Editor’s note: This is a guest post in our Library Publishing Workflow Evolution series, featuring reflections from our Library Publishing Workflows partners on how journal publishing workflows at their libraries have evolved over time. You can see the full documentation on the Library Publishing Workflows page.
By Michelle Wilson, writing about her experiences at Columbia University Libraries
Columbia University Libraries’ Digital Scholarship division publishes around thirty open access journal titles. We publish in a variety of disciplines (including medicine, law, history, bioethics, musicology) and support both faculty and student-led projects. Our program has been around for over a decade and, like many, has undergone a variety of changes in administration, staffing, and mission. At present, that mission, the day to day work, and the workflows we employ are set by me, as the sole staff member who works on journals at our library. But the program wasn’t always a one-woman show, and the shape of our workflow today has been influenced by the systems that came before and my experiences of stepping into a program in transition when I was hired in 2018.
Before there was a Digital Scholarship division at Columbia University Libraries, there was the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS). Part of a system of four “Digital Centers” on campus, CDRS was the development and publishing hub, the endpoint for the dissemination of research in a constellation that included Digital Science, Digital Social Science, and Digital Humanities centers. Around 2016, the digital centers were dissolved and the services they had provided were transferred to a new Digital Scholarship unit under the auspices of the University Libraries.
A diverse project portfolio with bespoke services
CDRS was collaborative and experimented widely. The Digital Scholarship division now manages a wide array of projects developed during the CDRS era, including digital companions to books published by our university press, a bibliographic encyclopedia of female film production pioneers, and a digital commentary on Dante’s Divine Comedy. CDRS also pioneered the open access journals program at Columbia, which came under my (nearly sole) purview when I was hired as the Digital Publishing Librarian.
Reflecting the same spirit of experimentation that led to a diverse project portfolio, the journals program I inherited utilized a variety of levels of service and publishing technologies. Most journals were published on WordPress, with a few using OJS as a submissions platform, and one journal fully utilizing OJS as an editorial and publishing software. Journals had varying levels of autonomy or reliance on the program. Most were required to meet only once a year with the journals project manager, while one medical journal was a clear standout in receiving extensive custom development, vendor services and production management, APC processing, and consultation. This particular medical journal was the flagship for the program but, although it was undoubtedly a success in library publishing, the attention and time it required meant that everyone else was lagging behind.
I really struggled to find my footing within this landscape, where there was so much variation in terms of partner expectations as well as infrastructure management. CDRS had a dedicated staff of developers, project managers, and media production specialists overseeing the development of digital projects. Under the new organization, the developers and project managers were absorbed into centralized IT and digital project management units at the Libraries. This meant that I had to compete with other programs for developer time and be strategic and sparing in choosing the softwares I could support. Even having only two publishing softwares used in different combinations made it challenging to respond to development requests, provide technical support, and train partners. The demands of one journal meant that a hands-off approach needed to be taken with most of the other partners, and that left them vulnerable to inculcating poor practice or, especially in the case of fledgling projects and student-led efforts, frustration and lack of momentum that often ended in the folding of the publication. To address these twin pressure points—concern about labor and workload as well as praxis and equity in distributing library services—I decided to heavily standardize the program.
Practically, this meant consolidating our journals onto the OJS platform and codifying our service offerings and points of contact with partners. By standardizing the tools we utilized (OJS, Microsoft Word typesetting templates), I was able to provide group trainings that cut down on my instructional burden. I produced a library of documentation—contracts, permissions forms, and tutorials—and published them to a central hub, so that partners could easily access these materials at any time. I strictly cut away any editing, copyediting, or production work from the Libraries’ side of our partnerships. To compensate for the restrictions I imposed on the services that we provided, I required partners to attend workshops on copyright, web accessibility, and editorial practice; although I could not provide this catalog of services to a growing community of editors, the educational program could help to ensure a level of quality and ethical practice in the absence of managing these tasks in-house.
Standardizing our program did change our relationship with some partners. Without the level of bespoke service they had been receiving, our medical journal elected to relocate to a new publisher. We no longer publish this title and therefore no longer have a journal that is included in PubMed or maintains an impact factor. But the change has freed up resources for our other journals and created a healthier, more diverse publishing catalog, where I am able to maintain meaningful relationships as a publishing partner and mentor.
Looking at the workflow diagram that emerged from the LPW project, I see a reflection of some of the tension I feel in running a program whose operations are overseen end to end by one person while wanting to provide for individualization. Program management has become a careful balancing act, melding standardization and systemization with a personal touch that would permit journals to exercise freedom with regard to their community building, decision making, and editorial processes. Over time, it became necessary to diversify my educational programming and documentation to reflect the differences in practice resulting from discipline (such as for our law reviews) or level of professional experience (such as our student journals).
There is a strong degree of mentorship folded into our partnership model and therefore our workflow, such that I am involved in an educational and consultative capacity throughout every stage of the annual publishing lifecycle. I meet with journal editors twice each year; I meet with our law review editors four times per semester; Undergraduate journal EICs meet with me on a bi-weekly basis throughout the academic year. This is not spelled out in our workflow documentation, but I think is visible in the high level of detail, which reflects the degree to which I am present, guiding our partners and shaping how they conduct their work.
This approach feels right to me for where our program is now. Standards and templates help us to grow by raising the quality of the work and providing for sustainable growth. A blueprint for education and collaboration ensures that we are doing something different than large commercial publishers and our partners feel supported and receive tools that help them operate in an ethical fashion. And in entrusting the editorial work to our partners, we provide training and learning opportunities for students and emerging professionals to help them acquire practical skills and, hopefully, our library publishing ethos.