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Transforming an academic publisher

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Mandy Hill explains how Cambridge University Press has been embracing open research

It continues to be an extraordinary time for academic publishing. 
 
The iterative development of the past few decades has now been well and truly replaced with rapid and dramatic change. Many of us in the scholarly communications industry – whether we work in editorial, sales, marketing, legal, or technology, and whether we are commercial or society publishers or librarians – are thinking constantly about what we need to do next. We are adapting to the future while accepting that we cannot accurately predict it.
 
There is one thing we can feel confident about: there will be a lot more open publishing in the future. I am confident that it will happen, and confident that it is right to happen.
 
The conversation in the industry has noticeably moved from ‘whether’ to ‘how’, eliciting a rich mix of excitement and trepidation. The fundamental basis of publishing is still largely in place: content dissemination underpinned by the proven principles of copyright, licensing and payment. But the potential for the internet to utterly transform how content is distributed, and all of the ramifications of this change, is still at an early stage of being realised. 
 
Our ability to disseminate research outputs as open research, instead of putting them behind paywalls, has become tangible. There are, however, a bunch of other trends and pressures that are stimulating speculation about how scholarly communication will evolve in the next few years, and so complicating our decisions about how to deliver the open research transformation. 
 
Let’s start with the clear and certain. Research is being produced and published globally at an increasing rate. The budgets of consumers (libraries, students, etc.) are tight. The benefits of open research are increasingly accepted: making content open increases readership and facilitates greater re-use for the benefit of society as a whole. There is a growing movement to improve how research and researchers are evaluated and their impact assessed, with new ways of assessing impact feeding off an explosion of metrics and improved open metadata. 
 
In parallel, new technologies have provided an opportunity to completely re-evaluate the whole publishing workflow, bringing opportunities for openness across the research lifecycle and spurring innovations around open peer review, community annotation and post-publication review, open data and many other things.
 
For some, the transformation to open research is an opportunity to rebuild the very fabric of scholarly communication, replacing traditional publishers with a new ecosystem of low-cost publishing solutions. There is certainly a place for this type of innovation, and in fact we are exploring it ourselves with Cambridge Open Engage. Realistically though, and in any reasonable timeframe, traditional publishing has a vital role to play in delivering the open research agenda, and can continue to add real value.
 
At Cambridge University Press, we’ve had a lot to do in working out a sustainable way to support open access publishing at scale. Virtually every part of our activities has been affected. 
 
It’s a similar story for many other publishers. New information needs to be collected from authors and processed through our workflows, which were not designed for this. Our publishing agreements with authors are being revamped, which is no mean feat as we must agree the changes for the several hundred journals that we publish on behalf of academic societies. 
 
Negotiating and administering read and publish deals (which allow a customer to read subscription content and publish their own content as open) is a substantially more complex task than for subscription deals, requiring major changes to the way sales teams work, and to the systems they depend upon. We are improving our compliance with important new and emerging industry standards. We are working out how to support machine reading (for text and data mining) at scale. 
 
To do all this, we’ve had to develop much better awareness, understanding and communication in our organisation and with our partners and customers. Little of this is simple. All of it is important. Ultimately, we must be able to sustainably support open access at scale, with the best possible experience for every stakeholder.
 
A striking development in the past year has been how more funders, whether they are government agencies or private foundations, are choosing to flex their ability to mandate that the research they pay for is immediately published as open research. This top-down, funder-led approach to open research is particularly strong in Europe, with the cross-funder Plan S initiative being the most visible example. In the US, on the other hand, a large part of the transformation is being driven by research institutes and library consortia. The global picture is complicated, and this leads to the first of the great challenges I will mention.
 
When we (or pretty much any sizeable publisher) looks at a map of where our readers and authors are, there is only partial overlap. 
 
Some places have a lot of authorship, while others are principally consumers. You see the discrepancy however far you zoom in or out of the map, looking at countries, consortia or institutes in a country, or even departments in an institute. To sustainably flip to a wholly Open publishing business, we must retain reasonable levels of financial support. But content consumers are less likely to continue paying for open content, and the producers do not, by and large, have the funding to dramatically increase their financial contribution. The fear is that this could create an existential threat for many journals – including those that provide highly valued services to their communities. 
 
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of thinking about new business models going on in the community. At Cambridge University Press, we’re primarily focusing on read and publish agreements, although we don’t see that as the only model. 
 
Other publishers may need to choose a different route. Consortia pledging multi-year support to allow journals to flip to open has worked well already for several years in specific cases, and subscribe to open is an intriguing generalisation of the approach that is designed for year-by-year pledging by individual organisations. It’s exciting to see new ideas surface. But it’s complicated: it’s difficult to see any single model working everywhere, for all types of publishers in all subject disciplines in all parts of the world.
 
The second major challenge I want to highlight is the need to avoid creating new barriers to authorship. It’s relatively easy for publishers to help prevent unnecessary barriers to readership. For example, Research 4 Life is a cross-industry supported initiative to provide free or low-cost access to subscription content in low and middle-income countries. 
In an open research world, researchers in those countries will not face barriers to readership, but they will almost certainly face barriers to open publishing unless we address this directly.
 
We also need to think about other researchers who don’t have the funding to support open publishing. Open must not be a barrier to equity and diversity. We must not create new barriers for these researchers; anyone should be able to contribute to world-wide scholarly communications if their work is up to standard.
 
We and other publishers will continue our work to support the many aspects of open research. Many of us are at different stages, but perhaps the biggest challenge of all that we face is one of cultural change. And for that, the most powerful tool we have is to converse. Which is fitting, for what is academic publishing if not communication and collaboration?

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