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Scholarly Communication and Library and Information Science in the Pandemic Era

Kenji Koyama
Department of Socio Informatics, Faculty of Letters

Will the change occur gradually or suddenly?

Google Scholar.pngIt was in March 2020 when I noticed that Google provided links to 12 websites of "Articles about COVID-19" below the search box of Google Scholar. Unlike Google in general, Google Scholar is an academic information search engine that allows you to search for scholarly information such as research papers and books. Many researchers use Google Scholar to advance their research.

The names of these links are as follows; CDC, NEJM, JAMA, Lancet, Cell, BMJ, Nature, Science, Elsevier, Oxford, Wiley, and medRxiv. They are familiar to health researchers and professionals, those interested in COVID-19, librarians, and library and information science researchers.

These are the websites that Google has determined suitable for obtaining scholarly information about COVID-19 or the new coronavirus. The words "Nature" and "Science" may be difficult to identify what they stand for when they appear on their own, but if you see them side by side, you will realize that they are academic journals that are often featured in news and newspapers.

You may be familiar with the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), as it often appears in the news. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) are excellent American medical journals, while Lancet and BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) are prominent British medical journals. Some people might have heard about Lancet as it published an article reporting the effectiveness of Remdesivir, which is attracting attention as a treatment for the new coronavirus. Cell is an academic journal in the field of experimental biology, including cell biology and molecular biology.

The journals listed here are available as electronic journals on their own publishers' websites. On the other hand, many journals are published by international academic publishers. Elsevier, Oxford University Press, and Wiley are the major ones.

So what is the remaining medRxiv? I would like to touch on it later.

Research papers and academic journals

Scholarly information, which is the record of research findings, is indispensable for researchers. This is because research activities are based on past research results. Research papers are one of the means for presenting the results of research, and academic journals provide researchers with opportunities to publish them.

Researchers work under strict rules in search of new findings while referring to past research results. They write their findings in a research paper and submit it to an academic journal. A research paper is evaluated from various perspectives, including novelty, originality, usefulness, and applicability. This is called peer review. Peer review is conducted by several researchers in the field. In addition to the perspectives mentioned above, the paper is also checked to see if appropriate methods are used, the path to the conclusion is logical, and there are any errors or misconduct in the data. When a research paper is published in an academic journal, it means that the paper has been recognized as a new knowledge in a particular field of study. Therefore, no mistakes or frauds are allowed.

Publishing a research paper in an academic journal is considered as the researcher's achievement. This achievement could lead to the researcher's promotion, salary increase, employment, and transfer. However, the assessment of a research paper as an achievement is by no means unbiased. A research paper is not only evaluated on its content itself, but also on the journal in which it is published.

Have you ever heard of the term "Impact Factor (IF)"? IF is an index of how many articles published by an academic journal in 2017 and 2018, for example, were cited in all articles published in 2019. It is used to evaluate academic journals in each discipline.

Citation is the use of past research papers to carry out research. If a research paper is cited in many studies, it means that the research paper has important findings. An academic journal that publishes many cited papers is considered to be an excellent journal in its discipline. In general, the higher the IF is, the higher prestige the journal achieves.

Researchers want their articles to be read by a large number of readers, so they try to submit their papers to academic journals with high IF. As a result, academic journals are highly selective when it comes to publishing papers. Of course, the papers published in such journals will have high-quality research results that deserve it. Again, what I would like to point out here is that research findings are not only evaluated purely on its content, but also on the status of the journal.

This could be the reason why researchers make misconduct in their research. Research papers lead to the evaluation of each researchers' achievements and, in turn, of the researcher him/herself. It can also serve as a credential to advance in one's research career or to obtain research grants. The process of research misconduct involves a variety of speculations.

Value of scholarly information

For academic societies and publishers of journals, research papers are products. Researchers, as consumers, must subscribe to academic journals to read them. In general, academic journals are subscribed to by academic libraries which researchers belong to, but as subscription fees rise year by year, more and more journals are being cancelled. As a result, researchers themselves are unable to obtain necessary papers for their research. This is known as the "serials crisis."

One of the measures to overcome this situation is open access. Originally, open access was an initiative aimed at distributing research papers at an appropriate price by allowing academic libraries and researchers to publish alternative journals to expensive ones. Today, open access refers to the initiative of creating a system that enables anyone to access scholarly information for free through the Internet.

It is not easy to make research papers, which were previously distributed for a fee, available for free. The catalyst that made it possible is the Internet and information technology. Researchers can digitize their research papers and publish them on certain websites so that anyone can access them free of charge. The website medRxiv, which I mentioned earlier, is one of the websites that make it possible. medRxiv is a website that publishes and shares manuscripts of research papers before they are submitted to academic journals, called preprints, and mainly contains papers in the field of medicine. A pioneering service of this kind is arXiv, a preprint server in the field of high energy physics.

On the other hand, academic publishers have adopted the policies of publishing open access journals and providing an open access option in order to maintain the value of research papers as products and to sustain the scholarly communication system that academic journals have played a role in. Traditionally, academic journals have been available only to users who paid subscription fees. The cost of publishing journals was paid by the users. Open access journals and open access options are the business models that provide free articles to users by making the authors of the papers bear the cost instead of obtaining it from users. The former is a journal in which all articles are provided free of charge through the Article Processing Charge (APC) paid by the authors. In the latter, only those papers, published in fee-based journals, for which authors have paid APCs are available for free.

There can be several reasons why authors, as researchers, would pay APCs to publish their papers. Some of them are to make their research results widely available to the public to further promote their research, to correct the research gap, to make their articles more likely to be cited by many people by making them available for free, to shorten the time required for publication compared to traditional journals, and to accomplish research achievements. In some cases, this would be in line with the policies of universities or research institutes, while in other cases, the government or research funding agency would establish such a policy.

The free and wide distribution of research papers is of great significance to researchers as consumers. In the wake of the spread of the new coronaviruses, many academic publishers have taken steps such as providing related research papers as open access and making their e-books available for free.

On the other hand, researchers who produce scholarly information are facing a variety of challenges: the amount of APCs varies, but it would cost thousands of dollars per paper. Hence, there is a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. There are also journals known as "predatory journals." If you pay an APC, you can easily publish your paper on their website that looks like an academic journal. These journals do not conduct a peer review. The value of scholarly information has been put in danger.

The purpose of "science" in scholarly communication

Any system has benefits and side effects. It is vital to understand the side effects and enhance the effectiveness of the system.

The system of scholarly communication, which contributes to the development of science by writing research articles and publishing them in academic journals, originated with two academic journals published in the 17th century. More than 300 years have passed since then, but this system has been changing dramatically with the advance of the information environment, including the Internet.

Changes in institutions and environments also change the way people behave. With the spread of electronic journals, the number of researchers who visit libraries has decreased significantly. Some researchers and graduate students give up reading research papers when they are not available on the Internet. Electronic journals can provide videos, sounds, computer programs, and data that could never be embedded in print journals. This means that research results can be expressed in a variety of ways. And now we are in the era of Big Data. Big data is the technology to analyze large amounts of data using AI technology and to discover new insights by combining multiple data sources. This is used not only in natural sciences but also in the field of humanities. These changes are occurring in the field of research, as well as in learning and education.

The reason I have touched on various aspects of scholarly communication so far is that understanding these realities will help us think about the functions and roles of academic libraries, which support researchers and students by providing scholarly information. My field of study, library and information science, does not only focus on libraries. While paying attention to various environment surrounding libraries and their changes, I am studying the roles and functions of academic libraries, the development and vision of scholarly communication by focusing on the user behaviors. I believe that this will in turn benefit the users.

As part of this effort, the research group I belong to, the Standing Committee for Research on Academic Libraries (SCREAL), has surveyed the information usage behavior of researchers three times since 2007. Although we are still living our daily lives under the influence of COVID-19, we are planning the fourth survey this year. Through the accumulation of these research results, we hope to make a significant contribution to the activities of organizations, libraries, and users involved in scholarly communication. We also hope that the results will lead to the development of academic disciplines, as in the following words on Google Scholar, "Stand on the shoulders of giants."

Kenji Koyama
Department of Socio Informatics, Faculty of Letters

Kenji Koyama graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in 1994.
In 1997, he completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University.
In 2000, he completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University.

He worked at the University of Tokyo Library for nine years. He engaged in public services, cataloging, and maintaining and improving ditial access environment for users. After having been experienced in library practice, he was appointed as Associate Professor in the Faculty of Humanities, Law and Economics, Mie University, and as Associate Professor and Professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Nihon University before assuming his current position in 2016.

Current research interests include scholarly communication, information seeking and usage behavior in the digital era, learning and teaching support in academic libraries, and so on.

His major publications include Learning Commons: The Future of Academic Libraries (co-edited and co-translated, Keisoshobo, 2012), Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Research Data and Knowledge Infrastructure (co-translated, Keisoshobo, 2017), Introduction to Information Services. Rev. ed. (co-authored, Jusonbo, 2019), and more.