User needs are crucial

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Peter Philips has recently become chief executive of Cambridge University Press. We asked him about his vision for the industry

What has changed?

What the Press is trying to do is the same as it has always done: to advance knowledge and research around the world. We’ve not changed what we do but how we do it has changed. We’ve moved from being organised locally to being structured globally around products. We are a global publisher that happens to be located in the UK and 85 per cent of what we sell is outside the UK.

We have also been making sure that our operations are structured to be flexible to change with digital. For example, for centuries we have done our printing ourselves but we want to print locally to where we distribute so we now outsource.

We’ve also made a massive move towards print on demand (POD) around the world, especially with our academic titles, and we’ve made available huge amounts of our back catalogue this way. There is a lot of old content of really enduring scholarly value.

What are the challenges?

The challenge facing all academic and educational publishers is the transition from print to digital, which is bound to continue. This is also a shift in the centre of growth of markets. In the past markets were orientated towards western economies. Now the fastest growing areas for us – and for research – are India, China and South America. China has grown from one per cent to 10 per cent of global research papers. This is a massive change and there is rapid growth in India too.

Our attitude to changing business models is probably different from that of purely commercial publishers. We’ve long offered an author-friendly green route on access to our journals [allowing deposit of manuscripts in open-access (OA) repositories] and the gold OA option has been available for many years in hybrid form. A university press like ours can be much more neutral about different business models. Our goal is about furthering research.

The range of funding moves in different countries makes the global OA situation complex. It is OK in subjects where there are big research grants but the social sciences and humanities are different.

In humanities and social sciences, monographs have a significant role but OA monographs will face the same kinds of issues as journals face. They can be OA but they need to have a funding flow to make them work and much will need to change for a big shift.

It’s good to see a healthy university press sector as part of the global publishing industry. Clearly the way in which business is changing makes it harder for small players if they need global reach and cutting-edge technology. We are seeing smaller presses working together. Our University Press Online e-books platform hosts content from other university presses. It’s early days but we’ve got several other presses involved already. Another example is our collaboration with the French organisation EDP Sciences. We publish a whole range of their journals on our platform.

What about text and data mining?

Enrichment of text with analysis and tagging, especially with taxonomies, is going to be very important. Nobody has a clear picture yet of the full benefits of the semantic web but web ontologies and the sharing of data across the internet could lead to developments beyond the current document sharing function of the internet. Incorporation of this at creation could lead to very exciting things.

At the moment we are trying to make material available as widely as possible. HTML5 has the potential to give availability of content over a wide variety of different devices. At least for the foreseeable future there is not going to be a single platform that everything is available on.

What will the future hold?

One of the issues is going to be the changing relationship with the end user. A lot of academic publisher relationships have been with libraries but digital content changes the balance towards seeing what requests are from end users. This opens up an exciting dialogue. In the past publishers sold things in bulk to libraries without knowing how much people were opening the books. For research-orientated material the majority of sales is still through libraries but these days what users think and use is much more visible.

Users want to find information that will be relevant to them as quickly as possible. The question with personalisation is whether users will want resources suggested to them or more search tools so that they can find relevant resources themselves. We don’t know yet what the balance will be.

It’s very easy for us all to focus on technology. This is clearly important and there have been substantial changes but the crucial thing is the underlying needs of users. In the end what matters for scholars is the ability to have easy access to a range of research they want to see and to get there rapidly and with relevance and quality. Technology is an enabler rather than an end in itself.

Interview by Siân Harris