Industry at a strategic crossroads

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Sami Benchekroun

Sami Benchekroun outlines post-pandemic trends in scholarly communications 

The Covid pandemic acted as a watershed moment for scholarly communications, turning existing models on their head and accelerating many changes that were already long in the making. But as we look forward, what does the future entail? Organisations across scholarly communications are now at a strategic crossroads: Will they choose to stay the course, falling back on traditional and reliable structures, or instead embrace this unique opportunity to pursue reinvention and enhance their missions? 

Through our work with societies, associations, and institutions, we have witnessed the changes within this dynamic community firsthand. And while we know that not all trends will remain post-pandemic, some look set to shape scholarly communications long-term, and for the better.  

Looking beyond the journal 

One theme that dominated scholarly communications throughout the pandemic is a growing desire to look beyond the published journal article and increase access to each step in the research lifecycle. In a post-2020 world, preprints, multimedia, datasets, and conference posters represent just a handful of the content formats that now receive greater appreciation within the scientific community, and for good reason. 

By gaining access to early findings and negative results, researchers are able to make progress faster and accelerate their breakthroughs. In the race to fight Covid-19 and discover an effective vaccine, a more transparent and rapid research process has become all the more essential. In fact, an analysis of bioRxiv and medRxiv found that more than 40 per cent of the total Covid-19 literature published from January 1 to April 30 was posted via pre-prints. 

Conference research has increasingly found its way online, particularly with in-person events no longer possible. These early-stage findings are often the first steps in a research project to be publicly shared and many scientists rely on conferences to gather initial feedback and gain inspiration for their work. With this in mind, societies and academic organisations now recognise the need to digitally disseminate not only abstracts and text-based proceedings, but also a full spectrum of posters, presentations, and videos, allowing this content to live on long-term. 

As we look to the future, ensuring pre-published research is vetted and can be effectively filtered to avoid an information overload may be a challenge, but its online publishing is one trend that’s already become a stalwart in scholarly communications.  

Science in the spotlight

2020 was a year of divisive politics, heightened by the stresses of the pandemic. Scientific organisations faced a major question throughout this time: Was neutrality the right route forward, or was it their obligation to take a stance - particularly when science itself was being called into question? For many, the pandemic offered the opportunity to stand up for evidence-based decision-making and against rampant conspiracy theories and harmful rhetoric.

While such public support for science-backed policies might seem an obvious choice for scholarly organizations, for many societies and institutions their public participation in these forums marked a significant break from the past and a decisive step towards a more politically engaged future. 

Alongside this reassessment of societal roles and responsibilities, the pandemic also resulted in an increased desire for a more democratised approach to scholarly communications. Virtual events, a Covid necessity, had the added benefit of increasing access to scientific conferences, particularly to a global community that may not have the means to attend in-person events. 

Although the magic of meeting in the same room cannot yet be replicated in a virtual setting, the move online is one trend that has been embraced by researchers. A Nature survey found that a majority (74 per cent) of scientists would like virtual access to conference proceedings and content to continue, even when in-person are reinstated. The convenience and added accessibility of being able to attend a conference from your home or workplace means this trend looks to go from strength to strength this year and beyond.

Innovate or perish 

Throughout the pandemic, maintaining the status quo has in many cases been impossible. While for some organisations, the uncertainty they have faced has proved to be a major challenge, for others this time provided the opportunity to innovate despite (or even because of) the obstacles presented. Looking to the future, will this increased openness to change and experimentation remain?

Without a doubt, the financial hardships of 2020 and beyond will impact the industry, which may result in a more protective approach to research sharing and collaboration as publishers and societies are driven to protect their revenue. However, the broadening of the research workflow has provided new business models that some organizations have already tapped into, including with virtual events, the creation of new conference content packages, and the monetization of data. These added opportunities point to a future where organizations are less reliant on traditional revenue streams and are instead looking to transition to options that provide more value-add for researchers.

On that note, new open access models continued to grow in 2020, accelerated by an increased spotlight on science and recognition of the importance of more equitable access to knowledge. As a next step, exciting new developments in AI, machine learning, and automation will aid the open access movement by significantly reducing APCs and offering alternatives to traditional publishing models where necessary.

A more hopeful future

The response to the tumult of the past couple of years has proven that the scholarly communications community is resilient and highly capable of adapting to the myriad of challenges presented by a global pandemic. By taking the learnings of the past few years onboard and embracing a more innovative and collaborative approach, we will ensure that this industry continues to grow, adapt, and thrive no matter what obstacles the future may hold.

Sami Benchekroun is CEO and co-founder of Morressier