The hidden landscape of scholarly publishing

Was the scholarly publishing landscape easier to understand when everything was in print? Image from Flickr user diylibrarian

Students tend to assume that all the information they need for a project (perhaps other than print books) is available freely online.  They may have rough ideas that some journals cost money (like magazine subscriptions) but I’m guessing that most students have a simplistic and rather naive concept of how they have access to information (I’d love to see some data on this).

Are we doing students a disservice by not making the details of the scholarly information landscape more prominent?

Libraries and information providers have worked hard to make much of this landscape transparent to the end user (including faculty).  If the student is on campus, many of the journal articles may appear “free” to the end user through a complex series of IP authentication, proxy servers and other behind-the-scenes technology.

When we teach students how to access information, we encourage them to use library databases, touting their scholarliness and focus.  But when users can access articles in JSTOR and ScienceDirect through a Google or Google Scholar search, the advantages of the paid databases are diminished.

We talk about journals, but we don’t talk about how we have access to them: free, direct from the publisher, in aggregators, etc.  We talk about ILL, but we rarely mention how they may find a copy of the paper archived on a website – students can discover this for themselves and then wonder if we really know what we are talking about.

We teach them about brainstorming keywords, narrowing or broadening their search as needed and identifying the types of information they may need.

But would it also be useful to them if they understood the nature of the scholarly information landscape?  Would it be easier for them to track down a copy of an article if they knew the possible ways that they might have access to it: (OA vs. subscription, direct publisher subscription vs. aggregators, final copy edited version vs. post-print)?

I’m starting to think that we need to start introducing some of these concepts to students as freshman, then build on them at advanced levels.  I’m just not exactly sure how to do this at the moment.


8 thoughts on “The hidden landscape of scholarly publishing

  1. Good point, Bonnie.

    I’ve lately been trying to make this point a little clearer to the students I teach in the iSci program. I mention that 1) They will never have so much access to information again, if they leave academia, 2) That the library purchases access to journals through various systems, which they then access through free databases like PubMed and GS, 3) I sometimes even mention that a database like Web of Knowledge might costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for a library to purchase access to.

    Of course, I think these details probably matter a lot more to us as librarians than they do to an average undergraduate. I’m not really sure what I expect them to make of this information.

  2. I always talked about scholarly publishing and access to journal literature when I taught workshops for grad students. I mentioned that even if they stayed in academia, they probably would not have the same level of access at a smaller institution.

    Interesting side note: I used to work at the library in the photograph and it has been closed. I suspect the bound journals pictured were discarded since they are available on JSTOR.

  3. Tara – I wonder if you are the exception rather than the rule? I know that I have only just begun talking about this in some general terms to the students I teach. It makes me want to do a poll 🙂

  4. I don’t know if I was the exception or if the message just doesn’t sink in! Ungrads, grads, and faculty alike seemed to think everything was “free” and not realize it was really “free to me because my university library pays thousands of dollars for a license.” On the flip side, I often found that people were paying to access articles they could have gotten through their library…

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