Student Perspectives: The evolution of scientific scholarly communication

Student Perspectives is our series of posts written by current CityLIS students. Mehreen Khalid analyses the factors for change in STEM scholarly publishing and communication, including Plan S and the Open Movement. She also considers how academia may change in a post-COVID-19 world. Mehreen is on Twitter @19Emkay.


Scholarly communication has undergone numerous changes over the course of history, from the introduction and proliferation of print material, to the widespread use of digital technologies and the advent of the internet. (Fyfe et al. 2017) Over the last thirty years, scholarly communication has been facing its newest change; open access (OA). (Suber 2012) With the amount of scholarly knowledge ever increasing and the cost to access it skyrocketing, the introduction and increasing presence of OA has been inevitable. (Lewis 2012) It is changing the mechanisms of scholarly communication, impacting on publishing, and resulting in changes with the propagation and access of research.
This essay will look at how scientific scholarly publishing has developed since the shift from print to digital and how informal avenues of scholarly communication are impacting on research dissemination and credibility. It will then consider OA initiatives freeing up research from behind paywalls and changing the nature of scholarly communication, and will conclude by exploring the implications publishers and library and information science (LIS) services will face and need to overcome to fully embrace OA within the field of Science.

The scientific scholarly publishing scene
One of the major milestones in scholarly communication has been the advent of the internet. (Bergamn 2006) By the 1990s its proliferation had resulted in a shift in publishing from traditional print books and journals to e-books and e-journals, which were cheaper and easier to disseminate. (Fyfe et al. 2017 and Wakeling et al. 2018) Libraries had more of their budget become available to purchase other resources and to reconfigure library spaces for other uses (e.g. installations of computer terminals). But with the sheer volume or scholarly research growing and continuous funding cuts, libraries could no longer keep up with maintaining a large amount of journal subscriptions. (Esposito 2018) And as publishers could no longer increase their prices for fear of losing their customers, the world of scholarly publishing plunged into the ‘serials crisis’. (Bergman 2006 and Fyfe et al. 2017)

In 1996, Academic Press offered a solution; the ‘Big Deal’, aimed at introducing three-year licences that allowed access to whole bundles of journals that were significantly cheaper than purchasing individual ones. In doing so, it offered libraries access to more information for their patrons, keeping them connected with the rest of the scholarly community, whilst at the same time easing the effect of their financial constraints. (Fyfe et al. 2017) But the Big Deal’s salvation was short-lived. Publishers had included clauses into their agreements that tied-in libraries as well as imposing restrictions on preservation, copying and sharing of resources, and non-disclosure agreements restricted the sharing of subscription costs between academic libraries. (Sang 2017) Scholarly publishing continued to become increasingly commercialised and soon libraries began to find an increasing amount of their budget taken up by journal subscriptions, some of which remained untouched by their patrons. As publishers continued to increase prices, libraries were forced to cancel subscriptions. (Poynder 2011 and Harington 2020) By this time, it was evident that the mechanisms of scholarly publishing had to change. (Laakso et al. 2011)

The advent of the internet offered greater means of research dissemination through social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and other avenues such as blog posts and wikis. (Swan 2006) These informal methods of communication have enabled research to be more widely disseminated than ever before. (Regazzi 2015) Where once only the end point of research was available, now all parts of the research lifecycle are visible, enabling research to be better understood and re-used. (Dempsey 2017) Libraries and their institutions have recognised the increasing use of informal channels of research dissemination, and as a consequence, students are increasingly using such sources of information to include in their academic works (e.g. dissertations and theses). (Nicholas 2019) But the majority of scholarly research still remains locked behind paywalls, and the issues of copyright and sharing prevents researchers from accessing and sharing their work freely. (Fyfe et al. 2017) It was the hope for freeing up scholarly research and the power of the Internet that gave rise to the open access (OA) movement. (Bergman 2006 and Bawden and Robinson 2012)

The OA movement
One of the earliest OA initiatives was the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in 1998, uniting almost 300 institutions to promote the open dissemination of scholarly research through fair pricing and ethical intellectual property management. SPARC helped to develop publishing models that offered low-cost journals and helped to increase the presence of non-profit scholarly publishing. (Bergman 2006) But the uptake of OA within the scientific fields was slow and it was acknowledged early on that OA would be a long process. (Davidson 2003) In 2001, the OA movement gained further momentum with the Budapest Open Access Initiative, seeking to act as a bridge between scholars wanting to publish their work for the sake of inquiry and the powers of the internet to do so. (Chan et al. 2002) The event brought together organisations and individuals from across the world ranging from journals, publishers, laboratories and scientists, joined forces to make scholarly research available online to everyone with no charge. (Redazione JLIS 2012)

Developments in OA have led to four different types of OA, Green OA, Gold OA, Platinum OA and Bronze OA (of which the Platinum and Bronze are newer introductions). (Bawden and Robinson 2012, Suber 2012 and Brock 2018) Green OA, where peer-reviewed articles are published in a journal that isn’t freely available, but a copy is archived into a repository (often the institutions own on). There can sometimes be embargo periods delaying the release of the OA version, which are free for the reader. (Bawden and Robinson 2012) Gold OA involves peer-reviewed articles that are published in a journal that the reader is free to read, but the author must pay an Article Processing Charge (APC). (Mukherjee 2010 and Suber 2012) Platinum OA refers to peer-reviewed articles published in a journal that is freely available and the author does not face a fee. This form of OA relies heavily on volunteers and funding to fulfil publishing tasks and roles. Of the four categories, Platinum OA is considered the best for OA, but because of its funding requirements, it can be hard to come by. (Bawden and Robinson 2012) Bronze OA is the newest category that makes up material that can be freely read but is often older material. (Brock 2018)
The benefits of OA are numerous. The first is that it has allowed scholarly research, that would otherwise have been locked behind paywalls and minor research areas, the chance to be freely available and accessible from multiple sources, thereby increasing research dissemination and author visibility. (Laakso et al. 2011 and Suber 2012) It has also helped to increase the impact of research and raise awareness about authors in an alternative way to traditional publishing with journal impact factors (JIF), that some may have missed out on. (Wakeling et al. 2018) This, it is hoped, will help change how research is regarded, moving its value away from where it is published, to what it is itself. (Hawkes 2019) And OA has crucially helped shift the cost of publishing away from academic libraries to somewhat ease their rescinding budgets. (Stern and O’Shea 2019)

The nature of scientific scholarly publishing
OA has significantly helped to highlight the need for scholarly research to be freely available, but progression within scientific fields have been limited. (Chan et al. 2013) Much scientific research is still kept behind paywalls, preventing its access by the researchers who helped produce it and the public, whose tax contributions and participation in clinical trials has helped develop it. (Guédon 2008, Schiltz 2018 and Day et al. 2020) This could be because of the hierarchical and commercially-driven nature of scientific publishing within which researchers are at the mercy of publishers (Buranyi 2017) Publishers have great influence over scientific scholarly research and subsequently how the field of science progresses. (Davidson 2003) Keen to be recognized within the prestige-driven field, and have their research appear in journals with high impact factors, researchers line up their research and submissions to meet publisher requirements, with very few confident to take alternative routes. (Buranyi 2017, Fyfe et al. 2017 and Wakeling at el. 2018)

As the commercial interests of publishers do not align with LIS principles, ethical issues of access to research and its preservation plague scientific communication and publishing. (Eve 2014) With the hope to change this, the Research Excellency Framework (REF) imposed, from April 2016, the necessity for all published research to be made freely available in institutional repositories (IRs) if they are to be considered compliant with their funding agreements. (HEFCE 2016) But libraries are increasingly buying into IR platforms from third parties, such as publishers, (Dempsey 2014) Only time will tell if the ethical issue of access to information and preservation that currently plague e-books and e-journals offered by third parties will also similarly affect IR platforms offered by them too. If it does, it may mean research dissemination and communication could also incur privacy threats that the use of e-books and e-journals are prone to.

Plan S
Plan S was formed to speed the transition to OA within the scientific community. (Wise and Estelle 2020) Developed by cOAlition S, it is an OA initiative within scientific publishing to ensure, from 2021, that funded research (through public and private grants) is immediately OA with authors retaining copyright over their works. (Plan S 2018) It is backed by a host of global funding agencies which will hopefully help with its uptake. (Hawkes 2019) Under Plan S it is hoped that the cost of publication will be transparent and based solely on publishing services, such as peer-review and editing. (Schiltz 2018 and Prevoo, Aardening and Wijk 2020) Funders will be able to set a cap on these costs with the aim of diminishing high publication costs which traditional publishers include brand value with. (Hawkes 2019) Plan S pioneers are optimistic that it will herald in a new era where scientific research is immediately and freely disseminated and accessible by everyone. With a greater uptake of OA in the Scientific fields and help to overturn the power-play of publishers in dominating scientific communication. (Tennant 2019)
The nature of scientific publishing will be a barrier to OA uptake in scientific fields and will need to be considered carefully by policymakers. For example, the Plan S initiative is restrictive in only allowing funded research to be published in OA journals, and researchers feel this may hinder rather than help the OA cause. (Gòmez-Fernàndez 2019) Policy makers will need to implement policies that encourage change rather than force it to help bring out scientific scholarly communication from its traditional ways. (Hill 2016) Plan S founders have acknowledged the limitations in their movement and have begun working towards transparency about OA publishing and their pricing and begun a pilot study for the transition. (Plans S 2020)

Implications for publishing
A major implication that publishers will face is the potential decrease in the number of submissions they receive which could affect them financially. Publishers support the aims of OA and Plan S, but disagree with the details of their implementation, and the short time frame before Plan S’s introduction. Springer Nature state that they would not be able to lower APC fees to a rate that funders would be happy with as their cost of publishing one article is between 10,000 and 30,000 euros, and so Plan S would render their business models unfeasible. (Else 2019) Critics believe that these costs are highly inflated and include brand value to increase profit margins and that publishers will need to come up with better business models to suit the looming OA publishing climate, instead of digging their heels in and opposing it. (Hawkes 2019 and Wise and Estelle 2020)
Current OA publishing models make it cheaper to publish in OA journals than non-OA as there is not charge to the reader. (Mukherjee 2010 and Van Noorden 2013) But APC business models are not completely viable, particularly for the financially disadvantaged. In poorer countries, authors may be unable to pay APC or acquire funding for it. (Larivière and Sugimoto 2020) Researchers will also be restricted in where they will be able to publish their works, as under Plan S any funded work will only be able to be published in OA journals. These will significantly disadvantage poorer and under-funded nations and individuals. (Hawkes 2019) With the inability to pay publication fees and no alternative place to publish, it may mean that some authors’ research will receive little, if any, recognition and circulation amongst the scholarly community. (Else 2018) It could lead to a negative impact on research dissemination, making it one-sided, like traditional publishing, in favour of the financially prosperous. Gómez-Fernàndez (2019 p.842) highlights that ‘it is evident journals cannot be published without cost…somebody must pay for this.’ Therefore, and OA publishing will need to be developed into a sustainable financial model for everyone if it is to survive in the long run and stay to true its ‘open’ name. (Larivière and Sugimoto 2020)

Some publishers have begun preparing for such OA implications by utilizing Big Data, analytics and search tools to offer research discovery services to increase the efficiency and efficacy of research dissemination and discovery. (Hunter 2018) This is particularly important for the scientific fields where research is face-paced. But it will be important for researchers not to repeat the mistake of the past. They will need to ensure that with the transition to OA they maintain control over their publishing and communication and consequently how they steer their fields. (Hunter 2018 and Stern and O’Shea 2019)

The Year 2020
At the time of writing, the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has spread to almost every country on the planet and has killed hundreds of thousands of people. In the race to develop a vaccine, major players within Scientific publishing; Springer Nature and Taylor and Francis, have made their COVID-19 research free to access. (Springer Nature 2020 and Taylor and Francis Group 2020) The pandemic has initiated a world-wide movement in the freedom of access to research in a way no OA movement has ever done and may ever do. The threat to mankind has highlighted the need for research to be open now and in the future, to benefit society and societal challenges. (Plan S 2020)

Implications for library and information science (LIS) services
The founding principles of LIS align with the agenda of OA, and coupled with the skill set of librarians and their role as champions for OA, it places libraries in a prime position for helping to embrace and propel the acceptance of the OA movement, and solidify their evolving role as publishers. (Way 2010, Cryer and Collins 2011 and Hawkes 2019) As advocates they can negotiate licensing agreements to include OA language. (Walters 2013) As developers they can be at the fore front of setting up and maintaining IRs to store OA works and educate researchers in self-archiving. (Cryer and Collins 2011) By taking on a role as publishers, libraries can tackle the issues of access to scholarly research and its preservation that currently plague e-books and e-journals.

As OA shifts the cost of publishing from the reader to the author, it may cause problems for research dissemination. (Bennett 2013) Authors unable to pay publishing fees may rely on informal channels of scholarly communication (e.g. social media), to convey their works. But such channels cannot always be trusted as they are not subject to peer-review and can be accessed and created by anyone (including fake news outlets). This poses a risk to the integrity of scientific research as ‘the future of scholarly communication is…central to the future of research itself’. (Hill 2016 p.366) OA pioneers will need to prepare and plan for this as the digitally networked era is making the spread of fake news infinitely easier. (Flamini, 2019) The greater use of informal research sources will require libraries to provide information and digital literacy for their patrons to equip them with skills to detect the credibility and reliability of information sources and the dangers of predatory journals and how to avoid falling prey to them. (Hill 2016) They can increase OA content discovery from credible sources, by making available OA journals that are listed in the directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) within their library catalogues, (Raju, Nyahodza and Claasen 2018) and by integrating their IRs with the library catalogue. (Makula 2018)

Additionally, OA research will need to be will available in standard forms to enable its re-use. (Johnson 2010) OA versions of research, particularly those within IRs are available in HTML format, but researchers prefer PDF formats. (Aalbersberg 2013) Similarly, the use of OA research made available through social media may be hindered if it is not available in a standardized format so its credibility can be easily ascertained. (Hill 2016) Libraries may be able to help by developing a standardized system for storing and archiving OA research and enhancing its discoverability.

The ethical test for libraries will come in the form of illegal OA resources, such as Sci-Hub. Set up by an OA enthusiast Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub is a research piracy website that allows illegal access to scholarly research. Although it does provide freely available scholarly research, it is still fundamentally a criminal champion of OA. Libraries, particularly the financially challenged, may shift the gaze of their patrons towards such resources to provide them the research they cannot afford. Even without such constraints, the simple user-friendly interface of SciHub is luring many more people in, growing in size and popularity, posing potential issues for libraries. (Himmelstein et al. 2018) If places like SciHub can offer research for free, institutions may see that their libraries could save money by implicitly utilising such sources and may reallocate library budgets to other areas. (Esposito 2018)

OA is making scientific scholarly communication more open, freeing up scientific research from behind paywalls for the benefit of human-kind. Libraries’ evolving role as publishers and their stewardship of IRs is increasing the visibility of the entire research cycle, resulting in the greater dissemination of scientific research and enhanced author visibility. But the lack of clarity, standardization and financially viable OA publishing models may hinder the dissemination of research by everyone and for everyone. Policy makers will need to ensure that the transition to OA will maintain the credibility of scientific research and integrity of the fields to which they belong. With the field of LIS at the helm of the OA movement, scholarly communication can be steered to ensure its true openness and accessibility for everyone.


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About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science. He teaches at several universities including City, Rose Bruford College, and UEL. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. You can learn more about Joseph's work at
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