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Ask the Chefs: “What Do You Think Is the Most Important Trend in Publishing Today?”

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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 scholarlykitchen@sspnet.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.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-score, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Ask the Chefs: “What Do You Think Is the Most Important Trend in Publishing Today?”

  1. I agree with all the Chefs and all their interesting predictions, including Phil Davis and David Wojick saying don’t get overly drawn into the prediction game. The only one I take issue with is Michael Clarke’s slightly dismissive reference to finding more customers in other geographies. STM is a mature industry and is not looking for excessive growth models, just steady growth. The world is a big place and often under serviced and, not withstanding recessions, most regions are or will develop faster than the West. Difficult to reach, yes, but undoubtedly more of an opportunity than Michael suggests I think, and even if only an relatively modest gain in the short/mid term, perhaps a number of modest gains is what is needed.

    Posted by George Lossius | Oct 3, 2011, 1:25 pm
  2. All very good comments. However, I think the group failed to mention a very significant trend – the rise of Asia as a source of scientific content. Ten years ago, with the exception of Japan, Asian researchers made an insignificant contribution to the literature. Today the big Asian research centers (Japan, South Korea, China, India, Taiwan, Hong Kong) account for 18% of all the literature archived on PubMed in 2011 (YTD). China alone is now the second largest source of information archived on PubMed, only the US is larger. The dialogue has just shifted to the East. I would submit that this change will have far greater implications on research (and therefore publishing) than technological changes or budget constraints among western institutions.

    Posted by Mark Danderson | Oct 3, 2011, 8:53 pm
    • Mark,

      I think you’re spot on. The rise of Asia as a producer of science and as a consumer of science is a long-term trend everyone should be (and likely is) watching. I think it’s been a long-term trend for so long that we may be taking it for granted just as it’s really starting to come to fruition, almost compounding the mistake. Thanks for the comment.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Oct 3, 2011, 10:41 pm
      • I have done a twenty year analysis of the PubMed database. This has indeed been a long-term trend. However, for whatever reason, 1999 seems to have been a significant year. In that year the growth rate of Chinese research archived on PubMed suddenly took off. China passed Japan in 2003 and by 2009 it passed the UK. I think the trend is now clear. Medical publishing will become bi-polar; America and China will dominate with everyone else far behind. My best estimate is that the large Asian research countries (S. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India and China) will produce more (21% of the total articles archived) than the large European countries (UK, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Netherlands and Spain) by 2015. I have talked to many journal editors and societies. I am not so sure that western publications are ready for the unique needs of the Asian researcher and the unique problems that will arise in reviewing and editing Asian research. It will be interesting to see if the western journals will be able to maintain their global stature or whether they will become more regional (North America and Europe) in the future. With the rapid growth of Chinese research one must even wonder if English will remain the sole language of science and medicine twenty years from now.

        Posted by Mark Danderson | Oct 4, 2011, 2:44 pm
        • Mark Danderson wrote:

          I am not so sure that western publications are ready for the unique needs of the Asian researcher and the unique problems that will arise in reviewing and editing Asian research.

          Mark, this is an interesting statement. Can you unpackage it a bit for us? Naturally, language is an issue, but it is an issue for all non-English scientists. Are you eluding a cultural difference in how we undertake, describe and evaluate science?

          Posted by Phil Davis | Oct 4, 2011, 2:52 pm
          • Language is a problem – to be sure – but I wasn’t referring to language. I was referring to the fact that the peer review process in the West rests on an implied sense of trust. What do I mean by that? Editors expect western researchers to be aware of and honor the ethical code of research as outlined by organizations such as CONSORT and the ICMJE. Journals and the peer review process are geared to do just that, “review” they are not policemen and women. There is an expectation that the vast majority of researchers will follow an internationally accepted standard when conducting and reporting clinical research when submitting that research to a journal for publication.

            During my time in China, I met many wonderful and dedicated clinical researchers. The people I met where every bit as talented as their Western colleagues. However, at least in the case of China, these researchers do not have a very thorough understanding of the ethical standards that are common knowledge among Western researchers. In addition, there are cultural issues in China around patient consent, data protection, conflict disclosure, publication and resolving conflicts that Western editors need to understand. Every researcher has a bias, every researcher, whether Western or Eastern, wants his/her hypothesis to be proven true. There is a great deal of cultural pressure in Asia to be proven right as opposed to advancing knowledge. I am not saying that Asian researchers are less honest than Western researchers. What I am saying is; they are less familiar with the international standards of clinical research and they face more cultural and career pressures to prove the accuracy of their hypothesis. In addition, the concept of financial disclosure is so foreign I would not be surprised to learn that the vast majority of Chinese researchers do not fully disclose this information in accordance with CONSORT and ICMJE guidelines. I have been thinking about doing some research; looking at disclosure information patterns of published Chinese researchers versus Western researchers to look at this issue further. Would you be willing to work with me on that project?

            My point is, I am not certain that Western editors understand the dynamic described above. The cultural issue is not one sided. Editors have a responsibility to better understand their authors; wherever they may reside. We are all prisoners, in a way, of our respective cultural heritage.

            Posted by Mark Danderson | Oct 4, 2011, 9:25 pm
  3. What I see trending in some of the answers of our chefs is the mention of Twitter, Facebook, and even Google. But from my point of view, the most critical in publishing today is the problem of authors who opt to self-publish. Yes, authors these days choose to self-publish these days not only to save money but also to focus on a more profitable aspect that most readers are going for and that is the availability of ebooks.

    Posted by Halley | Color Printing | Oct 4, 2011, 4:27 am
  4. Since money and mission are at the core of the challenges facing universities, and not just academic libraries, I’d say a major issue that will affect many of the trends identified above is whether higher education, along with scholarly societies as an adjunct thereof, can figure out a way to keep more of the financial costs and benefits internalized within the system, rather than externalized to the commercial sector (in which i include not only commercial publishers but also the big technology companies that Joe focuses upon). This has been a theme that Siva Vaidyanathan has emphasized in his ongoing critique of Google, and of course it was the original aim of OA advocates to help alleviate financial pressures on universities while also increasing access to users worldwide. As we have seen lately, with commercial companies finding real golden opportunities in Gold OA, the financial pressures may not abate, but just shift their locus from libraries to other campus entities like departments and central administration. To the extent that the vast sucking of money out of the educational system into the pockets of shareholders continues, the challenges for making the system of scholarly communication work out best for the financial interests of universities will not lessen. Perhaps this point could be turned into a question for the Chefs to consider in a future round robin?

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 12, 2011, 1:34 pm
    • Sandy, if I understand you correctly then I have several problems with what you are saying. First, I don’t see scholarly societies as part of the higher education system, but rather as part of the scholarship system. Second, I don’t see making money for the universities as a mission of the scientific communication system, any more than it is a mission of the phone system. But that may just be because I am not involved with the university end of things.

      Posted by David Wojick | Oct 14, 2011, 7:56 am
      • Scholarly societies and universities both share the mission to help foster the creation and dissemination of new knowledge, and their stakeholders are scholars, not shareholders. All monies from their publishing activities go to support that mission and therefore do not go outside the scholarly communication system of which both are integral parts. That system depends vitally on their contributions; it need not depend at all on commercial enterprises, whose only reason for being involved is to take money out of that system at whatever profit rate they can sustain. Commercial publishers bleed money out of the system to shareholders, who generally are not involved in using their profits to benefit the system.

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Oct 19, 2011, 7:23 pm
        • Sandy. I am not persuaded by your concept of economic isolation. The universities are, to use your term, sucking money out of families (tuition), taxpayers (research), and the stock market (endowment income). This is not a closed system. If commercial publishers can produce a product that universities buy, good for them. Note too that the commercial journals also have a scholarly communication mission. As a small business my mission is to serve my customers, not just to feed my family. Profit is payment for investment and investment in scholarly publishing is a good thing.

          Posted by David Wojick | Oct 20, 2011, 9:05 am
  5. The biggest trend in all text-based publishing is the expanding use of micro-licensing to connect with and directly engage readers. Specialty publications have used I.P. licensing approaches for years. Now with micro-licensing systems, newspapers and magazines are picking up the practice. It won’t be long before book publishers and STM journals do the same because it enables content consumption models that draw more readers and subscribers, creates new business models and revenue channels, and flexibly fortifies digital content copyrights.

    Posted by Robert | Oct 13, 2011, 4:51 pm

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