The evolution of scientific scholarly communication

***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. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative ***


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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Canons and Fan Studies

***This post is written by Kimberley Chiu who analyses how fan fiction is changing artistic canons in relation to the Marvel and Star Wars expanded universes. Kimberley is on Twitter @kimberley_chiu. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative ***


Authorship is considered a collaborative endeavour in the infosphere. What impact is this having on the ways information is valued?

The growth and development of the infosphere has had a profound impact on the relationship between people and the information they create, curate, and receive – one which is in many ways exemplified in the shifting relationship between fans and canon. Canon, or “a source, or sources, considered authoritative by the fannish community”, is a record of “what fans agree ‘actually’ happened” (Fanlore 2020) in a fictional text or property; in other words, canon is information which is considered ‘true’ in the context of a fictional universe. The concept of canon relies on an approach to narrative which, “while recognising [a] story’s constructedness, treats it as if its narrative world were a real place that can be inhabited and explored” (Jenkins 2013, 115), and which thus can contain and produce information which functions in an identical way to information about the real world. This essay will explore the ways in which such information is valued by the fans who engage with it, and how this engagement affects and is affected by various approaches to authorship within fandom.

While ideas about the nature and importance of fictional information certainly existed before and outside of the infosphere, the rapid growth of online fandom and the increasing ubiquity of pop cultural discussion and analysis driven by digital publishing trends have made them much more prominent within, and even outside of, fan communities. The proliferation of headlines like “Avengers: Endgame writers clarify Captain America’s ending” (Chichizola 2019), “How Captain Marvel Changes What We Know About of the MCU” (Stone 2019), and “How much did Doctor Who’s The Timeless Children actually change canon?” (Jeffrey 2020) reflect a growing focus on the construction and amendment of canon as a way of consuming, and a reason to consume, fictional media. Implicit in each of these headlines is the assumption that stories are valuable not only as forms of art or entertainment but also as sources of fictional facts – and, indeed, that such facts have value in themselves. To read or watch a show thus becomes an exercise in finding and collecting the facts contained within the story; the consumption of narrative is, in the infosphere, increasingly becoming a form of information work.
The transformation of fans from audience members to information workers is one of the many ways in which concepts of authorship and authority have become increasingly contested within fandom. The growing interest in canon has also foregrounded issues of authority; canon is, after all, fundamentally an authorised text, and thus implies the existence of an author or definitive authorising force. This force is often assumed to be the rights-holder of a fictional property, especially for franchises where each individual instalment may have its own creator or creators: in the case of Star Wars, for example, it is Lucasfilm and its parent company Disney, rather than any individual creative involved in the series, who is generally considered by fans to be the author of canon. This is in large part due to the rights-holder’s exclusive ability to approve, or not approve, the use of a brand name or other “official” mark of validity in any given work. Instances in which rights-holders have demonstrated this ability, such as when the entirety of the Star Wars Expanded Universe “was famously removed from the official timeline when Disney bought Lucasfilm” (Zakarin 2015), can thus be seen as attempts to claim not only sole ownership over intellectual property but also sole authority over a fictional world. To view canon as valuable, therefore, is also to value a single, authorised set of information – and, by extension, to accede to the authority of a singular author.

Yet the birth and growth of online fandom poses significant challenges to the idea of singular authorship. Collaborative authorship is central to fandom, which “is, perhaps first and foremost, an institution of theory and criticism” (Jenkins 2013, 86) in which “meaning-production is not a solitary and private process but rather a social and public one” (ibid, 75). In the infosphere, much of this meaning-production takes the form of activities which place fans in positions of shared authority over canon. One example of this is the proliferation of fan-created, crowdsourced databases like TARDIS Wikia and Wookieepedia which collect, curate, and present information related to particular fictional worlds. These databases are treated as depositories of factual information analogous to sites like Wikipedia, and their status as fan-made and fan-run projects gives fans a kind of collective authority over this information. Through the creation and maintenance of these sites, fans become keepers and curators of the canon they record, and thus can also be considered “executive author[s]”, who act as “compiler[s] of the verbal text up to the point where it is judged suitable for publication” (Love 2002, 43). Fans also adopt the role of author within transformative fandom, which centres around the creation of transformative works such as fanart and fanfiction, and which has experienced a major boom with the growth of online fan spaces: as of July 2019, there were five million works on a single fanfiction site, Archive of Our Own, alone (Organisation of Transformative Works 2019). Transformative fandom revolves around the production and consumption of fan-made, unauthorised works, and thus offers a challenge to the very idea of the necessity of a single authorised text.

The relationship between fandom and authorship, like the relationship between fandom and canon, is thus complex and contradictory, as rights-holders’ claims to sole authorship of a single text come into conflict with the collaborative meaning-making that defines much fan activity. Such conflicts, and their implications for the valuation of fictional information within fandom, are understood most clearly in the rare instances in which fans reject a supposedly authorised text entirely. Two recent examples of this include the backlash against the films Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), which were vocally decried and, in some cases, disavowed by certain segments of their respective fandoms. While some fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe expressed their rejection of Endgame through scathing criticism, such as the claim that its “ending obliterates years of character development” (Baker-Whitelaw 2019) and that its treatment of certain characters “seems so against [their] DNA that it shakes the character[s]” (Rusak 2019), the backlash against The Last Jedi was so severe that it even included a “plan to remake” the movie (Heritage 2018). Central to these responses was the idea that the objectionable elements of the films in question were not just bad but also wrong, an idea exemplified in a tweet by the “Remake The Last Jedi” project which reads simply “your Luke is not the real Luke” (Remake The Last Jedi, 2019). In these disputes between supposedly authorised texts and the fans who reject them, fans appear to claim authorship, or at least co-authorship, of canon, with the authority to decide what is and is not “real”.

This claim to co-authorship lies at the heart of the Remake The Last Jedi project, which seems to regard fan approval and the approval of the rights-holders as equally necessary to the authorisation of a text. While the fans involved in the project clearly assume their own right to authorise and de-authorise prospective aspects of canon, they also seem to view the approval of the rights-holder as essential, as demonstrated by their repeated demands “that Disney strike down… The Last Jedi from history” (Maine 2017) and “[share] the intellectual property” (Remake The Last Jedi 2018) required to create an official remake. These demands suggest a continuing acceptance of the ultimate authority of the rights-holder; whatever the force of their views, those involved in the project are unable to make them canon without “a reply from @robertiger” (Remake The Last Jedi 2018). Here, information is only considered “true”, and thus valuable, if accepted and verified by both authorising forces. This thus represents a model of collaborative authorship which is focused less on creation than on de-creation, as fans and rights-holders’ claims to authorship rest on their apparent right to reject, rather than to create, new information. This focus on deauthorisation as a form and function of authorship can also be seen in the project’s radically exclusionary stance; their very rejection of The Last Jedi is, after all, also a rejection of the alternative, more positive reactions from fellow fans and viewers, who gave the film “glowing reviews and an overwhelmingly positive response” (Baker-Whitelaw 2019). More significantly, the project was also part of a broader campaign of bigoted harassment as fans “complain[ed] about ‘diversity’ ruining Star Wars”, “bombard[ed]” the director, Rian Johnson, “with angry messages” (Baker-Whitelaw 2018), and subjected one actor, Kelly Marie Tran, to “months of racist and sexist harassment” (Grady 2018).
Seen in this light, the Remake The Last Jedi project, and the model of collaborative authorship it represents, seems to focus not on creating, collecting, and disseminating accurate information, but rather on identifying and punishing what they see as “blasphemy” (Taylor 2018). What this suggests is a conception of canon which uses the term in its original sense, that of “church law” (Online Etymology Dictionary 2020), the transgression of which is an offence much greater than the mere miscreation of information. The emphasis on excising objectionable content from canon, of cutting out what is “wrong” with extreme prejudice, reveals the depth of these fans’ desire for purity, and thus the high value they place on the creation of a single, unimpeachable, perfect story. This vision of fictional information is, in many ways, the logical endpoint of the same ideas which underlie the concept of canon in the first place: if information about fictional worlds can function in same way as information about the real world, then this information can also be either true or false – and, if one subscribes to an objectivist view of reality, absolutely so. Yet the ferocity with which these fans pursue the creation and confirmation of what they see as the “truth” suggests that this truth, to them, carries a higher value than that usually conferred upon information that just happens to be correct. Here, canon becomes not just an authorised text but a sacred one, and information which is accepted is elevated in value, as it is seen not just as something true but as something holy.

The unusually high value which such fans place on the “truth” of fictional information contrasts sharply with the approach to this same information taken by transformative fandom. Like the various forms of criticism discussed above, the creation of transformative works is often, though by no means always, a response to fans’ disagreement with an authorised text. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, has “spawned an incredibly active transformative fandom” (Jaworski and Baker-Whitelaw 2019) which distinguishes itself by its frequent opposition to official narratives: “the one thing [the fandom’s most popular pairings] have in common is a total lack of recognition in canon” (ibid). Transformative fandom also embraces collaborative authorship; whereas approaches like the one taken by the Remake The Last Jedi project envision a collaboration between the rights-holder and a small group of fans with similar if not identical opinions, however, transformative fandom is dedicated to collective meaning-making within broader communities. Community forms an essential part of the creation and consumption of transformative works, as creators create for an audience of their peers, who often respond with comments, interpretation, or even new creations of their own. The result of this is a sense of collective, rather than individual, ownership over stories and fictional information: as Sheenagh Pugh observes, “fanfic writers do not speak or think of ‘my characters’… but they do speak and think of ‘our characters’, a shared resource that the whole community of that fandom… knows and cares about” (Pugh 2015, 67).

This focus on community and conception of story as a “shared resource” suggests a lack of interest within transformative fandom in creating or maintaining a single, authoritative “truth”. The model of authorship on display within transformative fandom, after all, is in itself opposed to any claims to singular authority: as creators and consumers are peers and collaborative equals, no one person can “claim to have a greater insight into the characters and universe with which they play than their readers, who know the canon as well as they do” (Pugh 2015, 222). In transformative fandom, all fans are thus authors without authority, whose views are no more or less acceptable than anyone else’s; each person has the ability to create new stories and new information, but not the right to decide what is correct or incorrect, true or untrue. This kind of collaborative authorship, with its emphasis on creation rather than authorisation, can never produce a single definitive text; instead, it represents a “kind of composition for which the process of authorship is never a complete one but passed on from agent to agent, all of whom will subject it to their own forms of alteration” (Love 2002, 38), ultimately producing not a static canon but a text which is perpetually in flux.

This text is not only constantly changing but also full of contradictions; if all authors’ stories are equally acceptable, after all, then multiple contradictory stories must be able to coexist without invalidating each other. While Natasha Romanoff may be dead at the end of Avengers: Endgame, she may also be alive and living in the 1940s with Steve Rogers (anothercover 2019a), or a singer in a rock band (anothercover 2019b), or a shapeshifting spider (dirtybinary 2017), or a high school student (M_Leigh 2014). While these stories offer what seem obviously to be mutually exclusive accounts, they are equally “real” to the fans who write and read them; in fact, the ability to consume, accept, and enjoy multiple contradictory versions of a fictional reality is one of the central pleasures of transformative fandom. Not only are none of the works produced by transformative fandom seen as, or intended to be, authoritative, but this approach to narrative also undermines canon’s claim to authority and truthfulness. Though transformative fandom does continue to recognise a distinction between official, canonical text and unofficial, fan-made stories, its approach to fictional reality, which treats it not as a “real” place about which factual statements can be made but as an unreal space which can contain infinite versions of itself, is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a singular, authorised account. As David A Brewer observes, “the more… manifestations a text [takes], the less it [is] regarded as immanent in any particular manifestation” (2005, 95), and the proliferation of alternate versions of the same text within transformative fandom makes it difficult to conceive of any one of them, even the original, as being definitive. Canon, therefore, becomes not so much a true record of fictional facts as just another story, albeit one with a more impressive origin.

Fans in transformative fandom, therefore, value information about fictional worlds in a fundamentally different way to fans like those involved in the Remake The Last Jedi project. Transformative fandom utterly rejects the idea that fictional information can, like information in the real world, be true or untrue; the value of such information thus becomes decoupled from notions of truth altogether. If it is not truthfulness or accuracy that gives fictional information its value, however, then what is this value based on? The answer to this question lies in the way that transformative fandom approaches canon: not as an authoritative record but as “a framework to write against” (Pugh 2015, 40). Rachel Baverblat more clearly illustrates this relationship between canon text and transformative works by comparing the writing of fanfiction to the writing of “midrash, exegetical stories that seek to explore and explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts” (2014). To Baverblat, “fans are midrashists who explore and explicate texts” (ibid); canon forms the backbone of fan writing, acting as the central text around and within which fan works are built. At the same time, however, Baverblat argues that “in classical Jewish traditions, midrash are considered to be Oral Torah… part of the continuing unfolding of divine revelation” (2014), and are of a similar status to written Torah even as they are dependent upon it; in the same way, the dependence of fanfiction and other transformative works on canon does not automatically give them a lower status or a lesser value.

Canon texts are, however, more valuable than fan-made ones in one regard: their usefulness as tools to create more stories. Not only do canonical texts form the basis of fan works, but they also serve as a common language shared by fans within a community: as Pugh observes, “fanfic writers not only have their own knowledge of the canon but can assume a similar knowledge on the part of their readership” (2015, 32), and the status of canon as common knowledge thus makes it more useful than other texts as a shared point of reference. Insofar as canonical texts are more valuable than other, unofficial sources of information about the same fictional worlds, it is because of their greater productivity – their capacity to enable the creation of yet more stories, of ever more information.
The growth of collaborative authorship in fan spaces has thus resulted in the emergence of two opposing ways in which to value fictional information. While some parts of fandom pursue collaboration with rights-holders in order to create a pure, ultimately truthful, and thus ultimately valuable narrative, others use collaborative meaning-making as a way to make more meaning, regardless of its claim to truth. Transformative fandom’s approach to fictional information, with its total rejection of fictional “facts”, is a notable departure from the ideas about canon which dominate online pop-cultural discourse. It is ironic, then, that this approach which so vividly reflects captures the ways in which information functions in the infosphere. In valuing uncertainty over certainty, and productivity over authority, transformative fandom rejects a single, ordered reality in favour of a multiplicity of stories, and thus embraces the information overload that defines the infosphere with open arms.

anothercover. 2019a. pretty face, electric soul. Accessed 11/5/20.
anothercover. 2019b. down in the valley. Accessed 11/5/20.
Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia, and Michelle Jaworski. 2019. “The 10 most influential fandoms of the 2010s”. The Daily Dot.
Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. 2018. “Star Wars backlash is the new Gamergate”. The Daily Dot.
Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. 2019. “How the straight agenda ruined ‘Avengers: Endgame’”. The Daily Dot.
Baverblat, Rachel. 2014. “Fanfiction and midrash: making meaning”. In Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures vol. 17.
Brewer, David A. 2005. The Afterlife of Character, 1726-1825. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Chichizola, Corey. 2019. “Avengers: Endgame writers clarify Captain America’s ending”.
DeCardito, Keith. 2019. “Avengers: Endgame – the character assassination of Steve Rogers”.
dirtybinary. 2017. Fourth Floor. Accessed 11/5/20.
Grady, Constance. 2018. “Star Wars fans harassed Kelly Marie Tran for months. She just deleted her Instagram posts.” Vox. Accessed 30/4/20.
Heritage, Stuart. 2018. “The Last Jedi: what would the $200m fan-funded remake look like?”. The Guardian.
Jeffrey, Morgan. 2020. “How much did Doctor Who’s The Timeless Children actually change canon?”. Accessed 30/4/20.
Jenkins, Henry. 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.
Love, Harold. 2002. Attributing Authorship: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
M_Leigh. 2014. Middletown: A Study of Suburban Life. Accessed 11/5/20.
Maine, Samantha. 2017. “The guy who started the petition to have ‘The Last Jedi’ deleted now regrets it”.
Online Etymology Dictionary. 2020. “Canon”. Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 30/4/20.
Pugh, Sheenagh. 2015. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context. Bridgend: Seren Books.
Rusak, Rotem. 2019. “Avengers: Endgame: a lack of closure at the end of the line”. Bam! Smack! Pow!
Sandvoss, Cornel. 2014. “The Death of the Reader? Literary Theory and the Study of Texts in Popular Culture”. In The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Stone, Sam. 2019. “How Captain Marvel Changes What We Know About of the MCU”. Accessed 30/4/20.
Taylor, Chris. 2018. “’Last Jedi’ director begs angry fanboys to remake movie: ‘please please please’”. Mashable UK.
Zakarin, Jordan. 2015. “Inside Lucasfilm’s Top Secret Star Wars Database”. Accessed 30/4/20.

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Background Reading for CityLIS 20/21

For those of you planning to study for a masters in Library or Information Science, LIS, here are some suggestions for background reading in preparation for your course.

This is a personal selection of printed books, (although some may be available in electronic format), covering LIS from a broad perspective. The list is not definitive, and other academics and practitioners may well recommend other resources. I have listed the books in an order which would give a sensible overview of the field, although each stands perfectly well on its own.

Although the suggestions are chosen for those of you intending to enroll for the academic year 20/21 with the Library School at City, University of London, CityLIS, it is possible that my recommendations may be of wider interest to anyone interested in understanding LIS related content.

These books should be regarded as key texts; throughout the course we will provide more specific reading lists, including: books, papers, websites, blogs, Twitter accounts, videos, podcasts, artworks and places to visit. The literature is always evolving and expanding, but the foundational concepts of LIS remain valid.

In addition to discipline related background reading, those of you joining CityLIS will need to have a Twitter account, and a blog suitable for professional level and course related communication. We suggest WordPress for the blog.

Please follow us on Twitter @CityLIS, and also take some time to explore the materials posted on this blog, which will give you further insight into our content, interests and culture at CityLIS.

The Books

Intro to Inf SciBawden D and Robinson L (2012). Introduction to Information Science. Facet: London

In spite of the deluge of novelty, some texts remain fundamental and I will start by mentioning Introduction to Information Science, which I co-authored with David Bawden, as an accompaniment to our classes in 2012. The text remains a solid place to start if you need an overview of the sort of topics and concepts that are covered in courses relating to library and information science. The text has been very well received, and is now used internationally as a basis for understanding and framing the discipline. We give many ideas for further reading and pathways for following-up with areas you find interesting or especially relevant. You should be able to see the content from the link to the Facet Publications site.

Intro to InformationFloridi L (2010). Information: a very short introduction. OUP: Oxford

The success of OUP’s ‘very short introduction’ series marches on. This series has the enviable, dual status of being both informative, and collectable. It is impossible to stop at ‘just one’ and I find myself drawn by the physical aesthetics of the little volumes to regularly add one more to my set. I would like to mention two titles, which cover respectively the two concepts that are central to our courses: information, and its processing by computers. There are many books which cover information and computing, as neither of these subjects is unique to LIS. These books however, offer an approach suitable for readers from a wide variety of backgrounds, with an interest in information and its communication from a semantic perspective.

Firstly, information. Luciano Floridi is well known for his work on the philosophy of information, which informs our work within library and information science as a discipline and practice. This volume considers the nature of information, and the social and ethical implications it raises.

51UULOTow+L._AC_UL115_Gleick J (2011). The Information. Pantheon

If you enjoy the concept of information from Floridi’s ‘very short introduction’, you might like to read James Gleick’s wider story, “The Information”.


sc0004ffe2Magee B (2016). The Story of Philosophy. Dorling Kindersley

If you would like a wider introduction to Western Philosophy, try “The Story of Philosophy” by Brian Magee.



9780199586592Ince D (2011). The Computer: a very short introduction. OUP: Oxford.

Secondly, the computer. The LIS sector has been inseparable from technology for around 30 years now, although many information professionals still feel anxious when faced with understanding the mechanisms by which information is processed. Darrel Ince’s book offers reassurance, in explaining how a computer works, and importantly, why we need to know. The book is short, with a social focus, and technological pain will not last long.

9781783300419Dempsey L (2014). The nework reshapes the library. Ed. Varnum K. Facet: London

Having embraced the technology, Kenneth Varnum’s 2014 edited volume of Lorcan Dempsey’s writing, The Network Reshapes the Library provides good follow-up reading on how technologies are changing the work of the library professional. Dempsey writes on a diverse range of topics, covering library organization, services and technologies, and the evolution of the library to embrace the learning and research needs of inhabitants of the 21st century.

imagesWright A (2014). Cataloguing the World: Paul Otlet and the birth of the information age. OUP: Oxford

The modern information age, underpinning our library and information services today, is often attributed to the work at the turn of the 19th century by Paul Otlet. Alex Wright’s book Cataloguing the World: Paul Otlet and the birth of the information age is a wonderful telling of the story of humankind’s longstanding and continued effort to collect and organize knowledge, and Otlet’s part in this.

Otlet’s prescient understanding of the varied nature of documents was coupled with his work on the UDC, Universal Decimal Classification. The process of describing documents now embraces digital as well as physical items. Cataloguing and classification codes used to describe physical entities laid the foundations for modern day metadata; data about data, which is used to described and index the digital world.

9780262528511Pomerantz J (2015). Metadata. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jeffrey Pomerantz book Metadata describes the origins and types of metadata, how it is used, and why it exists.



Front cover image for the book Information and SocietyBuckland M (2017). Information and Society. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

A short, informal account of our ever-increasing dependence on a complex multiplicity of messages, records, documents, and data.


All of the books listed above should be available from the smashing City University Library for anyone who is already registered. If you need more inspiration, please take a look at my LibraryThing catalogue, where you can see books tagged for the modules I teach, or for LIS related topics in general.

If you would like to know more about our courses at CityLIS, please take a look at this slideshow available from our data repository at City. CityLIS: MA/MSc Library Science and MSc Information Science.

If you need more information, or have questions, drop me a line.

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In further praise of dissertations

Originally published on The Occasional Informationist blog, 27 April 2020

In a blog post of five years ago, I noted the academic quality and professional relevance of the dissertations produced by CityLIS Masters students, and the wide range of topics and approaches they include.

Since then we have developed a series of virtual collections of dissertations in particular subject areas: art and artists, history, science and healthcare, and theory and philosophy.

We encourage CityLIS students to make their dissertations more widely available in the Humanities Commons open access repository, where the CityLIS collection is rapidly growing.

Our recently submitted dissertations have been so varied in subject, as well as high in quality, that I thought it worth drawing attention to some of those which are available in Humanities Commons; if only as a rebuff to anyone who may thank that dissertations in the LIS area may be limited in scope and in imagination.

At the theoretical and conceptual end, we can pick out Alex Bell’s study of the ways in which colour can convey, and indeed can be, information, and Rachel Cummings analysis of the documentation of fashion. Rachel is taking a document theory approach to fashion further in her PhD research.

Information behaviour is always a popular topic for CityLIS dissertations, and a very nice example is Kelly Anyfantaki’s study of the ‘serious leisure’ information practices of book collectors.

Information history, another perennially popular topic is represented by Petar Nikolov’s analysis of the development of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping as an information reosurce, and by David Baker’s study of the context and significance of the reforms to the Royal Library at Windsor Castle under Prince Albert.

Being believers in the aphorism that there is nothing so practical as a good theory, we would always say that conceptual, philosophical, and historical dissertations have an important place in LIS education. But they are balanced by dissertations done in, or for, a work setting, or taking a case study approach, with immediate impact in practice, and several examples of these feature among recent CityLIS studies. They include Olu Alabi’s case study of a social prescription hub in a London public library, and Colette Townend’s analysis of the impact of Section 28 and Black History Month on public libraries. In an example of the immediate impact of dissertation research, Sarah Crompton’s research forms the basis for a subject guide to the music and song collection of the Marx Memorial Library.

We hope by encouraging to CityLIS students to submit their dissertations to Humanities Commons, and by publicising them through professional social media, their value to professional practice, as well as to the knowledge base of the discipline, may be maximised. And also we hope to encourage more students to join CityLIS, and contribute their own dissertations.

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Tackling Subject Headings

***CityLIS alumna Catherine Jenkins critically evaluates the impact of subject headings with reference to the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) controlled vocabulary. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

Tackling Subject Headings

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