Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Sarah Andrus, a Publisher of Science and Medicine journals at Oxford University Press.

Publishers are often accused of being too slow to innovate, but it’s hard to blame them when the discrepancy between what their core audience says they want and what they really want in practice is so perplexing.  One might say that publishing culture echoes the conservatism of academic culture, and very rarely does the former significantly influence the latter. It may seem paradoxical that the research community, which includes scientists working on some of the most cutting-edge problems of today, would be resistant to change; but generally speaking the resistance is not to change itself, but to what may be seen as any gratuitous disruption to the publishing and communication workflow, which to many scientists is but a necessary corollary to the core research and discovery activities that really matter.

DeLorean modified for time travel

Consider the research article. The Internet has undoubtedly revolutionized how we access and publish scholarly information, but has had surprisingly little impact on the underlying form in which we consume it. The formal structure of the research article has resisted any fundamental change for centuries, despite a number of ambitious attempts to boost adoption of technologies that take real advantage of the dynamic capabilities of the post-digital era. It’s hard to disagree with some of the futurists’ arguments here: With all the incredible tools available to recreate the modern article as an interactive, living entity, why is the PDF — a digital facsimile of print — still the dominant format? Why is it necessary for researchers to spend so much time reading and writing lengthy, austere papers when a far more streamlined, visual approach could relay all of the relevant background and findings in a much more impactful way? What might be possible if it were much easier to publish and discover negative results, data sets, code, and other research outputs that have no inherent need to be tied to a formal article?

If the PDF is such a clunky, obsolete relic of the print era, then why won’t it die? And does it need to die in order for exciting new models to gain any significant traction?

Furthermore, what can we agree on as the fundamental purpose of the research article, and where does the “form follows function” approach lead us in terms of practical innovation?

A fairly recent article in the Atlantic asked, “What would you get if you designed the scientific paper from scratch today?” The clear premise is that the traditional scientific article is hopelessly obsolete, given that today’s research is increasingly dependent on computational methods and data visualization that is difficult or impossible to convey in a static article. The proposed solution is the widespread adoption of “computational notebooks” as the new standard for sharing research outputs, using sophisticated software like Wolfram’s Mathematica and the open-source Jupyter (formerly known as IPython) to create dynamic representations of complex models that come alive on the screen. Not surprisingly the early adopters of these notebooks are mainly computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and others whose research involves large amounts of data to model, but proponents argue that arts and humanities scholars can equally benefit from the freedom of expression that is made possible. It’s an alluring idea, and tempting to conclude that it’s so obviously the future of publishing that we may be surprised that this future has not yet arrived. And yet the author concedes that “It’ll be some time before computational notebooks replace PDFs in scientific journals, because that would mean changing the incentive structure of science itself.” That stubborn incentive structure again — this is why we can’t have nice things!

A lesser-known startup called Claimspace, founded by a former Twitter engineer, adopts a similar philosophy to smart notebooks but bears even less resemblance to the traditional research article. With the highly ambitious mission “to maintain a unified map of human understanding at its best, in real time,” Claimspace invites anyone to contribute to threads of knowledge on any topic using basic lines of code to create a logical line of reasoning, based on (and linking to) fully attributed and peer-reviewed facts and studies. In its openness and inclusiveness of authorship it may more closely resemble Wikipedia than a journal, but it is unique in its simple presentation of knowledge as a logical progression of verified facts, eschewing the narrative/discussion aspect all together. Not to suggest that a detailed discussion of findings is not often critical to understanding; but one might imagine such a “logic map” as a layer on top of a more detailed article (whatever form that may take), allowing readers to easily explore a field and the individual findings and assumptions upon which it is structured.

Returning to the traditional publishing world, a famous example of a much-hyped “new model of journal publishing” was Elsevier’s Article of the Future, which debuted in 2009 and was met with a lackluster response, with users largely unimpressed by what amounted to a jazzed-up new look with very little real innovation attached. Kent Anderson observed in an earlier post on this blog that “The problem with the premise…was that it focused on how an article written for print could be presented online, rather than taking the essence of the communication itself and shifting it from a print environment to a networked, digital environment.” So while companies outside the scholarly publishing industry are coming up with “article” models that are not tied to the legacy of print or any kind of traditional journal-based format (and therefore in the current environment have little hope of rapid, widespread uptake), Elsevier—a large “traditional” publisher that is perfectly capable of innovation — stopped short of truly re-thinking the journal article, perhaps because they knew that a complete overhaul would likely delight some tech-savvy enthusiasts but alienate a large core audience of researchers who may be very comfortable with technology and progress, but have little or no incentive to change their publication workflow when the current system, for all its imperfections, “just works.”

There are probably many concepts for new publishing models out there, at various stages of ideation and development — some undoubtedly more realistic than others — but a common characteristic seems to be a real sense of mission to transform forever how people share and interact with the outputs of knowledge and discovery, never again to return to the inferior ways of the past and present.  It is worth reflecting, however, on how this approach (“I’ve created something demonstrably superior to the current model, and therefore the only rational outcome is for everyone to immediately discard the old and embrace the new”) has fizzled time and again, across industries and technologies. Computational notebooks are a worthy attempt at reinventing the form of scholarly communication to be more faithful to its function — assuming that function is to share ideas, methodologies, results, and relevant supplementary data at an appropriate level of detail and complexity for a given field — but the technology is possibly impaired by its own cleverness. Whether you’re Wolfram or Elsevier, to announce that some flashy new format is “the future” is to almost certainly guarantee disappointment, irrespective of its real merits.

Brilliant new ideas for scholarly communication should absolutely have a chance to shake things up and bring publishing closer to the core research and discovery workflow. But it feels counterproductive to view the traditional model as if its continued existence precluded the successful introduction of something new.

There is no evangelizing here. I would simply argue that it should be in the mutual best interest of researchers and publishers to be open to new forms of output that do not needlessly restrict the types of information and visualization that can be shared, keeping barriers to adoption (ease of use, access to tools and programs, time commitment) as low as possible. Behavioral differences between disciplines aside, researchers will always have diverse preferences on how to read and write scientific literature, and many will always opt for the simplest solution no matter what. The real argument, then, is not about when and how traditional formats like the PDF will be replaced; it’s about accepting that the familiar (and perhaps boring) research article still has its purpose, while at the same time thinking ambitiously and creatively about how the humble document can be supplemented with the modern features and functions that the digital environment offers.

I firmly believe — in fact I really hope — that the traditional, somewhat restrictive article publication model must at some point give way to something that is more intuitively suited to the way research is really done. Likely there will not just be one new model, but several, each tailored to the needs of its core scholarly audience. But if we as publishers assume that such a shift is dependent on a universal rejection of the traditional model, we are likely to be blinded to the development that is most likely to occur: that someone or some company (and it almost certainly won’t be one of the major publishers) will create something that not only challenges the core assumption of what a journal or an article should look like, but feels like a natural enough part of the research workflow to make extensive adoption possible; and that this new something will exist in the same world as the PDF article for some time before a full replacement seems remotely imminent. The best thing that publishers can do, rather than treating every innovation of this type with excessive skepticism and unspoken fear of losing control of the medium, is to prepare strategically for a scenario in which the format of the journal article is completely different, with a focus on establishing the future role of the publisher with respect to peer review, editorial management, ethics oversight, archiving and protecting records, and many other activities that are no less important (and perhaps more so) in the context of less centralized, highly networked modes of publication.

It is no doubt true what Kent writes in his Scholarly Kitchen post on the Article of the Future: “The thing that should scare Elsevier and every other traditional publisher is that they are not the ones doing those experiments [on the possibilities of the Article 2.0]. These experiments are being created elsewhere.” But perhaps rather than fearing outside innovation, we can embrace new models that benefit researchers and adapt our role accordingly without compromising our sustainability. Much easier said than done, but in an industry where change comes slowly there’s no excuse for being caught unprepared.


13 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Is the Research Article Immune to Innovation?"

Thank you for this view. The scholarly article format will change when there is truly something more useful for our mass audience, not just when a small group of people decide we’re “overdue” for a change. We should keep trying new variations until we find that mass audience value booster.

And we may be slow, but it could be worse! How do we all feel about the “news article of the future” — a tiny text portion of the page surrounded by auto-playing videos (that now permanently attach themselves to the bottom of the screen once you scroll past them), multiple ads that change sizes and move the text around seemingly constantly, and most distressingly, content of difficult-to-discern provenance written by freelancers with little editorial or fact-checking oversight. Oh joy!

Yes, the ad- and clickbait-ridden abominations that are most “news” sites is exactly the outcome we need to avoid through careful scenario planning. There are examples of “traditional” media that have, at least to some extent, evolved successfully along with the needs of producers and consumers (e.g. radio), and others, like the news sites you describe, that have failed both audiences in favor of chasing ad revenue. Subscription models, thought for some time to be obsolete, are making a comeback as consumers reflect on how paying for quality might actually have some merit.

congratulations, sarah, on an important issue. As the former editor of a foresight journal, I approached the publisher with several ideas less radical than the ones you so cogently described and referenced. Unfortunately the ideas were dismissed without discussion, largely, I suspect, it challenged their business model.

You are right when you note that academics focus on their research. The reasons for publishing, though, are fairly straight forward. The journal and the journal article are the gold standard for promotion and tenure. In today’s media driven world, as Kent notes in a recent post, there are a variety of vehicles for getting substantive research into distribution. Most institutions have a media department and an office for patents and licenses, all of whom are very interested in promoting serious scholarship in all disciplines, particularly STEM for many reasons beyond shear possible monetary return. As your article points out, there are an emerging set of distribution options and many scholars will step across departmental lines to collaborate in a manner beneficial for distribution.

Grants have been denied because of “format” issues that did not conform to structural guidelines or properly written discourse as have articles in scholarly journals. It is that same rationale that makes researchers demand that libraries purchase any journal that remotely may accept certain publications.

Thanks Tom, and yes I agree — if publishers refuse to adapt to new models that the research community wants to embrace purely on the grounds that they may “challenge our business model” then we are being disingenuous to our mission of supporting research and discovery. A sustainable business model is necessary, of course, to ensuring that we can continue to pursue this mission, but unfortunately publishing business models can be just as slow to evolve as the technology our work depends on.

Noting that the article also is topped by a call for monetary support. There are in fact two “donation” links before the content even begins, one in the marketing header and one in the breadcrumbs. And the publisher with two tin cups out is saying our model is broken?

Aeon also claims “no clickbait,” but the article seems like clickbait to these eyes, and you link contains email tracking information, so they are obviously tracking clicks to their bait.

The author also wants libraries to fund his vision, writing, “How will we fund scholarly publishing? Well, it’s a $25 billion a year industry: I’m sure libraries can spare a dime.” So, yes, obviously an article steeped in pragmatism and market knowledge.

What is the purpose of a research article? It is to communicate new results, findings, conceptual ideas and theoretical constructs and solutions, so that these can be discussed and vetted by the peers. The keywords here are communication and vetting. Unlike current popular culture around articles, tt is not an advertisement or PR purpose, but rather an initial communication where an article is put on a public platform. Simplicity is the key here. So any innovation to research articles should aid this organic process, and make it easily accessible for reading, discussing and defending research output.
Rest is all just the icing on the cake, and if the cake is spoilt, even a gold covered icing shall not make it acceptable. Work on the cake.

What is the purpose of a research article?

This is really the key point, and why so many attempts to replace the research article with something new have failed. There’s too much “zero sum game” thinking, my new thing must obliterate your old thing. Most of what is proposed has been additive, not substitutive for the article. No, I don’t want to read your computational notebook, I likely don’t care that much about your work. Give me a short, easily read summary of what you did and what you think you learned, one that has been vetted by experts. For the occasional (1 in 100? 1 in 1000?) paper that I read, I will want to dig deeper.

When it comes to communication of the particular to many in a written format, I have seen nothing that replaces either a simple or complex sentence.

In 1967 I was a graduate student majoring in history. Revolt was rife on campus and some students demanded a meeting with the faculty over the requirements for their dissertation. One student said he wanted to use film. A professor asked what was he researching to which the student replied the french revolution. Another prof immediately chimed: I want to be a dragoon! The meeting ended!

I also used to find it is paradoxical that scientists are such a conservative bunch; but it is not. We do what to invent new things, to generalize the theory or relativity, discover penicillin, etc — all creative endeavors, with elements of adventure and luck. However, to do so we have to build upon reliable material. If you are to climb El Cap, you do not want to do it with a rotten rope. Not clickbaits, not even Scientific American popular summaries suffice. Material that we work with should be possible to understand and verify, if necessary, all the way back to the axioms of Mathematics (you have to start somewhere). Articles and reference trail are the best tools we currently have, and putting some lipstick on them, i.e., incremental refinements, is nothing to be ashamed of. A parallel universe of useful tools enabled by new technologies will most certainly gradually emerge, and researchers will migrate there, simply because it works and not because of mandates. Just like mobile computing is replacing desktops and laptops, or Wikipedia becaming a legitimate source of information, not longer snubbed by university professors.

What is this new “system” going to be? At the very least, it has to provide the same benefits and functionality as the print/online articles, that is — provide a high-quality permanent searchable record that could be used to track the evolution of knowledge AND individual contributions to its creation. With the latter in hand, one could build any reputation system that would satisfy hiring and promotion committees, much better than what we have now.

My personal bias that whatever comes will be along the lines of Wikipedia/StackOverflow/Claimspace…. I would recommend a futuristic blog post on the topic by Jess Riedel http://blog.jessriedel.com/2015/04/16/beyond-papers-gitwikxiv/ with a discussion around it.

Whatever the short/medium term looks like, it will have to look like an article to prospective authors.
We work with a clinical publisher who did a radical redesign of their mobile (tablet) app. It looked like a media site (it was a very well-done redesign). While the site may have looked and worked better for practitioners, the publisher reportedly saw a decline in submissions.
The thinking was that authors no longer saw the site as a legitimate journal site, so they submitted elsewhere.
The app was re-redesigned for the obvious reason that without submissions you don’t have a journal.

One of the challenges is that we are able to do so much on the web now, but not much of that moves to the PDF (and the things that do have to be re-done). So the PDF becomes a remanufacture of the article. Usually the most efficient thing is to point (via links) to the added information on the web.

In part the PDF survives because it is easily save-able (one file to download) and portable (one file to email). It is also easily pirate-able for those same reasons. This is presumably why pirate sites offer PDFs, and not all the “beyond the printed page” products and services. This may make pirate sites useful for readers, but not ultimately useful enough for the researchers who have to look at the data and other supplemental info.

We won’t transition beyond the PDF until we have another format that accomplishes its same benefits (portable and saveable). (Some had expected that ePUB would claim that, but it hasn’t yet.) . Or until we don’t care so much about those benefits (e.g., we transition to streaming instead of primarily downloading, and there is universal access so that people don’t feel they need to possess the bits to retain access to the information.). This doesn’t feel like it is coming on soon.

OR, there will be some “killer app” that makes it essential to switch. This will need to be a killer app for readers/practitioners, not just researchers, to drive the change.

Thanks for bringing this topic back, Sarah.

Thanks, John. Through this post I was trying to raise some thought-provoking questions (if I had all the answers in hand I’d be a highly paid consultant). To respond to your comment, I’d refer back to David Crotty’s comment that there is undoubtedly a lot of untapped potential for enhancing and evolving the idea of the research article, but for the foreseeable future these innovations will be supplemental rather than replacements for the exact reasons you point out: that journals and by extension the scholarly community accepts a certain format as an article, and will do for some time. I am dying to know what kind of killer app will change the game, and am secretly (not so secretly) rooting for it.

Your reference to Claimspace reminded me of this collaboration between Cambridge University Press, Qualitative Data Repository, and Hypothesis: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/authors/annotation-for-transparent-inquiry-ati

Dynamic annotations, certainly something capable within the technological scope of a pdf, yet, enhances the user’s ability to directly reference the supporting data and context for an argument or claim. The adjustment is supplemental, as you say (also, not a pdf). I admit, though, that I feel as though the best technological innovations are ones that leverage prevailing human behavior and make incremental changes to it… an ongoing conversation between what is and what can be.

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