Turn, Click, Swipe: the next chapter for academic publishing – some notes

I attended the LIBF Tech Tuesday event held in Oxford earlier this week – a lively conversation about the future of academic publishing – and I share my notes here. The panel discussion was chaired by Jacks Thomas (LIBF) and covered print vs ebooks, social media, business growth, open access, and various topics in between. The speakers were David Taylor (Ingram), Rachael Lammey (Crossref), Pippa Smart (publishing consultant), Andy Redman (OUP) and Chris Fowler (Oxford Brookes University Library).

Does the academic book have a future? 

The answer from the panel was yes. Long form publishing is turning around, and the consensus is that print will be around for a long time. Readers are willing to use e, but the preference is still for print, so we will have both. And we still need library shelf space for books! From a technical perspective, discovery and layering content is adding value. People want to link to different parts of a text. Being able to find different research in whatever medium is future proof. From a commercial point of view, POD means that publishers don’t have to make the decision about which format will win. Do both e and print and allow the customer to have a choice.

The monograph is still a valuable form and, as noted in the Crossick report, remains the most effective way to present sustained research over many years. The monograph allows the space to express an argument fully.

More and more is being published, and it’s now a real problem to review all the relevant research. Historically, it has been possible for authors to go back and read every primary document mentioned in relation to their book. That’s a challenge for the future. Of the scholarly output from the last 50 years, 70% of the output has been in the last 15 years. Future academic publishing needs to address that.

What is the role of Social Media?

Students and researchers don’t use publisher websites to discover information, they use “the web”. People incrementally pick up information, and social media is a very important element of that. It allows people to discover things by accident, serendipity. We are in a search environment, and people do directional searching in Google.

A very relevant example of the value of social media in academia is the very recent UK supreme court decision about parliament’s role in triggering article 50 for Brexit. The decision cited the UCL Constitution Unit blog. It’s very notable for a blog to be cited in a legal case. A blog can pick up issues very quickly, 24 -48 hours after events. Social media is a good way of providing a first-pass synthesis of emerging trends. With new applications of law, for example drone strikes, scholars get to grips with these issues much more quickly on social media than they do via monographs or journals. Social is also beginning to have an impact on promotion and career development. There is a problem with persistence though – links deteriorate, information disappears. We need to ensure stuff is still discoverable. There are initiatives to try and tackle this, for example the wayback machine.

As well as discoverability, it’s also worth thinking about access to content via social. Students expect access. Why can’t they access an ebook from Facebook?

Ingram have recently introduced an interesting commercial model related to social – Aerio. This is a C to C (customer to customer) model, allowing connections to grow between people who have the same interests. Aerio is essentially a widget which allows people to add a “bookshelf” to an online page (website, blog etc) with a direct link to buy the books. It’s available in the US but not yet in the UK.

How can publishers grow in this time of change?

It’s a challenge. We should not hold onto the old ways of adding value, and we need to think about new ways of adding value. Try looking at the content supply chain from the academic’s perspective. Work towards open systems, open standards. Think about new ways for the publishing process to add value, for example through enrichment. Publishers should free up resources to work with authors and content creators to add value. With so much research available you need expert curation, and publishers can provide this.

Consider using every available format, so people can have what they want. Don’t pretend to know what the customer wants. By and large, publishers are reported to have come to this conclusion.

A librarian’s perspective

The plethora of different formats is very confusing for libraries. In many cases libraries need to buy both print and e because students want both: e for getting at information quickly, print for in depth study. Libraries look at overall value for money. Often e is very expensive. Also e pricing structures vary. A single user licence almost renders the ebook not an ebook. And it doesn’t work if multiple students need the same book on the same day, for an exam.

The librarian needs to consider and prioritise value for money. Patron-driven acquisition has a tendency to use up budgets fast, and can result in an unconvincing range of purchased titles. Evidence-based acquisition, where purchases are driven by usage levels, seems more promising. Libraries can agree with the supplier in advance on how much to spend, then, over the budget period, choose what to buy.

The challenge of increased technical know-how for journal publishers

Technology appeared to offer solutions; you don’t need publishers, societies thought. But things now seem to be flipping back. The case was cited of an association which brought things in house 5 years ago. They now have a successful journal, but have got to the stage where they can’t do it anymore and are looking for a publisher to work with. With journals these days there is a requirement to provide additional information – ORCID iDs, information about funding sources etc. There are tools to help, but it does need a level of technical expertise. Small publishers don’t have this. The big publishers know they need to develop skills and are investing in technical staff.

Open Access

Open Access is about a change in access and funding models, but there’s an inherent conflict between principles and pragmatism. There are two main strands – gold and green – which by itself causes stresses. Which is the version of record? There is conflict between local models and global models. The research councils have put HE institutions in the front line because of their funding requirements. OA is the direction of travel, and many publishers are constructively engaged, but there are real questions about what is achievable. Creation, enrichment, retaining accessibility – these all have costs. If customers don’t pay, what is the sustainable model?

The rise of sci-hub can be seen as an indicator of a dysfunctional publishing environment. Publishing shouldn’t be as expensive as it is. Publishing companies are expensive to run. Are we overcomplicating things? If we want OA we need to find an easier, cheaper way, and we haven’t found it yet. We need to find a better way of enabling access, but we need to pay for it.

A major problem with OA for publishers is that they have no idea how to make money out of it. Is there a workable, robust business model? Many universities are doing their own publishing but this is problematic too. It comes back to funding, to sustainability.