Publishers have unseen strengths

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Publishers should publicise their value to researchers better, believes Steven Hall, the new managing director of Institute of Physics Publishing

What trends have you seen?

I’ve been in the industry nearly 33 years and the huge change has been the move from print. The pace of change was amazing but I don’t think we’re fully done yet. Publishers are all experimenting, looking at how to disaggregate journal content, and deciding whether the journal should remain the wrapper for articles.

There is a clear trend in mobile devices – both for delivering and accepting content. Researchers already often say that they never go to their library – but the next step will see them working away from their desks more and more. Reviewer and author tools will have to be fully compatible with mobile in the next five years.

What will be the role of social and semantic tools?

Semantic tagging is inevitable. Researchers can barely keep up with the research today and there is no let up in the growth of research output. Semantic tagging is bound to come in, to enable better machine reading for mining. There may be discipline-specific standards, such as common thesauri, but this probably needs to be owned by the research community.

The trend in research has been to more and more collaboration, whether virtual or physical. One publisher recently published a paper with more than 3,000 authors. However, I don’t think it’s a big thing for physicists to use social tools yet. Younger researchers are more interested but they still want to publish in established journals too. Web 2.0 does not have the same brand or framework for replicating journals and they are complementary at the moment.

Impact factors might decline in importance compared with other factors, such as speed of publishing and speed of review. Some sort of article-level impact factor/metrics will be very important. One of the drivers for this is funding bodies, which want to see the impact of the research they fund. It will be important for publishers to give them better information.

What is the role of publishers?

Big initiatives like CrossRef and ORCID, which are funded by the publishing industry, are largely invisible to the wider world. Users expect linking now, but it needed a lot of investment to make it possible. The industry as a whole hasn’t been very good at publicising what we do. That’s one of the reasons that open access has taken off. People express surprise that we don’t pay authors – but a better way of looking at it is to see the publisher providing, free of charge, a range of services to the researcher and then recouping its costs through charges to libraries.

Some open-access proponents say that libraries have access to fewer journals but it’s just not true. Library users have never had so much access. However, annual growth in research output has probably been going on for at least 50 years and library budgets are not increasing in line with university budgets. In the past, what the researcher had access to was largely determined by the library catalogue. Now, with Google, the expectation of researchers is for libraries to provide access to everything. We have to work together to solve this.

With big deals, we have found that additional material is heavily used, partly because of Google and partly because of the growth of inter-disciplinary research – for example, researchers in physics might now need access to medical journals. The big deal has also significantly reduced demand for pay-per-view and inter-library-loans. This suggests researchers have immediate access to more of what they need.

I am entirely comfortable with the gold approach to open access. It is really just another business model. The problem is that most open-access proponents are pushing green open access and very few funders are explicitly making money available for publication fees. For me, green open access is a free ride on publishers.

We have seven pure open-access journals. All the rest are pure subscription titles. We are looking at hybrid models but their financing is more complicated. As e-publishing develops, many more post-publication services will be possible. We have to find a funding formula that works. We can’t ask authors to come back and pay more at a later date. If the whole industry moves to primarily gold open access, my guess is that the way we charge for services would evolve. We could see some services disaggregated.

What will happen with data?

For some years we’ve had proponents of open access to articles, where the access is already good, but not much progress in access to data. I don’t think there is much push for this from researchers but I think funding bodies will want it as it is a key part of what they fund.

There are some very loud voices saying that data needs to be available, but I don’t believe this is necessarily the job of the journal publisher. It would be very difficult for publishers and preservation would be a huge issue. However, publishers could play an important role in facilitating the collection of such data, the deposit in suitable archives and discovery through ways like linking.

What do you predict?

To an extent, we adapt our business models to meet the community’s wishes. Moving from a hybrid model to entirely electronic is not something we’ll force on libraries but I see it happening. VAT on e-journals in Europe is the largest obstacle to moving to e-only for libraries. The USA and Australia are further on in this transition because they don’t have this barrier.

Interview by Siân Harris