Challenging the definitions of publishing

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Academic libraries are increasingly launching their own publishing programmes, explains Sarah Lippincott

Libraries have a long history of stewarding scholarly literature. Increasingly, they are applying their knowledge of and investment in the scholarly communications process to launch their own publishing programs that disseminate unique and original content and showcase their campus’ contributions to knowledge. Library publishing may look very different, in some cases, from traditional academic publishing, but as the Library Publishing Coalition’s growing membership attests, it has found a valuable and expanding niche.

Recently, a number of libraries in the United States have launched their own university presses or imprints, a model that had previously been more common in the UK and Australia. Lever Press, an initiative launched by the Oberlin Group colleges aims to build and sustain a digitally native, platinum OA press that publishes works 'aligned with the liberal arts college ethos.'

The University of Cincinnati Press, launched by the university library, will publish peer-reviewed, transdisciplinary works with 'a focus on publishing in social justice and community engagement.' Add to these the more than 30 university presses that now report to their libraries, and there’s no question that many academic libraries are directly engaging activities that meet traditional definitions of publishing.

Not all library publishers have taken up the gauntlet of traditional scholarly publishing. In fact, most have adopted models that aim to complement, rather than compete with, commercial publishers and university presses. Platinum open access journal publishing is by far the most common activity for library publishers, but many libraries also boast active monograph publishing programs alongside considerable work in publishing grey literature, data, student work, and digital humanities projects.

Libraries have brought new models to the table – models infused with the values and principles of academic librarianship, models designed to fill gaps in the publishing landscape, models designed to leverage the unique skills and positioning of libraries.

Many library publishing initiatives could be described as publishing services, in that they put less emphasis on acquiring, managing, and owning a coherent portfolio of work and more on providing the necessary technologies and support to facilitate content creation and dissemination. Libraries often host peer reviewed journals alongside student theses, open access monographs alongside white papers and technical reports. The most basic level of service requires only that the library make available a publishing platform, such as an institutional repository or an instance of open journal systems (OJS). However, libraries commonly provide a suite of services related to the processes of production, hosting, and distribution, as well as training, guidance, and advising on technology, copyright, peer review, and other relevant topics. The precise roster of services varies widely, often depending on the skills and capacity of the library staff and the specific needs of their campus.

Library publishers favour lightweight workflows, often both by preference and by necessity. Scepticism about whether libraries can legitimately claim to be publishers is often rooted in the argument that publishing entails much more than making content public. Library publishers challenge this notion by focusing on digital publication, often dispensing with print entirely, and eschewing services that most other publishers consider integral parts of the enterprise, including notification of abstracting and indexing services, copy-editing, typesetting, print-on-demand, marketing and publicity, and graphic design. However, it is the emphasis on lightweight, no frills workflows that helps keep costs low and gives library publishers their characteristic agility. Authors and editors bear more of the burden for amassing and shaping content, but also retain nearly complete control over their work.

Pushing the boundaries of what is considered publishing may in fact be one of library publishing’s greatest strengths. Libraries explicitly embrace experimental publications, media-rich content, and content that is otherwise neglected by traditional academic publishing. Most library publishers are fully subsidised by their institution, meaning they are not driven by the need to generate revenue. Libraries can therefore publish works that don’t fit in another publisher’s list, addressing gaps in and contributing to the diversity of the scholarly record.

In order to attract high quality publications and build a robust market for their services, library publishers must define their unique value proposition. For many library publishers, this comes back to their service-orientation. Library publishers generally boast the least restrictive licenses, embrace experimental publications, and offer unparalleled flexibility and attention to author needs.

Harriett Green, English and digital humanities librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign considers flexibility the greatest asset of her publishing program. According to Green: 'Our authors see a lot more behind the scenes and have more input throughout the process. Because our publishing program is nascent, our authors have a real chance to shape our workflows and how we work with them. We are truly author-driven.'

The question of whether library publishing is (or should be) a core library service remains open. Publishing takes a huge amount of labour, it’s rarely profitable or financially sustainable at a small scale, it seems to be in a constant state of crisis between technology disruptions, changes in reader preferences, and a saturated market. Meanwhile, the typical library budget is flat or declining, new staff positions can be hard to come by, and libraries face no shortage of new demands on their time and capacity, from taking on campus data management support to developing information literacy programs that address the needs of twenty-first century learners. Is it wise, in this context, to take on another auxiliary function? Is it strategic to prioritise publishing when making difficult decisions about resource allocation?

Whether any specific version of library publishing is the right choice for a given library depends largely on institutional context, mission, and existing resources. However, it is clear that the role of the library in the creation of new scholarly and creative work, by providing tools, services, and dissemination channels to students and faculty, has indeed become a new core service area and a way for the library to demonstrate its unique value on campus. In recent years, many libraries have shifted their focus from providing access to book and journal collections (both physical and digital) to providing value-added services and access to unique content.

Many libraries see publishing as a worthwhile investment in service of both local needs and the greater good. As a campus service, publishing aligns well with the values and skills at the core of the library profession and represents a strategic means of fulfilling the library’s commitment to access and stewardship. It is a natural complement to institutional repository, data curation, digital scholarship, scholarly communications, and information literacy programs. Beyond campus, library publishing addresses unmet needs and gaps in the scholarly record. Library publishing provides a home for content that might not otherwise see the light of day, regardless of its scholarly merit or potential impact.

From grey literature and student work, to journals on arcane topics, to encyclopedic collections of primary source material, libraries embrace the unprofitable, the informal, and the esoteric. Their entrepreneurial bent also provides space for experimentation, producing new and innovative publications that leverage the possibilities of networked information. As they challenge accepted definitions of scholarly publishing, libraries are leading the transformations that will enhance the value of scholarly communication for researchers, students, and society.

Sarah Lippincott is a scholarly communication and digital scholarship consultant