Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 19, 2009

Scholarly publishing: Plenary keynote speaker outlines concerns

“It’s not unreasonable to say that the scholarly publishing that most of us grew up with is either in collapse or in a forced transition that will be awkward until we find the new version,” said Provost James V. Maher as he introduced keynote speaker David E. Shulenburger at the University Senate’s spring plenary session on scholarly publishing.

“I do think today’s subject is an extraordinarily important one for everyone who cares about the scholarly life,” he told the more than 150 attendees at the March 3 event.

“I don’t think that the people on this campus are as aware of how severe the national crisis in scholarly communications has become because we have successfully managed through a collective commitment to scholarly communication to maintain our libraries, maintain our University Press, maintain all of our scholarly communications activities at a high enough level that we don’t realize how bad things are getting on most other campuses.

“No matter how well we do,” Maher continued, “it’s important for us to realize that colleagues on other campuses don’t have the access they should have to any scholarly communications including the ones we publish that we’re used to having here. This is a problem for us; it’s just not the most visible of our many problems.”

Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, has been at the forefront of discussion, research and writing about the future of scholarly publishing.

Citing the decision by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences last fall to create a repository where faculty members’ published research would be available free online, he encouraged Pitt to follow suit.

“We owe it to ourselves and to the academy to have the discussion, to explicitly decide: Shall we take on the obligation to make our scholarly product public or not, and if so how much of it and under what conditions?”

Shulenburger said, “You might go so far as to ask yourself whether the resolution of the Harvard faculty that everything you publish, with an opt-out clause, is going to go on the University web site. Have a serious discussion about it. Decide what the public interest is and make a decision.”

As public universities, he said, “We’ve got both an obligation on us, because resources come from the public, and we’ve got huge opportunity that might come to us if we make material public.

“Shall this university take on a much more affirmative role in distributing scholarly research?”

Having such an institutional repository would make a difference not only for individual authors, but also for the University, its departments, centers and institutes and for scholarship as a whole, Shulenburger said.

Systems at the departmental level need to be developed, he said, to get faculty publications online and identified as University work.

“Suppose we could make all this stuff available for free to the people who wanted it. And imagine further if it were available through a web site that’s easily identifiable with Pitt. What I’m talking about in a sense is branding the University and branding the University material that’s produced here or that’s distributed here because you’re putting money and resources into that material,” he said.

Shulenburger said the University Library System’s D-Scribe digital publishing program could make that possible at Pitt. “What you don’t have is the decision that you want to put all that material out there.”

(For Pitt authors who want to make their scholarly work available in open access form, the University’s new institutional repository, called D-Scholarship@Pitt, will open for submissions May 1, according to ULS spokesperson Tim Deliyannides.

Approximately 2,500 electronic theses and dissertations already have been placed in the archive at

By branding Pitt’s work, recognition of the University’s value rises, Shulenburger said, increasing Pitt’s profile and possibly even increasing funding as a wider audience sees where tax dollars are being put to work.

The result: “More visibility for Pittsburgh’s faculty, more citations, and fame and fortune,” he said.

Higher costs and decreased university budgets for scholarly journals have caused many academic libraries simply to give up trying to maintain library resources, Shulenburger said. While he commended Maher and ULS director Rush Miller for keeping Pitt’s library resources strong, “The rest of the world is not keeping up,” Shulenburger said.

“We’re producing more and more material but the distribution of it is diminishing” with audiences limited by budgets, Shulenburger said.

Initially it was thought that as scholarly journals transitioned from paper into electronic form, the problem of rising costs — estimated at 10 percent a year over the past two decades — would disappear. “Instead, it made it worse because we moved from a world in which copyright controlled distribution of copies to a world in which licensing controls distribution of material,” Shulenburger said.

The number of journal subscriptions has been falling, in part because subscriptions have moved from individuals to libraries. “Faculty members instead of going to their shelves to get their journal, are going to the University web site and getting it and very often assuming that it’s free because the University just puts it there.”

The problem of access is serious in the United States, but even more so in less-well-off nations, he noted.

“I don’t think anyone wants to do anything to harm the future of the scholarly journals. But we’ve got this problem: How do you make sure the literature we’re all producing is read when the venue through which it’s being distributed is becoming more and more limited?” Shulenburger asked.

“What would we gain if we could distribute research to everyone who wanted it without damaging the scholarly journals or presses?”

Shulenburger pointed out that access to university campuses is not a given for many people, particularly those outside of urban areas. “I’m terribly concerned that our campuses are less and less visible to the public,” he said, noting, “We’re pretty easy to use as whipping boys at times.” But the real ability to access what’s happening on university campuses is limited.

Shulenburger said when journal articles are made available online, citations increase. And papers seem to be “rediscovered” when they are made available online on sites such as JSTOR, which publishes articles in open access after an embargo period.

“The more people who read what you do, who see your scholarly work, the better off you are as a scholar,” Shulenburger said. Other benefits to open access include the ability for scholars to more easily conduct a more complete literature review and to avoid repeating work that’s already been done. The result: more progress, he said.

He commended former National Institutes of Health director Elias A. Zerhouni’s advocacy for open access to NIH-funded research with the hope that intelligent data-crawlers could be developed to search through an ever-growing collection of scholarly work.

Using as an example the existence of some 128,000 scholarly papers on Huntingdon’s disease, Shulenburger asked his listeners to consider what they are missing thanks to the sheer amount of work being produced and the impact it could have if they had access to its content. “Think about your field. Are you familiar with all the stuff being done in your field?” he asked.

Citing the discovery of penicillin as an example, Shulenburger noted that the initial scholarly paper was written in 1928, but “rediscovered” a decade later. “How many lives could have been saved?” he asked. “Does that happen today?”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply