Scholarly Communications On Fire: What Can We Do?

This is a quick follow-up post to this post from yesterday. Please read it first if you haven’t already…


The mere fact that we exist, that we conceive and want something different from what exists, constitutes for us a reason for hoping.”

-Simone Weil, 25 August, 1933 [in Oppression and Liberty, 2001: 23]


So what can we do?

What we can do and what many have been doing is developing academic-led infrastructures. Simon Fraser University’s Public Knowledge Project, CrossRef,  ORCID DataCite, and the International DOI Foundation are nonprofits. Initiatives like the University of Southampton’s EPrints, Cornell University’s Arxiv and SocArxiv, the Modern Language Association’s Humanities Commons, or the Open Library of Humanities (to mention just a few of many others) are examples that academic-led projects can develop academic-centred, nonprofit technological infrastructure for scholarly communications.

In Latin America (but not limited to), SciELO and Redalyc are pioneering academic publishing networks with huge potential and that already embrace good practices the rest of the world could learn from.

It is clear that none of the services mentioned above is perfect (what system ever is?) nor do they fully replace by themselves or collectively forprofit infrastructures that many academics have learned to take and adopt for granted. I fear it might be years, maybe decades before academic-led nonprofits can compete at the same level of influence and pervasiveness within the reputational economy of international academia that Elsevier products enjoy more or less across the board. It is also true that due to the historical outsourcing of scholarly communications work to a few main for-profit corporations academia still has rare precious examples of appropriate conditions to actually develop and lead in infrastructure.

So far institutions have been happier buying off-the-shelf products than developing them themselves. The price we are paying is not only financial (the ‘Serials’ crisis goes beyond the subscription costs of the ‘serials’ themselves). We are paying a much higher price, and that is any type of autonomy over the sociotechnological paradigms that always-already define any workflow. We are increasingly losing the power to even discuss where and how to create, publish, distribute, assess, measure, discuss, attribute the work we do.

This thread from yesterday by Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers an insightful summary of what many of us agree should be the desired path of action.

The recommendations made in the report by Fyfe, A., et al. (2017), Untangling Academic Publishing, are on target and deserve wider dissemination internationally (download the report from

Other researchers like Cameron Neylon and Martin Eve have published extensively on academic infrastructure; Force11, as a community, continues being at the forefront of the promotion of researcher-led scholarly communications.

It is indeed essential there is international coordination by academics worldwide. This is, of course, easier said than done. Though academic systems of assessment, recognition, reward, promotion vary from country to country (and sometimes from institution to institution, field to field, department to department, centre to centre) it is essential there is an attempt from academics to understand how the monopolisation of knowledge affects us all.

Academic authors need to be in a position, however, to influence their institutions, via the relevant committees and organisational structures (including, but not limited to, Library services and ‘Research Quality’ managers), to start and continue conversations about the third-party services universities are willing to embrace and pay for.

It seems to me crucial that the ‘advocacy’ (for lack of better term) for researcher-led scholarly communications infrastructure needs to go beyond circles of ‘advocates’ and reach a wider academic community, particularly of higher officials (VPs, Deans, Heads of School), students and ECRs.

Staff in academic libraries are already motivated by the need to provide better, wider, fairer access to their users through more affordable, ethical means. It is colleagues directly involved in RQM committees, as well as Research officers/managers and other University administration officials that work assigning budgets and defining and implementing systems of assessment and reward that need to be willing to be part of the conversations about infrastructures and the transformations to scholarly communications. Academic authors are voicing their views. Who’s listening? That is an important question.

But academics can also do more and be willing to change if they agree things need to change. The ‘inertia’ mentioned in Fitzpatrick’s thread linked above and referred to other colleagues in relation to the docile adoption of Elsevier services is deeply embedded in academic structures of reputation and reward, and essentially a cornerstone of ‘publish or perish’ culture, accelerated and hyperdiversified workloads, furious professional competition in a landscape defined by reputational symbolic value and scarcity.

The critical qualitative analysis of the state of scholarly communications today is often disqualified as ‘ranty’ and ‘angry’, and seen as not pragmatic. Meanwhile, library and educational technology conferences are up to a great extent defined by presentations by representatives of forprofits which are de facto sales pitches or commercial, proprietary software demos. They sell, we buy. We buy, they define.

Meanwhile, a considerable academic author demographic is still motivated to publish, in spite of agreements such as DORA, in ”high impact” journals, and, even worse, research quality assessment/RQM/ARQM committees within universities still actively discourage academics from publishing in ‘non-traditional’ journals or platforms.

The disqualification of qualitative assessments of scholarly culture is in itself the result of the same culture that has allowed international academic work to increasingly outsource its most essential infrastructure to monopolistic third parties.

“Scholarly communications” is the whole cycle of scholarship itself.  The separation between the understanding of what kind of infrastructures make academia fuction as such from the work of ‘research’ has only benefited those who provide the ‘solutions’ at high cost to institutions, and who profit excessively from cultural production that is given to them practically for free.

This will sound dramatic and outmoded but it is the ‘blood’ of academics (what they do; their very labour) what oils and fuels a highly profitable market dominated by a few corporations.  These companies’ practices are increasingly alienating more academics, institutions and citizens from the work they fund, produce, and discuss.