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The Impact of COVID-19 on Scholarly Communications

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This [1:3] discussion originally appeared on Feeding the Elephant, a scholarly communications forum on H-Net’s Book Channel.


Feeding the Elephant is pleased to introduce our [1:3] series. In this series, we pose 1 question to a librarian, a publisher, and a scholarthe 3 main stakeholders in the scholarly communications ecosystemto get each perspective on a particular issue. Here, we posed the question:

What do you see as the single largest impact of COVID-19 on your industry in the next 12 months, and what strategies would you use to navigate that impact?

Martyn Beeny, Marketing and Sales Director, Cornell University Press

The biggest impact of COVID-19 hasn’t made itself visible yet. We’ve all reacted to the new situation in a variety of ways. We’ve made our entire list of books available for free on various digital platforms. We’ve restructured publicity teams’ workflows to find ways to get more digital content to reviewers. We’ve stopped attending conferences to exhibit books and have tried to replicate that experience virtually. We’ve moved almost all workflows to 100 percent digital processes. The virus and its attendant shutdown have had significant repercussions, but the most significant impact is still to come.

In the next twelve months, the scholarly book publishing industry is going to go through unprecedented change. Upheaval will hit every university press. Accelerated change will become the norm. This industry is not one that is used to significant change in short periods. It’s an industry still running primarily on ideas and processes that have stood the test of time.

Over the course of the next year, we’re all going to have to embed new realities that break the way we do things or the way we think we should do things. Academics, our mainstay customers, are about to rethink their way of researching, writing, and teaching, if they haven’t already started to do so. How they adapt to teaching online or partially online, how they change the way they access new research, and how they prepare their own research for mass digital access will force university presses to move more rapidly to new business models. These changes will create more need for publishing that is based less on print artifacts and more on delivering content how and when it is actually needed.

In the midst of the initial sweeping effect of the virus, the scholarly publishing community opened its heavily locked doors and offered access to its content to anyone who could get online. Offering our books for free through online aggregators such as Project MUSE, JSTOR, and others, was, and is, a genuine adoption of the idea that scholarly research should be available to as many people as possible, not just the academic elite. But did we think it all the way through. Did we just open Pandora’s Box? Did we rush to help our community without thinking what it might do to our publishing models? Models that already needed substantial support from parent institutions and external granting agencies just to remain in existence. How difficult will it be to get the genie back in the bottle?


…we’re facing an opportunity to redefine who we are, the role we play in the curation and dissemination of scholarly work, and how we fit into the academic community and beyond.


That might all sound a little negative. But it’s not meant to be. Instead, we’re facing an opportunity to redefine who we are, the role we play in the curation and dissemination of scholarly work, and how we fit into the academic community and beyond. Many of our authors have found new spotlights shone on their work because its relevance was made clearer to society. Our reliance on certain processes has been shown to be nothing more than, “well, we’ve always done it that way.” We have a chance to completely rethink our costs so that we can thrive in ways that haven’t been possible since the recession more than a decade ago.

I don’t think we truly know, nor can we yet predict, what the most significant impact of the virus is or will be on our industry. I do believe that the changes forced upon us are likely well overdue and will provide an environment for creativity and modernization that we would otherwise have ignored for much longer. The next twelve months will be painful. We’ll need to make hard decisions and we’ll need to show flexibility and adaptability in measures with which we are uncomfortable. But return to me in a year to ask me the same question and I think we’ll see that the biggest impact of the virus will have been a strengthening of the importance of university presses and a reinvigoration of how we do things and why.

Valerie Hotchkiss, University Librarian, Vanderbilt University

It may sound counterintuitive, but we have seen a significant increase in library use—and an outpouring of appreciation from our community. Students who might have haphazardly checked out a book or relied only on a JSTOR search for a paper, are chatting in record numbers with their librarians online. They are grateful to learn more about how to use the online catalog effectively and amazed to discover scores of discipline-oriented databases. Similarly, faculty, who may have been hesitant to ask about resources in their field, have gained new respect for what librarians can do for them, realizing that there are resources and research techniques they may not have fully exploited before. Those who felt strongly about physical materials are not only making do but thriving as they discover that librarians can deliver over 85% of the texts they need in e-formats—and most libraries now have pickup services for physical items. In short, closer relationships have developed between subject librarians and their users and these relationships and modes of communication will continue to bear fruit long after the pandemic.


Those who felt strongly about physical materials are not only making do but thriving as they discover that librarians can deliver over 85% of the texts they need in e-formats.


COVID-19 has also had a huge—and hopefully lasting—impact on open access. Thanks to the efforts of librarians and the public spirit of some publishers, paywalls and other restrictions to access have been lifted for many resources. In the early days of the health crisis, librarians negotiated with textbook publishers to provide open access for students as classes continued remotely. Not surprisingly, articles and other materials related to COVID-19 were made freely accessible and invisible librarians’ hands made the connections to thousands of these new e-resources for their patrons. But that is not all. Libraries have worked on widespread efforts to gain access to digital resources in wide-ranging and diverse disciplines for their users. Such access also improves analytical research, allowing for text and data mining, visualizations, etc. within a broader corpus and without additional fees for such computational analysis.

We worry, however, that restrictions will re-appear as society reopens (there is already a suit against the Internet Archive). Conversations around the cancellation of big deals, and indeed cancellations themselves, were growing prior to the pandemic. New budgetary realities of libraries as a result of the crisis will accelerate this trend within the next year. For the next 12 months and beyond, libraries will need to strategize and work together to negotiate lasting changes and a shift to a more open information-sharing environment. For this to happen, we will need to partner with publishers on business models and lobby legislative bodies to enact laws that make public research truly public through open access. We are watching the development of Plan S with interest. Current trends toward a more diverse and open scholarly communications ecosystem will accelerate. The pandemic has emboldened libraries to work even more diligently on issues of broad and meaningful information openness.

Cynthia Neal Spence, associate professor of sociology and Director of UNCF Mellon Programs, Spelman College

As I reflect upon the impact of COVID-19, I must borrow a popular saying “when America gets a cold, black America gets pneumonia.” Thus, while the impact of COVID-19 upon the higher education community, in general, has had debilitating effects that are disruptive and require special attention, the impact upon the HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) community may require intensive care. While all institutions will be impacted by losses from tuition and room and board fees paid by students, for most HBCUs these losses may upend their budgets in ways that threaten the viability of their institutions. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created what early sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as anomie—a state of normlessness. The expected and accepted rules of behavior and engagement, have been turned upside down. Whether connected to the academy or not, we have all experienced disruptions in ways that none of us could have imagined. The normal rhythmic movement of the academy that occurs in classrooms, lecture halls, conference rooms, research labs, dining halls, residence halls, and administrative offices has been totally disrupted by COVID-19. 

While we are all recalibrating to what is commonly referred to as a “new normal,” I would suggest that for historically black colleges and universities, many of which are accustomed to fragile states of being as a result of declining enrollments, small endowments, and low visibility, the impact of COVID-19 has caused and continues to cause great concern.


We cannot discuss the impact of COVID-19 without engaging a discussion of the disproportionate impact upon the “diverse” communities the academy professes interest in educating.


Concomitant with the impact of this public health crisis is the magnification of the pandemic by systemic and entrenched racism in our society. These conjoined conditions call upon the academy to assert leadership. Recognition of the impact of one is tied to the reality of the other. Systemic racism within and outside of the academy must not only be acknowledged but acted upon by members of the academy. We cannot discuss the impact of COVID-19 without engaging a discussion of the disproportionate impact upon the “diverse” communities the academy professes interest in educating.

The importance of the work we do weighs heavily upon me and others as we continue to support exceptional faculty and students who labor within institutions that are often not considered within discussions of the significant role the academy plays in society. Yet, it is the community of HBCUs where there is an intimacy that connects personal and professional lived experiences that are further amplified by the fragile positioning of their home institutions. Faculty and students within the HBCU community, in many ways, can seamlessly move from theory to praxis when discussing these seemingly uncontrollable and sometimes invisible forces.

My emphasis on HBCUs does not negate the indisputable impact of COVID-19 upon the larger higher education community. However, these ways of seeing and knowing the HBCU experience actually amplify the concerns experienced and expressed by a cross section of faculty, students, and staff who depend, in times both good and bad, upon this special place we call the academy for employment, knowledge acquisition, scholarly community, and research experiences. 

*Featured photo by jonas-jacobsson.


Martyn Beeny is Marketing and Sales Director at Cornell University Press. Outside of his publishing career, his history PhD considered the role of popular music in WWII, thus hooking him into the power of message; he loves soccer (Arsenal fan) and being out in nature and on the water with his wife (Hilary) and dog (Kaanu). You can follow him on Twitter @MartynBeeny.

Valerie Hotchkiss is the University Librarian and a professor of English at Vanderbilt University. A scholar-librarian, she has an MLS degree as well as a PhD in Medieval Studies from Yale. Over the past 20 years, she has directed libraries in Texas, Illinois, and Tennessee. In addition to running libraries, she has authored numerous books and articles on medieval cultural history, women’s studies, and topics in the history of books and printing.

Cynthia Neal Spence is an associate professor of sociology at Spelman College, where she is the Social Justice Fellows Program Director and also serves as Director of the UNCF Mellon Programs. Dr. Spence’s interest in issues of higher education access, gender role socialization, and violence against women frame her research, writing, community service involvement, and public speaking. She is the recipient of the Spelman College Alumnae Achievement Tiffany Award and the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Service Award.

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