Ten trends in scholarly publishing

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On 10 October Research Information editor Sian Harris gave a talk on 'Ten trends in scholarly publishing' at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here is the transcript of that talk, enhanced with relevant web links for further information. The slides are available here.


Hello. For nearly 10 years I’ve been the editor of Research Information. Being a specialist journalist in an industry gives a fairly unique opportunity to be an informed, independent observer of that industry and that is what guided my thinking as I prepared this talk.

Obviously ten trends in 20 minutes or so is a fairly tall order – each one could easily be a talk in itself. Limiting myself to ten trends was also quite hard so I have deliberately focussed along the lines of research behaviour and policy-type trends and steered away from technology trends such as formats and standards – maybe something for next year’s talk!

However, I hope to give you a flavour of what going on, point to other places for further information and give my perspective on what is happening today, how this has evolved and what might happen in the future.

The ten broad trends that I have chosen to cover today are:

1. General trends
2. Types of scholarly content
3. Information discovery
4. Information access
5. Purchasing approaches
6. Peer review
7. Research evaluation
8. Data and semantic enrichment
9. Preservation
10. Changing relationships

These are all topics that we cover regularly in Research Information and in the transcript of this talk I will share links to articles for further information and insight.

1. General trends

First I am going to look at general trends that relate to research. This is an important starting point. Most publishers will have something along the lines of ‘serving the research community’ as part of their mission statements – whatever researchers might think about this.

Over recent years research has evolved. New disciplines have emerged, often on the boundaries of traditionally discrete subject areas, leading many publishers to launch journals outside of their core specialisms. As computers have become more powerful and more research is done online there are more opportunities to do derivative research based on the body of published research using techniques such as text and data mining.

There has also been a big increase in research from so-called emerging countries and this has changed the research landscape  (for example, 'Chinese innovation takes country to top of patent lists'). This has big implications for the publishing industry.

Aside from the details of research, there are wider trends with universities. These include new institutions; universities specialising in core strengths; changing pressures from governments and funders; and budget pressures.

Many of these pressures have a significant impact on the role of libraries, traditionally the middlemen between publishers and researchers.

Then, of course, there are wider internet trends. It’s very common for companies to contact me about a new product and describe it as ‘the Spotify of research’ or ‘the Facebook for researchers’. Things like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Spotify, Wikipedia and others have a massive impact on what happens in scholarly publishing, both as a template (people almost always describe their new search interfaces to me as ‘Google-like’) and because they often play an increasingly important role in this industry themselves.

2. Types of scholarly content

Moving on from general trends, it should not be possible to talk about trends in information for research without focusing on ‘content’. Broadly speaking, the communication approaches have lasted for decades – centuries even. In the details, however, there have been many changes. In the early days of electronic journals the content was very static. Journals are now moving to more dynamic content and different ways to define content and what people want. There has been an increase in things like video and graphical abstracts and new ways to organise and interact with content depending how you want to use it. 

An interesting announcement earlier this month was from the publisher PeerJ about PeerJ Questions. This feature allows people to carry on interacting with and building on research after it has been published. People ask questions about the research and then both the questions and any answers are published at the relevant point in the paper and eventually given their own DOIs.

Although slightly younger than e-journals, e-books are also no longer a new topic. However they are somewhat harder to define because books fall into more different types with different challenges. There are monographs, where there is significant work going on at the moment to experiment with open-access models. There are also e-textbooks, where the focus of effort has been on moving from print-like e-books to things that people can interact with and, for example, test themselves on their progress with learning. There are also reference works, which have moved in some cases such a long way from the print concept that in the digital world they are databases.

I think there is still plenty of progress to be made to fully achieve the vision of e-books. In the meantime, a considerable amount of effort in e-books has been made on digitising (and monetising) publishers’ back catalogues (for example 'Archive makes out-of-print books available'). For more insight into e-books, see our recent issue on this topic.

Digital availability has also created the possibility of different products again – content of different lengths from traditional books or journals, what Palgrave MacMillan referred to as ‘research at its natural length’ when it launched its Palgrave Pivots recently.

There has also been a trend towards more derivative products, created for specific audiences by bringing together many different pieces of information and repackaging them. A couple of examples of this, where content for academic researchers is brought to industrial researchers, is Geofacets from Elsevier and Springer R&D.

This trend is likely to continue as interest in MOOCs – massive open online courses – increases. Earlier this year a major MOOC provider Coursera announced an agreement with six scholarly publishers to pilot use of published content within MOOCs.

3. Information discovery

Another big trend that I see is in information discovery. At the moment this is quite a complicated picture with many routes to content. First, it’s hard to get away from the mention of Google in any discussion about search and discovery. Google is mentioned both as a disruptor to traditional scholarly search processes and as a gold standard for information providers to aspire to. In interviews about a new platform or interface, it’s almost inevitable that the person I’m interviewing will describe the search process as ‘Google-like’.

Wikipedia is also an important route to content, even if students and others are hesitant to admit to Wikipedia’s role in their research. I think that if publishers aren’t already doing so, they should pay attention to the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the Wikipedia entries relating to their key authors and subject areas.

There are, of course, many traditional databases and providers of these tools argue that they provide quality and other benefits that are not guaranteed with tools available on the free web. Our latest issue (OctNov13) has interviews with many providers of such tools.

And then there are library catalogues. I do wonder if their role will change or merge with other things over time. We are already seeing trends towards web-scale tools and talk of shared services across libraries. Perhaps this is an area where discovery tools – the likes of EBSCO Discovery Service, Summon and Primo – might also play a greater role.

In the early days of electronic journals there was a lot of talk about the potential loss of the serendipity element of information discovery, the kind of discovery that happens when you are browsing through the latest issue of a print journal. I think that the rise of social media is helping to bring this back. Generally browsing Twitter or following a hashtag can bring up many unexpected and (at least sometimes) useful things.

4. Information access

This is a trend that is neither going away nor going to be resolved any time soon. There is far too much to say about access to even try to fit it into two minutes of a talk but the issues fall into a few main areas. There is the debate between the green versus the gold routes to providing access. This is basically whether the publication system carries on as it has done with a subscription model and authors also deposit some sort of version of their work in subject-based or institutional repositories or whether somebody on the author side (which could be the research funder, the university or the author themselves) pays for the publication process. There seems to be general agreement these days that there are costs involved in publishing – but plenty of disagreement on how big these costs are and who should pay them.

Added to this mix are a range of policies and initiatives that vary in emphasis from country to country. At this year’s STM Frankfurt conference there were interesting presentations on how to help federally funded researchers in the USA meet a new open access mandate there. Publishers have got together and proposed one approach, known as CHORUS. Meanwhile, universities have put together a different approach, called SHARE. CHORUS and SHARE share many similarities in their approaches but also some fundamental differences that prevent closer ties. This is an interesting situation to watch.

Researcher attitudes to open access are also interesting and there do seem to be some general differences in levels of enthusiasm and preferred approach depending on subject area, with more enthusiasm from scientists, engineers and medical researchers than from researchers in humanities and social sciences.

And there are plenty of researchers who are somewhat indifferent or lacking awareness in the topic of open access, according to librarians at a roundtable I reported from recently on behalf of SAGE and Jisc. The report of the day makes interesting reading and it certainly held plenty of surprises for me.

The access discussion gets more complicated still when we get into talk of licensing and reuse. This is particularly interesting for people who want to be able to reuse content in various ways, including text and data mining.

5. Purchasing approaches

Related to the topics of the nature of content and how it is accessed there are a range of issues about purchasing approaches. There are differences in whether electronic content is owned forever or rented for the period of the subscription deal. There are also models to purchase e-books content based on usage, so called patron-driven acquisition.

With subscription content, there are also different sized parcels of content – ranging from purchases of e-books by chapter to ‘big deals’, where many journals are purchased together, and ‘collections’ as a similar approach with e-books.

Interestingly, there is an analogous approach in situations where payment of publication costs goes on at the author side too. One way to simplify the process of paying for gold open access is to buy into membership schemes. This have a range of different models but basically involve some sort of bulk payment that enables a certain number of papers to be published by that institution or person. There are several other open access business models too, which further complicates the landscape described on the last slide (see 'Clear approaches help publishers deliver good OA experience').

6. Peer review

Peer review is another interesting trend to watch. Different journals take different approaches to this. One trend is from blind to open peer review, where authors and reviewers know each other’s identity. Another topic for discussion is whether the lion’s share of peer review should go on pre-publication or post-publication. The journal PLOS One has an interesting approach to this, of deliberately only assessing papers for things like originality, accuracy and ethics but not making a judgement on how interesting the research is before publication. The discussion of the value of the research goes on afterwards.

There have also been efforts to streamline the process of peer review. One of these is the idea of cascading peer review. This is where if a journal rejects a paper that paper, and the peer reviews that have been done on it, are automatically transferred for consideration by another journal within the publisher. This is billed by publishers as a way to make the process faster and more efficient. However, at the librarian roundtable that I mentioned earlier there was significant backlash reported about this process. Rather than seeing this as an efficiency measure, it was seen as a way to keep the paper, and therefore in the case of gold open access the payment for the paper, within the publisher. Librarians at the roundtable noted that in many cases researchers would prefer to go away and do some more work on their paper and submit it to another high impact factor journal elsewhere.

These concerns might be allayed by similar initiatives that go across publishers (for example, 'Cross-publisher initiative promises to speed peer review' and 'Teamwork saves review time in neuroscience').

There are some interesting initiatives to streamline peer review by moving the process out of publishers altogether. An example is from the Finnish startup Peerage of Science. This has a setup where authors submit papers to Peerage of Science, reviewers opt to review the papers that interest them and editors of journals track the papers as they go through the review process. At the end of the process journal editors make offers to the authors and they pick the journal they would most like to publish in.

This approach also recognises the role of reviewers, enabling people to evaluate the quality of reviews and giving reviewers scores that recognise their expertise as reviewers and that they can put on their CVs.

New Zealand-based startup Publons has another way to recognise the value of reviews in the research process. It has recently announced that DOIs are being added to the reviews it processes. This makes the reviews themselves searchable and citable in the same way as other elements of the research discussion. An article on Publons is planned in Research Information in the coming months.

7. Research evaluation

Research evaluation is another area that is getting an overhaul at the moment and will continue to be a trend to watch. The impact factor for judging journals based on citations of papers in other papers has been stretched beyond its original concept, for example in assessing universities, and this has led to a lot of criticism of impact factors. There is also the possibility to ‘game’ impact factors through self-citation.

In addition, now that so much of research information is available digitally the concept of the journal or journal issue has changed; research is more often considered at the paper level. For this reason there is considerable interest in article-level metrics.

Another trend that is driving efforts to shake up metrics is the increase in conversations about research that go on electronically but not in formal research communication channels. This includes discussions on blogs, in tweets and in news stories. Altmetrics is a growing trend to look at all the ways that research is discussed and assign metrics at an article level. There are still challenges though. There is perhaps the potential for even more gaming when so many different discussion types are considered. It is also hard to assess whether social media attention is positive or negative – and perhaps negative comments that link to an article are more likely in social media than in the more formal citation process.

Many of these things are discussed in a new, free, in-depth Research Information webcast on this topic, with presentations by the founders of three major altmetrics initiatives - visit www.researchinformation.info/webcasts.

8. Data and semantic enrichment

Semantic enrichment seems to have replaced Web 2.0 in recent years as a buzz word. Semantic approaches to handling data – be it research data, publisher data or something else – underpin many of the innovative products and discovery processes mentioned earlier – and will, no doubt, lead to many more things in the future.

But, taking a step back for a moment, perhaps the big news starts with data itself – the increase in volumes and availability of data has started this process. Some trends to watch here include the increase in open data, and the related developments in data standards and data citation. There is also a need to understand data and what it means, particularly things like uncertainty and the instrumentation used. It is often important to also know about the software used in processing the data.

There are many initiatives in data hosting and discussions about where is the best place for data to be held (for example, 'Figshare launches institutional version').

There are still possibilities with data even if the data itself is not openly available, as Tony Brookes, an academic from the UK’s University of Leicester described in a talk about knowledge discovery at the recent ALPSP conference.

9. Preservation

Preservation is a pet issue for me. In the 15 years that I have worked as a journalist I’ve written plenty of things that are no longer available electronically. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if news story I wrote in 2002 about why one telecoms company bought another telecoms company can no longer be read (although when I see the efforts to digitise old newspapers and magazines now I think it probably does) but what about if a journal ceases to exist with no preservation plan in place?

There are many challenges, including changes in publication formats, inclusion of data, maintaining links to other content and the increasingly dynamic nature of content.

There are some great initiatives around in this area but participation tends to be limited to the bigger players who are less likely to disappear without a trace anyway. Economic pressures and priorities are often a big factor in this. For more information see, for example, 'Mind the gap: catching digital content before it slips away'.

And, at the risk of seeming very doom and gloom, at current rates of progress, long-term availability of electricity is not guaranteed.

10. Changing relationships

On a more positive note, my final trend is the changing relationships between different groups. We have been encouraged to see a growing interest in Research Information from readers in the research community over recent years and I think this reflects a growing interest from researchers in publishing.

More widely, there are many discussions about closer dialogue between the different groups and many shared challenges. Discussions I’ve been involved in have revealed the importance of relationships between researchers and libraries, researchers and publishers, and libraries and publishers. Industry veteran Bob Campbell of Wiley-Blackwell also told the STM Frankfurt conference how one of the big challenges over the next five years will be working on the relationship between publishers and funders.

Concluding remarks

In 20 minutes there is only time to give a brief overview of the things going on and all of the trends I mentioned could easily be several presentations in themselves. For more in depth insight subscribe to Research Information in print or our digital version, subscribe to our email newsletter and follow us on Twitter. I am, of course, more than happy to discuss things in more detail after this session too.

Research Information is free to readers anywhere and we are very grateful to the support of our advertisers who make this possible. If you are interested in commercial opportunities in the magazine please speak to my colleague Alistair Gray (alistair.gray@europascience.com) who would be very happy to advise you of the range of options available.

Thank you and have a great evening.