Future-gazing with STM

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Jo McShea rounds up the 50th annual STM conference, held last week in Frankfurt

From artificial intelligence to research data and innovation strategy – the 50th annual conference of STM, the global trade association for academic and professional publishers in Frankfurt, was awash with inspiration for academic publishers looking to the future. 

Held at the Westin Grand hotel, delegates arrived eager to soak up the opinions of expert speakers and panellists, who warned the audience repeatedly of the need to go back to basics, particularly on data.

This year’s keynote speaker was Annie Callanan, CEO of Taylor and Francis. Her epic 322-slide presentation was titled 'The best of times, the worst of times'. Warning that 'the world has forgotten what publishers do, and why we do it', she perhaps controversially described publishers as 'comfortably numb and smug' with both the 20th Century publishing business of moderating and validating, and the 'hallowed buildings' of physical libraries effectively no more. 

Noting that anyone can now publish their own brand of fake truth, she positioned publishers as having a unique role to play in mitigating these risks, urging the audience to be a positive force for change in disseminating evidence. In Callanan’s vision, 21st Century evidence-based publishing could cultivate and highlight authenticated truths from the 'digital wasteland', building on our networks of experts to deliver the most valuable knowledge specifically to those who need it, at the time they need it most. 

Appreciating the risks, Callanan also encouraged publishers to work together wherever possible and, 'bring goodwill to the conversation' in areas such as standards and the flagging of retractions. 

Risk-taking was a theme of the day, surfacing again in the 'Keys to Innovation' panel. Publishers and start-ups shared their experiences of taking risks to incubate innovation, discussing the difference between adaptive and disruptive innovation, and the realities of bringing innovation to larger publishers hampered by legacy systems. Various techniques were discussed, including agile development, innovation tournaments, and hackathons. The panel also debated the importance of culture in encouraging and rewarding innovation within the business.

Announcing 2020 as STM’s official Research Data Year, a roundtable panel discussion comprising Grace Baynes from Springer Nature, Iain Hrynaszkiewicz from PLOS, and Wouter Haak from Elsevier made a compelling case for going back to basics and ensuring that data can be shared, linked and cited easily.

Chairing the panel, Eefke Smit of STM emphasised the importance STM places on data publishing and standardised research data policies to encourage reproducibility and credit. The audience heard evidence showing that publication of a Data Availability Statement alongside the original article can increase citations of the article by up to 25 per cent. Baynes highlighted Springer Nature data showing that researchers want credit for sharing data in the form of citations.  

While other metrics must be explored, citations remain ‘easily understood and recognisable’ also having the advantage of being recognised by funders at a time when funders are placing increasing importance on data, with many monitoring compliance with data sharing policies. The panel noted that NISO will be launching reproducibility badges at during STM Week in early December. 

Confronting issues in catering for both human and machine readers and the need for publishers to embrace the benefits of artificial intelligence the panel on AI discussed the evolving global legal landscape. With each country having its own policies, copyright lawyer Carlo Scollo Lavizzari described the legal situation as 'alphabet soup' with those wishing to influence policy needing to focus on the consultations that really matter. 

Other discussion points included avoiding bias in AI algorithms, the difference between true AI and machine learning, and ethics issues specific to publishing, such as who owns the copyright to a book written by AI, how peer review is conducted, and who takes responsibility when a machine summarises something in an irresponsible way. As Neils Peter Thomas from Springer Nature said: 'You can’t go back to a machine and say, please re-write chapter three.'

The executive panel included four industry leaders (and unusually, three out of the four were women); Tracey Armstrong, Copyright Clearance Center, Judy Verses, John Wiley and Sons, Daniel Ebneter, Karger Publishers, and Annie Callanan, Taylor and Francis. They discussed the challenges of innovating as an incumbent, fostering an environment where people feel safe enough to be disruptive, and working with startups. 

Armstrong summarised the challenges facing the industry when she said: 'There are epic challenges in the world today and we are not set up to address them. We need to look beyond business outcomes to the common good, and work out how this community is addressing that. It’s a very, very big mandate.'

The final session was an interview with outgoing STM CEO Michael Mabe, speaking frankly of the changes the industry has seen over his years of tenure, Mabe’s leadership has steered STM for many years, and his impact was warmly acknowledged by his peers as a fitting end to a fascinating conference. 

Jo McShea is director of market intelligence for the Web of Science Group, part of Clarivate Analytics