Is scholarly publishing changing for the better? 3 themes to keep on the radar

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Scholarly publishing | Research Consulting

Last week, over 270 scholarly communication professionals from 150+ organisations and 19 countries gathered in Berlin for the Academic Publishing in Europe (APE) conference.

The organisers (rightly) describe the conference as “the mecca of scholarly publishing”: indeed, over the course of two days, policymakers, funders, CEOs and other organisational leaders shared their views on the changing nature of publishing both in Europe and beyond, with a clear focus on open scholarship.

Throughout the conference, three themes seemed to arise time and time again:

  1. the focus on collaboration and diversity;
  2. the (constantly) changing definition of a “publication”; and
  3. the internationalisation of publishing and the growing role of China.

In this post, I will share my takeaways from APE 2020, alongside some personal reflections and ideas on the future of scholarly publishing that I think you should keep on the radar.

1. Collaboration and diversity

Many of the challenges in academic publishing are complex and affect a wide range of stakeholders, from an individual researcher to multinational corporations. It is therefore no surprise that collaborative efforts in this sector are longstanding.

What did, however, strike me was the fact that people now seem more committed to understanding one another. On the one hand, funders and researchers appreciate that reviewing and publishing research comes at a cost; on the other hand, publishers are coming to appreciate that a much greater deal of transparency is required to earn back the trust that time has eroded, as Elsevier’s CEO Bayazit noted.

Science is part of this (economic) planet: there are no free services, as there is a cost for everything. There is a need for measure and common sense in the open access debate Jean Burgelman (source)

During the APE conference, I was surprised by the authenticity permeating some presentations and by the conviction of the speakers, who all shared a strong commitment to open access and open scholarship and noted the increasing number of transformative agreements in place. Admittedly, heads were shaking during some sessions (e.g. Burgelman’s discussion of open science and open scholarship), but I think this is just a symptom of a healthy environment where key actors are looking for common ground.

The quality of the discussions I heard might also be related to the increased diversity at board level: Elsevier and Taylor & Francis, for example, are now led by women without an established background in academic publishing, which may bring a long-awaited breath of fresh air in the sector.

In the early 1990s, then Elsevier CEO Pierre Vinken said that, in academic publishing, “the cash just pours out and you wouldn’t believe how wonderful it is”. Distancing ourselves from this thinking and moving together towards responsible, sustainable and increasingly open publishing appears to be key at this stage, particularly in light of fast-increasing pressures from regulators, research funders and individual institutions.

2. The (constantly) changing definition of a “publication”

The need for collaboration also arises from changes in research itself. For example, Burgelman shared the rather controversial view that, in the future, research will revolve around data and AI-powered insights, rather than around articles. I can’t tell whether this prediction will materialise, but it surely betrays the fact that academic articles are no longer the only way to communicate research.

All sorts of different outputs were mentioned during the APE conference, and the definition of a “publication” was questioned. Arguably, what was meant was that nowadays academic articles are often accompanied or underpinned by other research items that I’d classify as research data, including for example digitised items, annotated documents, videos and more.

“We (in the humanities) no longer produce only scholarly outputs that can be placed on a bookshelf. Maps, databases, artefacts – contemporary scholarship needs to accommodate all of those. What counts as a publication? Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra (source)

The obvious consequence of the above is that we can no longer solely focus on the financial sustainability of academic journals but need to ensure that online repositories are equally sustainable and that they are there to stay.

The issue of research data and research outputs in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) was also discussed, including the need for pathways for open scholarship in these areas. There is consensus that stakeholders in AHSS have to be bold and experiment more, but, on the other hand, platforms and service providers need to increase their understanding of disciplinary customs and cultures to build the right workflows and systems.

Finally, STM discussed the launch of the 2020 Research Data Year. This prompted discussion on the role of publishers as data curators, enablers and supporters of data sharing; however, some disagreement on this arose, as not everyone felt that publishers should take a particularly hands-on approach and do the job of higher education institutions or researchers (e.g. advocacy and support). Springer Nature’s Gerstner highlighted that collaboration is key and the responsibility to follow best practices falls on all those involved.

3. The internationalisation of publishing and the growing role of China

During the conference, the Head of Science Press (a Chinese publisher) delivered a presentation showing impressive numbers related to Chinese research. An impactful question was later raised by Michael Mabe: “Will Chinese researchers and journals participate in the existing, largely Western, academic publishing world?”

This question is worthy of consideration because of China’s dominance in terms of research numbers and due to the scale of its research funding: Mabe noted the possibility that the rest of the world might be “subsumed into a new global model with its centre of gravity in the East”.

We need to engage with China, not flying in and out. We need to be honest, not kowtowing but being respectful.” Michael Mabe (source)

The recent acquisition of EDP Sciences by Science Press is surely a wake-up call for Europe and the West more broadly: as Chinese research is growing, there is an urgent need to discuss whether and how entirely different approaches to research can (or should) be made to converge. Speakers touched on the fact that research data and research ethics are treated differently, and, for example, some materials are not allowed to leave China. This is not compatible with many Western (and English-language) journals or with funder requirements, so a shared solution would need to be found.

Going forward, building long-term relationships with China will be increasingly important, keeping in mind that any discussions need to be realistic and honest. Once again, the idea of collaboration is key due to the tribal nature of research.


The road to a more open and digital publishing future is paved with difficulties, but the increasing commitment from all stakeholders to understand one another means that lasting change is, after all, possible.

Clearly, we have built systems and technologies that can enable the transition to open scholarship, and there is a strong push from influential stakeholders. As a matter of fact, during the conference, we heard that digitisation will kill traditional models and copyright! At the same time, however, the political and economic nature of the resistance to open access was noted: what seems to be left is shifting the money. This opens up the question of value and, particularly, the discussion on what authors and universities should pay for.

Whose court is the ball in now? I think there’s no answer to the question, and I see this as a positive. All stakeholders in academic publishing need to have a frank conversation locally, nationally and globally – and it will be difficult. There is, however, hope for open scholarship at the horizon: as Justin Fox notes, publishers are “happy to give stuff away if someone pays them”.

Let us not forget that more open access content doesn’t necessarily imply a fairer distribution of resources or lower profit margins for publishers. Consolidation in the publishing market remains a key concern for some, and, for example, Elsevier’s recent and ongoing transition into a data analytics provider might mean that their influence over scholarly communication and workflows will remain or even grow.

All things considered, with increasing collaboration and diversity and a greater focus on the wide range of possible outputs of academic research, I feel that we are moving in the right direction, even if significant efforts are still needed. Here’s to a more responsible and sustainable publishing future!

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