'Libraries have a critical role engaging with faculty'

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What do you see as the biggest challenges in scholarly publishing today?

One challenge is the relatively slow response rate to the opportunities that technology offers education and research, caused somewhat by the ‘comfort’ of the traditional way of doing things and legacy systems. New AI technologies like machine learning have huge potential in our publishing systems, how we operate as a business, and for social science research. In other industries and disciplines that movement is happening a lot faster. We’re just starting to see some really exciting new research labs emerging in the social sciences; we’re on the cusp of a major new change where we’ll see more academics making use of data at scale, using new technologies, exploring new methods, and working with data scientists to understand society and the impact of technology on the world around us.

There’s also the skills gap challenge, especially around technology. Our role as a publisher is to address these challenges and respond actively and creatively in order to stay relevant and support our key customers and stakeholders. When you see big Silicon Valley players hiring aggressively with big salaries, and start-ups offering lots of excitement, there’s a real need for us to double-down on our mission-led message. We are doing more than selling adverts and what we’re doing is for the social good: supporting and improving education and research, as we explore how technology can build bridges to knowledge.

What can the library sector do to help overcome some of these challenges? 

Libraries have a very critical role engaging with faculty, educating them about the innovations in research and the tools around them. There’s some really exciting things that some librarians and libraries are doing to embrace and engage with new technologies. Matt Cook, head of emerging technologies at the University of Oklahoma library, has been doing work with VR technologies to explore how these can be used in teaching, a group from the National Library of Norway has collaborated with the library at the University of Stanford to look at machine learning for library purposes, cataloguing and analysing parts of their collection. Those are examples of pioneers in the library world; librarians thinking about how they can work with new technologies to evolve their own services. There’s real opportunity for more institutions, more libraries, to think about making those sorts of investments to try to innovate and think about their services. 

Libraries are also beginning to think more about how they can engage with faculty in new ways, and make the most of the digital environment around them. We recently acquired a start-up called Lean Library that allows librarians to deliver their services directly into their users’ workflow via the web browser, and we’ve also been doing some experimentation with chatbots and voice as a platform, to think about how library services might be extended, using those new technologies to reach faculty virtually. There’s some really exciting opportunities there for libraries to think about new ways to provide their services, to support faculty with their research and teaching, and make the most of the new technologies that are available. 

What can publishers do to help overcome some of these challenges?

It is about being nimble, recognising the challenges and looking for the opportunities, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, having a clear focus and ensuring that we, as an industry, continue to work collaboratively. Being an independent company, we are able to take risks – explore opportunities, confidently address challenges and work out the best way in which we can respond to the changing scholarly environment.

We’ve done a number of things to create some structures to make space for innovation, and invest in the very new when there’s no clear return on investment in the immediate or short term. We have a clear budget line available for long-term investment. We’ve created SAGE Labs (https://labs.sagepub.com), with engineers sitting alongside the product team with the goal to explore different emerging technologies and the applications they might have within scholarly publishing, whether that’s a feature on a traditional journal website, or potentially the spark of a very new product. We’ve done things like building an Alexa Skill service for SAGE Research methods (https://www.amazon.com/SAGE-Publications-Ltd-Research-Definitions/dp/B07...), and using neural networking to analyse, understand and tag images for accessibility purposes. 

The other thing that we’ve done is create an incubator environment for rapid product prototyping and testing. This incubator is SAGE Ocean (https://ocean.sagepub.com), where the products are solving challenges facing social science researchers looking to work with big data and new technologies. We have created a cross-functional team, marketing, editorial, product management, technology, who are focused on building minimum viable products and releasing them to test and learn about the needs among the social science community. We’ve started to look at investments and grant programmes through Ocean as well, as we explore how to bring external skills that aren’t in our traditional core skillset into SAGE.

What can researchers do to help overcome the challenges in scholarly publishing?

The opportunities vary depending on your area of research, but I think in many disciplines there is exciting potential in the use of the vast new data available to help us understand the world around us, whether that’s social media data, corporate data, or something else, and obviously there’s also huge ethical considerations to be taken into account when using these data for academic purposes. I would encourage researchers to continue to build awareness of the possibilities that exist, to join the debate around ethical use of data, and to look at the stories from academics who are leading the way. The world around us is changing as a result of technology and we need social science researchers at the table alongside big tech and government to understand the impact and feed solutions. For many social scientists, working with big data in this way is new and we are doing work to support the development of basic data science skills. One of the products that we launched recently through SAGE Ocean is a product called SAGE Campus, which comprises online self-study courses, specifically with the aim to equip social scientists with data science skills.

Publishers like SAGE have responded to the digital landscape to offer new classes of publishing products to institutions, including online video, digitised archives, interactive data sets and online cases. I would encourage teaching faculty to spend time with their librarians to understand the universe of resources available to them and how they might include more of these in their courses to drive student engagement and respond to different ways of learning in this digital age.

Download the free report, The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018, here.

Martha Sedgwick is associate VP of product innovation at SAGE Publishing