In appreciation of APE

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Tim Gillett travelled to the APE conference in Berlin earlier this year. Here, he spells out why it’s a must for those involved in academic publishing

I remember it very clearly. At my first industry event after taking over as editor of this humble publication a few years back, a senior figure in scholarly communications confided in me: ‘Yes, this event’s a good one, but if you really want to immerse yourself in the industry, you need to head to APE in Berlin.’

The Haupstadt in mid-January didn’t immediately have any appeal for me, but I booked anyway – and a few months later I was in Berlin, just around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie, heading for the venue at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities to see what it was all about.

What immediately struck me was that this was no ordinary event; there was no exhibition, no ‘sponsor tables’, and only a minimal amount of branding on show – this was to be a talking shop pure and simple, where figureheads from the academic publishing industry could discuss freely and independently the important matters of the day without necessarily having to take commercial matters into account.

The venue adds to the rarified atmosphere at the event. The conference room sits just a few hundred metres from the former path of the Berlin wall and shows all the signs of being in a strategic location. Specifically, the columns of the impressive hall are riddled with hundreds of bullet-holes, many of them clustered around head-height; this had clearly been the site of at least one fierce gun battle over the years. If walls could talk.

The quality of presentations at APE is a given – and the 2020 iteration was no different.

As expected, there was a heavy focus in the opening exchanges on the moves towards open access publishing in Europe, with talks from the EU open access envoy Jean-Claude Burgelman and Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe. Both gave updates on the development of Plan S within Europe, warning that hesitation and stagnation were clear and present dangers and that progress needs to continue strongly if European publishers are not to lose out to their counterparts in the USA and China.

The meeting saw the release of an independent report aiming to improve the transparency of open access prices and services and calling for a customer-centric, collaborative and pragmatic approach to the issue. The report, published by Information Power, is the outcome of a project funded by Wellcome and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on behalf of cOAlition S to inform the development of Plan S.

During the project funders, libraries, publishers, and universities worked together to inform the development of a framework intended to provide information about OA services and prices in a transparent, practical, and insightful way. The framework provides opportunities for publishers to build better awareness of and appreciation by customers of the value of their services, and to demonstrate publisher commitment to open business models and business cultures.

China’s rising fortunes were illustrated by the appearance of Lin Peng of China Science Press, who gave a warmly-received speech on the latest developments and progress in Chinese publishing. China Science Press has recently purchased the French scholarly publisher EDP – and, notably, Lin refused to rule out the purchase of other European publishers, adding: ‘If you are willing to sell, and we can afford to pay, we are willing to have discussions.’

Publishing in China was never far from the thoughts of speakers or delegates, with some questioning whether China will end up developing its own publishing infrastructure, separate and independent of those in the west.

But while the consistency and quality of the speakers in many ways define APE, it is so much more than that. CEOs, publishing directors, marketeers and more flock to this event (and it regularly sells out way in advance) because it is such a great talking shop and a chance for industry figures to catch up, chew the fat, argue, and collaborate. 

Personally, it’s a great way to keep abreast of what’s going on, what’s going down, and what’s likely to happen in scholarly communications in the coming months and years. That’s never an easy thing to predict but APE is as good a place as any to take the temperature of the industry.

There’s gossip too… at one of the networking breaks I was given advance warning of a forthcoming event later this year (Covid-19 notwithstanding) that will surprise many. But my lips are sealed :)