Scholarly publishing and communication

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"Traditionally, the medical journal has been used by both clinicians and researchers as the preferred vehicle for keeping up with the latest developments ... the contents of medical journals have been systematically indexed for more than 100 years. The role of the journal in the biomedical communication cycle is self-evident, and that role has been expanded profoundly by automated information retrieval." Brandon AN, Hill DR. Selected list of books and journals for the small medical library. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1985. Apr; 73:(2):176–205.

What is scholarly publishing?

Scholarly publishing is a process by which new knowledge is created and disseminated (see this wiki). In biomedicine, the scholarly communication cycle begins with new ideas about how to treat patients (ie. using new drugs), clinical problems or questions that researchers want to answer. Researchers start the process by writing grant proposals and by making formal application to funding agencies. Often, the key to applying for funding stems from cumulating the evidence from the literature, identifying new areas or 'gaps' in medical knowledge and formulating research questions. After these questions are posed, identifiable goals and objectives for the research are developed. Once research funding is secured and the research itself conducted, the researcher engages in the formal sharing of findings by publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals or scholarly monographs. Research publications provide the foundation from which future scholarship is carried out and directed, commencing once again in the process described above.

What does ARL say?

According to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), scholarly publishing is defined as: "The creation, dissemination, and application of new knowledge ... fundamental to the development of an informed citizenry and a healthy global economy. Institutions of higher education exist to fulfill these functions. From the lab to the classroom to industry to the public, the advancement of knowledge through research and teaching is an invaluable contribution made by higher education to the public good. Scholarly publishing is the process through which newly discovered knowledge is refined, certified, distributed to, and preserved for researchers, professors, students, and the public."


Although great scientists have written books for millenia, the history of the scientific journal can in fact be traced back a few hundred years. One of the earliest scientific journals was the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665. The word "philosophical" in the title derives from the phrase "natural philosophy", which was the equivalent of what we would now generically call "science". In the 17th century, the act of publishing scientific papers was controversial. It was not unusual, for example, for new discoveries to be announced secretly using code-words and anagrams whose purpose was to protect the identity of discoverers; often, the codes were indecipherable for anyone except insiders in on the discovery. In fact, Isaac Newton and Leibniz used this approach. Secrecy had enormous implications for subsequent research and scholarship. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist, found that 92% of cases of simultaneous discovery in the 17th century ended in disputes. Disputes dropped in number to 72% in the 18th century, 59% by the latter half of the 19th century, and 33% by the first half of the 20th century. The decline in contested claims in research discoveries can be credited to the increasing acceptance of the publication of papers in modern academic journals. The Royal Society was steadfast in its belief that science could only move forward through a transparent and open exchange of ideas backed by evidence. It is this principle that has been a motivating, driving force for researchers for hundreds of years. In 2008, STM publishing is a frequently-used abbreviation for publications in science, technology, and medicine.

What is a scholarly paper?

A scholarly paper refers to an academic or scholarly work that is usually published by a respected journal. Typically, a good paper is an original piece of research, and formatted using a structured abstract. In some cases, a paper distills the research that has already been published - generally called a review. In medicine, the systematic cumulation and overview of research in a given area that uses a specific methodology is referred to as a systematic review. Academic papers are also called journal articles. However, all scholarship is not considered equal; at the top of the pyramid of reliability and validity are articles that have been been put through an official peer review process. In fact, most of the seventeen (17) million research articles indexed in MEDLINE are peer-reviewed, and those that are not are clearly identified in the indexing. Peer review means that the papers are reviewed by several referees who are usually experts in the field. The goal of peer review is to ensure that the research is ready for publication, that it has followed appropriate methods and is an original piece of research. Academic papers undergo a series of reviews, edits and re-submissions before being accepted or rejected. The process can take several months, or as much as a year particularly for journals where the number of acceptable articles outnumbers the space for printing.

Peer review

Peer review is a central concept in most academic publishing. Scholars in a specific field must find that a work is sufficiently high in quality for it to merit publication. The rejection rate at most medical journals is extremely high (about 90%). The peer review process is also supposed to guard against plagiarism. Failures in peer review, while increasingly problematic can be scandalous. The process of academic publishing is divided into two distinct phases. The process of peer review is organized by the journal editor and is complete when the content of the article, together with any associated images or figures, are accepted for publication. The peer review process is increasingly managed online, through the use of proprietary systems, or commercial software packages such as ScholarOne, Aries Editorial Manager, or EJournalPress. Some academics assert that the peer review process is in crisis. The proliferation of publications and open access models has led to a huge burden of peer review among academics.

Impact of open access and web 2.0

According to John Willinsky "Open access to research represents one of the real advances ... over older publishing systems. This access will, after all, support scholarly inquiry on far more of a global basis. It will provide specialized knowledge to professionals and the public at large, especially in such areas as health, justice, welfare, education, and other areas; just as this open access will, more generally, support people's educated curiosity and interests."

Open access (OA) is the opposite to commercial publishing although it is not a foregone conclusion that it means not-for-profit. OA is also known as "author-pays" or "paid on behalf of author" where a publication charge is paid by authors, their university departments (or library) or the agency that funded the research. Online access to individual articles is provided without a 'per-view' charge to readers or libraries. Commitment to the open access model means dispensing with the financial, technical and legal barriers designed to limit access to academic materials to subscribers. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) and BioMed Central are prominent and successful examples of the open model.

Some medical journals, particularly newer ones, are only published electronically - see Open Medicine. It is customary these days for paper journals to also be made available electronically for individual subscribers and libraries. Sometimes the e-version is accessible as part of the print subscription and sometimes it is a separate subscription. Many electronic versions of print journals are available immediately upon publication of or before the paper version. Sometimes they are made available to non-subscribers after an embargo period to protect against loss of subscriptions. Journals having this delayed availability are generally called delayed open access journals.

An additional form of open access is the offering of 'pre-print' copies of papers for free download from authors' personal websites or institutional repositories. Recent developments at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have made it a requirement for authors to make their publications open access within six months of publication. Where journals are not open access, authors have an additional option to self-archive their papers or deposit them in repositories such as PubMedCentral.


In some academic disciplines, the traditional journal may be an inefficient model for the timely sharing of research and knowledge for scholars. Typically, a journal publication can take to a year or more to move through peer review and final copyediting. American health librarian Marcus Banks suggests that a better course may be .."to develop and nurture excellent blogs". This could be an entirely new blog that starts from scratch, or an established journal that evolves into a combined web 2.0 platform, both blog and wiki. For more discussion, see Walt Crawford's Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, August 2007

Wiki models

The Academic Publishing wiki offers aspiring authors an opportunity to experiment with wiki models. There have been a number of books published in recent years using wiki and blog technologies. One of the important goals of web 2.0 is democratization of monolithic processes such as academic publishing, and to speed up the publication process. The idea is to infuse the process with more transparency and change the way that academics view knowledge creation and scholarly communication in an increasingly social web. In biomedicine, there are a number of standard and expert-moderated wiki projects currently in development.

Academic publishing must address a number of issues around incompatibility of wiki technology with existing publishing frameworks and processes. This will involve helping academics to make the transition to 'doing things differently' in the information age. Further, adapting wiki technology to the goals of publishing peer-reviewed articles is still a long way off. Traditional academic publishing has a large cultural momentum that tends to lock scholars into existing systems. Academic publishing must create ways of helping communities of scholars to experiment with wiki environments. (For some background on wikis in medicine, see the entry on wikis.)

The future of STM publishing

In the 21st century, academic publishing is making a radical shift as it transitions from primarily print to electronic formats. Health librarians can take a prominent role in communicating important STM publishing trends to their user groups and to their academic and hospital administrations. Clearly, a first step is to stay current with these trends. The entire publishing cycle has been destabilized by the ability to publish instantly and freely using web 2.0 tools, especially blogs and wikis, which health librarians should also experiment with and evaluate.

Traditional business ('per-unit-profit') economic models will change markedly in the emerging digital environment. As more innovative business models are used to shore up declining revenues from the loss of print subscriptions, watch for innovative hybrid publishing arrangements in medicine such as the advertising revenue model of Elsevier's OncologySTAT.

The roles of health librarians

Since the 1990s, licensing of resources, databases and journals has increasingly taken time away from health librarians' traditional duties such as ordering print books and answering reference questions. A counterbalance to this new workload, particularly with respect to collecting and maintaining scholarly journals, is dealing with journal publications that are offered freely and openly which require little or no processing.

What open access projects do require on the part of health librarians is greater awareness of STM publishing trends. New open access STM journals may be offered by health libraries in the future through their cataloguing efforts but some aspects of this work are dispensed with, such as license negotiation, serials check-in and ordering and some technical processing aspects. (Some health librarians already recognize the need to include OA journals in their online catalogues.)

Health librarians can take more prominent roles in STM publishing. Some health librarians are closely involved in completing systematic reviews with clinicians, and publish that research in open access journals. Still, others are adding their blogging skills (such as Dean Giustini at Open Medicine blog) to collaborate with physicians in STM publishing projects.

The open access movement has not taken hold in the publishing of scholarly monographs as it has in journal publishing. But several digitization projects such as Google Book Search change the very nature of monographic publishing and digital copyright. Two main types of open access will likely dominate over the next few years: open access publishing, where articles or the entire journal is free from time of publication; and self-archiving, where authors make their work freely available online through personal websites or institutional repositories.


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