Earlier this year we wrote about the “Seven Things Every Researcher Should Know about Scholarly Publishing”, one of several recent posts seeking to improve understanding of scholarly communications among all stakeholders. These included Charlie Rapple’s post on “Three Things Scholarly Publishers Should Know about Researchers” and an Ask the Chefs forum focused on misconceptions about scholarly publishing.
The start of a new academic year in the northern hemisphere seemed like a good time for us to return to this theme, but from the opposite perspective as our original post, asking this time what scholarly publishers should know about the researchers they serve. We’ve highlighted the same seven themes: ecosystem, scholarly hygiene, business models, peer review, metrics, tools, and licenses and copyright. It was interesting to note which of them smoothly translate from the perspective of researchers versus publishers and vice versa. Mostly we found that sticking with the same themes helped to highlight connections and commonalities.
Many who work in scholarly publishing have little or no research experience themselves; even fewer do so in the field in which they publish. In an Ask the Chefs forum debating the value of research experience for publishers by asking whether publishers benefit from an advanced degree, views on the topic were mixed. Publishing is its own business, requiring a specific set of skills and knowledge, as are other fields in scholarly communication, most significantly libraries. So, while an advanced degree in the discipline you’re publishing in can be helpful in some ways, it may not be necessary, and is often not as important as other types of experience. However, just as researchers need an understanding of how scholarly publishing works, it is also essential that scholarly publishers understand researchers and their research – what they do, and when, why and how they do it.
1. Ecosystem. Understanding the ecosystem in which scholarly research is produced and then published is critical for anyone working in scholarly publishing. The context in which research questions are generated, pursued, investigated, and then written for publication is as important for publishers to understand – at a granular level – as the material itself. And, although there are some similarities across all disciplines, there are also differences that publishers need to recognize. In research as in so much of life there really is no “one size fits all”. For example, while journal articles are the preferred publication format for most scientific disciplines, books are more significant in the humanities; not to mention other types of outputs – from performances to datasets – each with its own process and requirements.
For most disciplines, though, by the time a research work arrives at the publisher’s front door it has already lived a full life, typically including contact with and feedback from funders, colleagues, and students, as well as interaction with library resources (though not necessarily with librarians themselves). These interactions with other stakeholders in the scholarly communications ecosystem are every bit as important to researchers as their interactions with their publisher, if not more so – something that publishers don’t always recognize. In addition, in the lifecycle of research, by the time their work is submitted to a publisher, it is likely that a researcher has also presented multiple iterations at conferences, large or small, workshops, and other meetings. The conference calendar for disciplines and fields is key, therefore, not only to understanding the field but also the work of scholars within it. Scholars know that timely publication of their research is critical – it may make the difference between getting a job/promotion/tenure or not — and publishers need to understand these calendars, too, and act accordingly. That includes ensuring that time spent in review or in production is communicated fairly and regularly to the author(s).
2. Scholarly Hygiene. Publishers play just as important a role as researchers in maintaining the highest standards of scholarly hygiene – and researchers look to publishers for information and support on this, for example, in terms of production quality, and guidance on ethical issues. Arguably, publishers don’t always deliver, with cost-cutting, for example, increasingly affecting the level of review, copy-editing and proofreading provided. And, while many publishers support organizations such as COPE, they don’t always ensure that their editors – never mind their authors – are aware of the advice on offer from them.
In their scramble to publish “the definitive results of latest research,” some publishers show a lack of understanding of research as an iterative process, often taking place over years or even decades. Likewise, the labeling of retractions as bad, and the reluctance – not just on the part of publishers, but of other stakeholders – to publish negative results, are other examples of a lack of understanding of how research works. Publishers could, and arguably should, play a stronger role in both supporting a strong and rigorous approach to research, and improving public understanding of how that process works.
3. Business Models. Mostly AKA open access (OA), and although some researchers care passionately about OA, the majority almost certainly do not. Most scholars simply want to publish their work in the best possible outlet and the most appropriate format – and for the process to be as simple as possible. Sure, they want it to reach a wide audience, but they also want that to be the right audience, irrespective of business model. The challenge for researchers comes when their funder or institution requires them to make their work publicly available. Hybrid journals have partially solved this issue but, as more OA mandates come into force, as seems likely, publishers need to continue to address this challenge.
Whatever the business model, making it easy for authors to submit, review, approve, and if applicable pay for their publication is absolutely critical and something to which all publishers must be committed.
4. Peer Review. Despite a lot of brouhaha, peer review is alive and kicking – and still absolutely central to the research process. Most publishers acknowledge this, at least implicitly, but may not appreciate that their own reviewers are not only spending a lot of time reviewing publications but also conference abstracts, hiring, promotion and tenure committees, grant applications, and more. Most researchers do this because it is an essential way of staying connected to and in conversation with the latest work in their field. However, finding ways to more appropriately recognize peer reviewing is likely to become more of an issue in future – as reflected in the theme of this year’s Peer Review Week, which is “Recognition for Review”. It’s something that, as one of the key beneficiaries of the process, publishers could and should play a leading role in addressing.
Many researchers, especially early career researchers and those in emerging economies, also need training on the peer review process – all the more so with the development of open peer review. Again, this is something in which publishers, and particularly editors, can play a strong role.
5. Metrics. Like publishers, researchers both love and loathe metrics. Like publishers, they are caught between an awareness that metrics are quite limited for evaluating the worth of scholarship, and the regular use of metrics as a shorthand for exactly that form of evaluation. What researchers generally do not know, and need publishers to be clearer about, is which metrics are valuable, how, why, and when. And not just for evaluating publications, but also by extension for job, tenure and promotion, funding applications, and more. In all of these there are different sorts of pressures to use — or not — metrics. These pressures weigh heavily on publishers, but they may weigh heaviest on researchers.
6. Tools. Publishers love to develop new tools “to help researchers”, but how well do they really understand researchers’ needs and how good are they at developing services that genuinely meet them? It’s certainly not always clear to the researchers what the value of many of these tools and services is, nor how they can tell the difference between similar tools developed by competing organizations. To make matters worse, there are so many tools and services for researchers out there now that librarians, who in the past would have been able to provide this kind of advice, often can’t keep up with the pace of change either.
There’s always going to be a market for outstanding products that really do make researchers’ lives easier, and publishers (and others!) would be doing everyone a favor by focusing their efforts on developing fewer, but better and/ or more targeted ones.
7. Licenses and copyright. The single most important thing for publishers to recognize is that researchers have little interest in, and even less understanding of, copyright and licenses, which is a challenge, since they are getting increasingly complex. Finding ways to explain the key elements and simplify the process during publication is very important. Again, librarians can and often do play an important role here, but publishers must too. As with business models, making it easy for authors to find, understand, and sign an appropriate license is critical. We are all guilty of mindlessly clicking the “Accept” button on all sorts of online licenses in our day-to-day lives, but doing so during the publication process may have serious implications. Researchers need to understand what they are signing and why, what the implications are, whether it will enable them to comply with any institutional, funding, or other requirements, and more. And publishers’ websites aren’t always as transparent as they might be.
So, what have we learned from looking at these seven things from the other side?
Publishers and publishing certainly play a significant role in the work of researchers, but to quote Barbara Myers Ford, publishing also needs “to recognize it is no longer the center of the information universe. This may mean “changing our mindsets from being the lead to a supporting role in a larger production.” Publishers can – and should – do more to support and educate researchers about how and why the publication process works the way it does. But they can’t do this successfully without a better understanding of how and why the research process works the way it does.
Some organizations – and individuals – are better at this than others. Arguably, it’s easier for a discipline-focused press than a multidisciplinary one, as the whole organization can develop a deep understanding of how that field works. Similarly, publishers working across different types of publication (journals, datasets, monographs, texts, etc.) may have a broader understanding of the research process – at least from a publishing perspective. However, as a result of consolidation in the industry and a move away from monograph publishing on the part of many companies, there are fewer of both types of organization around than there were. Publishers need to work harder than ever to ensure that their staff develop a deep and broad understanding, not just of the publishing process in their discipline(s) but also how that fits into the whole research lifecycle.