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A dynamic and rapid evolution

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Leon Heward-Mills and Rebecca Lawrence discuss the Taylor & Francis acquisition of F1000 Research

When we announced the acquisition of F1000 Research in early January, it is fair to say that we did this with a mix of excitement and some element of trepidation. 

Research communication is being disrupted, and to the casual onlooker, on one side we had F1000 Research, one of the leading drivers of innovation in open research, on the other Taylor & Francis, one of the larger publishers whose portfolio of over 2,700 journals largely still follows traditional peer review processes and workflows.  

When you look beneath the surface, however, this partnership is rooted in pragmatism and ambition. We both share the goal of dynamically and rapidly evolving research communication – working in partnership with the communities we work alongside. 

The last few years have been characterised by debate, at times polarised, on the future of research communication and the roles of the various actors in that process. More often than not this debate has focused on cost, transparency, ownership and access, which are all important issues. 

However, our belief is that there are other equally important factors at play. The problems the world faces in the 21st century demand a different approach to convert applied, expert and advanced research into solutions, quickly, and we all have a part to play in ensuring that this happens.

Well-documented challenges within the current system include: 

  • Discoverability, reproducibility and problems of research waste; 
  • A lack of interoperability of research and collaboration across disciplines;
  • Public perception – trust and truth;
  • How to rapidly convert new discoveries into real-world impact; and
  • How to maximise speed of generating and communicating new knowledge.

All of this is against a backdrop of a proliferation of knowledge and data: today’s expanding human knowledge corpus can no longer be contained on a library shelf, or even on all shelves contained in all 45,000 global academic libraries combined. There needs to be a new approach to research communication. 

Many of those involved in research, scholarly communication and policy making (including ourselves) are resolute in finding solutions to these issues. Researchers, funders, provosts, librarians and scholarly societies share a vision for the work they deliver, fund and support to have impact beyond the academy. Sometimes, however, the various actors have found themselves talking at cross-purposes as they seek to solve the same problems in different ways. Furthermore, real progress in transforming the system requires collective action across these different actors

Our goal, through this partnership, is to transform research communication workflows across all disciplines, to speed up research and to provide mechanisms that enable (and indeed encourage) researchers to rapidly communicate and debate all types of discoveries, regardless of format or perceived impact. Alongside this, we want to champion openness and transparency to deliver knowledge to the benefit of all, and in doing so to play our part in solving what isn’t working for everyone under the current system. 

Research communication fit for the 21st century

When F1000 Research launched in 2013, it presented a completely new model of publication, combining ‘pre-printing’ with quality and transparency through rigorous editorial checks, FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) data support and invited open peer review. 

This model provides authors with autonomy throughout the publishing process and provides readers with direct access to the views and criticisms of peers on the work. It also aims to support a shift away from using the venue of publication as the main indicator for assessing research outputs and researchers themselves.  As a new start-up, it was in the enviable position to dream up a workflow for research communication unbridled by many of the issues facing legacy publishers. In the intervening years, the model has matured and has been adopted by leading funders and research organisations who have set up dedicated platforms using this publication model, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.  

Within the same timeframe there has been an explosion of new open research ideas and initiatives. Some of those that Taylor & Francis has been involved with include supporting I4OC as a founding member, being an early adopter of Open Science Badges, launching a suite of data-sharing policies, signing the TOP guidelines, expanding preprints guidance, piloting a simple way for authors to submit from bioArxiv to our journals, and signing transformative agreements with consortia around the world. 

This is in addition to publishing almost 300 open access journals. Taylor & Francis colleagues are also deeply involved in the changes in scholarly communications, including membership of the boards and working groups of OASPA, Dryad, Metadata 2020, Research Data Alliance, Center for Open Science, as well as STM Committees on Research Data and Open Peer Review, amongst many others.

However, Plan S crystallised the fact that for many, it still does not feel like the pace of change is fast enough. Plan S was about more than just open access – it was a call to arms to create a research communication environment that fits today’s research needs. There is potential to do more: we can see this. For us, this year will set the tone and direction for a series of developments that we undertake with the research, funder and publishing communities. 

F1000 Research has typically concentrated on life science research, and the ambition is to offer researchers from a much broader range of disciplines the option to publish in the F1000 Research model. Achieving this is not simply a question of scaling up, but also being acutely aware of the different needs of these communities. For example, ethics, data, and even the concept of a preprint, all take on a different form when we come to model what F1000 Research looks like in the humanities. 

Moving forward, F1000 Research and Taylor & Francis can build on Routledge’s strong heritage in arts, humanities and social sciences to collaborate with partners in these communities to design models that work for these communities.

Other areas of focus include expanding the range of gateways and platforms that F1000 Research supports, alongside broadening the range of services provided to funders, universities, university presses, scholarly societies, and indeed other publishers – we want to share the model with all. With these stakeholders we want to continue to set standards and processes that maximise the interoperability of research outputs and support researchers and those beyond the academy to make use of the knowledge to help solve the challenges faced by humanity. It may sound like a lofty ambition, but we believe it is both an essential and urgent one.   

Taylor & Francis also has a lot to gain through this partnership. We want to use this as an opportunity to recalibrate conversations and perceptions about the various actors across scholarly communications. For example, much of our work is focused on defining, measuring and supporting authors to achieve impact for their work, which is a focus that funders share. Many commentators often reference a perceived obsession with the Impact Factor on behalf of publishers as a measure of impact. 

However, we are just as keen to look more broadly at what impact means, and to see the work we publish play a role in improving people’s lives. When we refer to the Impact Factor we encourage people to understand how to use it responsibly, but also understand how it has become a key part of the awards and incentives system hard-wired into many academic institutions. We are keen to see this change.

So many of the frustrations in the current system come from groups talking at cross-purposes. Funders have called for greater transparency so that people are clear about what publishers ‘do’. Unpicking what this means needs to be at the root of a more constructive discourse about how we, as publishers, best serve our purpose of helping others to access and realise the transformative power of trustworthy knowledge – as opposed to fake news. 

F1000 Research has a workflow that is open from end-to-end and understand instinctively the importance of transparency. Along with many of the other partners that Taylor & Francis works with, F1000 Research is part of a wider conversation to help people understand why the services that publishers provide has both currency and value, particularly when it comes to establishing trust and by working together, this is an area that we hope to improve on.

A careful balancing act 

All of this does, at times, feel like a careful balancing act. There is an enormous amount of value that established publishers provide to the research community. So, from Taylor & Francis’ point of view as we consider our particular role in changing the system, we want to do this without undermining the things that we all value: trust, truth, quality, integrity and impact: we of course remain totally committed to supporting the research communities and organisations we currently provide publishing services to through our publications. Taylor & Francis’ portfolio, with its high proportion of social science, arts and humanities content, presents a particular challenge. In part this is because there is often little funding to cover publishing costs in these disciplines under current models if research is to be published open access. 

Beyond this, within these communities there is often not the same appetite for open access and open research, partly because existing open workflows and processes have been modelled for STEM disciplines. Through our new partnership, we see a role in helping to explain the benefits and to create the right environment to allow open research practices to flourish within a wider range of research communities. Together, we have already begun to test out ways to make progress with the particular needs of these groups of researchers in mind. 

Along with many of the other larger publishers, we are also mindful of the network of societies that are supported by publishing, either directly through their journals, or indirectly through sponsorships, prizes and conferences. We do not want to see the valuable work these societies do to build networks, foster career progression and support standards, to become collateral damage in a race to transition to an open environment. We are therefore keen to support societies in finding ways to help them to adapt to new funding paradigms, whilst allowing them to thrive in the vital roles they play in shaping their fields of research.   

There is a lot at stake here, as we work with our partners to evolve research communication to make best use of the digital workflows now available. There is the need to protect all that is good that the systems and workflows that currently underpin research communications offer, by helping to establish trust, truth, quality, integrity and to realise impact. But there is also a need to come to terms with the fact that the time has come for change to enable everyone to make use of all the work of researchers so that it serves a greater purpose: in short, to amplify and democratise knowledge.

Leon Heward-Mills is managing director of researcher services at Taylor & Francis; Rebecca Lawrence is managing director of F1000 Research