Mapping the Scholarly Communications Infrastructure
The idea behind this series was not just to illuminate the infrastructure work that enables, supports and reflects scholarly research but also to highlight how interconnected and interdependent this kind of work is. So it is fitting that, as the series wraps up, we hear about Mapping the Scholarly Communications Infrastructure, a characteristically collaborative, Mellon grant-funded effort of the Educopia Institute. PIs Mike Roy and David Lewis, along with Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of Educopia, describe a sweeping effort to identify and give visibility to the systems, services and people that power digital scholarship infrastructure.
Given the theme of greater involvement and collaboration we’ve heard so often in this series, I hope you’ve found it to be an engaging and useful resource for continuing efforts to improve the future of research communications.
Interview with Mike Roy, David Lewis and Katherine Skinner
Interview by Jennifer Kemp
What does ‘infrastructure’ mean to you, in the context of your efforts to map the scholarly communication ecosystem?
This project is primarily concerned with the systems and services that make scholarship discoverable, those that provide access to it, and those that preserve it. This includes physical systems such as computer systems and software, and also the human resources that assist in the use of these systems. In defining what is included there are several distinctions that need to be made. None of the distinctions is clear and there are gray areas. These include: 1. Infrastructure vs. content: 2. Tools for Creating scholarship vs. those for discovery, access, and preservation; 3. General application vs. specialization, and 4. Infrastructure inside institutions vs. regional, national, and international infrastructure.
How would you describe your efforts to map the scholarly communication ecosystem to people unfamiliar with it?
This project has piloted and modeled new approaches to “mapping” or making more visible the people, organizations, tools, and services that constitute “scholarly communication” today. We took a multi-tiered approach, coming at this rather large ambition from multiple directions simultaneously. We conducted a census of scholarly communication providers that allowed us to dive deeply into the organizational models, fiscal structures, governance environments, and community engagement of more than 40 service providers, and we published a report summarizing our findings and recommendations as well as a blog post with more informal perspectives. We also created and published a massive bibliographic scan including information about 206 tools, services, and systems that are instrumental to the publishing and distribution of the scholarly record. We also conducted focus groups with library leaders and a survey of libraries to better understand what investments they made in scholarly communication infrastructure and services.
The datasets and information we’ve gathered provide a crucial lens through which we can now better see the range of forms, functions, structures, and models across our system today. This new vantage point enables us also to formally assess some of the factors that influence the sustainability and “fit-for-purpose” of scholarly communication providers (tools and services) and to identify concrete tasks and activities that specific scholarly communication providers might engage in to improve their stability over time.
We also have made sure that our project outputs are open and available to build on, and they are actively being used at this point, including in the forthcoming Next Generation Library Publishing project’s release of a tool called the Scholarly Communications Technology Catalogue (ScomCat), which will assist potential technology users in making decisions about which technologies they will adopt by providing an overview of the functionality, organizational models, dependencies, use of standards, and levels of adoption of each technology. Educopia and the Next Generation Library Publishing project will be officially releasing this tool, which has been built by Paul Walk and will be hosted by COAR, in early 2021.
What is the one thing you wish ‘Silicon Valley’ would do or do differently to better support mapping scholarly communication?
We didn’t directly deal with “Silicon Valley”, but the firms and organizations that provide most of the infrastructure for digital scholarly communication are as a group not very transparent. It is nearly impossible to know how much money libraries and other concerned organizations should be paying for this infrastructure and whether or not they are getting a reasonable return for their investment. In addition, we were dismayed at the lack of technology standards needed to build end-to-end integrated workflows and systems.
What is the one thing you wish non-technical people understood better about the challenges of mapping the scholarly communication ecosystem?
Infrastructure is a public good and creating and maintaining it requires steady and ongoing resources, mostly money and people. Governments, foundations and institutions need to provide these resources or the infrastructure will not exist. There is an inclination to free ride and thus a collective action problem. If we don’t solve the collective action problem, we are doomed to concede this area to the commercial sector which understands why investing in infrastructure matters.
How can your work on mapping the scholarly communication ecosystem be adapted/expanded for other countries or regions?
We’ve actively been working exactly towards that end. We needed to start smaller, particularly given that this was a relatively small grant and project, and so we connected with several other “mapping” initiatives that were underway as we began in 2018, including John Maxwell’s work at Simon Fraser University, as well as similar efforts in Latin America and Europe As we finalized the Census, we began working with JROST on the then-emerging idea of “Invest in Open Infrastructure,” (IOI) in which all three of us have engaged deeply over the last year and a half. Now under Kaitlin Thaney’s adept leadership, IOI is exploring how an international effort might help provide more structure and support to our scholarly communication infrastructure. While we are keenly aware of the need to remain attentive to local needs and concerns, we think that with care it is possible and in fact critical to build a global network of networks.
Explain in some detail the issue you think is the most vexing/interesting/consequential/etc.
Just one? The challenge is how do we build a genuine scholarly communication infrastructure that provides scholars and researchers solid choices and well-supported, interoperable frameworks out of today’s “thousand flowers blooming” environment of many small, competing tools and communities. Mapping the landscape helps us to see and document just how fractured, ill-supported, and unsustainable it is as a whole. That is an early step towards change. We hope the work so many of us have been doing towards understanding the current landscape can inspire us to commit to unifying our efforts and resources in common directions for collective gain.
In a perfect world, how would scholarly communications be funded and governed?
The money that is invested in the infrastructure that supports digital scholarly communication, one way or another comes from research funders — governments, foundations, and institutions (mostly universities). Today they have a hard time knowing the impacts of the investments they make in the infrastructure. Some mechanism for evaluating the infrastructure providers effectiveness and efficiency is part of what we envision. The funding for this mechanism would probably best be provided by these funders as a means of auditing their investment. At least in the US and probably in most parts of the world, it is hard to imagine any organization stepping forward to govern this system. One reasonable alternative is to focus on standards, ensuring that developers have agreed upon methods and formats for moving data in and out of their systems, and allowing for interoperability, long-term preservation, and innovation to happen within the confines of these agreements.
What are your favorite blogs, conferences, Twitter accounts, etc. to keep with on the wider scholarly communication community?
I think each of us have some favorites…Read20 is always at the top of the list, and InfoDocket helps us stay informed about a range of projects and initiatives that we could never keep up with any other way. The Scholarly Kitchen is a reliable albeit often infuriating outlet for understanding how the commercial sector is thinking about this space, while the Open Access Tracking Project provides a fascinating, eclectic counterpoint to this corporate perspective. Back when there were actual conferences, we benefited from the connections we made at ELPub and the Library Publishing Coalition. And while it is expensive, we have over the years that the Coalition for Networked Information is a key organization for understanding broader trends.
Favorite little-known fact about or unsung hero of your efforts to map the scholarly communication ecosystem?
While we were by turns fascinated and frustrated by how challenging it was for the developers and librarians who shared their data with us to actually gather the information we were looking for, it is a testament to the generosity of spirit of these individuals that they took the time to do so. There is a false narrative about “the tragedy of the commons” which claims that efforts at collective action are doomed to fail without market incentives to motivate action. The fact that literally hundreds of individuals interested in a replacement for our currently broken system shared their data and their time is evidence that there is in fact reason to have hope, and to continue this effort.
What question do you wish we asked but didn’t and why?
In a world facing unprecedented threats from climate change, racial injustice, severe challenges to our democratic institutions, and growing economic disparity, why should anyone care about mapping the scholarly communication ecosystem? In other words, why does this effort matter? And we would argue that we have a faith in the power of research and the sharing of ideas as core to addressing the world’s most pressing problems, and that our current system, dominated by commercial interests, is not enabling the full power of the global research community to work together to face what are in reality existential threats.
More Information: Mike Roy, David Lewis, & Katherine Skinner
Mike Roy is responsible for leading the library in its support of Middlebury’s academic mission. This translates into spending time understanding what is going on both at Middlebury and in the broader world of higher education and libraries, and developing plans and budgets based on this understanding. Mike enjoys noontime soccer game, plays squash poorly, and from time to time plays guitar and is teaching himself the piano.
David Lewis retired after 42 years working in academic libraries of all sorts. He spent his last 24 years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis where he was Dean from 2000 to 2018. He is currently the co-PI on a Mellon funded project, “Mapping Digital Scholarly Communications Infrastructure.” He has published over 50 articles and book chapters. His book Reimagining the Academic Library was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016. In 2018 he was named the ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year.
Katherine Skinner is the Executive Director of the Educopia Institute, a not-for-profit educational organization that empowers collaborative communities to create, share, and preserve knowledge. She has helped to found a range of communities, including the MetaArchive Cooperative (2004-present), a community-owned and community-governed digital preservation network; the Library Publishing Coalition (2012-present), a membership organization that now supports library publishing and scholarly communications activities across more than 80 academic libraries; the BitCurator Consortium (2013-present), a community-led membership association that supports digital forensics practices in libraries, archives, and museums; and the Software Preservation Network (launching 2021), a community focused on the preservation of software.
The Educopia Institute fosters collaborative activities between libraries, museums, and other cultural memory organizations to advance the production, dissemination, and preservation of digital scholarship and scholarly resources. Established in 2006, the Educopia Institute currently hosts four programs: MetaArchive Cooperative, a distributed digital preservation network that ensures that today’s cultural record will be available to tomorrow’s scholars, researchers, and citizens; the Library Publishing Coalition, which is dedicated to advancing the emerging field of library publishing; Educopia Consulting, which helps a broad range of academic, research, and memory institutions to plan, implement, and assess their growing digital infrastructures and collections; and Educopia Research, which works to develop sustainable business models for collaborative work to advance digital access and preservation.