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Academic libraries have all developed scholarly communications services in recent years, and in the UK in particular the national policy drivers have injected urgency into what at times has felt like a very slow journey towards OA. Manchester created a dedicated, although small, scholarly communications team in 2012, and that team now comprises seven full-time staff. Much of their time is taken up with the requirements of funder policies, but it provides a focus to think about scholarly publishing more widely.
We have also worked very hard in the Library to align what we do with University strategy, so all of our decisions on what a scholarly communications service should look like have to connect directly to either this document, or the research strategy that supports the University’s 2020 Research Goal. Of course, Manchester, like all institutions, commits to excellent research with impact. But when you start to drill down it gets more interesting, and that’s informed our direction.
Manchester has a very strong commitment to OA, from the VP (PVC) down, and that makes our lives easier, as advocacy has become less of an effort. But what’s interesting is the relationship between OA and the wider research strategy, as it certainly doesn’t follow that support for OA means support for new OA journals.
Manchester’s Teaching and Learning Goal also commits to research skills. Important if taught students intend to make the transition to an academic career, but also in terms of what makes a Manchester graduate an asset to an employer beyond their subject knowledge. It’s also very important to a research intensive university like Manchester to demonstrate to potential students that being at such an institution has advantages, as National Student Survey results tend not to reflect well on the Russell Group, and the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK means that there is no sense in which research universities can simply expect students to feel privileged to rub shoulders with high profile researchers, without showing how that is of direct benefit to them.
So it was within this context that we in the Library started to think about the potential value of expanding the services we offered to researchers to taught students, and in particular to investigate their appetite for learning how to publish. We felt that this had two possible benefits: it would introduce them to an essential academic skill, and it would provide very visible evidence of their written communication skills, which could be added to CV or LinkedIn profile for potential employers.
You’ll see on the slide that we encourage our best undergraduates to compete with their work, and so it felt like we might want to publish the work of our high flyers.
Manchester has an programme called Learning through Research which drives these sorts of ideas, and we worked with colleagues responsible for that as we did our thinking.
LtR fits within a wider framework, which seeks to define what we call ‘The Manchester Advantage’ – which commits to developing graduates who have had experience beyond their area of study in a number of ways, with various services and themes falling into each of these headings.
The Library is already embedded in this through our ‘award winning’ MLE programme.
So that’s the backdrop to our publishing investigations. The next bit of scene setting involves our partner, the University Press.
Manchester’s thinking about whether or not to offer a new publishing service has to acknowledge that we already do publishing. Many universities to start new initiatives recently had no existing press. This has advantages and disadvantages – we have the benefit of an enormous amount of publishing expertise, but we cannot simply start with a blank slate.
MUP and Library have been asked to work together at a strategic level, and we are both keen to do so, but this is not without serious challenges, given the very different business models that govern how Press and Library are run.
The catalyst for some productive partnership working was the creation of a new Centre at Manchester, which despite best efforts, remains codenamed Cheril. This centre has released research funding annually, and the Library and the Press successfully bid for grants in 2015 and 2016, to allow us to work together to look at the demand for student publishing, and what we might do about it. Given Cheril’s focus, this needed to explore student publishing as a component of the wider taught student experience, which was a helpful constraint and focused us on ensuring that anything we developed was genuinely strategic, and meeting University objectives.
Our first project did a lot of market research, engaging with students at all levels. We found a lot of interest, but also surfaced the significant time commitment needed to do it properly, and prompted questions about sustainability of a product that would need to thrive well beyond the normal student lifecycle. We also surfaced cost issues, which made us realise the scale of the likely commitment.
As luck would have it, our project funding coincided with interest in Manchester Medical School in setting up an undergraduate student journal. We worked with the School on this for two years to bring it to fruition. It’s an excellent initiative, with some really committed students and academics behind it, and some innovative thinking about peer review. But it taught us an important lesson: it’s really hard to do this well. The costs are high, the commitment required of staff and students is significant, and there’s a real challenge to sustain it as students graduate and move on.
So after year one, we took stock. We were not convinced that a student publishing service was sustainable, not were we persuaded that there was sufficient demand. What was clear, though, was that students were interested in learning more about publishing, and that focusing on skills delivery was more achievable and likely out benefit a larger number of people. In year two, our main objective was to create and deliver useful publishing training resources. We’ve released three online modules: How to get published, Peer Review, and Editing a Journal. We’ve used the Library’s existing skills and brand and placed them into a larger training resource, called My Research Essentials, a companion to our well-established programme for taught students: My Learning Essentials.
During the second year, the sense that skills provision is a better use of our resources than actual publishing support continued to grow. Although there is clearly interest in some areas of the University, we also heard quite firmly from one Faculty that the concept of new student journals, particularly for research students, was not supported, and could be a distraction. While I think this can be debated, clearly there is little sense in creating a central service in this area without strong academic support, given the costs we had identified.
One journal we have created jointly with MUP is an Open Access title called the James Baldwin Review, about the American poet and social critic. The editor of this journal is Dr Doug Field, who you see here participating in one of our online modules.
We’ve ensured that we’ve learned from others, as there are plenty of examples of new publishing initiatives being created. At the start of this year we brought representatives of 17 institutions together at Manchester to share what we’ve been doing, and lessons learned. My opinion, and it is only an opinion, is that some of these new ventures are well-meaning but fall short on two fronts: it isn’t clear that they directly support their university missions, and they don’t convince me that they are properly financially sustainable over the longer term.
So where do we go next? This year we are promoting our learning materials, and monitoring use and value. We did not seek further funding from CHERIL this year, but we did inspire a project that did get funded, based in our Religions and Theology department. They have been encouraging their students for some time to disseminate their work as part of their religious literacy agenda (an example on the slide), which of course is so important at the moment. The ideas I discussed with academic colleagues prompted them to develop their ‘Students in Public’ project which looks to develop learning materials that students in any subject can use to consider how they bring their knowledge to the wider world. This project will use our materials, and take them a stage further, and I hope we will continue to feed into this, now that we’ve prompted thinking on the subject beyond the Library.
‘A journey of discovery: investigating student publishing at the University of Manchester’ - Simon Bains (University of Manchester)
A journey of discovery: investigating student
publishing at the University of Manchester
Head of Research Services and Deputy Librarian
The University of Manchester Library @simonjbains