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Sierra Williams

July 4th, 2014

Miseducation of Scholarly Communication: Beyond binaries and toward a transparent, information-rich publishing system

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sierra Williams

July 4th, 2014

Miseducation of Scholarly Communication: Beyond binaries and toward a transparent, information-rich publishing system

1 comment

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

s200_micah.vandegriftThe Society for Scholarly Publishing recently hosted a session on open access publishing and authors’ rights titled “Open Access Mandates and Open Access ‘Mandates’: How Much Control Should Authors Have over Their Work?” This post is the edited text from Micah Vandegrift‘s talk along with his accompanying slides. Scholarly communication is mired in a binary, black and white system that pits closed versus open and publisher against librarian, but he argues the reality is much more grey than that. The entire system would be improved by greater transparency (honesty), more active/productive author voice in the discussion, and clearer straight-forward human readable contracts with options. 


I believe that Scholarly Communication should be about authors making well-informed decisions about their scholarship, rather than about libraries and publishers fighting over who’s right or wrong about open access. Point of Clarity – when I say “publishers”, I am talking about the commercial journal publishing industrial complex, not the University presses or society/association publishers, who I think function under different motivations.

The discussion of “mandates,” or open access policies, or how much control authors should have over their own work only really applies when faculty are involved, so I opted to not address it at all, but rather to address the underlying issue – that is the miseducation of scholarly communication.


Scholarly Communication is about scholars communicating. I don’t like to make a habit of quoting Mark Zuckerburg, but I agree with the sentiment here that information should feed communication. I believe that an inherent “miseducation of scholarly communication” has developed, and is rooted in the author’s general lack of information about the system we all work in. Not to their fault; over the past 3-5 years we’ve made it about libraries vs. publishers, who’s more right than the other, and how well we can argue our point on one another’s blog posts, rather than offering good information to authors of their stake in this system. I can only speak to the last 3-5 years because that’s all I know.

So who am I, and why should you care to listen to me?


I am a Librarian, but probably not the kind you’ve ever worked with. (Probably the worst kind). I’ve never done reference. Never put together a collection development plan. Never had the opportunity to establish a working relationship with a vendor. Never once recommended a book to a patron. Never had a budget to oversee. Best yet, Librarians are untenured faculty at Florida State, so I have nothing to lose by pushing and challenging and bucking scholarly communication as we know it.

I like it this way. I function well in the system this way because I cut my teeth in punk rock where my friends literally tattooed “damn the man” on themselves. I was hired out of library school into a scholarly communication position and have never known a non-open access way to work. Which means, from the beginning of my career, my work has been built on challenging  the “norms” of publishing. My beef is the lack of options and good information available for authors (who are the creators/suppliers/workers), and the misconceptions about open access that are perpetrated by the system.

I don’t want to pick fights. I don’t want to talk about my beef. Hell, I don’t want to talk about mandates, I don’t even want to talk about open access. I think there’s a better way. Let’s talk about information. 


The best possible system of scholarly communication is one where the complexities, stakeholders and evolution are all transparent to the authors/creators/workers (ie those who produce and consume “works of research), and where the authors/creators/workers decide what is best. Where information about how academic publishing works is clear and concise. And we are close to that point.

At this point a more radical person might mention the Cost of Knowledge statement started by Timothy Gowers as an example of authors involving themselves in the re-education of scholarly communication. Or, they might bring up the comparisons to the music or film industries where the indies/scrappy start-ups have worked to align the creators more closely with their creations. I think those are valid talking points, but I would like to start more simply.


Scholarly communication is mired in a binary, black and white system:

  • publisher vs library,
  • Journal Impact Factor vs altmetrics,
  • copyright vs fair use,
  • green vs gold,
  • authors guild vs hathitrust,
  • Scholarly Kitchen vs Peter Suber?

We all know it’s much more grey than that. Together across the great divide of academic publishing we all hold common misunderstandings of one another’s work, investments and interests. The miseducation of scholarly communication spreads to us as well.

6What I’d like to propose is a system where we embrace the grey, where publishers and libraries are on the same side of the fence, where we speak the same language, where the common goal is sharing information (within and among ourselves), good, factual information about how things really work (including the money), and finally, the key point, where authors voices are equally valued and respected.

We’re seeing examples of this here and there.

Associations are advocating for authors.

American Historical Association statement on embargo of ETDs – the facts are fuzzy about whether or not open access harms publication prospects – I think we have evidence that it does not necessarily do so – but the heart of the statement was that authors/grad students should be allowed to choose how and when their dissertation is accessible. I agree, and support that sentiment, but have yet to see the publishing community diligently work to inform grad students about their rights and responsibilities in the world of digital dissemination.

Authors are advocating for themselves

I had the pleasure of attending a conference in March where an early career researcher, Erin McKiernan, publicly pledged to value and act on principles of open access rather than publish where the system tells her she should. A great example of authors taking control of their stake in academic publishing.


Publishers are analyzing the market (author perspectives), which informs the work of librarians. 

T&F Open Access Survey, which continues to serve as a fantastic resource for me in addressing the “authors voice” around open access. More than 50% of authors surveyed believe or are unsure that research funders will soon require them to publish in open access journals. This perfectly illustrates the miseducation in our work, the value of having the author’s voice represented, and the opportunity that exists to provide good, factual information about funder open access policies.

In practice, what does this grand system look like? What would be an example?


The Authors Alliance is an organization founded for the purpose of “providing information and tools designed to help authors better understand and manage key legal, technological, and institutional aspects of authorship in the digital age. They are also a voice for authors in discussions about public and institutional policies that might promote or inhibit the broad dissemination they seek.”

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Pamela Samuelson, a Law Prof at UC Berkley and one of the Directors of the Author’s Alliance, said:

We are not trying to create an organization with an orthodoxy that says you have to make everything available on an open access basis. We want to empower people to understand what their options are, and the pros and cons of those options, facilitating the dissemination goals of our members. We are pursuing the long-term horizon: it is part of our mission to think about how the public good can be served through authorship that makes works widely available.

I think this is a good, reasonable idea. Power to the people and all that.


Another idea for a transparent, information-rich, scholarly communication system –

Human-readable publishing contracts, with standard definitions across all major publishers. (Creative Commons found a way to do it!) Why don’t we have 100% open access (via archiving)? Because most people don’t know they can, and if they do know, the version and embargo lingo scares them away.

Another idea for a transparent, information-rich, scholarly communication system —

11Example: First Monday – a scholarly journal that allows authors to chose their own rights assignment, ranging from releasing the work public domain to All Rights Reserved.

What would academic publishing look like if authors understood their rights, and were allowed to chose how to license those rights?

My three step plan, for a more productive scholarly communication system:

  1. Transparency (honesty)
  2. More active/productive author voice in the discussion
  3. Clearer straight-forward human readable contracts with options.


Rick Anderson, whom I need to thank for inviting me to speak here, presented a really well-constructed argument about the “miseducation” issue I’ve been presenting, and I think he and I agree very much on a course of action. He published a talk given in March this year, titled “Is A Rational Discussion of Open Access Possible?” In the piece, Rick lays out a cogent overview of where we are currently at in terms of working together on open access.

He goes on to add:

I’d be much less concerned about that if I saw more prominent figures in the movement standing up publicly in favor of open debate and critical analysis. There are lots of voices in the OA community calling on us to fall into line, to join the movement, to accept that either resistance is futile or victory is inevitable (depending on your perspective). I wish I heard more voices inviting us to raise concerns, to help identify and resolve issues, to anticipate problems.

I’ll happily be one of those voices – and the problem/concern/issue I’d like to start with is that we should not decide how much control authors should have over their work. They should. What matters from my point of view is richness and quality of information about the publishing process, to provide the author with the rational, reasonable authority to make informed decisions.

The best scholarly communication system, in my young, early-career mind, is not necessarily one where we all get along and hold hands into the horizon. But, we should at least be honest: publishers are here to provide a service (that will make them money), libraries are here to fight for equity and access, authors are here because they love knowledge (or really because they are using us to get tenure and then indoctrinate our kids with socialism and punk rock.)

I think OA is a good thing. I believe OA is the right thing. But I’m committed to good, quality information leading to effective communication as the best thing. I will never be convinced that libraries buying intellectual property that was transferred through misinformation on the part of the author is a valid transaction. I’m much more interested in a system where authors are fully informed, and make decisions based on all the facts, and take ownership of their professional interests.

Remember my three step plan? Transparency (honesty), more active/productive author voice in the discussion, clearer straight-forward human readable contracts with options. Unfortunately, these are all issues that publishers will have to contend with more so than libraries. But, I am here to say that I’m willing to listen, and ready to discuss, and happy to help move scholarly communication forward. Please tell me what I can do to help.

This text was originally posted on Micah Vandegrift’s personal blog and is reposted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Micah Vandegrift is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Florida State University. He blogs here and can be found on Twitter @micahvandegrift

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Sierra Williams

Posted In: Academic communication | Academic publishing | Open Access