As you have heard previously, this year marks the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s (SSP) 40th anniversary. If you haven’t already done so, it’s not to late to register for the SSP annual meeting and celebrate with us!

For this month’s “Ask the Chefs,” we thought it would be interesting to discuss how far scholarly communications has come in 40 years, during SSP’s existence. What’s changed? What were the developments that impacted scholarly communications the most?

To start the conversation, we asked the Chefs: What was the most important development in scholarly communications in the last 40 years?

Winding Road with Pin Pointers

Lisa Hinchliffe: The Internet generally and more specifically the World Wide Web. Serving as a platform for transformative change in all aspects of scholarly communications, nothing has been untouched and many things have been disrupted. From reading to publishing, moving scholarly communications from the analog platform to the digital created so many affordances for change.

Phill Jones: I’m not sure, but I think it’s either the internet, or maybe the internet.

In many ways, our industry is a somewhat of a microcosm of broader society. It’s quite possible that almost every industry is in some way. The information and digital age has changed our world immeasurably over the last few decades. At the same time, if we look at the change of pace now, and compare it to the change of pace ten years ago, it’s clear that we’re undergoing an acceleration that is likely to continue.

The internet has enabled the diversity of the scholarly record, from videos of techniques to large structured data sets that form the spine of what Timo Hannay once called ‘the industrialization of science’, where many researchers and labs are able to contribute to what are effectively global research projects. We’re also seeing new business models that are internet enabled. While open access predates the internet, it really didn’t scale until it was facilitated by the web. The same is true for preprints (do a quick google search for ‘SLAC preprint server to read about how this all got started), and for data sharing.

Moving forward, we’ll see more and more interconnected workflow and discovery solutions, data and metadata normalization and cross-linking, an early exemplar of which is Digital Science’s Dimensions offering. Take a look at ARTiFACTS for a glimpse at what may be the next piece of that puzzle. We’ll see Humanities and Social Sciences increasingly participating in this emergent infrastructure.

From a business model point of view, we’re moving away from a model in which information costs money and towards a world in which information is free, but the services to distribute and interpret that information will be where publishers make money. Content will remain king, but in a different way as our industry transforms from a content as a product, to the service industry we’re becoming to the information platforms and workflow support companies that we will be.

Joe Esposito: The most important development in the last 40 years is the one that will have the greatest impact over the next 40 years. My nominee for that distinction is the actions by funding agencies of scientific research to get involved in the downstream activity of publishing. This strips away a level of accountability for the funders, who no longer need fear that independent publishers will be implicitly passing judgment on the work of the foundations themselves. Of course, no one likes to be evaluated, and the funders, because of the staggering resources at their disposal, are in a position to muscle out any person or institution that would challenge their decisions. Thus certification, arguably the single most important aspect of the publishing process (certainly more important than access), is being taken out of one arena (where it has performed an outstanding job) to be moved to another. What that other arena for certification may be in at this time unknown. Or we may end up (for a period to time) with a situation where “what we fund is good science,” which makes of scientific publishing only so much content marketing. God praise the Wellcome Trust because the Wellcome Trust has praised itself!

Rick Anderson: Let’s see: 40 years ago it was 1978. What is the most important development in scholcomm since that year? I guess my answer is going to be boring and predictable: I’d have to say that it was the development of a graphical interface for the Internet — an interface that we used to call the World Wide Web, and then called the Web, and now usually just refer to as the Internet. When I say that this was the most important development, I’m not saying that it led to radical changes in scholarly communication itself, though it has led to significant ones. What made it so important, I think, is what it has done for our capacity to do scholarly communication at scale, and to make both current publications and (equally importantly) a deep archive of past publications both globally available and full-text searchable. It has taken a long time for this innovation to start eroding many of the traditional forms and structures (the journal issue, the peer review process, etc.) of scholarly communication in any serious way, but the effect of radically increased accessibility and radically increased searchability has been seismic.

Alice Meadows: I’ve been working in scholarly communications — mostly for scholarly publishers — for just over 30 years, and it is certainly a very different thing now than it was back then. I think perhaps the biggest change — powered, of course, by the internet (which was the answer I initially thought I’d give to this question) — is the pace. In the mid-80s, everything took so much longer! Communications were mainly by mail (first class when necessary) or, if really urgent, by phone, but that was rare. And everyone was fine with that!

Fast forward 30 years and we all expect — and mostly get — pretty much instant access to the information we need. Publication times have been cut from months to weeks or even days. Our messages are answered in minutes or hours. We complain if we wait more than a couple of seconds for a search result — or if we can’t find what we want on the first page of results.

In many ways this is good news: important information is available faster — and more widely — than ever before. But there’s also a downside. In our desire for speed, corners can get cut, decisions made too hastily, errors missed or uncorrected. All exacerbated by the seemingly inexorable increase in scholarly outputs as highlighted in this recent guest post. I loved Karin Wulf’s post last year on slow publishing, which challenged our obsession with speed. I’m concerned by reports raised at last year’s Peer Review Congress (by Irene Hames among others) about how little time many researchers now spend reviewing an article. Not to mention how little training, if any, early career researchers get on peer review (though that’s starting to change). Money-rich, time-poor is an expression usually used to describe people but in many ways it’s equally applicable to scholarly communications. And it’s something we need to start addressing…

Kent Anderson: I would vote for desktop publishing. Not only did it consolidate a lot of production jobs (and remove some toxins from the workplace), but it also began the march toward digital. Desktop publishing programs trained a lot of people in digital workflows, people who now use those intuitively and daily. It led to the development of PostScript (for laser printers), and then to the PDF, which has been a major force for change and source of friction since it met the network. Digital publishing started with desktop publishing, so I’d vote for that as one of the most important developments.

Tim Vines: The most important development in scholarly communications since 1980 (or thereabouts) was the 1-2 punch of the open access funding model and then the open access megajournal. The first punch enabled journals to recover costs on a per article basis, and the second allowed them to collect that fee for a much higher proportion of submissions. The journal could stop being an organization that tried to attract as many submissions as possible so that it could reject an ever-higher proportion (to maintain the same annual article output). Instead, a journal could accept every submission that met its criteria for publication.
Moreover, the megajournal tore apart the close relationship between reviewing for quality and reviewing for importance. Extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence, and less evidence is required for articles that do not challenge the status quo. The latter articles are traditionally judged less interesting/novel and therefore appear in highly specialized journals. Under the ‘attract and reject’ subscription model, these confirmatory studies are excellent rejection fodder, no matter how obscure the journal, and can be very frustrating to publish.
There is a ‘reproducibility crisis’, in that it is hard to get the same results when reanalyzing a published article. However, there is no ‘replication crisis’, because articles testing the same broad hypotheses (about e.g. evolution) still arrive at the same broad conclusions (e.g. that evolution happens). Replicated findings are the bedrock of scientific knowledge, and confirmatory articles are the grains of that bedrock. Megajournals gave confirmatory articles a natural home, and have thus strengthened the process of science.

David Smith: 


Specifically, the Fiber Optic Cable.

In the late 80’s the first fiber optic transatlantic cable (TAT-8 – the 8th transatlantic cable) was laid. A consortium of companies came together to fund it and it enabled some 40,000 simultaneous telephone calls to be made between the USA, the UK and France (and then on of course). This new bandwidth led IBM in 1989 to fund a T1 link (1.5Mb of bandwidth, oh those were the days!) between Cornell University and a wee place called CERN… This link was completed in early 1990, and shortly afterwards a chap called Tim Berners-Lee (you may have heard of him) used it to demonstrate the World Wide Web… And here we are today, 30 years on from that first glass cable.

We talk about enabling the Global South, about diversity, about what’s next in scholarly comms and the rest. It’s important to understand the very real physical foundations upon which the digital world is built. Glass enables high quality, high capacity bandwidth. And it is a prerequisite for the connected world to exist. It’s worth pondering this map when thinking about how to better improve the flows of scholarship around the globe.

Michael Clarke: The most important development in scholarly communications in the last 40 years is without a doubt the World Wide Web. In case anyone has forgotten, the Web was developed explicitly by CERN for scientific and scholarly communication (and not, as hard as it is to believe nearly 25 years later, for social networks, pornography, and Russian bots). While newspapers were still wondering if they should build websites and if so what to put on them (“SF Gate” anyone?) and video stores (anyone?) were still trying to figure out how much more they could charge in DVD late fees, scholarly publishers had pretty much migrated all of their content (including archives going back centuries) to the Web in richly structured SGML. The Web led immediately to the second biggest important development in scholarly communications in the last 40 years: the Big Deal. The Big Deal is the center of gravity (either a sun or a black hole depending on your perspective) around which the entire scholarly communication enterprise organizes itself. The Big Deal is the driver of mergers and acquisitions, society licensing contracts, IPOs, library budget, library consortia, and much else. While there is much to hate about the Big Deal (and the Web for that matter), there is no arguing with both its financial success and the vast improvement in the global distribution of knowledge it has enabled. Prior to the Web and the Big Deal, a researcher (even those at large research-intensive universities) would need to physically travel to libraries, often in other cities, to locate many journals (I recall doing this on more than one occasion myself) or wait (sometimes weeks) for loan requests. While lambasting the Big Deal has become a parlor game in many circles, the reality is that it has provided more access to more content for more researchers than any other publishing model to date.

Charlie Rapple: The internet. Maybe it’s because my memory of scholarly communication only goes back 20 years and I missed something super cool before that. But I’m reminded of my first job at CatchWord, converting journals from print-ready postscript to online formats (“RealPage” — in those days, there was no free PDF reader so we had to offer alternatives to the now ubiquitous PDF!) Part of my job was marking up reference lists and inserting links where our system had managed to find a match in one of the many other databases that we indexed (this was also pre-DOI, so we had one-to-one agreements with a range of partners and used SICIs to seek matches). I had just come out of university where following up on references involved lots of photocopying, manual searching of catalogues, annotating of photocopied reference lists, sleuthing about in the stacks, lugging around big piles of books, flip-flip-flipping through pages, copious taking of notes, more photocopying, and so on ad infinitum. Suddenly now I was part of a team that could reduce all of that to a single click. I felt like a magician. I fell in love with scholarly communication technologies right then and there, seeing immediately what huge potential they could have for transforming the process of research and scholarship. (If the internet is too generic an answer, then based on the same anecdote, I’d say the DOI is the most important development).

Judy Luther: My initial answer was the Internet / World Wide Web which has changed our culture from one of information scarcity to one of abundance.  However, since it has affected all aspects of our lives, I’ll focus instead on content in digital form and the impact of its evolution on scholarly communications.

First, we had the transition phase of moving content online — though it looked much as it did in print. It didn’t take long to begin changing the presentation of the content with the user in mind – for example, providing tabs for different sections of an article, making it easier for readers who wanted to start by reviewing the references and allowing them to navigate with a click rather than having to scroll. In addition, digital content has enabled new business models such as the Big Deal by aggregating content into collections and aggregating libraries into consortia requiring new skills of both publishers and librarians.

We’re now in a transformative stage as new tools such as ‘commenting’ emerge that can support a collective reading experience. These innovations allow readers to ‘engage’ with content in new ways.  While reading may still be the goal, given how much there is to read, how can we better discover what is most important?  A medical editor observed that the most valuable article he read in the prior year was sent to him by a colleague and was in a journal he normally would not have seen. The network effect of connecting people with digital content will continue to evolve as we embrace new applications such as machine learning and artificial intelligence where more content finds us, rather than our having to find the content.


Now, as usual, it’s your turn!

What do you think has impacted scholarly communications the most over the last 40 years?

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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6 Thoughts on "Ask The Chefs: What Was The Most Important Development In Scholarly Communications In The Last 40 Years?"

Obviously the internet has been huge. However, I think the change with the largest potential long-term effect in a geopolitical sense is the rise of serious science research in China, and a decline in the post-Soviet world. During the twentieth century science was almost entirely a pursuit of the “western” world and the Soviet Union, with very little advanced research coming from “developing” nations. In the twenty-first it is clear China (and to a slightly lesser degree India) has become a major source of scientific achievement, and of the articles published in scholarly journals. Our present scholarly communication system (with the internet) has surely been part of what enabled this change – but are we prepared for the further consequences down the road? If funders take on more of the responsibility for publication, what will that mean when a large part of research is funded by the Chinese government? Are we really meeting the communication needs of this important group of authors?

Very true. Academic publishing, in all its breadth, has always been about services (occasionally with some dominant products or publishers). What services will be needed to support the research taking place China? For example, what form of quality review would be helpful?

Strange comment by Joe Esposito: Many funding agencies have covered publication costs in one form or another for decades (e.g. printing costs, page charges, submission fees, colour figures). It was time to question what you get from the publishers for it.

Medical Teacher, a leading international journal for healthcare professionals is, like the Society for Scholarly Publishing, celebrating its 40th Anniversary. I was interested in the developments highlighted by the chefs in the scholarly kitchen but surprised no reference was made to collaboration between authors in the publishing process. In an editorial in the April 2018 issue of the journal “40 Years of Medical Education Through the Eyes of Medical Teacher: From Chrysalis to Butterfly” we highlight changes in the papers published in the journal over this period. These provide evidence of the increase in collaboration between individuals working in the field of education, the number of authors per paper published has increased from a mean 1.8 to 4.5 and the number of papers published where the authors are from different institutions within the same country has increased from 17.5% to 57.9%, with papers where the authors are from institutions in different countries rising from 0% to 30.6%. This development in publishing has important implications.

So another thought – I think perhaps one of the most profound changes in scholarly publishing (of course related to the internet) is the establishment of some non-profit collaborative organizations, particularly Crossref, to create necessary pieces of infrastructure for online publishing. Scholarly publishers tend to be a community that doesn’t work together well – we’re international, our subject areas are as diverse as you can imagine, and even the nonprofits among us tend to want to preserve or grow their revenue and not work on things that don’t help the bottom line. And yet somehow we did collaborate on a few things, and they have been very good. Maybe we should think about doing it some more?

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