APE 2018 conference report

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For one of Europe’s most important gathering on scholarly communication, ‘Academic Publishing in Europe’, more than 250 delegates gathered in Berlin from 16 to 17 January 2018 (pre-conference 15 January). Since 2006, the conference series has addressed key challenges facing the community, particularly pertaining to technological innovation and business models.

Publishing 2020: Ramping up relevance’ was the focus in 2018, and the notion of ramping up relevance led to the re-affirmation of the key themes that have characterised the conference series, and made it valuable to the stakeholders’ present:

  1. Open access; and particularly funder demands for more progress on the transition to open access publishing by national deals to enable the so-called ‘flipping’ of the business model to avoid ‘double-dipping’ by publishers when collecting subscription fees plus article processing charges.

  2. Content’ versus ‘data’ as an unresolved issue for many publishers that seemingly remain undecided as to whether they should keep prioritizing the peer review and publication of content or, else, focus on providing a platform capable of creating value from data.

  3. Looming new technological challenges associated with the blockchain and the rise of machine learning that likely will challenge academic publishing despite the industry being an early adopter of digital technologies.

Open access returned to the fore somewhat unexpectedly in an opening address delivered by the President of the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities (also the conference venue), Prof. Dr. Martin Grötschel. He took the opportunity to convey his personal impressions of the standoff between the German libraries and research organizations and Elsevier, having taken part in the negotiations. Unfortunately, the President of the International Publishers Association, Dr. Michiel Kolman, had no chance to respond, as he had delivered his opening address earlier.

Open access as public policy was a major theme at the pre-conference already. Geraldine Clement-Stoneham (MRC, UK) detailed how the openness of research results has been a priority of public policy for more than a decade, and how funders expect more progress on open access publishing and open data. Robert van der Vooren (VSNU, NL) outlined the ambition of 100 per cent open access to journal publications in 2020 by funding article-processing charges. To date, deals with the Top 8 publishers have led to more than 50 per cent open access publishing for about 24,000 corresponding authors funded by VSNU institutions. Axel Marion (Swiss Rectors’ Conference, CH), presented an open access strategy by which all publicly funded research results will be open access by 2024. A comprehensive action plan for SFr 30m supports adoption of open access, reform of copyright, experiments with publication formats and so on. In parallel, the Swiss National Science Foundation has achieved about 50 per cent open access, and is pushing for 100 per cent by 2020.

Particularly noteworthy on the topic of open access was a measured speech by David Sweeney (HEFCE, UK; Executive Chair Designate ‘Research England’). While the delivery was diplomatic, the message was clear. Whereas the UK path had been to lead through a partnership between funders and publishers, this partnership was not delivering a transition to open access publishing, and there are doubts that all publishers are still on board as partners. Unless measurable success becomes evident soon, the public funders would need to re-consider their policy and approach to open access publishing.

There is a connection between open access and the debate around ‘content’ versus ‘data’. Open access means ‘releasing’ the content, and there is a perception among publishers that one may lose control over the content and the data. This became particularly evident in the session ‘All about piracy’ among the four presenters and discussants, Wouter Haak (Elsevier), Dr. Duncan Campbell (Wiley), Wim van der Stelt (Springer Nature), and Charlie Rapple (Kudos). Sci-Hub is believed to have copied almost the entire corpus, driving publishers to re-assert the importance of content. Sharing platforms like ResearchGate have accumulated much data on users and publications. While Sci-Hub has been sued, but is out of reach; various publisher consortia are negotiating with ResearchGate (e.g. Springer Nature) or, alternatively, issuing take-down notices (e.g. Elsevier, Wiley).

The APE Lecture by Dr. Annette Thomas (Clarivate Analytics) outlined a comprehensive data-driven approach that puts the researcher at the center. A 360 Framework is deployed to capture the impact of all kinds of publications, as well as covering the workflow (e.g. resources, data) and addressing the services researchers provide (e.g. peer review, teaching).

The blockchain session focused on its potential for the disintermediation of publishing services. The notion that the blockchain is decentralised, distributed, and immutable, leads protagonists to believe that it could be the foundation of a more integrated open system, a kind of single, transparent repository supporting the whole scholarly cycle encompassing research, publication, and communication. While the applicability of blockchain was illustrated, and discussed, product prototypes with user traction have yet to emerge.

The session on AI and publishing shifted between the more general claim that machine learning may be utilised to re-design the scholarly workflow and the presentation of ideas for specific applications, e.g. matching papers and reviewers for peer review. While products with some machine learning inside have been developed, the session made clear that the current uptake is limited and low. In sum, both the blockchain and machine learning have not yet had much practical impact in scholarly publishing.