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Accelerating the advance of scholarly communications

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Amy Bourke rounds up proceedings at the STM Annual US Conference, held in Washington DC, USA, in April

What role can scholarly societies fill in the era of Academia.edu, ResearchGate and LinkedIn? Publishers, societies and academics met on the first day of the three-day STM Spring conference in April to discuss the powerful business of society publishing, debating this question and more.

Formulating strategy – and, crucially, following through on it – is a challenge for many society publishers, said Deni Auclair, industry analyst from Outsell. Too often, the board meets to decide on a strategy and it is forgotten in a few months’ time. Auclair urged societies to consider hiring consultants and partnering with start-ups to inject new life into their business models, adding that societies should also professionalise their marketing and sales functions wherever possible.

The problem at the core of societies struggling to recruit new members, many acknowledged, is that too often societies are run by baby boomers, with little to no plans to attract early career researchers. Richard Price, CEO of Academia.edu, said (to the dismay of many society publishers in the room) that he felt social networks fulfilled many of the traditional roles of a society, from networking to promotion. The consensus was that younger members do have use for societies; just not for the societies of their parents and grandparents.

The main conference focused on the theme of accelerating the advance of scholarly communications. Jeffrey Beall, Scholarly communications librarian from the University of Colorado Denver (but most famously the founder of Beall’s list of predatory publishers) was the controversial keynote speaker.  No longer just a crusader against predatory open access journals, Beall now adds subscription journals to his list if he suspects that they are moving to a subscription model to avoid being put on Beall’s list. Controversially, Beall posited that open-access mandates threaten academics’ freedom to publish where they choose, and therefore presents ‘the greatest threat to freedom of the press since the dawn of civilisation.’ He urged librarians, academics and publishers to remember that open-access ‘zealots’ do not speak for the entire research community.

In contrast, it was heartening to hear some stories of open access leading to a tangibly positive outcome.

Emilio Bruna, editor in chief of Biotropica, gave the example of his journal publishing a paper which called on the Brazilian government to abide by their promise to rescue the rare Brazilian armadillo, which was their country’s football World Cup mascot in 2014. The article was picked up by journalists and shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook, which led to the formation of a conservation programme.

There were some interesting demonstrations of new organisations and products, including peer review evaluation (PRE) which provides services designed to support and strengthen the peer-review process on behalf of researchers, publishers, and libraries. The main service they offer, PRE-val, verifies for the end user that content has gone through the peer-review process and provides information to help the reader assess the quality of the process. With two million peer-reviewed articles published every year, PRE-val claims to help researchers sift through the articles they need, and understand how rigorously an article has been reviewed.

The take-home message was that it’s not just societies that should be considering new strategies and partnering with start-ups if they want to remain relevant – publishers, libraries and suppliers also need to be keeping a close eye on new developments if we want to truly disrupt the field of scholarly publishing and improve research the world over.

About the author

Amy Bourke is corporate communications manager at Nature Publishing Group