Advance and Be Mechanized
Advance and Be Mechanized (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


18 Thoughts on "Ask the Chefs: "What Is the Most Important Advance Publishers Have Made in the Past Decade?""

Joe, while I appreciate you (correctly) anointing PLoS ONE as one of the biggest publishing innovations of the past decade. However, in the way you incorrectly characterize it, and miss the thing that made it innovative, you are clearly trying to pay it a backhanded compliment.

You suggest that PLoS ONE “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 is not an accurate characterization of PLoS ONE.

PLoS ONE does not, as you suggest, primarily publish papers that would otherwise never have found a home: the overwhelming majority of papers in PLoS ONE would have been published elsewhere if the journal did not exist – most likely in paywalled journals of scientific societies or big commercial journals. What PLoS ONE did was to successfully compete for these papers by providing authors with something they craved – a journal that evaluated their work strictly on the basis of its scientific content and not on its perceived importance.

Your effort to dismiss PLoS ONE as a hosting service – and thus not a publisher – is a bit laughable. First, we believe that the single most important thing readers want from a publisher is access to content – a service PLoS provides more effectively than any publisher on Earth.

Indeed, it is traditional journals whose service is primarily directed at authors – who crave the imprimatur the journal title gives them – and nothing more. The business model used by subscription-based journals allows them live in a fantasy land in which the research community craves all of the services they provide to readers. But this is an illusion. Libraries and individual scientists pay for subscriptions because they want access to the content journals provide. That is it.

As evidence of this fact, ask any subscription based publisher if they would support creating a online archive in which every paper was immediately freely available upon publication, but was stripped of the title of the journal in which it appeared. If subscription journals are primarily providing a service to readers, such a public library of scientific knowledge would be no threat to their businesses – as institutions and readers would continue to subscribe to journals to get access to the amazing services they provide. Any takers? Didn’t think so.

Michael, your points are well made but beg two questions.

First, if the real advance is judging “work strictly on the basis of its scientific content”, what is the point of PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, and the PLoS community journals? Are these not open to the same imprimatur criticism you level at traditional journals and, if so, should PLoS simply fold them into PLoS ONE to reduce costs and the financial burden transferred to authors?

Secondly, PLoS ONE provides two things: open access and evaluation based on soundness alone. It has been far more successful than both other open access titles and hybrid journals that offer an OA option (but typically see low uptake). Does this suggest that ultimately it is the change in how manuscripts are evaluated, rather than the fact they are made OA, that has made the scientific community vote with its feet so overwhelmingly?

Richard, I believe strongly that journals should not use impact or audience as criteria for selection and that ultimately journals like PLoS Biology etc will transform into venues for highlighting works whose primary publication occurred through another venue. (I’ve written a lot about how I think this should work elsewhere

As for what drives people to PLoS ONE, it’s hard to say. I agree that a lot of its attractiveness is the criteria for publication and not OA. However the two go very much hand-in-hand and I think most people appreciate that.

Joe, you claim that PLoS ONE is successful because of “the huge amounts of research material that could not find a receptive venue among the formal scientific publications”. This remark is astonishing and ridiculous. Where is the evidence that these papers could not be published in other journals? I have published my last two papers in PLoS ONE, and one major reason I choose the journal is the excellent service I’ve received as a *reader* (not an author). PLoS ONE papers are always available to me quickly wherever and whenever I have an internet connection. Providing maximal access to content is not some kind of special feature of publishing. In my mind, the whole point of publishing scientific results is to make them available to others. Since you clearly disagree, I would like to know what you consider to be the “service” of publishing.

Gerry, if your only concern is providing maximal access to content, then why are you bothering to publish with your papers formally at all, whether with PLoS or anyone else? You can save yourself a lot of trouble by simply posting your research reports on a blog or other publicly-available website.

Hi Rick. Short answer is peer-review. But there’s a longer answer that addresses what I think is your point. Most scientists, myself included, have both (1) a “selfish” motive to maintain or advance their career and compete in the job market, and (2) a socially “altruistic” motive to solve puzzles, and create and share new information. These motivations typically work together of course. But sometimes they are at odds. For example, scientists dont always publish negative results, since the net career benefits are often small or negative (motivation 1), but null results are still very important for science (motivation 2). Also, scientists keep their newest results secret to avoid being “scooped” (again, good for scientists, bad for science). Scientists are also implicitly encouraged by the current system to “sell” (and perhaps over-sell?) the significance of their findings and confidence of their results. It seems to me that policy-makers and publishers should act to reduce these sorts of motivational conflicts. The peer-review process of PLoS ONE is a good example (the science is reviewed first, then the paper is published, then the paper-specific impact can be reviewed and tracked continuously). This process emphasizes the science over “spin” and allows findings to be peer-reviewed continuously. If you imagine a completely non-careerist and altruistic scientist (with motivation 2 only), you realize they might publish *only* in PloS ONE. The success “public goods experiments” like wikipedia and PloS ONE are an inspiring testimony to people’s inherent need to think, share, and contribute ideas. Getting back to your question, I do have a blog, and I do get annoyed when authors don’t make their papers freely available on their website. In this day and age, they should. Obviously, my POV is as a reader and writer, not as a publisher, perhaps that’s why we aren’t making sense to each other.

Short answer is peer-review.

But peer review does nothing to maximize access to content. In fact, it does only the opposite — it’s a barrier between the author and the reader, one that causes both delay and (in many cases) rejection, making dissemination less likely, not more. Why do scientists put up with this barrier, if their whole goal is to provide maximal access to content? Or, to phrase the question your way, what is the “‘service’ of publishing?”

In reality, I think you’ve answered your own question. You’re correct that scientists are interested in much more than just disseminating information. They are also (like most of us) interested in advancing their careers, and the only way they can do so is if their products are validated by trusted third parties. That process of validation is one of the primary services provided to authors by publishers (whether for profit or nonprofit, whether toll-access or Open Access). In other words, “providing maximal access to content” is not “the whole point” of scholarly publishing; it’s one purpose among several, third-party assessment and validation being one of the others. What you describe as PLoS’s validation process–peer review followed by publication, after which it becomes possible to monitor impact–is the same process followed by toll-access publishers. The service provided by PLoS is essentially the same as the service provided by Elsevier or Wiley. The big difference between them lies in who pays for the service.

Yes. I think you are correct. I was thinking of “publishing” and “peer-review” as separate things, which was the confusion. So I was mistaken.

I do suspect we might have different visions of what a perfect scientific publishing system would look like. In my vision, there would be no journals, just one giant library of papers (both accepted and rejected), with anonymous peer-reviews (both before and after publication), and the original dataset (if possible)– all openly available online. Like Genbank. Every “paper” would just be a URL, making the management of bibliographies and citations much easier, and the “impact factor” would be for each paper. But I dunno, maybe I’m too young and naive.

Gerry, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the model you propose — it’s just that it has to be funded somehow, because the structure you describe would be very expensive to administer and maintain. And in order to attract authors it will have to carry enough prestige to be competitive with the more traditional model (which will continue to exist for as long as it can attract authors and revenue). Right now, journals serve the very important purpose of branding: if an article is published by Nature or Tetrahedron Letters rather than, say, Joe’s Biology Journal, that fact is meaningful (because Nature and Tetrahedron Letters have established track records of reliable discrimination). A model like the one you propose would have to establish a similar track record in order to attract tenure-seeking authors.

Honestly, I wish I knew what a perfect scientific publishing system would look like. (Even if I did know, then I’d have to figure out how to pay for it.)

Right now, journals serve the very important purpose of branding

Yes it has an economic and social function. Branding serves no *scientific* purpose whatsoever. Branding is important for selling sugar water, when the goal is to create psychological value out of nothing. Scientific integrity is based on valuing papers according to the evidence, never on the authority and opinion of others. Branding and the journal impact-factor is an intellectual shortcut (i.e. “if it’s in Nature, it must be better science than that article in a less prestigious journal”), that should not be encouraged by us as scientists. In essence, branding makes your paper look good to people who haven’t actually read it.

Some scientists are aware of this problem and are yearning for something less subjective, more efficient, and more in line with the ideals of scientific culture (“share information” and “question authority”).

I think the solution might be PeerJ. But taking that first step to get the ball rolling would require cooperation between many scientists where individuals risk their own personal career advancement by submitting their best work to PeerJ to promote the larger public good. PeerJ will succeed if scientists only see it that way- a way for scientists to liberate themselves from the shackles of for-profit companies. (How that’s for the importance of branding?).

But would I be willing to send all my best future work to PeerJ? Is that career suicide? Or maybe it’s a brilliant way to force people to actually read my papers to evaluate me as a scientist (if my CV reads PeerJ, PeerJ, PeerJ, etc). It’s a scary and exciting proposition. Enough people like me could be the start of a revolution. Or maybe it will be a tragedy of the commons, where only the worst science will be submitted there. Perhaps it will fail, but I hope not. It’s a social experiment really, and we’ll see what happens.

Branding serves no *scientific* purpose whatsoever. Branding is important for selling sugar water, when the goal is to create psychological value out of nothing.

Sorry, but this is dead wrong. You’re taking a term that has a pernicious meaning in one context and treating it as if it means the same thing in a different one. As I’m using the term (in the context of scholarly publishing), “branding” doesn’t mean the same thing as selling sugar water or creating psychological value out of nothing. It refers, as I explained above, to a system of assessment and discrimination based on scientific merit.

I’ll explain again: if one’s article is accepted by Nature, for example, that fact means something, and what it means has everything to do with the scientific content of the paper. Nature has built its brand not by arbitrarily applying its name to meaningless products and convincing ignorant consumers to impute illusory value to them, but by establishing a track record for publishing high-quality scientific content. If a paper is published in Nature, that fact tells the reader that it is reasonably likely to represent significant and well-done research. The fact that a researcher is able to publish regularly in a forum like Nature suggests something meaningful about the quality and significance of his or her research.

None of this is to say, of course, that everything published in Nature (or any other high-profile journal) is invariably excellent–only that if a journal builds a strong reputation for itself by regularly publishing high-quality content, its brand will thereby become strong and it will attract authors, and by doing so it will, in fact, serve a real scientific purpose.

Hi Rick, This is my final comment. The whole second half of my last comment did not make sense (e.g. PeerJ is a for-profit company too). So after this, I will shut up before my reasoning dwindles any further! My first point about branding really boils down to the simple concept that you don’t need journal impact factors (and branding) if you can assess the impacts of individual papers directly. Journal branding has the same value as the reputation of the author: both should be ignored when evaluating the actual evidence in the paper. Even if Nature’s editorial board does a great job selecting papers (and they certainly do), branding to me is still a weird shortcut because you are judging a paper based on its cover, literally. The only time I can think of that Nature improves the science itself, is when they say: “we will only publish this if you do these follow-up experiments”. But there are probably other deeper sociological reasons for this that I don’t understand. I know almost nothing about publishing (in case that’s not obvious already). For example, perhaps the electoral college system of journal rankings (like state rankings) is overall better in some way than the direct democracy of peer evaluation of papers individually. I’ve learned a lot about scholarly publishing from this debate. Thank you and I hope you don’t feel you wasted your time in addressing my points. I appreciate that.

Journal branding has the same value as the reputation of the author: both should be ignored when evaluating the actual evidence in the paper. Even if Nature’s editorial board does a great job selecting papers (and they certainly do), branding to me is still a weird shortcut because you are judging a paper based on its cover, literally.

Gerry, this would make perfect sense in a world in which researchers have the time to read and make careful judgements about every relevant paper that appears in their disciplines. But that’s not the world we live in, or ever have — unfortunately, our world is one in which researchers have to make choices about where they’ll invest their time, and journal branding provides a pretty good (though certainly not perfect) way of making a rough-cut discrimination between batches of content that are more likely to provide a good return on their investment of time and those that are less likely to do so.

Thanks for engaging, Gerry — you’ve asked good and thoughtful questions and I hope we’ll see you in the SK comments section again.

I would urge that the use of digital printing to do POD and SRDP has enabled scholarly book publishers to solve two major problems, cash flow and inventory, that had become increasingly challenging to their finances.

I am replying to Michael Eisen and Gerry Carter. (1) I did not say that PLoS ONE is publishing inferior papers. I said that the business model that PLoS ONE pioneered allows for the monetization of research that would otherwise go unpublished. That is not a comment on quality or on the papers that PONE publishes. In any event, I am not competent to assess scientific papers and have never claimed otherwise. (2) Michael Eisen accuses me of making a backhand compliment. I did no such thing. I admire PLoS ONE greatly, even if Eisen thinks I am ridiculous. I don’t believe Eisen fully appreciates the properties of his own service, but that’s okay. I recall that Nikola Tesla, while developing his pathbreaking wireless technology, thought he was in communication with people from Mars. (3) I did say that PONE is not nearly as important as Stanza, which I continue to believe. PONE is a wonderfully ingenious tweak to an established system of information publishing. Stanza, on the other hand, is game-changing. It’s one thing to bake a cake, quite another to feed a nation. (4) On all these points, reasonable people can disagree. I don’t subscribe to the either/or formulations that we find in any discussion of open access. PLoS ONE is a great and innovative service. At the same time, Elsevier is the world’s preeminent STM publisher. These two points are not mutually exclusive.

Scholarly journals are seldom services to readers, but mostly career-advancing services to authors. Logically, because it’s “publish or perish” in the scholarly ego-system, and not “read or rot”. On Joe’s logic, none of the journal owners are ‘publishers’. I actually agree with that. And therefore comparisons with ‘real publishers’ (of fiction, newspapers, magazines, etc.) are often meaningless.

PLoS One is a service to authors, although because of its open access, it’s clearly also a service to readers, and much more so than traditional publishers’ journals (most of which would be most receptive to the submissions that go to PLoS One, if only they could attract them).

All science needs is a service where researchers can have their research articles assessed for scientific soundness (by per review) and made available to the world to read, mine, and re-use in a convenient manner. The most important advance in the last decade is open access, delivered by entities still commonly known as ‘publishers’, just not the traditional ones.

Wrong. Most journals are intended to be a service to readers, even if the authors are in “reader” mode. There are differences in modes for scientists. For many fields in which the number of practitioners vastly outnumber researchers, journals are a service to readers in all senses.

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