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In January YS Chi, chairman of Elsevier's management committee, became president of the International Publishers Association. He is optimistic about the role of publishers

What is the role of publishers today?

The fundamental role of publishers has not changed much. At the most basic level, publishers serve as an intermediary between writers and readers in the most sustainable, high-quality and reliable way. Scholarly publishing is quite unique in that writers and readers are generally from the same group – researchers.

Although the basic role of publishers is steadfast, the competencies we fill are changing drastically, and this stems from the changing patterns of researchers. As Steven Hall of IOP said in the last issue of Research Information, we publishers don’t really do a good job of talking about what we do, and this means that many people may take us for granted.

The scholarly community was the first, and most successful, facet of the publishing industry to transition to electronic. However, scholarly publishers haven’t necessarily been recognised for the advances we’ve enabled. Scholarly publishing platforms have enormous functionality embedded into them to make online delivery of content more dynamic. In addition, we have digitised decades of backfiles and tagged content so that pieces of information can be interconnected. The visibility of the trade world means that devices like the Kindle are widely viewed as groundbreaking advances, but the truth is that scholarly publishers have been using technology to improve the experience of writers and readers for years.

Publishers also play a very important role in enabling increases in access to information. When the original concept of open access came about, it was based on a changing payment model where fees would move to the writer from the reader. This concept stemmed from a fervour surrounding the ideal of free access for all. Since then, publication fees have risen drastically – a recognition that the services that people need are very costly. Publishers provide services that extend far beyond the bounds of simple provision of content. We want to see high levels of access, but this needs to happen in a sustainable way.

What are the important trends?

Publishers need to determine the important signals from the noise to be able to make the right investments on behalf of researchers.

The emerging importance of the semantic web is one such signal. Research outputs continue to increase at rates that are roughly proportional to the increase in the number of researchers around the world. However, the amount of information that is both visible and accessible is much greater now. Researchers feel the need to absorb more, especially given the increasingly global and interdisciplinary nature of research and the high levels of competition that exist. The semantic web will serve as a mechanism to help them get the right information at the right time and build relationships between information.

Another signal is related to the wealth of data behind results, which ranges from the organised data published with a paper to the raw experimental results. This goes beyond what a human is able to process, meaning that technology must do so for us. How to handle data of all types is an issue that will grow significantly in visibility in the coming years.

What are your thoughts on copyright?

Publishing is a very global industry and copyright is international law. I think that copyright law does a very good job, and it is not as rigid as many think it is, given the number of exceptions that exist within national copyright laws. The concept of copyright is to protect the creator and it still needs to do that in today’s changing environment, but we need to be careful about thinking exclusively of short-term woes. We need to think about what problems we anticipate we will need to solve, and how to incentivise the user community to collectively think about and implement strategies for solving technological issues associated with protecting copyrighted content.

There are some serious issues that we must resolve within copyright law as the influence of the digital world grows. For example, the settlement that had been negotiated over the course of several years among Google, the Association of American Publishers, and the Authors Guild regarding Google’s library scanning project was recently rejected by Judge Denny Chin in the USA for its failure to sufficiently protect copyright owners. Resolution of issues like this one will show us how copyright will evolve to better support rightsholders in the digital age.

What does the future hold?

The main challenges are the pace of change and the impact of ever-expanding technological capabilities. Publishers need to identify which technological capabilities are the most important and invest in them to be able to keep pace.

To do this successfully, publishers will need really good human talent and I hope that the industry can continue to attract high-quality people. There will also be more partnerships in the future. When the pace of change is this rapid, it is unreasonable to expect the publishers to own every part of the publishing process. Publishers need to partner correctly to adapt to new workflows.

I feel very optimistic about the publishing industry. We have arrived at a place where we have the opportunity to shape the next generation of publishing, and I’m excited to see where we will go.

Interview by Siân Harris