Evolution, revolution or something else?

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Sian Harris reports back from the ALPSP annual conference in September on discussions about the future of the scholarly publishing industry

It’s hard to imagine a group of, say, furniture manufacturers or chocolate makers gathering regularly to discuss whether their industry will exist in five years’ time. But this is exactly what happens almost every time that scholarly publishers or academic librarians get together.

The difference is that, while those other industries no doubt also anticipate changing customer expectations and punishing economic factors, their products are still physical. In contrast, the past decade or so has seen an overwhelming shift from physical to virtual in the products and services that scholarly publishers and libraries provide. With electronic products, the expectations of users are very different – as the music industry has found to its cost. Issues such as pricing, access, long-term support and the rights of the content creator have all come up for debate.

Against such a backdrop of uncertainty, it was no surprise that the topic of disruptive change came up again at the ALPSP conference, held in September near Oxford in the UK. The scene was set in a post in the Scholarly Kitchen blog last year by Michael Clarke, executive vice president for product and market development at Silverchair Information Systems, which asked ‘Why hasn’t scientific publishing been disrupted already?’

As Clarke pointed out at the conference, ‘The web was meant to disrupt this industry, but the organisations that existed in this space 20 years ago are still by and large there today.’ The reason, he argued, is that the traditional journal provides a quality filter and helps with career advancement.

Nicko Goncharoff, head of text mining and director, SureChem for Digital Science, was not so sure: ‘Am I so much on the inside that I’m not seeing the disruption?’ he wondered. Nonetheless, he believed that industry change is and will be more evolutionary than revolutionary. ‘If you own a journal like Cell you’ll be OK as long as people want to read Cell,’ he noted. And technology, he argued, isn’t the cost-saving that people might think it is: ‘The more technology you bring in the more people you have to employ to set up and run that technology.’

Clarke agreed: ‘There’s been this false notion that technology reduces cost. Each additional download costs next to nothing but the fixed costs are constantly going up,’ he observed.

The audience was divided on what will happen in the industry, with roughly the same number of people predicting revolutionary change as for evolution, and a significant number of people not voting for either option.

Part of the problem of discussing disruption to the industry comes down to spotting and anticipating where the disruption will come from and what form it will take.

One theme of the discussion was changes to the way research is published and judged. As David Kavanagh of SCRAZZL, a start-up company that is mining scholarly resources to extract and provide more information on the equipment and instruments used in the experiments, observed, ‘Scientists at the moment believe impact factors. We could move to article-level metrics and there is a lot more you can do to analyse this.’

Clarke agreed that this is a potential area for change: ‘Even in highly-cited journals there are many papers that receive very few citations but others that have loads,’ he said. However, this is not a clear-cut issue, as Goncharoff pointed out: ‘There probably has to be one type of standard article-level metric that everybody gets behind.’

Another potential disruptive change, noted by Hooman Momen of the World Health Organization, is the dramatic increase in the number of authors and potential authors. He wondered whether the increase in content without a corresponding increase in money to purchase that content could lead to a new kind of model. He likened this to the disruption caused to theatre when cinema came along. Cinema provided a vehicle for much wider dissemination of drama but did not replace theatre, he pointed out.

Clarke predicted that such an increase in authors would lead to publishers focusing more on services. An example of this from Goncharoff was Digital Science’s activities to mine chemical information from public documents. This, he said, makes finding such information less painful for customers and increases visibility of the underlying resources, whether it be a peer-reviewed paper in a highly-regarded journal or a blog post. Opening up APIs (application programming interfaces) is also helping with this type of project.

David Tempest, deputy director of Elsevier, noted that these discussions seemed to reflect evolution rather than disruption. ‘Will the fundamentals of the system change?’ he asked. ‘The industry will continue to be a publishing industry but will evolve.’

Ruth Wells, applications, operations and support manager for Taylor and Francis suggested that maybe we simply haven’t found the thing that will revolutionise the industry yet. She recommended that publishers streamline workflows so they can focus on technology. ‘Technology is the one thing that the author can’t afford to pay for,’ she argued. ‘They also don’t have the ability to market and do PR for themselves.’

But there are signs that other models are emerging. Consultant Pippa Smart referred to the new open-access journal being founded by The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust for biomedical and life sciences research. ‘At the moment it’s pretty small but with a lot of collaboration such open-access resources would only require a clever government, library or other body to become a formidable force,’ she said.

For Tristan Collier of Cambridge University Press, the real disruption comes from something like Apple entering the cellphone market or Napster entering the music market. ‘There seems to be nothing like that on the horizon,’ he said. ‘And how do you disrupt something that is so narrow [as scholarly publishing].’

Of course, arguably the involvement of the likes of Google and Microsoft is already changing the dynamics of the industry. However, the discussion focused on the role that researchers might play.

‘You can’t replicate the Chemical Abstracts Database,’ noted Goncharoff, ‘but if lots of scientists in countries like India are not getting published in North American journals maybe they would do something.’

So what might that ‘something’ be? David Thomas of Thomson Reuters, ScholarOne suggested: ‘It is very easy, if you are the author of a book, to self-publish. Researchers around the world are connected by social networking. Could researchers use these networks to self-publish? The process of making content discoverable is becoming easier and easier.’ Ian Russell, editorial director, science at Oxford University Press, disagreed: ‘It’s easy to make things available on the web and make it discoverable but where is the authority? We have a very complicated structure of journals and pecking order. I don’t see anything on the horizon that could replace that.’

And then there is the issue of who could do this. If you are a Nobel prize winner people will read and take note of what you publish, whether it is in a prominent journal or your own blog, but if you are a new researcher with few connections and unknown research this approach is unlikely to reap many rewards.

The relationship between The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust highlights another issue too. If funders and research institutions are working together on journals it may not be much of a step to tie publication in that journal as part of the funding package.

Michael Clarke observed: ‘If Pfizer had a journal and published the research that it funded, would scientists accept that?’

The future of the scholarly publishing industry may still be something of a mystery but it is certainly not through lack of discussion and debate. And maybe the sources of disruption are already there – open APIs and expanding possibilities of data and text mining are already beginning to change the ways that researchers use research resources – but the results of disruption do not have to be negative to either publishers or researchers.