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.

What is a DOI? Just the basics

Most of the students (and some of the faculty) I work with have no idea what a DOI is or why they should care.  This is what I tell them.

A DOI – Digital Object Identifier – is like a social security number for a journal article. They can be applied to other digital items as well, but you are most likely to encounter them in scholarly articles.

A DOI normally consists of numbers, letters and other punctuation.  It will look like this:



The DOI provides a way to permanently find a particular item.  Publishers and scholarly societies change their websites all the time.  Recently, a major publisher completely re-did their website, messing up all links into their site.  I was quite annoyed.  But the DOI could still link you to an article in a way that a URL couldn’t.

Incidentally, you can use the DOI to create a nice, neat compact URL for a journal article (instead of those really log URLs provided by some databases).  You just need to add a little bit to the front of the DOI:

DOI LogoYou can also use the DOI to quickly look up an article from your libraries homepage or this webpage.

To get a DOI, a publisher registers with a non-profit organization called CrossRef, and they work with the publisher to assign a unique number.

Increasingly, journals and citation styles are requiring authors to include DOIs in article citations where available.

For additional (and much more technical) information about DOIs, see the DOI website or the Wikipedia article about DOIs.

Science publishing: the humorous side

I spend a lot of my time teaching students to respect the scientific article.  We talk about why the peer reviewed article is the epitome of scholarly publishing, and why it deserves more esteem than other types of scientific publishing.

But as all practicing scientists know, the peer reviewed journal article is not without fault.  There are problems with the review process, complaints about the quantity of articles being published, and major concerns about rising costs.

So with all of these concerns in mind, lets laugh at the system.

First, let’s discuss the truly awful prose of many research articles.  Kaj Sand-Jensen discusses this topic in his excellent paper, “How to write consistently boring scientific literature.”  Among his recommendations:

  • Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones
  • Avoid originality and personality
  • Quote numerous papers for self evident statements

Sand-Jensens paper hits home for me because of an experience I had in graduate school.  I was reading an article about the chemical kinetics of the dissolution of kaolinite (a clay mineral).  Now, my chemical knowledge wasn’t too advanced, so I had struggled through many similar papers.  At one point I read and re-read a paragraph in the discussion section.  I reconfirmed that I understood what every word meant, and what every concept was.  Then it hit me:  this was just a very poorly written paragraph that completely failed to express the authors intent.  More importantly, my difficulty in understanding the article wasn’t my fault!  This was a very exciting realization.

Next, we can look at the horrors of trying to respond to criticism of a scientific article.  Rick Trebino’s excellent based-on-a-true-story satire of the comment/response system is worth a look, “How to Publish a Scientific Comment in 1 2 3 Easy Steps.”  This stands in contrast to some well known examples of how articles were commented on and retracted as a result of blog posts and the resulting blogosphere commentary.  (See this story about a recent article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry that was quickly debunked.)

Finally, lets poke fun at the citation behavior of scientists (the study of which has filled many PhD dissertations).  E. Robert Schulman demonstrates some of the strangeness of these decisions in his excellent piece in the Annals of Improbable Research, “How to Write a Scientific Paper.”  I teach students to track down citations in the papers that they find relevant to their project, which can occasionally result in wonderful resources.  Or just more filler.  As Schulman states,

The real purpose of introductions, of course, is to cite your own work (e.g. Schulman et al. 1993a), the work of your advisor (e.g. Bregman, Schulman, & Tomisaka 1995), the work of your spouse (e.g. Cox, Schulman, & Bregman 1993), the work of a friend from college (e.g. Taylor, Morris, & Schulman 1993), or even the work of someone you have never met, as long as your name happens to be on the paper (e.g. Richmond et al. 1994).

As an addendum, I certainly can’t leave out the horrible nature of many scientific lectures and presentations.  In order to help young scientists prepare truly horrible presentations, Alexander Kohn laid out some suggestions in his article “How to Make a Scientific Lecture Unbearable” also in the Annals of Improbably Research.  I have sat through many boring presentations, and I have stayed awake through most of them.  I did fall asleep once in a class where the professor was utilizing a slide strip (‘beep’ – advance to the next slide) that discussed dolomitization.  I have no regrets about that.  I whole heartedly endorse Kohn’s final suggestion, “It has been suggested that the listeners should organize themselves in a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Listeners and present the speakers with rules and regulations (and sanctions) before they start talking.”

Incidentally, if you are aware of addition scientific publishing satire, please let me know.  The system is way too serious to not make fun of it.

A small collection of resources about the University of California ‘negotiation’ with Nature Publishing Group

This week, the University of California announced a possible boycott by faculty and researchers of Nature Publishing Group.  UC felt they had to act after NPG was proposing a 400% increase in the UC site license subscription cost.  The proposal is for faculty to stop submitting articles to the journal, stop reviewing articles, resign from editorial boards, etc., in addition to canceling subscriptions to NPG journals.

Open Access - one solution to exorbitate journal prices

Official resources about the ongoing issue:

A small selection of commentary by people smarter than me:

Is this the start of something?  I emailed the Chronicle of Higher Education article to the faculty listserv at my institution, and one person actually responded saying ‘thank you’ for sending along the article.  The library is just now formulating plans for an Open Access Week event on Campus – could this raise faculty awareness of some of these issues?

Is this what was needed to bring the problems with the scholarly research and publication economy to light?  Or will all of this be forgotten by the time the fall semester starts?

I guess we’ll find out.

Scholarly Communication: What can my library do right now?

In January, 2010, my library formed a Scholarly Communication Group, of which I am a member.  One of our first activities was to honor a recent faculty publication (Broadway : an encyclopedia of theater and American culture by Thomas Allen Greenfield) that involved many campus authors.  After this celebration, we have struggled a bit to find our role at this small liberal arts college.

WNY-O ACRL LogoIn search of a well defined purpose for our group, I attended the recent Spring Conference of the Western New York and Ontario chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (WNY-O ACRL).  The conference theme was “Getting the Word Out: Scholarly Communication and Academic Libraries.”  I was hoping to get some ideas of things that we could do NOW, and to look at how we might be able to grow our scholarly communication efforts over time.  I wasn’t disappointed.

What can we do now?

  • We can help faculty interpret their publishing contracts, suggesting the SPARC author addendum when appropriate.
  • We can do the research and legwork to help faculty find a good journal to publish something new in.  They are probably already familiar with journals in their primary research area, but if their interests lead them in new directions, we may be able to help find a publication venue that meets their needs.
  • We can recommend tools and programs to help scholars manage digital information.  Bookmarking from Delicious, Connotea or Diigo.  PDF and reference management with Zotero or Mendeley (among others).  Customizing research databases like Scopus.  And lots more.
  • We can recommend programs and tools to better enable intra- or inter- campus collaboration (webinar software, Google Docs, etc.)
  • We have always offered assistance with literature searching and research consultations, now these activities can be combined under a heading of Scholarly Communication Services

What do I want our library do in the future?

  • Develop an institutional repository for undergraduate presentations, faculty publications, conference posters and presentations and anything else that folks want to put in it.  We need to set up a repository, figure out how we will manage it, and what we want in it.
  • Work with faculty to develop plans and strategies for managing their research data (especially now that NSF grant applicants may be asked for a “Data Management Plan”).  We need to learn about data management.  I suspect that many of our current skills will transfer nicely, but I need to learn a bit about it.
  • Assist faculty with NIH Pub Med Central Deposits (this shouldn’t be too hard to get started with, but we have very few NIH grant recipients at the moment)
  • Present faculty colloquia about scholarly communication issues.  I think we are getting started on this.

The conference sessions also gave me some important insight about how to discuss scholarly communication issues with faculty and administrators.  Austin Booth and Charles Lyons from the University of Buffalo presented the results of some surveys and discussions they’ve done with faculty to gauge faculty interest and knowledge of scholarly communication issues.  The short story is that (no surprise) faculty aren’t particularly interested in the serials crisis.  They are interested in their own publishing opportunities.  As a result, the question of open access (either gold or green via institutional repositories) may best be framed in terms of the impact on faculty publication.  Although there is still some debate, the studies evaluating the impact of open access seem to point to an increase in citations to articles that are freely available.

Although it was brief (just one day) and small (no more than 50 participants) it was an excellent conference that gave me a lot of ideas for the future of scholarly communications in our library.

iPhone Apps for the Scientific Literature

There is no shortage of useful apps for scientists.  From compasses to calculators, the iPhone/iTouch has become a very useful tool for many scientists.

An increasing number of scientific literature producers are now offering Apps to let you search and read the scientific literature.  Here are a few:


iPhone sunset in the Andes
iPhone sunset in the Andes, courtesy of Flickr user Gonzalo Baeza Hernández


  • – Free – From Nature Publishing Group, the folks who bring you the journal Nature.  You can search and browse journals, and read articles for free (until April 30, 2010).
  • ACS Mobile – $2.99 – From the American Chemical Society.  Browse and search across all ACS publications, get the latest news items from C&E News, and read full text articles for institutional subscribers via institutional WiFi or VPN.
  • PubMed On Tap – $2.99 – One of several applications available for searching PubMed, this app allows you to easily view PDF documents from PubMed Central and email them to yourself for future use.  Advanced searching techniques are also supported.
  • arXiview, ArXiv, ArXivReader – $0.99, Free, $0.99 – Multiple apps allow you to search papers deposited in the e-print repository for physics, math, computer science and quantitative biology
  • iResearch – Free – Browse and search journal articles from American Institute of Physics publications.  Access articles via institutional subscriptions.  Download articles for offline reading.
  • IOPscience Express – Free – Browse and search articles from the last two years from Institute of Physics publications

While there are a lot of useful apps for geologists, including a host of statewide geologic map applications, I can’t find any apps to search the geoscience literature.  In addition, there are notable gaps from some of the big science publishers including Springer and Elsevier.

Update (5/5/2010): Scopus (the citation database from Elsevier) now has an iPhone app.  They launched a “lite” app a couple of weeks ago, and so far I can’t find a paid app, but I’m guessing one might be coming.

Faculty workshops, discussions and library initiatives: My big ideas and plans

In addition to my normal stuff (library instruction, reference, web design, committees) I’m been thinking about various discussions/workshops/plans for the future I’d like to pursue over the next few months:

lightbulb. Courtesy of Flickr user Tim Cummins
  • A faculty workshop about managing research and teaching information.  Most faculty are overwhelmed with information for their scholarly activities.  Some of them are familiar with citation managers (Endnote, Zotero, etc.) but not all.  I’d like to offer a workshop to discuss various free and not-free citation and document managers, as well as bookmarking tools like Connotea, CiteULike, delicious and Diigo.  I’ve explored many of these tools.  Some work for me, some don’t.  Faculty may appreciate being introduced to some of them.
  • A faculty workshop about creating assignments that effectively teach students literature research skills.  Some faculty aren’t interested in having a librarian come to their class and teach an information literacy session.  Would they be interested in how to make their assignments a bit better?  I recently chatted with a faculty member and gave him some feedback on a library assignment that he regularly gave his students – it hadn’t been updated in years, nor had he ever received feedback.  I was able to tell him what questions we were seeing at the reference desk.  He was thankful for the feedback.  I’m not sure that faculty would respond to a workshop like this, but it may be worth trying.
  • A series of campus-wide discussions.  The new “Scholarly Communication” group at my library is starting to think about ways to engage the college faculty and what role the library (and librarians) play in promoting/assisting/recognizing faculty scholarship.  We are talking about hosting (with the teaching and learning center) a discussion on open access.  Perhaps there could be a series of discussions about trends in Scholarly Communication:  digital humanities, sharing data, discovery of research via social networking, unusual new publications (incorporating video, for example).
  • Preserving student scholarship.  Each Spring, SUNY Geneseo hosts Great Day: “a college-wide symposium celebrating the creative and scholarly endeavors of our students.”  After Great Day, some of the posters are displayed for a year or two in the library or other academic buildings, but many are lost.  What if the library tried to preserve digital versions of these posters and presentations in an institutional repository?  What would be involved (organizationally)?  How do we deal with copyright?  What options do we offer students? Creative commons? Transfer copyright to Geneseo?  Maintain copyright?  Access?
  • Should I try to convince library staff to adopt an open access policy for their publications?  Gold?  Green?  (See Peter Suber’s excellent introduction to OA for definitions.)  Would folks object to such a policy?
  • I would love to have a discussion with library staff about the future of librarianship.  Recent discussions at the ScienceOnline2010 conference, friendfeed discussions, blog posts and other items make me think about where my profession is headed.  I would love to sit down with my colleagues to chat about it.  Trying to find a time when more than two or three of us can get together?  That’s the challenge.

There’s the list that I thought of this afternoon.  Nothing groundbreaking, but it should keep me busy for a little while.