By any other name?

Last week Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries (and formerly Provost) at the University of Michigan, posted a thoughtful blog entry on “Why I hate the phrase scholarly communications.” He is kind enough to say some nice things about this blog in his post, for which we are grateful, but I don’t want to let the glow of flattery distract me from addressing the excellent point he is making. “Scholarly communications” is a confusing term that conveys very little information to anyone outside of a circle of initiates within academia.

Even amongst the handful of academic libraries that have appointed positions with scholarly communications in the title there is wide variation in how that role is understood. For some a scholarly communications officer is primarily a copyright consultant, for others an advocate for digital publishing, for some an advocate for legislative change and for yet others a collections librarian trying to deal with alternative publications and journal subscriptions. As Courant points out, what all the various tasks have in common is attention to the business of scholarly publishing – the economic, legal and physical mechanisms by which scholarship is disseminated. Functionally, one might call a scholarly communications program that point (or points) at which an academic library is engaged with scholarly publishing in a role other than as a consumer.  Attention to this bundle of concerns, however, extends well beyond the library at many institutions, and it must do so if real change is to occur.

At Duke we became aware of the naming problem when the new Libraries’ home page included a link for “Scholarly Communications” that was very seldom followed.  We decided to rename that link “Copyright and Publishing” — the topics actually discussed in this space — in hopes of attracting more readers. Certainly for faculty the latter name identifies concerns they often are very conscious of, while the former likely does not.  I sometimes wonder if “Copyright and Publication Librarian” might not be a more accurate and descriptive title for my position.  Yet in the final analysis I am not ready to scrap the phrase “scholarly communications” just yet.

Terms of art are always difficult to handle. To take an example from my other profession, which is laden with them, a lawyer writing a brief who wants to argue that some element of her case is so obvious that no evidence for it need be adduced will use the phrase “res ipsa loquitur”; if she does not, a court will think her poorly trained. But if she uses it when talking to a client, she is guilty of poor professional judgment; attorneys must avoid obfuscation when explaining law and strategy to lay people. Terms of art are shorthand means of communication within a community of practitioners but they require explanation and clarification outside that “inner circle.” If we were to adopt Courant’s suggestion that we simply speak of “publishing” instead of scholarly communications, we would encounter a different confusion, but the same need to explain to the uninitiated exactly what we mean. Scholarly communications is now a recognized term within much of the academy, but like many such terms it is foreign to those outside the ivy-covered walls. I plan to continue to treat my oddly uncommunicative title as a teaching opportunity and decide in each instance whether I am better served by using it (and often having to explain what it means) or by substituting a longer but more descriptive phrase in those situations where the term of art will fail entirely to gain attention from the audience I am seeking.