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Academic and professional publishing - a science and an art

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Ian Borthwick considers academic and professional publishing and the challenges for the future

Internet and digital technologies have reached such levels of maturity that their workings are easily overlooked and misunderstood, with users simply expecting it all ‘to just work’. This belies the incremental and breakthrough innovations and engineering involved in enhancing web linking, indexing and discovery, enriching web content and responsive design, and enabling a ubiquitous, multi-device and increasingly-personalised interface for seamless web access.

Such user-focussed, robust functionality depends on the kind of ‘invisible architecture’ that also exists in many value chains, including the scholarly and scientific ecosystem.

Culture and integrity

The history of academic and professional publishing is long, wide and varied (and so I won’t be recounting it here!). There have been many changes in how research is conducted, analysed and disseminated, and likewise in how content is produced, distributed and managed. However, there remain strong undercurrents to the flow of research in progress and the publishing processes that accompany them. These constants are founded on the roles and interaction of authors, publishers, librarians and readers alike, relationships that crystallise around the often-unspoken but well-understood requirement for integrity.

Integrity is highly prized in scholarly and scientific circles, and for good reason. These are areas where personal and institutional reputation and prestige are pre-eminent, where careers are made on the quality and insight of work, and where knowledge and discovery lead us all to stand ever taller on the shoulders of giants. Peer review is key in this realm, for while it is occasionally derided for its irreducible human element, in those places where it is managed well the process works to achieve as objective a reckoning as possible. It also ensures that high-quality articles feed into the field of study, and, in turn, inspire further research and high-quality articles. With this in mind, the need for vigilant best practice in current and future stewardship of the scholarly and scientific record, built on trust and independence, has seldom been more keenly felt.

Innovation and choice

Despite the thrall of some to innovative technologies and charges of obsolescence in ‘traditional’ roles, stakeholders are keen to more fully understand how the networks of knowledge around them have evolved and how they in turn can best feed into them.

With increasing levels of data output opening new opportunities in research, publication and advanced workflow tools, the expectations of good-quality publishing and interoperability are driving further innovation. Developing products and services that integrate these additional layers but still align with the fundamental principles and needs of research has never been a more compelling task.

Questions naturally abound as to whether any single approach to business models maps consistently across the entire scholarly and scientific ecosystem, given the significant variations in disciplinary function and discretionary funding. Many debates have raged, and many more will undoubtedly arise over different access models – subscription, purchase and rental on one hand vs. author- and funder-pays open access on the other (with a range of options in between). However, key to any choice is the notion of sustainability.

Answering the challenge of sustainability is not straightforward. Both the needs of different niches and the cultures of different communities merit individuated approaches to decision making. Evidence-based, reason-backed decisions are critical to bringing about natural progression in approaches and a more representative democratisation of knowledge here. However implementation of such decisions still very much rests on the practical requirement of having necessary funds to hand.

Added value and success

There is, of course, much to be gained through innovation of processes and technologies, including driving down costs where market economics allows this. Equally, there is much at stake that may be lost through poor or ill-informed choice. To this end, it is in the interests of researchers, publishers, librarians and other stakeholders to realise their interdependencies and to seek clarity of agreement and focus in areas of mutual interest – such as managing quality, discovery, access and identity –with duties aligned in applying professionalism, accountability and transparency throughout their work.

Professionalism in this context encompasses more than mere manuscript management, but extends to a wide range of specialisms– including editorial, legal, ethical, technological, operational and strategic accountabilities– that comprise the core workings of the knowledge industry. Communication of the responsibilities embedded in the publishing value chain has often proven elusive, but, as the intersection of stakeholder interests grows, the requirement for transparency demands elucidation of these values.

Success in this field is hard fought, given the competitive nature of academic and professional publishing, but the rewards persist in the worthy goal of advancing science and scholarship, and – somewhat more fundamentally – also in working alongside expert and experienced individuals as part of a vibrant, evolving industry.

Ian Borthwick is a portfolio development manager at IET Standards, UK, and is the Under-35 board member of the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM) serving from 2008 to 2014. He co-edited a book with Robert Campbell of Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Ed Pentz of CrossRef, entitled Academic and Professional Publishing, published September 2012 by Chandos Publishing. This article is written in a personal capacity