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Academy-owned? Academic- led? Community-led? What’s at stake in the words we use to describe new publishing paradigms

¿Propiedad de la academia? ¿Dirigido por la academia? ¿Dirigido por la comunidad? Lo que está en juego cuando utilizamos palabras para describir los nuevos paradigmas de publicación

Editor’s note: Written by Melanie Schlosser and Catherine Mitchell, this article is an original contribution by LPC to Academic Led Publishing Day (a digital global event to promote development and support to publishing initiatives led by the academy). Translated into Spanish by AmeliCA.

“Academy-owned” seems to be the descriptor du jour in scholarly communications circles.  We talk increasingly about academy-owned infrastructure, academy-owned publishing, academy-owned publications, etc. We find ourselves at meetings and conferences where we explore the challenges of supporting new forms of scholarly research, new modes of publication, new communities of readers — and there it is again — “academy-owned,” lurking in the conversation. We write grants whose very premise is that the academy will rise to claim its rightful place as the source, the maker, the distributor, the curator of its greatest asset — knowledge. There is definitely a movement afoot.

There is no question that we are facing significant challenges and opportunities as the traditional publishing model begins to falter. How the academy positions itself at this moment will have consequences for years to come.

Why has this phrase taken hold lately? The landscape is increasingly dominated by large, multinational corporations that are vacuuming up tools and platforms throughout the scholarly communication lifecycle. Although many of these corporations are familiar to libraries as content publishers, they are expanding their reach well beyond publishing to control both upstream and downstream activities: pre-print servers, OA publishing platforms, current research information systems, etc. A rebellion is stirring among those who worry that we are increasingly abdicating control of the academy’s intellectual property, its data, its ability to share information — even its values — to for-profit companies. The more we rely on licensed resources to read, distribute, and measure the impact of our research — as well as to determine the success of our researchers and the value of our institutions — the more in thrall the academy is to a set of values that are derived from a profit-driven marketplace founded on restricted access to information and abstract performance metrics.

And yet this noble impulse to claim a space for the academy in the exchange and evaluation of scholarly research is also rife with linguistic confusion. While the drive toward “academy-owned” solutions is pervasive, the language we use to articulate this drive lacks precision. Sometimes we talk about “academy-owned” projects, but just as often we describe them as “academic-led” or “community-led” or any number of other permutations. 1 These phrases are not synonymous — their distinctions are actually quite important — yet we use them interchangeably and nod to each other, as if we know what we mean. What, exactly, do we mean? It’s time to ask ourselves to identify the big issues and difficult questions embedded both in the terms themselves and the vagueness with which we use them.

What, exactly, are we talking about?

The terms “academy-owned publishing,” “academic-led publishing,” and “community-led publishing,” all share an implied logic: [an academic or values-based entity] claims [some form of control] in the context of [publishing]. This similarity, however, obscures the fundamental tensions and ambiguities that drive the proliferation of these phrases and make it difficult to resolve them into a consistent label or a well-defined agenda. 2

The “academy” certainly has a claim, as the sponsor of much of the research that comprises the scholarly record, to play a significant role in the development of a new publishing ecosystem. Academic institutions also find themselves increasingly at odds (budgetarily and philosophically) with the current publishing model that outsources the distribution of academic work to a commercial marketplace driven by impressive profit margins. Perhaps it is time for the academy to assert a more forceful publishing presence in this space. Such an effort could include the development of large-scale, academy-controlled publishing infrastructure, or the establishment of national publishing programs run collectively by academic presses and libraries, or even a commitment to big-ticket consortial funding efforts aimed at supporting transformative publishing models. These and other “academy-owned” approaches to publishing would require significant and sustained institutional (and cross-institutional) engagement. If the academy seeks to own some slice of the scholarly publishing ecosystem, it must claim that slice and be prepared to make substantial programmatic and financial investments to realize this vision in a robust and sustainable way.

Identifying the “academic” as the actor, on the other hand, suggests that agency here belongs to the individual researcher rather than the institution. Instead of situating the act of publishing within the academy per se, this model suggests that scholarly publishing can happen anywhere, as long as scholars are at the helm making editorial decisions. In some ways, this makes sense. Researchers’ publishing behavior is most strongly influenced by their disciplinary culture and professional ambitions, not the interests of their home institution; they seek to situate their publications wherever it makes the most sense (financially, logistically, reputationally) to do so. The problem is, scholars most often choose to lead their publications from within for-profit publishing environments, where they are either at the mercy of a commercial publisher’s business model or beholden to a for-profit platform provider that could easily be acquired and restructured. In both cases, the term “academic-led publishing” elides the fact that, at least for the infrastructure underlying the publication, profit is the bottom line. Individual academics have deep subject expertise, but they often lack incentives to consider the impact their choices have on the scholarly publishing ecosystem. If they don’t see compelling publishing options within their scholarly communities, they will turn to for-profit organizations for support.

Invoking the “community” as the actor broadens the publishing playing field significantly. This formulation gestures toward an inclusive approach to the production of knowledge by extracting itself from the confines of academia. It puts the means of production (and attendant acts of gatekeeping and legitimation) in the hands of a more expansive set of stakeholders coalesced around a critical topic, including independent scholars 3, layperson experts, and those who are the focus of the research. Such an approach seems very much aligned with “values-based” publishing, which seeks to make a space for new and underrepresented voices to be heard. At the same time that the word “community” is appealing, though, it is also imprecise. The real risk here is that we think we know what we mean when we talk about community-led publishing, but we might all mean something different. And this lack of precision leaves us with some very practical questions about what defines community membership, how governance is structured, what the funding model looks like, and who supplies the publishing infrastructure.

Clearly, determining who controls these publishing efforts (and to what extent) is no small task and raises all kinds of thorny philosophical and pragmatic problems. Agreeing on what we mean by “publishing” should be comparatively easy. Except it’s not. It turns out that when people refer to publishing in this context (e.g., academy-owned publishing), they are often talking about vastly different things. For some, the focus is on the legal rights to the content, specifically who can claim journal title ownership or copyright in the publication. For others, it’s a matter of access; most fundamentally whether non-commercial publishing should be, by definition, open access and how best to fund this model sustainably. Some hold paramount the question of who controls the publishing platforms and the data associated with publications. Still others care primarily about maintaining their publication’s editorial autonomy and solvency. These are all important facets of publishing, but each has a unique set of stakeholders and some pretty high stakes. We don’t always agree on which stakes are the highest and where to focus our energy.

What’s at stake?

All of this brings us to the fundamental question of what libraries ultimately want to achieve in this space. Do we intend to take on the big commercial publishers and reclaim the role of publisher for the academy? Do we seek, instead, to support scholarly publishing within disciplines and for research outputs that are poorly served by the commercial marketplace? Or do we aim to model a kind of publishing that is inclusive and values-based rather than profit-driven? For many of us, the answer is, simply, YES! But these, again, are quite distinct goals, and it behooves us to have a clear sense of the type and magnitude of change we seek.

Sometimes we talk about “academy-owned” projects, but just as often we describe them as “academic-led” or “community-led” or any number of other permutations. These phrases are not synonymous (…).

Consider the following scenario: a library decides to allocate a portion of its budget to supporting academy-owned publishing. Where should it direct that funding? Should it resource the development of open source publishing software? Should it redirect collections funding to support open access content? Should it start a new program offering publishing-related services to its campus community? And if it chooses the publishing program option, should it use locally installed open source tools or a commercial hosting provider? Each of these is a worthy activity, but most libraries won’t be able to undertake them all. Prioritization based on the library’s values and goals is essential.

That said, the actions of any one library, however well-planned and resourced, are not going to create massive change in the scholarly communications system. The problems are just too big. Recognizing this, our hypothetical library decides to pool its resources with other libraries in hopes of having a larger impact. Perhaps it contributes to a consortial funding model. Or participates in a coordinated open source project to create shared infrastructure. Or helps to develop model language and best practices for engaging with commercial vendors.  This kind of collective action is essential if we want to create change at scale, but it can be challenging to implement — especially if the participants lack a shared vision. Libraries need to be explicit about what each of us seeks to achieve and work to find common goals and opportunities to advance those goals. There are already some examples of this kind of effort 4, but we still have a long way to go.

If we settle for vaguely defined publishing paradigms, the risk isn’t just that we will fail to achieve our goals — it’s that those goals will be co-opted by individuals and organizations that don’t share our professional values. Transformative movements are always in danger of being hijacked by the structures they are working to transform. The open access movement first emerged as an attempt to broaden access to scholarship and limit the power of commercial publishers to extract value from universities, but it didn’t take long for those same commercial publishers to find ways to monetize it. Libraries benefit from partnerships with university presses, with scholarly societies, with service providers, and with many other players in this space. All of us bring something unique to scholarly publishing, and it makes sense to work together. It’s important, however, that we in libraries set specific goals and make sure that our partnerships are aligned with these goals. We need to decide what “academy-owned publishing” (or any one of its permutations) means to us, and we need to work together to accomplish it.

There is no question that we are facing significant challenges and opportunities as the traditional publishing model begins to falter. How the academy positions itself at this moment will have consequences for years to come. Our muddled terms are a clear indicator of the complexity we face in imagining a future for scholarly communication with new roles and responsibilities for researchers and institutions. Coming to a shared understanding of the implications of the words we use is an important first step toward this future.

1. The Library Publishing Coalition has used the phrase “academy-owned publishing” twice recently: first in a preconference to the 2018 Library Publishing Forum, titled “Owned by the Academy: A Preconference on Open Source Publishing Software,” and then in a Library Trends article that Melanie authored, titled, “Building Capacity for Academy-Owned Publishing through the Library Publishing Coalition.” In neither of these contexts did we explicitly define what we meant by “academy-owned,” but the preconference implicitly linked academy ownership to the use of open source technology, and the article suggested that library publishing activities are inherently “academy-owned.”

2.The following discussion of these terms has been strongly influenced by any number of recent meetings, but particularly by the “ARL-SSRC Meeting on Open Scholarship in the Social Sciences” (December 2018), where Catherine participated in a discussion aimed at defining “academy-owned infrastructure” that surfaced many of the complexities discussed here.

3. “Scholar-led” is another commonly-used phrase in this area, and one that builds on “academic-led” to include independent scholars. We have omitted it from our discussion for the sake of brevity, but we want to acknowledge that it overlaps with several of the concepts here while carrying its own unique connotations.

4. One recent example was the release of a set of “Good Practice Principles for Scholarly Communication Services” by SPARC and COAR. These principles articulate a set of targets for service providers and evaluation criteria for libraries seeking to contract support for their scholarly communications work. None of the seven principles are likely to be unfamiliar to librarians working in this area, but they codify shared values into actionable guidance in a way that is likely to have a substantial impact.