I hate the phrase, “scholarly communication.”

It’s not that I hate the practice, which I view as a pinnacle of human achievement, without which the life and work of many (including me) would be meaningless. It’s that the phrase itself connotes a mechanical process, rather than the transcendent purpose that underlies the activity itself.

Decoding the term “scholarly communication” requires us to consider other adjectives as applied to communication. Not all that many are in common use, and most that are refer to technology or to style, e.g. “terse communication,” “telephonic communication” (an archaic usage that is not all that old), “written communication,” “verbal communication.” None of these is properly parallel with “scholarly communication,” where the modifier of “communication” signifies a type of work. If we look at other lines of work that involve communicating we find no good linguistic parallels. I, at least, have never heard of “journalistic communication,” “artistic communication,” “filmic (?) communication,” “photographic communication,” “dramatic communication,” or the like. Rather one speaks of journalism, art, film, photography, etc.

The obvious parallel to all of these noble lines of work is simply “scholarship,” and indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, scholarship without communication isn’t well defined, because an essential part of scholarship is making one’s work public by contributing one’s thoughts and knowledge to the scholarly literature. (Note, by the way, that we have many modifiers of the word “literature” that are fully parallel to this usage.) Moreover, an extremely important part of the practice of scholarship, namely private communication between and among scholars, is NOT included in the conventional meaning of the term “scholarly communication.” That’s because what we really mean to be talking about when we say “scholarly communication” is scholarly publication, by which I mean the set of mechanisms (and associated rules and practices) by which scholarship is made public. The mechanisms include traditional and less traditional methods of publication (inter alia , monographs, blogs, simple postings on websites) plus traditional and nontraditional methods of presentation, including lectures, YouTube clips and podcasts, plus the zillions of ways that these and other technologies of communication can be combined.

I think that what we are usually talking about when we use the term “scholarly communication” is the business of making scholarly things public, including, of course, the economic viability of academic journals and academic presses, as well as the copyright and other legal and regulatory regimes that affect the business of making scholarship public. (For continuing valuable treatment of these subjects, see Scholarly Communications@Duke, a fine blog in everything but name.)

So, we are looking for a phrase that means something like, “the physical and economic mechanisms used to make scholarship public.” As I have implicitly suggested above, there is a perfectly good phrase to describe this, right out of the dictionary. The OED defines “publishing” as “the act of making something publicly known,” which is exactly the notion that we are looking for. If we want to distinguish between scholarly publishing generally and the particular activities and vicissitudes of university presses, we could speak specifically of “academic press publishing,” and also of “academic publishing,” which would connote a part of the publishing business aimed at the academy, parallel to trade publishing, or mass-market publishing. As in the commercial cases, many media would be included in addition to print books and print journals.

In the end, my point is simple: We seek to understand and improve the mechanisms used to make scholarly work public, and we would like a word or phrase to describe the object of our study. The terms “publishing” and “publication” connote our interest precisely, whereas “communication” does not. Indeed, much communication has nothing to do with making things public. (Consider “confidential communication,” which is commonplace, in juxtaposition to “confidential publication,” which is simply bizarre.)

Of course, I have no realistic hope of changing the words that we use to discuss these important matters. Once a term of art gets entrenched in the academy, it is rarely dislodged, and “scholarly publishing” has come to mean “what academic presses do,” while “scholarly communication” has come to mean what I said at the top of the previous paragraph. So I expect that this amiable rant will have no effect, but the tradition of amiable ranting is well established in both scholarship and blogging, and one can always hope for miracles.