A long-term perspective

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Bob Campbell is soon to retire from his role of senior publisher at Wiley after nearly half a century in the publishing industry. He shares some of his thoughts

How have things changed?

I started in 1968 so I have obviously seen a lot of changes. Back then we were typesetting in hot metal. We wasted a lot of time with checking author’s corrections and trying to limit the costs of making changes. The whole culture of the office was different because the technology was so limiting. In the early days, the printers did a huge amount for us, including proof reading.

We’re still having difficulties reconceptualising what publishing is about. Now some publishers seem to be putting pretty much any book online and printing it if there’s interest.

In journals too things have changed. There used to be huge losses at the start as publishers built up circulation and rigorous peer review was partly needed to control printing costs. In contrast, today higher volumes justify investment in a platform.

The decision-making process has also changed and different people set the pace today. In the past the editor and publisher made the decisions but now the platform technologists are key players.

Editors were key to the economy of publishers. When we launched journals with the old model it was very important to get the right academic editors. Some of our big successes were because we were lucky enough to find the right editors. They were often not big names but people who were young and ambitious and who wanted to make their names through the journal. 

Now, some successful open-access (OA) journals operate without an obvious editor in chief, although our most successful OA journals still have that editor personality. You could argue that journal personality is a better attribute for a publisher than editor personality because you could lose some momentum with a change of editor. Academics are still rather indifferent about who publishes a journal. 

What is the role of peer review?

Whenever there are surveys of authors they always say that time to publication is key. In some fields this can be very slow, which is an obvious criticism of the current system.

Part of the problem is that young scientists see nameless people holding them back and I think we get very wrongly stylised as globalised, commercialised monsters. There is a failure to understand that the academic community is doing the peer review. The Sense about Science campaign about peer review, which highlighted that it is people’s colleagues in the lab doing peer review, was really helpful for us but we need to do more to communicate about this.

Peer review still fits as the foundation of what we do and electronic submission systems have really helped with timing. Now you can do your reviews on your Blackberry on a train journey.

In my mind the whole idea of post-publication peer review is not really working because people are not really interested in it. Mark Ware's survey for the Publishing Research Consortium (PRC) showed that academics do peer review because they like doing it.

The idea of a separate peer review service doesn’t feel quite right to me because reviewers like the connection to the journal and there could be quality concerns if you outsource peer review. However, any new ideas have to be looked at. Much of the innovation in publishing doesn’t come from publishers but from academics; many key journals started like this.

It’s been suggested that, as part of every author having their own ORCID identity, people could put in other contributions to science, including peer review. Technically this wouldn’t be too difficult and it could build up a lot of data that could enrich the publishing process.

We are going to see much more sophisticated and transparent peer review coming in, which will deal with some of the frustrations.

What is the role of industry initiatives?

With ORCID, it has been a huge challenge to get people to devote time to something new. It has tremendous potential but we’ve still got a long way to go. Academics are so busy that it is a huge challenge. It’s going to need institutions to mandate it. Even then, as we see with green OA, to get authors to post is difficult.

Publishers have been slower than we expected to adopt CrossMark too. Part of ongoing stewardship is to ensure that readers are looking at the current, correct version.

For the largest publishers it’s perhaps easier for them but small publishers are really stretched technically. However, it shouldn’t be hard now because publishers are using suppliers who do a lot for them and there are workshops they can go to.

Wiley has been committed to CrossRef from its inception. There are now around 23,000 journals signed up with CrossRef so it has passed the tipping point.

What are your thoughts on OA?

We still have quite a journey and are still seeing increasing submissions to traditional journals. However, it’s interesting to see my colleagues getting excited about OA models. It’s energising the editorial part of the business.

We’ll see more of that, as well as the battle of the mega journals. PLOS One has made a huge impact. Most of us got that wrong when it first launched. We saw it as a weakness of gold but they did good work on the PR side and raised the profile of that journal.

What about developing world access?

Before the internet, the situation was really terrible. You could visit a university library and just see a few ancient copies of Nature or the Lancet. There has been a fantastic change in access but there is still a long way to go.

INASP has had great influence, especially in Africa. It’s not just a case of making content available for free. It’s who has the access to the technology and the training required to make the most of it.

Research4Life is about making sure that as much as possible is available so they complement each other. INASP’s strength is its network of trainers to facilitate access. It’s also about helping people to be authors and get into journals, and has had decent funding to develop its author aid programme.

INASP in part evolved in the subscription-based world and so with OA it has a rather different role, helping authors get published and use resources.

I’d guess quite a lot of APCs are being paid for by individuals, either out of their research funds or by themselves with co-authors chipping in. In developing countries an APC is a huge amount of money so there’s potentially a huge unfairness.

Most publishers offer waivers but it can be a matter of pride about whether people apply for them. At Wiley, our waiver policy is based on no charge for authors in Research4Life band A countries and 50 per cent off for band B countries, plus the editor’s discretion. Currently 19.6 per cent of our published OA articles had a waiver but this is because we made no charge for the first 100 papers in Physiological Reports as a promotional offering. I expect it will drop to around 15 per cent of our OA content, which is a figure I have heard from other publishers too.

How do publishers work with funders?

It is still really early days in working with funders. Five or 10 years ago if wouldn’t have occurred to us to find what funders were interested in and they weren’t interested to talk to us either. I wrote to funders in about 1989/90 about sharing databases of what they have funded – and they thought I was mad. I wrote to universities too and only one expressed any interest in this idea. Now big funders accept that one or two per cent of their funding will be spent on the impact of the research they fund.

The whole approach of selling to institutions will have to change. Politically-set policy will drive funding of APCs. In the UK, for example, the Russell Group universities receive about £6 billion per year in research funding in total and comfortably more than half of this is likely to come with mandated OA.

Initially funders were quite aggressive but now they have relaxed in their relationship with publishers and we have worked together in a fairly constructive fashion. Quite a lot of progress has been made but there is still more to be done. 

Across Europe, green OA embargoes are generally being set at 12 months but Horizon 2020 has been more disappointing. The European Commission held rigidly to green with a dangerously short embargo of six months and this is probably 15-20 per cent of the funding across Europe. It’s a pity that, although they’ve talked to us, they have not listened. 

Australia is looking at 12 month embargoes and has been quite actively involved in the debate. The situation is unclear in Japan. China is still more interested in getting articles out in the best journals that they can and making an impact. They will pay APCs to be in the best journals but on the whole are supporting subscription-based journals. In Brazil it looks like the government is adopting a policy that it is up to individual journals.

What’s going to happen next in the USA will be interesting to watch. It would be a pity to develop CHORUS and SHARE [two initiatives to help universities comply with funder mandates] in parallel. The response from the funders will probably decide. I hope that we can work something out. It will be down to how strong the funders are.

I would like to see much more dialogues between organisations like STM with funders, including charities. They also need to include stakeholders like learned societies, which, as well as publishing activities, are the voice of researchers.

Interview by Siân Harris