We often talk about change: changes in the world, changes within scholarly communications and publishing, changes within our organizations. Usually the changes we discuss are relatively gradual and, at least partially, within our ability to regulate. Very few changes happen overnight and even fewer changes represent sudden, far-reaching, and fundamental shifts in how we conduct our lives.
The impact of COVID-19 feels like one of those rare instances when our daily or weekly routines were swiftly and dramatically altered, are still in flux, and some of those resulting changes could be permanent. We may see permanent changes in how we conduct business, how we interact with colleagues, where we go and how we get there, what we value, and what our customers expect from us.
This month we asked the Chefs: What aspect of scholarly and academic publishing might be permanently changed because of our current circumstances?
Rick Anderson: I’m concerned that one significant outcome of the current crisis will be a deepening and widening of the digital divide that separates academics and researchers in high-privilege and low-privilege regions. One reason for this concern is that so many of the solutions available for dealing with problems created by quarantining and remote work are solutions that rely entirely on the Internet — and Internet access is still unavailable to more than 40% of the world’s population, most of them in the Global South.
I’m concerned that one significant outcome of the current crisis will be a deepening and widening of the digital divide that separates academics and researchers in high-privilege and low-privilege regions.
At the most obvious level, this lack of access creates problems for online meetings and collaboration. But some impacts are less obvious and direct. For example, the longer this crisis goes on, the more pressure there will be for journal publishers to move their content entirely online; not necessarily because readers demand that they do so, but simply because they are forced to find economies somewhere in their operations, and eliminating online services will be out of the question. A wholesale migration to online publishing will work just fine for people like me (a tenured faculty member at a well-equipped R1 institution and with fast, reliable connectivity at home in my middle-class city) and will be a disaster for any researcher whose Internet access is unreliable or nonexistent — even if that researcher is employed by an institution that itself has good connectivity.
It’s also true that not all of the work done in publishing or academia is white-collar work; some of it involves physical and semi-skilled labor that doesn’t lend itself well to remote arrangements, even where Internet access isn’t an issue. The longer the COVID-19 situation drags on, the more likely I think it is that at least some of those jobs disappear, perhaps permanently, as institutions and publishers look for economies and find them. This too will exacerbate existing economic divides (though not necessarily digital ones specifically).
Alice Meadows: I believe COVID-19 will permanently change how we interact with each other. It’s forced us into digital-first communications individually and collectively, and it’s going to be very hard to put that genie back in the bottle.
It’s forced us into digital-first communications individually and collectively, and it’s going to be very hard to put that genie back in the bottle.
Take working from home, for example. Many — perhaps most — companies have discouraged or even banned this until recently. But the pandemic has made it a necessity and — guess what!? — it’s working! Turns out people really can work productively from home and, once you factor in the cost savings of reducing your office space and the expansion of the hiring pool, it’s going to be a win/win for many companies and for individuals who want the freedom to choose where they live based on their own needs rather than their organization’s. I’m not saying that everyone will — or should — continue to work remotely. But it will be much harder for companies to ban this, and I think many will actively encourage it.
Likewise, while we might all be more than a bit fed up with Zoom meetings and the like, they’ve also proved an essential way of keeping in touch — with our colleagues and our communities. As someone who’s worked remotely for five years, I was already pretty well versed in virtual meetings — now everyone else is too! We are all more confident about participating in, and running, them, and I’ve also seen a big increase in people being willing to turn on their cameras (yay!).
And of course, this extends to conferences and other events too. Although you can’t beat seeing friends and colleagues in person at industry events, we are all discovering new and innovative ways to connect virtually, and I think these will continue even after it’s safe to travel again. I can see a future where some organizations alternate between in person and virtual events, others switch fully to online, and some that were holding in-person meetings every three or four years will supplement that with virtual meetings in off years.
Because just as TV didn’t kill the radio, video didn’t kill TV, and the internet didn’t kill…everything, moving to digital first won’t kill in-person engagement. But it will allow us to be much more inclusive…
All of which will benefit their communities. Because just as TV didn’t kill the radio, video didn’t kill TV, and the internet didn’t kill…everything, moving to digital first won’t kill in-person engagement. But it will allow us to be much more inclusive in every way, and that’s got to be good for everyone involved in scholarly communications!
Karin Wulf: It’s awfully hard to think about permanent change to a single aspect of scholarly and academic publishing when the entire system of producing, delivering and consuming information is under such extraordinary stress. Historically, pandemics can upend economies and governments even as they leave emotional wreckage through the lives of grieving families. And, pandemics can reinforce inequitable structures, leaving vulnerable people more vulnerable and powerful people and organizations more powerful. Certainly, we see that playing out in the US in the concentration of infection and deaths among people who cannot work from home, and among racial minorities in particular.
And we also see how an extreme situation exposes what kinds of investments and infrastructure had been marshalled up to this point. Some patterns in scholarly and academic publishing and in our wider information and research systems will clearly accelerate in the pandemic, consolidating economic and other kinds of power. The vulnerability of public higher education in the US is plain, for example, after decades of public disinvestment.
The vulnerability of public higher education in the US is plain, for example, after decades of public disinvestment.
On the other hand, a pandemic is an event with such widespread effect that in exposing inequities, and the impact of public investment and disinvestment, it can create opportunities to reconsider core values and then realign organizations and programs to better reflect those values. Because we are still at the beginning of the pandemic’s impact, and so much remains contingent, it is hard to predict what opportunities will still be available in another six months.
A great example is the opportunity to reexamine why we hold so many (small and large) in-person meetings including conferences. What is really accomplished much more effectively in person, and what can be done as well with lighter costs (financial and environmental) by videoconference? It would be a terrific to be able to act on a comparative assessment of in-person or virtual meetings, but we don’t know whether or in what context such choices will be viable.
A value that I hope begins to sink deeper and take firmer root in academic and scholarly publishing is the recognition of what really sustains our infrastructure: lots and lots of people doing lots of different types of work.
There are some changes that needn’t be as dependent on externalities. A value that I hope begins to sink deeper and take firmer root in academic and scholarly publishing is the recognition of what really sustains our infrastructure: lots and lots of people doing lots of different types of work. This work needs to be both recognized and remunerated. We need to better understand who does what work throughout our industry, because that failure to understand leads to assumptions about what can and should be done without, or done for free. And then we cannot and should not expect to build durable systems that are under-resourced, or built on underpaid or uncompensated labor. (Don’t @ me about peer review; as an employed academic peer review is part of my job.)
David Smith: This past week I attended a virtual (that word will get old – the rate at which it does will act as one measure of the speed and depth of our post COVID-19 transformation) discussion on what’s in store for UK universities. “Potentially devastating” is probably the best description.
It looks like some 20% of UK students will look to defer their entry to university this autumn. That, coupled to a precipitous drop (50%) in the number of International students (this BEFORE BREXIT kicks in) means that UK Universities are looking at a £2.5BILLION loss in income in 2020/21. I see similar analyses for the US university system. The sense here is that this is an existential challenge. Universities may go under. The big universities can use their heft to capture students (by dropping their entry criteria) from other universities. Departments may close as Universities contract to what they perceive to be core teaching and research capabilities, with knock-on effects propagating out into the wider ecosystem.
UK Universities are looking at a £2.5BILLION loss in income in 2020/21. I see similar analyses for the US university system.
So let’s start the impact assessment here. Less money (a LOT less) to buy knowledge resources. A multi-year (possibly decade+) hit to the student cohort. With knock-on effects from there. You can’t teach applied biology over Zoom by the way, so the impacts will vary by degree area. And maybe the governments will help…and maybe they won’t (support for 5-19 years sir/ma’am or 19+? We don’t have the funds for both).
Of course, some countries take a less capitalist view of the pursuit of knowledge. So this impact will likely be felt differently around the globe. Higher education has been built on the foundations of a model originating out of the European enlightenment. That model may well be about to change.
Higher education has been built on the foundations of a model originating out of the European enlightenment. That model may well be about to change.
Tim Vines: Epidemics make a powerful case for open research data, pandemics make an irrefutable one. Without exaggeration, hundreds of thousands of lives depend on our ability to conduct robust meta-analyses of COVID-19 studies, and for those meta-analyses we need the raw study data. Whatever obstacles there are to open research data, they will be removed.
Epidemics make a powerful case for open research data, pandemics make an irrefutable one.
Alison Mudditt: There are a number of permanent changes that are going to affect all of us, regardless of industry. Two I’m hoping for are less business travel and more flexibility in how, when and where we work. The enormity of what we’re living through is forcing us to slow down, master patience and reflect on the many ways in which how we live has exacerbated this crisis. Given its enormous human toll, it’s unthinkable that we don’t reshape our future in ways that are more sustainable for us individually, for our organizations and for the planet.
Beyond the obvious impacts to research funding and shifts in research agendas towards fields like virology, vaccinology and public health, research is rapidly and publicly being reshaped by the pandemic.
When it comes to how our industry will change, I think that starts upstream with how research will be transformed. Beyond the obvious impacts to research funding and shifts in research agendas towards fields like virology, vaccinology, and public health, research is rapidly and publicly being reshaped by the pandemic.
We are seeing global collaboration on an unprecedented scale across countries and disciplines as thousands of experts focus urgently on a single problem. Many of the usual imperatives of the dysfunctional academic credit system are being set aside as results and data are shared immediately. Preprints and other online sharing have become the norm when the delay of even a few weeks to publication can mean lives lost. Hundreds of clinical trials have been launched, bringing together labs and hospitals around the globe. The usual secrecy and hoarding of data that might lead to grants and promotions is being eroded by the urgency of the moment.
Of course, all of this is happening now because it’s a matter of survival. But the fundamental flaws of traditional research practices and sharing are being laid bare by the pandemic. Combined with the inability to travel that is forcing collaboration to move online, it’s hard to imagine that research will simply snap back to where we were in 2019. If this level of global, open collaboration is what’s necessary to fight COVID-19, then why not Alzheimer’s and cancer? Why not climate change?
But the fundamental flaws of traditional research practices and sharing are being laid bare by the pandemic.
I firmly believe that we’re going to see much greater openness and collaboration in research and that as researchers too are impacted by the changes noted in my opening paragraph, we’re going to see research move much more into virtual, collaborative spaces. I truly wish that this wasn’t happening for the reasons it is, but I’m enormously excited about the long-terms possibilities this creates for science and for us as publishers to reinvent the ways in which we support scientists in sharing their research.
Judy Luther: The cancellation of numerous society meetings has resulted in some organizations adapting their programs to an online model. While changes this year have been abrupt, the vendors providing meeting support have been working with organizations over the last few years to transform posters from print to digital, and to record onsite presentations either as slides with audio, or a video file.
A growing number of these vendors have begun assigning DOIs to meeting content, thereby expanding the universe of digital research content and effectively linking these works to preprints, data, journals, and books. Not only does the DOI enable discovery so that these resources can be cited, it also requires that the content be preserved. What was once available only to those attending the meeting in-person, can now be accessible to a broader global audience without the expense of travel. Most professional societies utilize a review process to screen and select presentations.
What was once available only to those attending the meeting in-person, can now be accessible to a broader global audience without the expense of travel.
Though it is challenging to replicate serendipitous encounters as part of an online program, presentations are essential for career advancement and funder compliance. Capturing presentations or recording them ahead of time and structuring sessions as panel discussions is one of the many ways societies are creatively thinking about how to make online meetings work well. As organizations have more time to consider the needs of a remote audience, a value proposition will emerge in some disciplines for continuing this approach when in-person meetings resume. As we look ahead, universities are currently trimming their budgets expecting additional financial impact this fall and into next year that will likely affect travel funds. By then there may be sufficient experience to develop a business model that meets a changing set of needs for both members and societies.
Ann Michael: Echoing many of the sentiments above, within scholarly and academic publishing, there has historically been a strong preference for in-office work. Sure there have always been some freelancers, but most publishers (society, commercial, and not-for-profit) with whom I’ve interacted have expected staff to be in-office all or most of the time. While I do think, at some point in the future, there will be people that prefer to go back to to the office, it’s pretty clear already that many will not. The mix of in-office and remote workers is going to change going forward, with a large uptick for remote work as compared to pre-COVID levels.
I also agree that while travel will pick up again, many in our industry are questioning if our travel had gotten a bit out of hand. Some will have a lasting aversion to a small contained space with 100+ other travelers, others will have realized that they are more productive without as much travel, having reset their expectations during our involuntary grounding.
People have started new jobs and been on-boarded in the last few months – without the benefit of in-person training or relationship building. We’re getting more accustomed to virtual collaborations.
People have started new jobs and been on-boarded in the last few months — without the benefit of in-person training or relationship building. We’re getting more accustomed to virtual collaborations. Although I can say for sure that I will fly again to see my colleagues in person,in the office, or at industry meetings, I’m pretty sure I won’t travel as much as I did — and I do not think I’m alone in that assessment.
The permanent change that I long for, though, is that people and organizations will use this opportunity to rethink and reassess the value of what they do and how they do it. They will realize that their customers’ work and home lives have also changed and consider what new opportunities they might have to add value to their customers’ experiences. What new products or services can they offer, what can they stop doing, and what can they adjust to make more impactful?
So now it’s your turn!
What aspect of scholarly and academic publishing do you think might be permanently changed?