Is there a better term for “scholarly communication”?

I’m not the first to be frustrated with the term “scholarly communication”. In brief, here are the problems that folks have identified:

  1. Pretty much everything that scholars do is communicate, so on the face of it, this phrase has a very wide scope. (I first heard this from Paul Courant.) However, it is usually used only in reference to communication between scholars, not between scholars and students or the public.
  2. The “crisis in scholarly communication” or “scholarly communication crisis” refers to superinflationary increases in the costs of subscriptions to licensed resources (especially journals from the major commercial publishers) and loss of leverage against “big deal” journal bundles from these publishers. This is only indirectly related to choices that scholars make in the way that they communicate with each other. A major factor in this, though, is that the superinflationary increases in costs are largely attributable to the fact that the authors and readers of these publications do not feel the cost pressures and therefore are unlikely to change their behavior in response. For most scholars, a more real crisis the “monograph crisis”: a perceived lack of acceptable publishing venues for new scholars, especially for first monographs, that will be acceptable to promotion & tenure committees.
  3. Librarians often use “scholarly communication” as short for “outreach related to scholarly communication”, grouping together various activities related to outreach to scholars on author rights, open access, the serials crisis, promoting your work to your peers, and maybe also the exploration of digitally-native forms of publishing. While these certainly have to do with how scholars communicate with each other, none of these is the same as the means or practice of communication between scholars.

In short, we’ve lumped together various things affecting us or which we do under a heading that is imprecise and too expansive to have a clear meaning to the folks (scholars) we are trying to reach out to. To be clear, I don’t mind when this is done internally in libraries: we all need shorthand so we can get on with our work. Still, how can we describe these activities more precisely to those we’re trying to reach? I’ve asked on scholcomm and on Twitter, and here are some ideas suggested by others (which I’ve unilaterally grouped according to the three problems above), mixed in with a few of my own:

  1. For just communication between scholars:
    • research communication or scientific communication (the latter of which is said to be more popular in the research literature outside of LIS)
    • science communication (but beware that this has another established meaning)
    • academic publishing or scholarly publishing (As someone wrote to me, scholars care about publishing specifically, not an abstract concept like communication.)
    • research dissemination (though this may be taken to mean something akin translational research)
  2. For the serials crisis:
    • the serials crisis
  3. For our outreach activities:
    • academic publishing issues
    • academic publishing and research support
    • publication and data services
    • the theory and practice of scholarship
    • social media for academics
    • scholarly engagement
    • various of these, depending on the audience:
      • digital archiving (when talking about an institutional repository)
      • publishing consulting
      • copyright and author rights
      • open access publishing
      • data management
      • data preservation
    • digital scholarship
    • the kitchen sink of what’s new with academic publishing and more

I’m always a bit afraid to use “scholarly” when talking to anyone but a humanities scholar since I sense that people in most other fields use “scientific” or “research” in these cases. So I like “research communication”. But I also like using “publishing” since this is indeed the operative work for academics.  They use it to mean specific credentialing activities that are not always tied to a “publisher” or even “making public”, but they all know what it means.

As for terms related to outreach activities, I think I like “academic publishing issues” and “the theory and practice of scholarship” the best.

One thought on “Is there a better term for “scholarly communication”?

  1. I recently heard Don Waters of the Mellon Foundation refer to an early instance of this term. I didn’t quite catch the citation, but I think it might have been to this: Scholarly Communication: The Report of the National Inquiry, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1979 and based on a three-year study led by Edward Booker. See a short description. While that study was funded by various organizations outside of libraries, I’m still skeptical that the term has much traction for most scholars. That said, J. Britt Holbrook recently argued to me that the term’s ambiguity to most practicing researchers is part of its usefulness—which I take to mean that a more direct term might end up being too limiting.

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