have access to it.
One of the most striking examples of change within scholarly publishing occurred in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under pressure to understand, halt, and develop treatments for the novel coronavirus, health officials and scientists embraced an accelerated process — through mechanisms such as expedited peer review and increasing use of “pre-print” repositories that house preliminary versions of papers — to disseminate their findings and recommendations as quickly as possible in the hopes of saving lives. Today, as the pandemic waxes and wanes, some scholars think these changes are here to stay.
These are just a few of the ways that we see how scholarly publishing reacts and adapts to external variables. This discussion sets the stage for this section, titled “(Some) Problems.” What changes or developments are “good” for scholarly publishing? For its participants? For society? In this section, we’ll examine how the scholarly publishing system reveals power dynamics, money and profit motivations, and issues of privilege.
Before we get started, take some time to view an excellent overview of many of the issues raised in this section by watching this openly accessible film “Paywall: The Business of Scholarship.”
- Callaway, E. (2020, June 3.) Will the pandemic permanently alter scientific publishing? Nature, 582(167-168). https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01520-4 ↵
- Bal, L. (2021, June 23.) Open and faster scholarly communication in a post-COVID world [Blog post]. Scholarly Kitchen, https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2021/06/23/guest-post-open-and-faster-scholarly-communication-in-a-post-covid-world/ ↵