Elevating Scholarly Communication – Three trends that struck me at the SSP’s 44th annual meeting

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Team photo at annual meeting

Between 1 and 4 June 2022, I had the privilege of joining the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s (SSP) 44th annual meeting in Chicago. The programme covered a very broad range of topics with an overarching narrative: To build a more connected scholarly community. The range of keynotes and sessions was impressive, with prominent speakers and attendees at all levels of seniority from across the globe. Between networking breaks, meals and sessions, there were plenty of opportunities to connect and appreciate the diversity of individuals willing to share their experiences and insights.

In this blog post, I will cover three trends that struck me at the SSP 44th annual meeting.

Looking beyond ‘just’ open access

The idea that academic research should have some form of impact – for example societal, economic or on regulation – has been around for a while. This is behind the very ethos of open access, but also shows as part of impact assessment exercises across the world (e.g. the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, the Strategy Evaluation Protocol in the Netherlands or the Excellence in Research for Australia).

What surprised me at the SSP annual meeting was to hear the scholarly communication community talk about going beyond ‘just open access’, aiming to ensure that research is understood by a broader audience, including lay readers (Figure 1). This is no easy task – it requires science communication skills and, in particular, the ability to translate often complex and jargon-rich findings into high-level insights that don’t require two PhDs to be grasped.

One of the key questions in this area is whose job should it be to communicate science? Expectations of authors are only ever increasing, and it is essential to acknowledge that good communication skills are not so easy to come by and aren’t the bread and butter of researchers (even though some are, indeed, making great strides in this direction).

Figure 1. Statistics on the need to engage more broadly than academia (credit: Kudos).

Interestingly, service providers have been thinking hard about this topic, too, and are now offering an increasing number of solutions that can help bridge the gap between the lab and everyone’s living room. Examples include the Kudos platform, which we at Research Consulting have been using on several occasions, or Impact Science.

Overall, I believe that outreach, public engagement and policy engagement are important activities, but whether these platforms and services will continue to grow depends on funding in many cases. For example, does a researcher have a few hundred dollars to spare? And, if so, would they be happy to use these funds on outreach? Funders are beginning to take action and provide advice in this direction, but we should recognise that support for research communication is only starting to develop.

Pushing forward scholarly infrastructures

The second theme that resonated with me is the great attention to the digital infrastructure that underpins scholarly publishing. In this regard, the conference covered a wide range of topics, which I’ve tried to summarise in the table below alongside some examples.1

Automated article checksPaperpal
Computational research platformsCode Ocean
Data and analyticsDataSeer, Digital Science
Data marketplacesDLA Marketplace
Journal managementTypefi, Scholastica, Aries Systems, eJournalPress, Inera, Open Journal Systems (OJS)
MetadataRinggold, ScienceOpen, Access Innovations
Metrics aggregationBiteca
Preprint postingResearch Square, ChemRxiv, Open Preprint Systems (OPS)

User experience also popped up frequently during the meeting, and the sessions I attended reflected different perspectives. For example, I was pleased to see developments around today’s inconsistent user authentication experiences (OpenAthens) – a significant pain point for readers and one of the great failures of UX design in academia – as well as author experiences around open access and the management and payment of article processing charges (Copyright Clearance Center, ChronosHub).

Another side of digital infrastructure that struck me was content syndication, meaning posting published content onto platforms other than a publisher’s website (Figure 2). This topic was covered in a session by Hindawi and Rockefeller University Press, with the former noting that their top articles viewed via their journal pages differ from the top articles read on ResearchGate. This is where things get tricky: I wondered whether this difference appears because of (i) different search engine optimisation (SEO), meaning that results from the ResearchGate and Hindawi websites may appear at different positions in search engines (e.g., Google); or (ii) changing search behaviours, meaning that readers may be looking for articles within ResearchGate and accessing different items. To my surprise, there was no clear answer to this, which, in my view, points to the growing importance of scholarly SEO – something that was covered later during the event by our colleagues at Maverick Publishing Specialists.

1My apologies to any organisations or products I may have missed – it was a very packed programme, and I probably only attended a third of what I would have liked to!
Figure 2. Approach to content syndication by Hindawi.

Strengthening integrity and trust in the scholarly record

Last but not least, I’ll cover the topic that’s perhaps closest to what I’ve been working on over the past few months – improving the extent to which the scholarly record is trusted. This was masterfully covered in Jennifer Heimberg’s keynote presentation, where integrity, reproducibility and the need to optimise research funding systems were presented as part of a coherent whole rather than separate and independent streams (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Still from the keynote by Jennifer Heimberg (Director, Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity, and Trust; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine).

Our session on reproducibility fit right into this discussion, and I was pleased to share the stage with Rebecca Rinehart (Maverick Publishing Specialists), David Mellor (Center for Open Science), Lars Vilhuber (American Economic Association; Cornell University) and Gabriele Hayden (University of Oregon). The session built on the findings of the Knowledge Exchange report on publishing reproducible research outputs and started from the macro level, discussing the context of reproducibility and key challenges to its systemic implementation. It then moved to success stories at the policy level, in journals and within universities.

A member of the audience asked us to what extent reproducibility really mattered, given that, today, most researchers mainly focus on impact factors, the H-Index and citations. Inspired by Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe’s session on trendspotting and research futures, here’s how I would answer that question: Dare to dream. In the UK, narrative CVs have just been introduced by UKRI, and the above-mentioned keynote by Jennifer Heimberg also touched on the desire to move away from traditional forms of research(er) evaluation in a US context. The main point is that the research community shouldn’t let itself be constrained by today’s status quo when imagining what the future of research should look like.

What happens next?

I hope you won’t find this section title disappointing – I won’t quite be providing a roadmap, I’m afraid. What I can say, however, is that I left the SSP annual meeting filled with optimism.

During the conference, I spoke to lots of different attendees: I met grounded designers of digital research and publishing infrastructures, finance-focused problem solvers, innovative publishers and service providers, excited researchers and passionate editors. What all these people had in common was a commitment to continue to evolve and, where possible, imagine unexpected research futures. In all cases, there was also a willingness to share lessons learned and support each other in a process of collective growth.

If the sector continues to consider how to connect the dots between the stakeholders involved in scholarly communication and to innovate to add societal value, I am certain that the future is bright. We always say that the research landscape moves slowly, but to what extent is that really true? I joined the field of scholarly communication about six years ago now – and how far have we come!

Would you like to chat about any of the above? Get in touch at andrea@research-consulting.com.

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