English: Logo of Academic Project publishers.
English: Logo of Academic Project publishers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks back, I wrote a short post asking you to submit your questions for a panel discussion that was to take place at the Society For Scholarly Publishing’s Annual Meeting. To those of you who took the time to submit your thoughts and questions, thank you. They were massively helpful in helping us frame the session. Most of you couldn’t be there, so here is a brief summary from me on what occurred, and also the thoughts of the panelists, in their own words.

In truth, I think we were all somewhat nervous about this panel session. Early on in the discussions, we had decided that the idea of three 20-minute PowerPoint presentations and a few questions at the end, wasn’t going to cut it. So we decided to go for very short introductory remarks and then let the debate flow. For it to work, it would be vital that the audience act as a forth panelist and really participate. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but as the session got closer, I suspect we were all somewhat worried about whether this was going to work or not. Or maybe that was just me. Of course, we suddenly had massive technical issues with the AV equipment, in a room that was standing room only by the time we were due to start.

I’m sure you’ve been to many panel debates. Some are good, some are dry and dusty, or worse. Something very rare happened in that session. A proper discussion broke out. People being passionate about what they do and seeking to do it, whatever ‘it’ might become, better. There was a lot of thinking out loud, and an absence of demagougery and framing statements. I want to thank our panelists and the audience for that. Anyway, here’s the panelists themselves in their own words. Presented in the order that they spoke initially.

David Crotty, OUP: I thought the session was surprisingly pleasant and cordial, and offered a good discussion about issues we as an industry currently face, along with some exciting future directions. Jason Priem is always tremendously informative.Though he shares the excitement level and drive of the strongest advocates for change, he combines it with a true scientist’s viewpoint. Jason is clear that there’s no assumed inevitability of anything; we have to do the experiment to know the results, but that there’s much we can do that will likely improve research publication. Tom Reller gave a really nice talk, full of self-deprecating humor (a rare moment lately, Elsevier hitting the right emotional tone). His message was an important one — that publishers need to be more engaged in the conversation and need to do a better job justifying what it is that we do (I’d temper that with message with a clear understanding that much of what Elsevier must respond to was brought on by their own actions, and that much of the energy many publishers must now expend stems from our need to distance ourselves from those actions).

To me the message of the session was that we bundle an enormous number of services under the word “publishing,” and those services vary widely from the book publisher to the journal publisher, from the reference publisher to those creating online databases. Those services are ever-evolving, and the era of upheaval we’re now facing requires constant adjustment and innovation. Some current services will fade away, others will arise and this may lead to changes in our processes and models. This is not something to fear or avoid, but is instead a challenge that must be met to best serve the needs of the research community.

Jason Priem,  University of North Carolina (also #altmetrics): I must confess that I wasn’t sure what to expect going in to this panel; there have been some pretty intense discussions about the future of publishing on these (virtual) pages and elsewhere, and a lot of accusations of reactionary obstructionism lobbed in from the communities I’m a part of. But I’m happy to say that wasn’t the publishing community I encountered in our audience (or at the conference as a whole). Yep, a lot of commenters were skeptical that the post-journal, open-everything  scholarly communications world I outlined could exist. Good! There’s lots of room for disagreement here, and loads of great ideas for how we’ll join with the wider communication revolution being wrought by and on the Web. Most approaches will fail, but that’s OK; the important thing is to look to the future, not the past, to realize that doubling down on tried-and-true models means following them into oblivion.

The upshot of our session for me was that, in impressive numbers, publishers get this. What could’ve been an extended back-patting session was instead an honest and urgent conversation about the industry’s future. I lost track of the number of publishers who stopped me in the halls or emailed me since our session saying, “this is what we need to hear!”, but it was a lot. Publishing is changing forever. I’m optimistic that a lot of SSP attendees will be changing right with it.

Tom Reller, Elsevier: I didn’t quite know what to expect when I accepted the invitation to join the session but I found it very informative and well received. Clearly, Jason’s talk on his prediction of the post-journal world enlivened the discussion. After some back and forth among our panel and the audience, I made the point that the dialogue was starting to reflect too much of what we unfortunately see being played out in the media and other online communities. That is, dealing in absolutes and extremes, whereas the reality is that true progress is going to be more collaborative and incremental.

Personally, I don’t think there is going to be a post-journal, open everything world for at a long time to come. Meanwhile, some of the approaches Jason discussed are going to work for many researchers (some fields more than others), and that’s a good thing. But we don’t need to see an implosion of the primary scholarly publishing model in order for innovation to flourish, there’s room for accommodation in the current system, as demonstrated by the new models introduced by traditional and non-traditional publishers alike. The analogy about babies and bathwater comes to mind when some people accuse publishers of obstructionism. I think instead that there’s a tremendous amount of good in the way science is published, measured and disseminated today on which publishers can build.

What I most appreciate about Jason is that he gets that benefits from technology that materially changes the readers and researchers experience on a broad scale is still several years away. What ‘broad’ means may be in the eye of the beholder. But Jason doesn’t buy into the ‘do-it-now-or-be-gone’ mentality espoused in some quarters. And he says there can always be a role for publishers in managing peer review and in assuring other forms of filtration and quality in any new world. This is critical. As one audience member pointed out, 2nd and 3rd world countries are still behind the developed world when it comes to technology adoption and improved communications. Let’s evolve, but not abandon, some of the traditional services that publishers provide that will make it easier for them to join the global scientific community.

The key message from my own talk was that all publishers, large and small, absolutely need to ensure we leverage opportunities from technology and communicate such benefits better if we are to change the overall tone of debate back to the reasoned middle where it belongs. While my talk focused on some of the comical and disturbing ways that some choose to communicate, I’m quite convinced they remain in the minority and are not inhibiting serious dialogues among people who have an interest in evolving scholarly communications as we do.

We look forward to many more conversations and innovations like the ones discussed in this panel that ultimately serve to reaffirm the public’s trust in science.

In closing, I want to echo some of the comments of the panelists, because I think they reflected the mood of the room during the session. I was struck by how many librarians were in the room – we must have hoovered all the librarian attendees up. There was a realisation that seemed to move across the room, that this whole value thing, in all senses of the concept, was actually really complex to try and unpack. A realisation that our current communication methods are not working very well. We keep missing our communities and have been doing that for some time, and not seeing that fact. Some of the value is in the things that happen that nobody sees and the things we watch for and have contingency and risk management for – also that nobody sees. In the secure 99.99999% uptime servers. In the legal cover. In the transparency over who is paying! In the stability – proven over many decades now. So many things, so many places for an enlightened debate about what those things are worth, and to whom. On Monday, as the Finch report on open access in the UK came out, there were articles in the Mail Online and the Independent newspaper, reporting an apparent briefing to the effect that OA in the UK would cause a major pharmaceutical company to relocate from the UK and that also OA was in some way equivalent to piracy. Crazy talk in short. Stuff that doesn’t help in any way, but just gets people all riled up and angry. I’ve no idea where those ideas came from.

The session didn’t come up with any neat solutions — that wasn’t its intention. But it did show that differences of opinion and thinking can be aired out in a productive manner to the benefit of all. We need more of that. I’ll end with a bit of Monty Python, and I hope to see you in the comments (especially if you were there):

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David Smith

David Smith

David Smith is a frood who knows where his towel is, more or less. He’s also the Head of Product Solutions for The IET. Previously he has held jobs with ‘innovation’ in the title and he is a lapsed (some would say failed) scientist with a publication or two to his name.


12 Thoughts on "Publishers! What Are They Good For? Part Deux: The Debate"

There seem to be two different things getting mixed up here. One is technological transition, which is inevitable. The other is the prospect of a transformational government policy decision, which is far from inevitable. Reasoned discussion of the subtle and complex Roles and values of publishing may be useful for the former, but probably not for the latter. Policy is made in simple terms because the people who make it are not experts in the systems being regulated. As Mencken put it, democracy is the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. More metaphorically, what we have here is a principle (OA) attacking a system (publishing). The industry needs to stand its ground, in the simplest terms it can find, lest it be destroyed by people who do not know what they are doing. It has happened before.

I can’t speak for the UK government (those behind the Finch Report), but those in the US government working on literature access policies that I’ve met with are very well-informed about the business and value of journal publishing, and have exhibited a subtle and nuanced understanding of how things work.

I presume you are talking about key Congressional staffers and that is certainly true. But neither those staffers, nor their bosses, pass laws. If there is to be a US law restructuring the industry by force, it will be passed by a bunch of people, probably a majority in the Congress and a super majority in the Senate, most of whom know virtually nothing about the industry. For them you need to fight slogan with slogan.

Happily the issue is politically dead in the US for this Congress and most likely the next. OSTP punted the Open Access Task Force report. The Finch report seems wonderfully noncommittal, an academic exercise. In the UK, Willets is quoted as saying he now wants to team with the USA on OA:

There is a very lively debate about this in the US and I’ll be briefing members of the American research community and administration this week on what we’re doing on open access. If we can make it a shared European-American initiative, that would bring down the cost and it would be far better if we could all agree a way forward.

So if the UK is now waiting for the Yanks (and the Euros) we can all rest a bit. Maybe take the summer off.

I’m curious to know if there was any mention of copyediting as a traditional service that may or may not survive in the brave new world of OA. It was startling to hear the discussion of PeerJ on SK without any mention of copyediting (before I raised the question about whether PeerJ intends to provide it for authors). I by no means want to suggest that copyediting is sacrosanct or does not itself need to undergo modification to adapt to the OA world (or, for that matter, digital publishing in general). E.g., it has been suggested by some science copyeditors that it is no longer worth spending time on enforcing a house style in STM journal publishing. On the other hand, because it is so much easier to do now via search engines, copyeditors may want to engage more in checking quotations for their accuracy.

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