Open *By* Whom? On the Meaning of ‘Scholar-Led’

(Cross-posted on the ScholarLed blog)

I write a lot about scholar-led publishing. My thesis explored the differences between scholar-led and policy-based forms of open access, and I’ve recently published an article about early academic-led experiments in e-journal publishing. I love what the ScholarLed consortium is doing for open access and look forward to seeing the infrastructures and forms of governance that the consortium members design and build for open monograph publishing.

Having an interest in this area means I get asked quite frequently what scholar-led publishing actually is. Anecdotally speaking, some people feel that the term implies a general reclaiming of publishing by the academy, a wresting control of publishing and related infrastructures from the greedy corporate publishers. Yet I think about scholar-led publishing with a bit more specificity. For me, scholar-led publishing does not carry much ethical weight as a concept, much like library-and university press-led forms of publishing. Instead, the term simply refers to a model of publishing reflecting the fact that some scholars have decided to publish research themselves.

Scholar-led publishers are just that, publishers led by scholars. I understand ‘scholars’ as broadly as possible, extending it to any actors who define their role as operating in a ‘scholarly’ capacity (library workers, independent scholars, etc.). ‘Led’, for me, is more specific and means managed by scholars, not just writing and editing the content, but the technical, practical and administrative sides to publishing too. Scholar-led projects comprise a mixture of the informal, the DIY and the spontaneous, alongside more professional publishing outlets like punctum books and Open Book Publishers (and everything in-between).

This specificity is important for two reasons. Firstly, it illustrates that scholar-led publishing is not merely publishing with the needs of scholars in mind. It is more specific than terms like ‘community-led’ or ‘community-controlled’ that illustrate the potential of projects to reorient publishing towards the needs of researchers and away from mere market concerns. The vagueness of ‘community-led’ is a drawback for those arguing for a particular ethical conception of publishing: who gets to decide who the community is, how it can best be served, and who is not part of it? As we have seen with terms like ‘open access’, commercial publishers are successfully able to exploit vagueness in terminology for their own ends and it is not difficult to imagine them trying so with scholar-led publishing too. (These tensions are also explored in an excellent piece on the LPC blog by Melanie Schlosser and Catherine Mitchell.)

While there certainly are grey areas and blindspots associated with ‘scholar-led’, I maintain that it is better to approach the term as merely descriptive rather than something laden with ethics and values. Of course, many approaches to scholar-led publishing do adopt an ethical position towards what they are doing, and there are themes that one can perceive in the general trend of scholar-led publishing (as Janneke Adema and I explored with respect to the Radical Open Access Collective). Yet these different ethical approaches are not best represented within the concept of ‘scholar-led publishing’ and instead constitute the struggle around what the futures of publishing should be. Scholar-led publishing is thus useful more as a narrowly-defined term than a broad direction in which academic publishing is heading.

This brings us to the second reason why a specific definition of ‘scholar-led’ is helpful. It helps us differentiate between different models for publishing based within libraries, university presses, and other kinds of publisher. Each of these models requires different skills (that need to be valued and supported) and each has a lot to learn from the others. This means that there are many important approaches to publishing, all of which have a part to play in the push for more ethical, experimental and open publishing futures. Part of the move to open access will entail collaboration between these efforts.

The point here is that although scholar-led publishing is hugely important for the future of open access, this does not mean that everything has to managed by working academics. Publishing is a skill and not necessarily one that every scholar has to learn (though more awareness of what publishing entails wouldn’t go amiss). Such a situation would cheapen the labour of those already engaged in ethical publishing efforts, while increasing the amount of work researchers already have to do, thus conforming to the ever-increasing austerity in higher education whereby universities continually require researchers to do more with less.

I am not saying that anyone is seriously arguing that all publishing should be entirely managed by full-time, working academics (though I could probably find someone arguing as such in the far reaches of the open science movement…). Rather, we should be clear about what scholar-led publishing actually means and especially how it can help point us to a better publishing future. Personally, I feel that scholar-led forms of open access – and the work of the ScholarLed consortium in particular – can help influence the future of all forms of publishing through its focus on non-commercial, experimental and collaborative practices. It is counter-hegemonic in its ability to push back on market-centric publishing and represents new practices that that other publishers could adopt.

So, a key consideration of what scholar-led publishing is should also be what it is not. Establishing this will help us understand how we can work with, influence and govern other forms of publishing in accordance with the explorative work of scholar-led publishers.