When you spend your time immersed in an ecosystem, like scholarly communication, you start to notice its strengths, its weaknesses, and opportunities for change or evolution. Some of those opportunities are practical, some push the edges, and still others are outliers. However, there is value in discussing all of them, the large, the small, and the seemingly impossible.

This month we asked the Chefs: If you could change one thing about scholarly communication, what would that be?

Magic wand

Charlie Rapple: I would change global reward structures to value other forms of scholarly communication beyond publications. Capturing wider outputs and achievements, understanding their role in knowledge transfer, and factoring their influence into academic metrics and evaluation processes, is the pivotal change without which any other changes to scholarly communication feel like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Does this count as “one thing”?!)

Joe Esposito: In a world that we don’t live in and that we wouldn’t want to live in even if we could, there would be a tax of 5% on net revenue (not on profit) for all companies, including not-for-profit publishers. Thus a company with $100 million in sales would pay a tax of $5 million. To get out of paying the tax, a company would have to invest in research and development; every dollar invested in such research would reduce the tax by one dollar. If the company was unprofitable, tough luck: the tax is due anyway. Smaller companies (under $5 million) would get a pass. The money spent on R&D would have to be for new activities: new products, new technology, new sales channels. Only direct costs could be charged against the tax (i.e., no overhead allocation). The money could not be used for acquisitions or paying down debt. No company could pay a dividend unless 100% of the tax was offset by R&D investments.

My guess is that most companies would prefer simply to pay the tax than to go to the trouble of doing something new.

Kent Anderson: What I’d like to see change in scholarly communications is for the focus to sharpen around media practices that actually support the intellectual goals of scholars and researchers.

What springs to mind are the ongoing “kill the PDF” calls you hear at meetings, as if we’re all embarrassed that we haven’t moved beyond the PDF. The fact is that “we” aren’t the audience here, so we’d better not move beyond what they want or need, which may be a deeper issue. There’s interesting cognitive and business research showing that reading physical media, with predictable layouts, tangible and spatial cues, and coherent design motifs actually improves information access and retention. Print and its conceits may actually help people learn more faster and remember more later. Yet, we continue to hack away at print businesses or print proxies in the name of digital transformation and modern tech style. This seems to move us to more of a lowest-common-denominator media space, which is proving to be more distracting, less supportive of mental recollection and retention, and harder to access intellectually. Clarity around our service to the end-user and their desire and need for high-yield and high-retention information experiences seems like a change that could only help us maintain our place in a world of alternative facts and endless news feeds.

Michael Clarke: Harmonizing the output of universities with their library budgets. Through their incentive structures, universities pressure faculty and post-docs to publish more and more. This has resulted in more and more research articles and therefore higher serials costs. And yet library budgets remain flat and are declining as a percentage of university spending (at least at US research universities). Open access is not a solution to this problem — it merely shifts the costs around. We need to move beyond the rhetoric about a “Serials Crisis” and start talking about the elephant in the room, which is either the Library Funding Crisis (LFC) or the Research Bloating Crisis (RBC) depending on your perspective. Either way, the solution lies not in the library or the lab (or in the houses of publishers) but in the provost’s office. 

We need to move beyond the rhetoric about a “Serials Crisis” and start talking about the elephant in the room, which is either the Library Funding Crisis (LFC) or the Research Bloating Crisis (RBC) depending on your perspective.

Rick Anderson: I’m going to cheat a little bit and say what I would change if I could change one thing about scholarly meta communications — in other words, the way we communicate about scholarly communications. I would lower the temperature of the discourse by about 20 degrees (Fahrenheit). I realize this is something of a pipe dream, because so much of our conversation about scholarly communication right now is not so much about how to accomplish tasks effectively, but rather about what is and isn’t morally acceptable. It’s a lot easier to have a calm and reasonable conversation about, say, how to reduce editorial turnaround times or make library practices more efficient, than it is to have a calm and reasonable conversation about, say, the value of the scholarly monograph or whether or not publishers ought to be able to realize a profit from selling access to scholarly content. The former conversations are about efficiency and effectiveness, whereas the latter are about values and priorities.

To some degree, conversations about values and priorities are always going to be somewhat fraught, but I truly wish that ours were less obnoxiously so. Too many participants in our ecosystem are now afraid to speak up on issues that are centrally important to all of us, because they have good reason to believe that if they do so, someone who disagrees with them is going to publicly impugn their motives and/or question their basic intelligence rather than engage constructively with the substance of what they say. I’m afraid that we are losing the ability to deal productively with disagreement, and that it’s getting in the way of solving genuine problems in scholarly communication.

And before someone accuses me of calling for community-wide handholding and “Kumbayah”-singing, let me be clear that that’s not what I’m saying we need at all. What I think we need is a greater ability to recognize, acknowledge, and deal with the fact that there is actually a diversity of viewpoints within the scholarly-communication community, that these diverse viewpoints are generally held by decent and intelligent people who are operating in good faith, and that treating maliciously those who disagree with us does nothing except discourage productive discourse when we need it the most.

Phill Jones: One thing? How about if you could change everything, where would you start? I’ll confess to a little bit of hyperbole there, but the current industry of scholarly communication is the result of a very long and occasionally checkered history of relationships between governments, academia and private enterprise. Certainly, if we were going to build it from scratch, we wouldn’t do it this way, but I wonder if it’s possible to change just one part without causing the whole house of cards to come crashing down.

The thing I always return to is legacy business models that are based on print. Here’s just one example of how that manifests. Back before the internet, paper distribution of research outputs limited the size of articles and the number that could practically go into a journal. In the post internet age, that translates into artificial scarcity supported by brands associated with journal titles. Again, in the post internet age, journal titles aren’t needed as a container and could more effectively be replaced by a codified system of subject and topic metatags that would make both discovery and research assessment far more efficient. Due to the way that the system is structured however, we can’t just abandon journal titles because subscriptions to those individual titles support not only the industry of publishing but in many cases the learned societies that many academics rely on for their scholarly communities. As I suggested above, there are other examples, like the fact that researchers often have to waste time reformatting and resubmitting content to multiple journals, and the use of certain metrics such as Impact Factor, for things they were never designed for.

We all agree that we want to document as complete and as accurate a record of human understanding as possible, with as few barriers as possible for information to flow from the originators to the consumers while archiving it for posterity and use by future generations. The problem is that given the complexity of the system, change is difficult to create without causing unexpected consequences. I personally think that the best lever we have for change lies in research assessment systems (both institutional and national). If we can change the way that research, researchers and institutions are evaluated to be more in line with how we need research to function as a society, those stakeholders will be better incentivized to communicate more effectively, which would drive demand for more open, transparent and connected services. When the incentives stop being so perverse, maybe the system will change to better reflect societies needs.

David Smith: I would change our absolutely terrible cross industry public relations efforts to the rest of the world. At this time, it is more important than ever that scholarly publishing is seen as vitally important function that not only supports the work of scholars around the world, but also the functions of collecting, and organizing, and curating, and disseminating, and protecting, scholarly works, a critical component of a functioning democratic society. Experts matter. The promulgation of their expertise matters. And yet, we fail utterly to present any sort of meaningful collective presence when challenged by “what have the Romans ever done for us?” type arguments.

Over a year ago Sci-Hub exploded across global media properties across every continent over the course of a few days and then weeks (someone has good PR…). The fact that it’s hosted primarily on pirate servers in Russia (that also serve up stolen books, magazines and comics, denying those creators of income); that it works by using stolen institutional access credentials that put not only academic institutions at risk, but the personal data of every attendee of those same institutions as well; and that this is ongoing, were largely skated over. In fact, the painting of our industry in broad brush strokes using a palette of ‘monopoly’, ‘for profit’, ‘restrictions to access’ and more, was such as to suggest perhaps that “we had it coming”. Accurate it was not. 

We own this. We shouldn’t expect fair and balanced coverage. We need to collectively position ourselves to explain the valuable functions we offer society, the things we do to support scholars. This is not an attempt to shut down criticism (are we doing it well enough, are there different ways and so on), but as the last 12 months have shown in all sorts of places, the failure to effectively counter false perceptions of matters of importance has had profound consequences. I am very worried that if we do not define and educate and inform more widely, we will be defined. These are interesting times.

Too many participants in our ecosystem are now afraid to speak up on issues that are centrally important to all of us, because they have good reason to believe that if they do so, someone who disagrees with them is going to publicly impugn their motives and/or question their basic intelligence rather than engage constructively with the substance of what they say.

Robert Harington: Governments internationally should provide adequate funding for the research ecosystem. Scholars, libraries, funders and publishers are in a bit of a bind. The pool of money available to the research ecosystem simply does not support the research life cycle. Whether you are in an applied science field, or in the humanities, scholarship and the scholarly record is worth supporting. We can play around with a range of tweaks, including open access models, shifting the burden from libraries to individuals and even funding agencies, but in the end it is worth noting that as research output grows, for the stakeholders in academic research to thrive, it is funding that matters. The downward pressures faced by libraries across the world, with decreasing budgets to wield, mean that in the end it is the research community that suffers. Yes we can chase the ideals of openness, and question what should be a decent balance of costs and value, but the lack of resources for research sometimes elicits a kind of nihilistic fervor to see “the deconstruction of the administrative state”. Let’s have our Governments support scholarship properly.

Jill O’Neill: I would change how we think about the form of publication. Rather than focus on the role of publication as information dissemination, I’d shift greater emphasis towards a more effective presentation of meaning. Dissemination isn’t the hard part in the Internet age; accurate communication of meaning however is a long-standing issue.

In a perfect world, an editor upon receipt of a completed manuscript would consider how the meaning or substance of the work would be best communicated. This would not be done with regard to length (as might have been necessary in a print-based environment) nor with an eye to controlling the number of hours required for programming or other digital production. Scalability would not be the first consideration.

Instead, publishing and information professionals would serve as consultants, recommending the appropriate form of expression, whether text, audio, visual. The team would have the disciplinary expertise required to understand the significance of a particular research finding and the technology expertise needed to aid the researcher (or the collaborative team) in selecting the best combination of publication options for communicating that significance. The resulting output would be a highly customized form of documentation, efficiently delivering to the reader (or in the case of software, the end-user) a sense of the unique contribution that had been made. Assessment of the contribution would be enhanced for decision-makers regarding tenure and promotion. The long-term reach and impact of the contribution might be more readily captured in metrics suited to the particular community.

I am well-aware of the practical reasons why this is not apt to become the reality. Scalability needs to be part of the equation, whether in light of time or financial resources. Managing the production process must still be someone’s top-of-mind concern (and the researcher’s priority is to get on with the research itself). But there is a decided lack of emphasis on effective means of communication in the scholarly publishing business and it would be great to see that shift.

Alice Meadows: It probably won’t come as a surprise that the one change I’d like to see is for scholarly communications to be more inclusive and equitable. While women are, if anything, over-represented in our community, that is not the case at the top. And when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity there’s shamefully low representation at al levels of scholarly communications.

This is especially disappointing given that collectively we study, review, publish, and disseminate the research that clearly shows both that bias and/or discrimination exists and that there are great benefits — to individuals, organizations, and society — of increased diversity. Companies with diverse leadership perform better significantly than average, while less diverse ones perform worse than average. Diversity powers science and innovation — and also appears to increase citations. Not to mention the moral arguments around equal opportunities and equal pay…

There has been progress, of course, over the past few decades, but we’re still a long way from equality. For example, the World Economic Forum reports that, at the current rate of progress, women globally won’t earn the same as men until well into the next century. Wouldn’t it be great if, as well as continuing to support research that demonstrates the existence of discrimination and the benefits of diversity, we also put it into practice? Imagine how much stronger, successful, and sustainable scholarly communications would be….

Judy Luther: The biggest gap today is the need to communicate research in a way that it is readily digestible and understood by a much broader audience. It used to be sufficient for the journal to be the primary vehicle for communication with its intended audience of the authors’ peers. The structure of the article is designed to be efficient for other researchers who can quickly skim the abstract, methodology or references to determine the relevance to their own work. But in a global information economy, that is not enough.  

The push for open access brought funders to the table along with their desire for greater visibility of the results of their research. This applies to funders whose objectives vary widely, whether it is the Gates Foundation improving the lives of individuals to the European Union fueling innovation for economic growth. While OA can support researchers globally in the science community, it does little for the broader audience not familiar with the specialized language of each discipline.  The reach of popular science publications is limited to their subscribing audience and the general press only highlights newsworthy topics. There is still a gap with those who are ultimately affected by the research.

Given the volume of research funded at the national level, it is crucial that the average citizen understand the results of this investment as their vote is crucial to the future of research. Translation of research into generally understandable terms serves both the public and research communities. Even if most research does not inspire the imagination of the reader, the value can be framed in terms of how it ultimately affects society. While there is growing awareness and some efforts to address this gap, it should be a priority for us all.

David Crotty: Since we’re talking about the realm of fantasy, I’ll go with a Freaky Friday scenario involving temporary body swaps between all stakeholders in the communications realm. We are constantly stymied by a lack of both empathy for, and understanding of the actual needs and work done by each other. What funder or academic administrator wouldn’t be better served by inhabiting the life of a struggling early career researcher for a little while? What publisher wouldn’t end up with a better process and technological vision after a week in the role of lab head? A researcher disdainful of commercial publishers would get a sense of what it is they actually do, or what the grant application process looks like from the other side. It’s always easier to blame others than it is to set one’s own house in order, so seeing the other side of things might make us all reexamine our own roles, and a little better able to work effectively with others.

Ann Michael: Personally, I am drawn to Rick’s hopes and observations. I firmly believe that you can’t fix (or evolve) something, including scholarly communication, if you can’t talk about it. I also believe that only speaking with folks that agree with you severely reduces the probability of a successful outcome. And, everything needs some form of “fixing.” That is simply a matter of keeping up with changing needs and new opportunities.

So…What is top of your list?

If YOU could change one thing about scholarly communication, what would it be?


Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, a business and technology consulting and advisory firm focused on innovation and growth in membership organizations, scholarly publishers, and professional information providers. Ann is Past-President of SSP.

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22 Thoughts on "Ask The Chefs: If You Could Change One Thing About Scholarly Communication, What Would That Be?"

the combination of Michael Clarke’s and Phill Jones’s post, synergistically hit a home run in my perception.

First, as Phil suggests, there is, in a digital age, whether the articles are print or virtual, all the materials can be stored with meta tags. It has been suggested that today’s researchers want the information in the articles. Thus each person could, as many of us do, search and assemble wherever the knowledge is concentrated in a transmittable format. The “journal” may be a vestigial form for the purpose of review and vetting amongst scholars. Since publishers now get revenue from downloads, the business model does not have to change substantially.

Clarke’s suggestion or wish is that the institutions find other ways than the default to publications for promotion and tenure. Library budgets as the delimiter at a person’s institution is problematic. But in thinking back to Phil’s idea, the one barrier here is the combination of quantity and where published (the old “impact” factor and the control by “prestige” as to where the material is published. The latter does drive the compulsive need to measure to strike the balance between where and how “many”.

It’s intellectual inertia on the part of the academics, that basically stalls any changes no matter how rational and reasonable. And it is coming home to roost, at least in the US, as seen here in the suggestion that library budgets be the limiting factor. Wow! what a cat fight that would be between all disciplines in disbursing that largess.

I would like to see Recommendation #8 of the National Enquiry into Scholarly Communication (1979) finally implemented: viz., sharing the burden of supporting the system of scholarly communication more broadly among the 3,000 colleges in the country instead of just “free riding” on the some 80 universities that support their own presses. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways by, for instance, charging a submissions fee for a book manuscript written by any faculty member at a college that does not have a press of its own.

Put the focus on communication rather than on publishing. “Publish or perish” seems to be a force driving a lot of things and a barrier to many possible innovations.

I would require all universities to annually increase their library budgets in the same proportion as their football or basketball budgets increase. Funding problem solved!

As much as I like this idea, realistically, wouldn’t it mean that Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc. would just hike their prices by the same percentages? I doubt they would let that extra money go to UPs and other non-profits.

To follow on from my previous comment and your observation, perhaps the publishers would just add more journals into the bundles they sell, expanding the space for more materials to be downloaded for a fee.

The benefit here is that it creates more opportunities for scholars in the developing world to find access to these imprints rather than the limited visibility of the more regional journals.

Depending on the day it would either be a major overhaul of promotion and tenure to more closely reflect how information is disseminated and used today or, I would wish for provide truly frictionless connections between discovery and access to the content. As I’ve said before, right now the hand off between systems is about as finessed as the closure of a post-autopsy Y incision.

God appeared to me in a vision last night. I asked God a number of questions:

Q: will I ever pay off my kid’s college debt?
A: not in your lifetime.

Q: will Virginia Tech ever win the basketball national championship?
A: not in your lifetime.

Q: will the “serials crisis” ever end?
A: not in MY lifetime

Plain English! Many scholars write (and may even talk) in dense, complex language meant to impress, but it actually can turn people off. If you want people to read your articles (or even just get past the first two paragraphs), or if you want to attract nonscholars and those in other disciplines, then it would help to write in a more engaging, easier-to-read manner. As an editor who reads and edits a lot of academic articles, my favorites are always the ones that make ideas easy to understand. In this age of information overload, when we have to read and grasp material quickly, writing in the old-fashioned way (with lots of passive voice, $10 words, and long sentences) defeats that purpose.

I disagree. What you’re asking for here is not a journal, it’s a different type of publication (a valuable one, no doubt, but not the same thing). The journal is meant to be a high level conversation between experts. People who understand the jargon and have a certain level of background information. If every biology article has to start out with a ten page primer on “what is DNA”, then we’re going to waste an awful lot of time and journal articles are going to be hundreds of pages long.

I do like the idea of a lay summary, or asking authors to write a “research report,” but this serves a different purpose than the journal article.

david’s comment ring true, if, indeed, we are in conversation with peers in the same, often very specialized areas. The format of most journals seems to have arisen from early scientists communicating with each other and where sufficient information was required for a colleague to verify or further the research being reported. That has resulted in what has become persiflage, long front ends explaining and transmitting the past.

In today’s world, much of that can be linked electronically to the article. In many ways this was the intent of “letters”, rapid, compressed, information. Unfortunately this has degenerated to where the “letters” are now pub/perish journals. In a digital world, the space consumed becomes irrelevant. But for print, it’s still problematic. For the editors/reviewers, it becomes time consuming; for the reader it becomes, often, difficult to get to the nuggets buried in that persiflage.

Academics need pub/perish articles for their resumes. For serious academic publications, maybe what is needed is to take off the wigs, academic robes and academic pretense and create SnapChat for scholars. But then where is the economics for publishers and libraries?

Building on David and Tom’s comments, we need space for both research and distilled research. Even the distilled research has multiple audiences.

In medicine, there is a need, even for the highly trained specialized physician, to quickly see “what does this mean to my patients.”That is not something most journal articles contain – understandably so. We are constantly talking to medical associations and societies about translation – not to other languages but to clinical practice! These types of translations are needed for any specialty (engineering comes to mind as well) where there is an audience seeking to apply learnings from the research.

Then there’s the knowledgeable or interested layman. That is actually a third audience (so far we have researcher and practitioner). This one is very important to mission driven organizations that want the public to understand the significance of their field and how progress in their field impacts the world (or parts of it).

We haven’t even spoken about the group in between the interested layman and the trained professional. In many cases the folks we work with are also creating content for the public policy professional, whether lobbyist or government or NGO.

But as Tom points out content doesn’t create itself and their needs to be economic drivers or at minimum, for the 100% mission-related info, economic support from somewhere.

Translation of research may very well be the most critical issue when considering really having scientific and social scholarly discovery being accessible beyond the scholars.

Interesting pattern here. I’m not sure who “Charlie” is, since I don’t see a comment from anyone with that name, but of the three people who have commented who I know are librarians in academia (Lisa, Collette, and Robin) all had the same basic answer, and one that I, as academic librarian number four, would echo – change the promotion and tenure system. That system drives where authors in academia attempt to publish and puts WAY too much emphasis on the perceived quality of the container in which an author’s work appears (the journal) rather than on the quality of the work itself. If we can’t change the system that drives where academic authors (the _source_ of most of the scholarly output that’s being communicated) publish and the high value that is placed on WHERE authors publish, then we won’t change the demand for those (often) high-priced containers. And since what libraries, or increasingly, individual authors/grants/other funding sources, pay for is largely based on that container-based system, little large scale change in the SC ecosystem will result.

Hi Mel, Charlie is a chef. She’s the first respondent to the question, and not an academic librarian. She’s a co-founder of Kudos and a consultant. I hadn’t realized there was such a grouping in the responses. Thanks for pointing it out.

Excellent, thankyou. From the senior academic’s side, I always recommend that P&T and hiring committees read the work of the applicants, not judge the ‘book by its cover’ (or IF). The practice of asking applicants for key outputs is helpful.

My one wish is that “academics take back publishing”. Maybe we never really did all that much of it, but we should do more . Break the big five, that buy up smaller publishing houses with increasing frequency, and bankrupt university libraries with their insane journal packages and bullying tactics, while making a lot of profit. Follow the Spanish, Portuguese and French language models where many (most, in Latin America) journals are managed by universities and institutes and free to authors and readers.

I would change that label – don’t like it not very meaningful. Smallish recent informal poll with peers shows most don’t label research outputs that way. Use a name that means something to everyone.

Valerie – Which label? The label of “scholarly communications” or something else. What did they suggest in your informal poll (very interested to hear!)?

A bit of a riff on Rick Anderson and Charlie Rapple – I would change the metrics landscape. More precisely, I would like folks to understand what is or is not being measured, the sample sizes at play, and the extent to which the numbers are at all meaningful.

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