Editor’s Note: “This post is co-authored by the editors of the Learned Publishing journal, Pippa Smart, Editor-in-Chief, and Lettie Conrad, North American Editor.
Occasionally, the Learned Publishing editorial team enjoys browsing our archives and reflecting on the changing anxieties, strategies, and values within our community over the years. One hot topic among authors in the last decade is the increasing pressure to reach beyond the traditional confines of journals and faculty tenure cycles.
Stakeholders want to see measurable returns on their investments. Voters want to see taxes put to collective good. Vicky Williams noted last year, “with increasing funder mandates for research to demonstrate broader impact – on society, policy, the economy, or the environment – research has to reach a broader audience.”
Granting bodies are anxious to drive improvements in health and prosperity through research, therefore are less tolerant when research outcomes do not demonstrate high readership and other impact metrics. Earlier this year, David Sommer noted studies claiming that half of all published articles are never read and even more than that are never cited – which would mean an even smaller fraction making their way into the hands of policymakers, innovators, and the voting public. John Dove notes that the uneven distribution of openly available content across the myriad relevant search and discovery platforms calls for a more active, innovative publisher role in ensuring the success of OA and funded works.
Learned Publishing authors have demonstrated the measurable benefits of including lay summaries of open access (OA) articles alongside traditional abstracts and promotion of scientific publications to the mainstream press. However, these techniques are new tricks for many publishers to integrate into legacy marketing and content workflows. We are under pressure to master new tools, new partnerships, and new information channels to push publications beyond the “ivory tower” – and often outside our comfort zones. Although there are many experiments and innovative models being tested and run (e.g., BMC Psychology reviewing methodology rather than results to avoid bias against negative findings) these remain a minority, and it is hard to know how much effect they have on global impact.
Global readers expect access to knowledge and discoveries that impact our wider society, and the logistics of this broader dissemination and public communication are often left to publishers. The “lay summary” has become somewhat of a buzzword for the past couple of years, but the idea of rewriting scholarly papers for non-specialists in the general public is a challenge on several points. For authors, it can be seen as an insult or a waste of time. For publishers, it represents an additional amount of work and resource expense, in publishing staff energy and time, to undertake on behalf of authors. Promoting published science is seen by many authors as the responsibility of the publisher; conversely, publishers see this promotion as, at least in part, the responsibility of the author. And both often look to information channels, such as academic and public libraries, as the primary conduit for scientific dissemination.
The flip side of this discovery question is a matter of the diversity within our publications. We like to think of ourselves as a global industry, representing and contributing to global scientific research – but in truth, how global are we really? And what are the problems with globalization when it comes to publishing and disseminating knowledge? Editors and publishers are balancing the tension between being gatekeepers (only publishing the “best” research) and knowledge facilitators (providing access to a broader range of knowledge that may only appear immediately relevant to niche audiences). This drive to publish only the best works risks editorial, reviewer, and publisher biases, leading to exclusion of potentially important research, and a disenfranchisement of authors from developing countries who feel that their research is unlikely to be published in western journals, turning to alternative outlets — including “predatory” journals, as noted by Williams Nwagwu a few years ago.
These forces are creating conflict around the traditional concept of the scholarly record, which no longer satisfies funder mandates for broad distribution to wide and diverse audiences. Disconnects between funder objectives and researcher or author goals deepen this divide, often challenging universities and publishers to bridge the gaps. These pressures demand more than isolated process changes, but instead a more holistic mind-set shift that embraces innovation in business models and collaboration beyond traditional institutions. Changing the process requires involvement of all stakeholders and the tensions between different “factions” are not helping to address the diverse needs.
While each group individually considers itself to be embracing new models, we each have our inherent conservatism to address – not least of which lies within academia. In their year-one report from their 3-year longitudinal study, David Nicholas and his CIBER team observed that early career researchers (ECRs) universally agree that gold OA is a worthy enterprise – but they still cling to the established norms (including the elite high-Impact Factor, and traditional journal outlets) because their academic reward is so tightly tied to these.
Around the world, the obsession with the Impact Factor and the pressure that is being placed on researchers to publish within these elitist journals serves to undermine national journals, thus closing down dissemination channels for local research and constraining both academic and funder desires to ensure outreach to diverse communities. This conservative attitude to trustworthiness in the research process can further stymie communications and impact globally. This is surely a greater problem than the over-simplistic focus on Open-versus-closed access. Around the world “open” online access is common, and a study from De Gruyter this year shows that OA resources are key for authors in “periphery countries” who are both more likely to use OA resources and are also more likely to publish in them.
In a “post-truth” world with declining faith in scientific progress, publishers are beholden to play a leading role in the clear communication and promotion of scholarly research, and contributors to Learned Publishing have frequently questioned these trends and proposed possible solutions. These forces are a natural stage in the evolution of scholarship and academic publishing – but is the world too large to allow us to tackle this problem in more than a nationalistic perspective?
More on this topic is discussed by the Learned Publishing team in a new white paper, “The Reach & Impact of Research Articles Beyond the Academy”.