One of the themes emerging from the recent SSP Annual Meeting was that publishers have done a pretty awful job describing their role, who they are, and how they are changing.
This month’s Ask the Chefs question deals only with the last of these issues — how publisher are changing:
“What is the most important advance publishers have made in the past decade?”
As usual, answers are posted in the order received.
Joe Esposito: The three biggest advances in the last decade are the Kindle, Stanza, and PLoS ONE. Note that none of these advances (I would prefer to call them “innovations”) were created by publishers, unless you view PLoS ONE as a publisher (I do not).
Kindle ushered in the mainstreaming of digital reading. It was not the first device or means to do so; we should all honor Michael Hart. But Kindle changed the nature of things. Now, e-reading is becoming the norm. The Kindle is the vehicle by which we stop printing our unwieldy PDFs and take our reading with us wherever we go. Brilliant.
More important, though — the most important of all — was the Stanza e-reading app for the iPhone. Created by Lexcycle, which Amazon subsequently acquired and put on the shelf, Stanza demonstrated that e-reading could be effectively separated from the underlying hardware device. This means libraries on every imaginable device, ubiquitous libraries. Except for Apple itself, every vendor of e-reading materials now understands that our personal libraries should be wherever we are, whether we read on smartphones, tablets, or game machines.
PLoS ONE successfully developed a means to monetize — hence make sustainable — the huge amounts of research material that could not find a receptive venue among the formal scientific publications. This was incredibly clever. Despite the rhetoric, it is a hosting service for authors, not a service to readers — and for that reason I don’t think of PLoS ONE as a publisher. (The flagship journals of PLoS are a different matter.)
I am not aware of any significant advance by any publisher in the past decade. If I am wrong about this, I would like to be enlightened. The next big advance is likely to come in the form of direct-to-consumer marketing. That race is now on.
Todd Carpenter: The most importance advance publishers have made hasn’t been a conscious one, and its impacts haven’t yet been felt. Without any definitive strategy (for the most part), publishers have begun breaking out of the traditional print mode of content distribution. Most journal publishers began accepting non-text content as “supplemental materials” about a decade ago. These supplemental materials range the gamut of content from audio and videos, to data sets and visualizations. Several titles are receiving supplemental materials with nearly every article. Some of these materials are probably more important to understanding the finding than the text itself — think of some videos or visualizations. What publishers have unwittingly done is move toward the transition from digital content as a online surrogate for the print-version of journals, to something much more transformative. Several publishers have seen this reality coming and have begun working to support it. In particular, Elsevier’s “Article of the Future” initiative, OSA’s Optics Infobase and their Interactive Science Publishing software, as well as a variety of others, have led in this transformation of the journal as a digital object. We are only just beginning to see the size and scope of this transformation. Some have begun pushing the boundaries of what a “paper” is, including data papers, that are little more than a dataset and a metadata cover sheet. I expect over the coming 4-5 years, we will see an expansion of the variety and scope of these new forms of “articles.” This is part of a larger multi-media transformation that I think will also overtake books (think multi-media convergence in books), online courses, and even television. I wouldn’t say this is something that publishers have made, as much as publishers have reacted to authors making. But in the end, the difference isn’t vast in the end result.
Kent Anderson: Publishers have made or responded to so many innovations over the past decade, that I think the macro advance that’s occurred it an emerging innovations culture. After advising, helping to create, creating, or reacting to thing like the integration of linked references and the DOI, the site license, HINARI and similar initiatives for access into low-income developing countries, online advertising, multimedia integration, mobile sites, rapid publication practices, interjournal linking, semantics, SEO, analytics, email, e-readers, apps, product proliferation, open access, interactive learning, social media, and many other large and small opportunities and environmental shifts, the overall culture has shifted from stultified and inward-looking to dynamic and forward-looking. This has been wrenching for some, while others have enjoyed and even driven some of the change. But it’s been a very important advance — to become more customer-focused, more strategic, more investment-oriented, and more inherently digital.
David Wojick: In my book, Internet discovery technology wins hands down. Especially impressive is the ability to “map the field” which means finding articles that are closely related to a given article. The leader here is Google Scholar’s innocent looking “Related articles” button, which uses advanced, full text semantic algorithms to find and rank the 100 or so most closely related articles for a given article. Now most, if not all, of the major publishers now have on-line tools like this. Science consists of a million specialties, each of which has close neighbors. The traditional journal system has tended to maximize the difficulty in seeing this network structure, because closely related work is often published in different issues, volumes or journals. But in the last decade the publishers and aggregators, working together, have begun to solve the problem of content discovery.
Rick Anderson: It will undoubtedly seem ironic that I’m saying this (given the topic of my last Kitchen posting), but I think the most important advance publishers have made in the last decade is the Big Deal. Although I believe it’s fatally flawed as a model, and although I have serious philosophical concerns about its fundamental structure, I think it’s safe to say that the Big Deal has nevertheless made more content available to more people at a lower price than any other development in the history of publishing. Its wastefulness is regrettable, and it is manifestly unsustainable in the long term, at least as long as annual price increases remain in the range of 5-10% (and I think it highly unlikely that the Big Deal’s various providers will ever settle for a significantly lower rate of increase). But there’s no question that the Big Deal has been an enormous boon to researchers and their students. If only it could last.
Michael Clarke: The most important advance relevant to STM and scholarly publishers in the last decade is the lie-flat seat. Publishers have by and large spent the last decade refining and extending the most important advance from the previous decade: The Site License. The Site License, which emerged in the mid-1990s, made possible the last decade in which publishers refined pricing and market segmentation and extended sales channels to the far corners of the globe. Without the site license the last decade in STM and scholarly publishing might have looked something more akin to the dismal times had by newspapers (thank the STM gods our industry didn’t hang its hat on online advertising), magazines (you know you are in trouble when you industry has an active death pool, and trade books (that industry can essentially be described as a pinball that careens between the bumpers of Google, Amazon, Apple, and Barnes and Noble trying to avoid a full-tilt). All that traveling about the world selling site licenses, however, can be trying. Ask anyone that has hawked their virtual, segment-optimized, COUNTER-compliant wares in Tokyo one day and Dubai the next. Ask this Scholarly Kitchen chef who is composing these very words 3 hours into a 5-hour transcontinental flight during which he could use a nap but most definitely does not have a lie-flat seat on which to take said nap (he did witness an in-flight commercial for lie-flat seats but did not see, never mind doze in, a single one). The lie flat seat: worth its weight in bound volumes.
Judy Luther: Reengineering workflow by outsourcing production components such as copyediting and composition has enabled publishers to utilize a global workforce to streamline their operations. The expertise otherwise limited to companies that can employ experienced staff has been made available to most publishers. Many of the vendors that offered digitization services to the large journal publishers have expanded to a suite of editorial, production and distribution services. So today even small publishers can achieve efficiencies gained through economies of scale — from manuscript submission and peer review through distribution of the content in the appropriate format to a wide array of vendors. As a result, many publishers have chosen to incorporate crucial changes such as shifting to XML and gaining the flexibility to adapt to new product offerings and business models.
Ann Michael: The biggest advance publishers have made in the last decade is realizing that the value they bring to the market has evolved and that to survive they are going to have to change how they define and provide value to their users. Publishers are now making more of an effort to be in tune with the needs of their customers at all of the various levels of the value chain. While high quality and trusted content is still critical, services, tools, and content presentation (i.e., how, where, when, in what form, content is made available to the user) are gaining significance. Publishers are advancing in how they consider the user, design meaningful and productive user experiences, work with both technology and content partners, and experiment with new business models. There is a long way to go and some organizations are moving faster than others, but generally the industry is aware and actively trying to move forward.