Welcome to a new feature of the Scholarly Kitchen we’re calling “Ask the Chefs.” The premise is that each month, the Chefs (contributors) to the Scholarly Kitchen will answer a provocative question in a pithy paragraph or two. Each Chef answers the question without benefit of seeing the others’ responses (well, I see them, but I try to answer before I see too many responses, in order to keep the karma right). We’re going to try to publish “Ask the Chefs” on the first Monday of every month.
The answers are presented in the order in which they were received. For you logistics geeks, that’s FIFO.
If you have a question you’d like us to consider, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll add it to the list of possibilities.
This month’s question:
What Do You Think Is the Most Important Trend in Publishing Today?
Rick Anderson: This is probably me being library-centric, but from my rather parochial vantage point I think one of the most important trends right now is the fallout from the huge budget cuts in research libraries over the past several years. Those cuts have serious implications for Big Deal renewals, for individual journal subscriptions, book purchasing, and the emergence of patron-driven acquisition models. The tighter libraries’ materials budgets get, the harder it becomes to justify the purchase of content that isn’t demonstrably needed — and the purchase of content that isn’t demonstrably needed has supported an awful lot of publishing activity over the past hundred years or so. I think it’s very possible that over the next 5-10 years, we’ll see publishers going out of business at a rate similar to what we saw among record labels in the first decade of this century — and for the same reason: you can’t make as much money selling individual songs (articles/books) as you can selling albums (journals/approval plans).
Joe Esposito: The most important issue for all publishers, whether scholarly, school, trade, whatever, is the increasing dominance of a handful of major technology companies. These companies — Google, Amazon, and Apple, with Facebook potentially jumping in — set the strategic agenda; scholarly publishers live in their world. Publishers that continue to work the tried-and-true strategy of library-facing content solutions will find their roles diminished. Unfortunately, these large tech players have little interest in the content industries they dominate — and in Google’s case, actually holds content companies in contempt. Publishers have lost control of their own agenda. It is at this time unclear how or if they can get it back.
Kent Anderson: The most important trend for scholarly publishers is the integration of information into displays utilized at a point much closer to where the action is — in medicine, it’s the bedside or ward; in science, the lab or bench; in education, the classroom or virtual classroom. While we continue to churn out articles, synthesized information providers are taking the salient parts, integrating them into other systems, and generating value. This has potential positives — more evidence-based decision-support tools — and potential negatives — less familiarity with the complex scientific literature and a world in which these systems become our outlets. The world becomes akin to watching sports scores on your phone instead of watching actual games and judging for yourself what mattered. These layers are not only present in big systems, but in personal systems — Twitter, Facebook, and blogs all create filters on information that may or may not be useful, but filters that nevertheless further filter what trained editors and experts initially selected. So, instead of listening to albums, you listen to songs; instead of seeing issues, you see an article; and instead of reading an article, you see a citation in an electronic record system or a table out of context. The intellectual and experiential implications of these shifts need to be considered.
Tim Vines: Cascade peer review is going to have a huge and unanticipated effect on STM publishing, and many of these changes will be for the better. Papers are currently over-reviewed — they are submitted to probably two or even three journals before being accepted, and may be seen by six or more reviewers. Authors often receive conflicting demands, and the whole process of going from journal to journal is overlong and unnecessarily stressful. By contrast, cascade peer review allows authors to submit to a group of journals and have their work appear in the most suitable outlet, depending on the reviewers’ assessments. This dramatically lowers the burden on the reviewer community and reduces the uncertainty of peer review for authors — they know that their paper will very likely be accepted for publication somewhere in the cascade. Since there only needs to be about three journal levels in the cascade within a given field, the emergence of cascade journals will squeeze out many non-cascade outlets, such that there will be significantly fewer STM journals 10 years from now.
Ann Michael: The empowerment of the user. Never before have users (readers, consumers, researchers, clinicians) had the voice they have today. Never before have publishers had the tools they have today to hear and interpret that voice. The impact is broad, exciting, and challenging. Publishing has historically been accustomed to dictating what the reader is able to consume. However, readers no longer have to be passive recipients. Suddenly publishers have found themselves needing to attract and keep user attention. They can not only be creators of content. They must also be experts in user experience, experts in content discovery techniques, and adept and agile experimenters.
Phil Davis: Publishers are obsessed with predicting and following trends. Such behavior helps to create self-fulfilling prophecies as the trend is transformed from a description of the industry into a prescription of where it ought to be heading. This fetish for trends fuels an overabundance of conference presentations sporting titles as “The future of the journal/book/library,” as well as an industry of consultants who are rewarded by portraying themselves as future guides in risky, uncertain times. While I don’t see our infatuation going away any time soon, we need to avoid adding to the collective exuberance. Sometimes it’s better to avoid the temptation to make predictions in the first place.
David Crotty: The publishing industry is often a bit too introspective, and the most important trends come not from within publishing, but from the communities we serve. Publishing is a service industry, and our business is based on meeting the needs of readers, authors, librarians, and a variety of other players in academia and the research world beyond it. Trends that directly influence the needs of our customers and publishing partners have the strongest, most direct impact on our industry. The trend toward decreased library budgets, as one example, is driving a great deal of experimentation with new business models and technologies; attempts to customize content and sell it directly to individuals or using open access as a strategy to bypass library budgets altogether. Perhaps the most important of these trends is the continuous increase in the competitive nature of academic research and the pressures that puts on the researchers. Competition for scarce funding and scarcer jobs drives the successful researcher to a streamlined, laser-focused approach. Only the most efficient methods of directly influencing the things that really matter (funding and career advancement) are utilized; the rest falls by the wayside. This pressure has put a quick end to much publisher experimentation, because if something new doesn’t have an immediate and obvious benefit, it won’t catch on. It’s why time-consuming crowdsourcing and social media have yet to make a dent. It’s why so many of the issues we spend so much time debating don’t matter in the slightest to the vast majority of researchers. The publishing industry would be wise to remember that we are not the center of the research universe, and a deep understanding of the current state of the scholarly community should be an important part of any business decision.
David Smith: I found it really hard to pick the most important trend. I was going to go with the transition from an analogue to a digital information business in all it’s complexity. Then I thought about the related issue of data (much to discuss here). Then of course there’s the identity business which is absolutely a major development occurring out there on the interwebs. But in the end I’ve come back to something, prompted in no small part by the recent rekindling of the the OA debate. So . . . the most important issue in publishing today is (drum roll please) “Publish, then Filter?” or “Filter, then Publish?” I’ve gone with this, because on reflection, think it actually encompasses aspects of all the other things I was thinking about. Can “Publish, then Filter” be a more efficient method if all the signals associated with the act of creation, dissemination, and consumption can be combined in some way to better direct the flow of information to potential consumers? Consider that Google’s algorithm uses some 200+ signals in order to filter search results to you (probably more if you use the big G’s other services). There are a number of interesting experiments going on out there; the Guardian’s citizen assisted journalism; their “make, use, share, evaluate” operational model; the fascinating developments in citizen science (gamers solving protein folding problems, and amateur astronomers improving the Kepler planet hunter results) or traditional science (faster than light neutrino data); the optimal moment for making something public seems to be up for debate. The unintended consequences of this alternative to the norm is also something that needs much thought and discussion. I have a sense, that out there are a number of paradigm-altering ways of disseminating information fighting to break out. The question is to what extent they will be adopted.
David Wojick: In my view the most important trend affecting publishing today is the pressure to change, which has reached high, even hyperbolic, levels. The industry has been engulfed by a sea of possibilities, which is normal for technological revolutions, but very upsetting. People are being told that (a) if they do not change they will fail, but also that (b) change is risky and likely to lead to failure. How can morale not suffer? Yet these claims are mostly exaggerated. The trick is to do what you can, but above all ignore the clamor. You can’t begin to consider all the possibilities, so you have to ignore most of them and be comfortable doing that. Buck the trend.
Michael Clarke: To me, the most important trend is the end of site license growth and the rise of new product development. The shift to site licensing and the Big Deal has been very good to publishers. It has allowed the STM and scholarly industry to shift to an online-centric business model without the hemorrhaging and disruption seen in other adjacent information spaces like newspapers and music recording. And given that print subscriptions did not go away but rather started a steady but slow decline, many publishers have seen healthy revenue increases over the last decade and a half as they have converted their customers to site licensing. That gravy train has run its course. I’m not suggesting that site licenses or the Big Deal are going away. They will be solid performers for the foreseeable future. But given that most publishers have already converted most of their customers to site licensing there is not much room for market growth except in a few developing regions. Moreover, given that institutional budgets are likely to be flat at best for the foreseeable future, their is not much room for price increases. There are only three ways to grow a business: increasing prices, find more customers, or develop new products/services. Growth in the STM and scholarly space is not going to come from price increases or and only marginally from market expansion. That leaves new product/service development. And given the state institutional budgets, these new products are going to have to derive their revenues from other sources or be compelling enough to displace a competitive product. This means more open access products (as they are paid for by funding agencies). It also means product paid for by individuals or departments. Individuals and departments are only going to pay for products that provide tangible benefits to productivity. This is why there is so much buzz about “workflow integration.” The next generation of products will succeed or fail based on their ability to add value to professional workflows. This is a paradigm shift for STM and scholarly publishers who have been focused on institutional sales and market expansion for over a decade and now must shift their focus to new product development.