What isn’t commonly known about scholarly publishing? Every industry has its less well-known facts. What are ours?
This month we asked the Chefs: What’s your favorite ‘dirty little secret’ about scholarly publishing?
Kent Anderson: Like any industry, once you’ve been around enough and seen enough, there are plenty of “dirty little secrets” holding us together. They do function as a weird kind of glue and cohesion.
Two “dirty little secrets” come immediately to mind. The first is that not all libraries actually activate their subscriptions to content, and usually renew these same subscriptions despite this. I’ve seen this at multiple publishers, and it’s always surprising. They buy the content, but never activate their access, which means they aren’t measuring the value, delivering the value, or assessing the value.
The other “dirty little secret” is that despite being brilliant individuals, most scientists and physicians are very poor businesspeople. Most businesspeople in our industry spend a lot of time and effort (and patience) walking these individuals through the business on their short visits as board members, editorial board members, or executives. Because most of us are good at this, these visitors often feel they are the ones making sure things work well, but the dirty little secret is that most organizations expend a lot of effort to help them maintain this illusion.
Joe Esposito: I don’t think it’s dirty, it’s not little, and it should not be a secret, but the least appreciated aspect of scholarly communications is that it is part of the broader media industry and shares many characteristics with it.
It’s often said that science publishing is “about” science, but it’s truer to say that it is “about” publishing. This means that there is much to learn (as well as to discard) from other areas of publishing, and also from the other media that grew up centuries after publishing. A corollary to this is that business management in scholarly communications requires a horizontal analysis — knowing how deals are done and copyrights exploited in textbooks, movies, and radio. Students of the Big Deal should look at the models at Netflix and Spotify, workflow administrators should be aware of the rapid pace of financial publishing, and publishers struggling with Sci-Hub and its ilk would do well to consider that Apple dropped DRM from its music store. The business is bigger than the editorial department and its future direction has more to do with innovations in consumer media than with the high-minded talk that dominates conferences and mail groups.
Angela Cochran: There are a few gems that I think aren’t so much “dirty secrets” but unknown truths. Here are a few:
- Turn-around time for a journal’s peer review process is 20% editor and 80% editorial coordinator/managing editor. Keeping papers moving through a system of volunteers requires constant nudging by journals staff. There are auto reminders built into the system, all of which can be easily ignored. Often it takes a few emails from a coordinator or managing editor to get everyone on track. In my experience, this is the case whether the editors are paid or not.
- There is actually a profession of scholarly publishing and we care very deeply about scholarship, quality of scholarship, and in helping the authors disseminate their work. It’s truly the core of what we do. We serve our particular community, which may have very different needs than other communities. There is no “one size, fits all” approach to this.
- Not all journals make money or even support themselves. Many times those niche journals that are vital to a small research community are entirely supported by larger journals with broad audiences. Starting a new journal is a loss for several years. If that journal is a niche journal, several years could turn into 8-10 years.
Robert Harington: An intriguing question. If I told a “dirty little secret about scholarly publishing” then it would no longer be a secret.
Seriously though, from where I sit the dirtiest secret of them all is that there are no secrets. Sometimes I wish there were. Perhaps there is a golden ticket to the publishing factory somewhere. In the end publishing is about common sense. Never was there a more practical field to work in. It combines the physical with the ephemeral. There are the nuts and bolts and the strategic innovation. There is nothing that beats the smell that wafts over your senses when cracking open a new book. And yes, the ability to see the work that you and your colleagues do, innovating for your academic communities, is immensely satisfying. If you are a politician then, yes, there is much here for you. If you are a salesperson, have at it. If you have one foot in the academic cloud and the other foot in business, then you are in the right place. The secret is that you should be open to everything and pragmatic to the core.
Karin Wulf: This is a secret that shouldn’t be — most scholarly publishing professionals are incredibly engaged with the implications of their work. It’s probably a truism that people are dedicated to work when they envision their contributions as part of a greater whole. With very few exceptions, though, the people I encounter in all aspects of scholarly publishing are cognizant that their work plays an important part in knowledge production and dissemination, and they are both committed to that work and proud of its contribution. As authors and readers, researchers trying to make sense of the publishing business and the changes in access, licensing and costs should take heart, even when they find themselves disagreeing with scholarly communication professionals on one issue or another.
Charlie Rapple: A “dirty” little secret that’s been nagging at me ever since I started working in scholarly publishing is that such a high proportion of online content is never downloaded or read. No rigorous studies to quantify this exist, to my knowledge, but I have often quoted the questionable figure of 50%, and most publishers I speak to nod in rueful acknowledgement of this figure – it may not be scientifically calculated, but I don’t think it’s an order of magnitude away from the reality.
There are a lot of reasons for such a high proportion of content not being downloaded, such as the “publish or perish” imperative driving salami slicing, over-publication and information overload; the focus of (most) publishing business models on selling subscriptions to libraries, or services to authors, rather than individual articles to readers; the “offgrid” usage of this content, in institutional repositories, or author profile sites like ResearchGate; and of course the persistence of print.
Increasing the visibility and usage of “the unloved 50%” has become a vocation for me, and in an era of library budget cuts and metricization of impact, is a common goal for many research stakeholders. Current efforts include continual improvement of discovery approaches and tools, from expanded metadata (e.g. plain language descriptions), to improved “stickiness” (e.g. new-generation recommendation widgets), and increased promotion of work both by individual authors (growing use of social media) and by the organizations supporting them (publishers, institutions, societies, funders, etc all aligned in pursuit of impact).
David Smith: I don’t have a favorite ‘dirty little secret’ because it’s not (and shouldn’t be) anybody’s favorite…
I find myself increasingly looking at the infrastructure that underpins the scholarly world and thinking that it really needs a lot of work. Sci-Hub has shown us that our access infrastructure isn’t fit for purpose. I hear stories of the work that clients are having to put in to tackle security issues on the platforms they pay for. Scholarly identity is still at a nascent stage when one compares it to the efforts of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. You would perhaps be very surprised to find out just how fragile some fairly important information databases are in terms of their set-up. The list goes on. There’s a great article (one of a number actually) by Cameron Neylon et al. that talks about some of these issues.
We are in the information business. The plumbing is crucial to our futures.
Ann Michael: When this question was first raised, I didn’t think I had anything to add. Then it hit me, I do know a pretty significant dirty little secret (although I hesitate to call it a favorite)! It’s one that impacts content and product development all the time and is only spoken about in small groups, dark corners, and muted voices.
Editors in Chief, Editorial Board members, Chief Medical Officers, established academics, and other experts that get deeply involved in publishing often do not fully represent the audiences they seek to serve. These brilliant and driven professionals have separated themselves from the “average” person in their field simply by getting more deeply involved in the publishing process, yet many feel as though they can tell you exactly what someone in their field needs. While there is truth in this, their views are often skewed. That said, their views are also essential. Most organizations publishing scholarly content (especially in STM) are working hard to balance the expertise and insights of their editors, with the creation and dissemination of content that meets the average user’s needs. This is especially true in applied fields (medicine, engineering, finance, accounting, etc.).
The good news is that this balance is often achieved by getting regular and meaningful user input through a variety of methods. While we might still run the risk of bias in the interpretation of data, most experts adapt when evidence shows them they need to.
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite ‘dirty little secret’ about scholarly publishing?
We all know there are more secrets to share. Which ones have you seen in action?