Six Takeaways: Stewardship of the Evolving Scholarly Record

esr-stewardship-thumbOver the past year, OCLC Research has been exploring the evolving scholarly record and its implications for libraries – see our June 2014 report The Evolving Scholarly Record, and the follow-on workshop series aimed at identifying new challenges in gathering, organizing, and curating the scholarly record.

The evolution of the scholarly record calls for a corresponding evolution in the stewardship strategies that ensure scholarly materials persist for many generations to come. This is the focus of our new OCLC Research report, Stewardship of the Evolving Scholarly Record: From the Invisible Hand to Conscious Coordination. The report describes some new directions in constructing reliable, trusted stewardship arrangements around the highly distributed and diverse outputs of contemporary scholarship.

In Stewardship of the Evolving Scholarly Record, we suggest that today’s scholarly record requires a shift to a new stewardship paradigm driven by conscious coordination. We hope you take the time to read the report, but for those who would like a preview, here are six takeaways:

1. The scholarly record is growing in volume, diversity, complexity, and the distribution of custodial responsibility. The result is a much deeper, more complete record of scholarly inquiry than what was captured in the past – and one that differs significantly from the traditional print-based scholarly record that library collections, services, and infrastructure have been built around. Today, the scholarly record is imperfectly approximated in the aggregate library resource, because libraries are not – and cannot – collect the full range of scholarly outputs that now comprise the evolving scholarly record.

2. Traditional, print-centric stewardship models relied on the “invisible hand” to secure the scholarly record. Stewardship of the print-based scholarly record was largely a byproduct of an uncoordinated, highly distributed, and duplicative process of managing local collections for local use. In the manner of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the aggregation of many internally-directed, relatively autonomous efforts to maintain and preserve local collections led, unintentionally, to a socially beneficial outcome – the gathering and curation of the overall scholarly record. But the “invisible hand” approach to stewardship is inadequate for today’s scholarly record.

3. Future stewardship models require conscious coordination. Conscious coordination will replace the “invisible hand” as the guiding principle behind stewardship of the evolving scholarly record. The keys to conscious coordination are context, commitments, specialization, and reciprocity: local stewardship decisions will be informed by a broader, system-wide context, including how the local collection fits into a system-wide stewardship effort; declarations of stewardship commitments will be made around portions of the local collection on behalf not only of local users, but also a broader external stakeholder community; networks of distributed stewardship responsibilities will coalesce into a well-defined division of labor within cooperative arrangements, with libraries placing greater emphasis on specialization in collection-building; and reliable, relatively frictionless access to all scholarly materials distributed across the network will be obtained through robust, trusted resource-sharing arrangements.

4. Consciously-coordinated stewardship strategies need to right-scale consolidation, cooperation, and community mix. Implementing consciously-coordinated stewardship for the scholarly record leads to a number of important decision points around right-scaling. Right-scaling consolidation means optimizing the degree of concentration or centralization of the collections, services, and infrastructure involved in a particular stewardship effort. Right-scaling cooperation involves finding the appropriate number of participants in a coordinated stewardship activity, e.g., a small group of institutions, a consortium, a region, etc. Finally, right-scaling community mix is about leveraging benefits from diversifying stewardship partners beyond peer institutions or legacy associations.

5. Reducing transaction costs facilitates conscious coordination. Conscious coordination involves increased interaction with, and reliance on, external partners. Effective interaction comes with costs: for example, the costs of finding appropriate partners, negotiating agreements, setting up and maintaining governance mechanisms, monitoring and enforcing performance. In economics, the costs of interaction are called transaction costs. An important element of building robust stewardship strategies for the evolving scholarly record is identifying and minimizing transaction costs within cooperative stewardship arrangements.

6. Incentives to participate in consciously-coordinated stewardship should be linked to broader institutional priorities. Consciously-coordinated stewardship often requires academic libraries to collect locally, and share globally. This can conflict with the academic library’s traditional role as a service provider in support of its local university community, to the extent that individual libraries function less as autonomous local service hubs, and more like nodes in complex networks of specialization, mutual dependence, and collective responsibility. Preserving a clear institutional identity in such circumstances, as well as strengthening local stewardship incentives, requires close alignment of increasingly global stewardship commitments with broader institutional priorities.

Our report is only the beginning of a conversation. In it, we limit ourselves to describing the broad contours of what consciously-coordinated stewardship might look like for the evolving scholarly record. Much work remains to be done to translate these ideas into robust stewardship arrangements that will preserve the scholarly record in all of its diversity and complexity. Connecting users to the scholarly record is a fundamental part of an academic library’s mission. That mission has not changed, but the means by which it is achieved must evolve in concert with the scholarly record itself.

Consciously-coordinated stewardship of the scholarly record is part of a broader trend in the library community to move various activities, services, and infrastructure “above the institution” and into networks of cooperation and coordination. OCLC Research explores this trend in its Understanding the System-wide Library (USL) research theme. Please visit the USL home page for more information.