Keeping an eye on the horizon

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Miles McNamee serves up some takeaways from HighWire’s digital disruption seminar

Last week, HighWire held an exclusive London Lunch & Learn session during London Tech Week, which aimed to explore future technology trends and how they may impact upon scholarly publishing.

The event was designed to open up discussion into new areas and look at how we, as a publishing community, can work together to let our guard down and welcome change and disruption. 

Plan S and the continuing drive towards open access poses major questions for publishers, which are well known. The main question we might ask is: 'How as a publisher, can I create value outside of the core content if that now has to be freely available?' Publishers need to shift their approach and develop new revenue streams – which won’t necessarily be paid for from the same pocket.

The scholarly publishing industry has gone through enormous change since the advent of the internet, that much is clear. But it hasn’t done enough to keep up with changing consumer expectations, driven by ever-more tech-savvy users who expect mobile-first, real-time, personalised digital services. A bigger risk is that we’re so busy playing catch-up that we fail to spot incoming disruptors. 

On Friday, we gathered thought-leaders from across a range of industries to explore how other sectors have handled significant change in their business models, and what we might begin to learn from them. The following are the key takeaways.

The view on Plan S has moved 'from panic to acceptance' 

In a session following on from our multi-publisher workshop earlier this year, John Sack presented on how the publishing community’s stance on Plan S has changed over the last six months, noting that the 'view has moved from panic to acceptance'. Rather than changing their whole world to fit Plan S, publishers are now focused upon integrating Plan S into their wider business-as-usual planning. There is still a geographical divide, though: while Europe is now focusing more on working together and especially upon transformative agreements, the US remains in a slightly more defensive mode. 

Trust is more important than ever

Fewer and fewer people trust the information services they use in their day-to-day lives: according to Reuters, 49% of people don’t trust the news they read from the news sources they choose themselves. As disseminators and amplifiers of knowledge, the publishing community has a role to play on the front lines in the battle against fake news and misinformation. Attendees heard from Kate Worlock of Outsell, Inc. on the importance of trust and transparency: “If transparency isn’t embedded in everything we do it can create breaches of trust”. For scholarly publishers, this means transparency in sources of funding, transparency in peer review and robust protections against predatory journals. We are a community that relies on rigour and accuracy, and we need to preserve the integrity of information across academic literature and grow trust in the right places. 

We live in an age of hyperadoption but also hyperabandonment

Forrester’s Collin Colburn presented the market analysis company’s latest research on voice search and intelligent assistants, concluding that the technology is in its infancy (with only 35 per cent of questions answered correctly) and that the “jury is still out”. However, adoption rates are growing exponentially (33 per cent of searches are now screenless), and the upcoming generation are by far the biggest users, so it would be no surprise to see this technology move into the scholarly arena. A bit of anecdata here: just recently my soon-to-be doctor of audiology daughter was home for a visit.  She was working on her thesis and I marvelled that not only was she using two screens at once (one with her thesis and the other with the movie schedule for later in the day); she also nonchalantly asked Alexa to help her find a journal article on pediatric vestibular balance disorders that she was using as a reference in her thesis. So this technology is already here. HighWire founder John Sack also pointed out that 'clean' environments which must by necessity be screenless, such as laboratories, may act as an additional driver in this space.

This raises a variety of questions for scholarly publishers and researchers. According to Forrester’s research, not all voice assistants credit the source of information. How do we make content from our journals discoverable and attributable - especially if content is paywalled? How do we measure impact via voice search? How do users and researchers know that a piece of information is credible? Again, this comes back to Kate Worlock’s presentation on the importance of trust and transparency. 

The scholarly publishing process needs to become more fluid and less fixed

We heard from Dr Daniel Himmelstein, a data scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and lead developer at Manubot, the tool for open scholarly writing on GitHub. Our current systems of manuscript submission, acceptance and publishing don’t fit with how science and research are actually carried out. With huge swathes of time between submission and acceptance, acceptance and publishing, by the time journals are published the articles in them may already be out of date. The monolithic nature of the journal also precludes collaboration and fluidity, and as Dr Himmelstein pointed out, 'Science is a conversation'. If we want literature that is accurate and up-to-date, we need to change our approach. 'Publishing needs to move beyond the PDF and start using formats that are structured and machine-readable', in order to better enable both real-time updating and discoverability – discoverability that will also be a major precursor to enabling voice search.  

Paranoia is healthy; wait and see is dangerous

Disruption is anything but new; it’s just hitting us faster. Mick Hegarty from identity data company GBG took us through some case studies in change from a number of sectors, and cautioned us to keep our eyes on the horizon. Organisations need to have 'outside-in' mindset when it comes to change, and not get so bogged down in the day-to-day functioning of business that they lose sight of the wider landscape. We also need to be willing to embrace some level of risk: 'Everyone wants change, but no one wants to change.' 

That message is something I’ll echo here: you might not be bold enough to be first mover, but make sure you’re in just as good shape to be a very fast-follower. Digital disruption is inevitable, but we can take steps to meet and embrace change rather than digging our heels in. I’ve witnessed the power of the publishing community and I know that by working together we can benefit from changing technology, improve sustainability and promote accessibility, and – most importantly – we can adapt to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers, profitably and productively.

Miles McNamee is VP of global sales at Highwire