Last week G. Sayeed Choudhury, Associate Dean for Library Digital Programs at Johns Hopkins University, came to Duke to talk with the staff of the Libraries about e-scholarship and the changing role of the university library as part of our strategic planning process. His presentation and conversations were fascinating, and we were left with a great deal of thought-provoking material to consider. I was particular struck by one observation, which was actually Choudhury quoting from a 2004 article that appeared in D-Lib Magazine by Herbert Van de Sompel, Sandy Payette, John Erickson, Carl Lagoze and Simeon Warner. In the article, “Rethinking Scholarly Communications,” the authors assert their belief that “the future scholarly communications system should closely resemble — and be intertwined with — the scholarly endeavor itself, rather than being its after-thought or annex.” The article further makes the point, perhaps more obvious now that it was five years ago, that “the established scholarly communications system has not kept pace with these revolutionary changes in research practices.”
In developing this point, Choudhury talked about the traditional research article as a “snapshot” of research. Those snapshots are increasingly far-removed from the actual research process and have less and less relevance to it. Indeed, the traditional journal article seems more like a nostalgia item every day, reflecting the state of research on a particular topic as it was at some time in the past but beyond which science will have moved long before the formal article is published, thanks, in part, to the many informal ways of circulating research results long before the publication process is completed.
Choudhury called on libraries to move past a vision of themselves as merely a collection of these snapshots and become more active participants in the research process. He recounted a conversation he had with one researcher who, in focusing on the real need he felt in his own work, told Sayeed that he did not care if the library ever licensed another e-journal again, but he did need their expertise to help preserve and curate his research data. The challenge for libraries is to radically rethink how we spend our money and allocate the expertise of our staffs in ways that actually address felt needs on our campuses and do not leave us merely pasting more snapshots into a giant photo album that fewer people every day will look at.
Recently I have seen a lot of fuss over an article that appeared in the Times Higher Education supplement that posed the question “Do academic journals pose a threat to the advancement of science?” The threat that the article focuses on is the concentration of power in a very few corporate hands that control the major scientific journals. But read in the context of the radical changes that Choudhury, Van de Sompel and others are describing, it is clear that the threat being discussed is not a threat to the advancement of science but to the advancement of scientists. Scholars and researchers have already found a way around the outmoded system of scholarly communications that is represented by the scientific journal. The range of informal, digital options for disseminating research results will not merely ensure but improve the advancement of science. All that is left for the traditional publication system to impede is the promotion and tenure process of the scientists doing that research.
This, of course, is the rub, especially for libraries. Traditional scientific journals are increasingly irrelevant for the progress of science, but they remain the principal vehicle by which the productivity of scholars is measured. One researcher told Choudhury very frankly that the only reason he still cared about publishing in journals was for the sake of his annual review. Sooner or later, one hopes that universities will wake up to the tremendous inefficiency of this system, especially since the peer-reviewing on which such evaluations depend is already done in-house, by scholars paid by universities but volunteering their time to review articles for a publication process with diminishing scholarly relevance. Nevertheless, the promotion and tenure system still relies, for the time being, on these journals, which presumably cannot survive if libraries begin canceling subscriptions at an even faster rate. The economy may force such rapid cancellations, but even if it does not, pressure to move to a more active and relevant role in the research process will. The question librarians must ask themselves is whether supporting an out-dated system of evaluating scholars is a sufficient justification for the millions of dollars they spend on journal subscriptions. Even more urgently, universities need to ask if there isn’t a better, more efficient, way to evaluate the quality of the scholars and researchers they employ.