Guest Post: Assessing Unease in the Scholarly Publishing Ecosystem

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Guest Post: Assessing Unease in the Scholarly Publishing Ecosystem

The recent report “The Scholarly Communications Ecosystem is Bracing for the Full Impact of the Digital Age” highlights growing unease in the scholarly publishing ecosystem – but what is the root of the problem?

 

The recently published Insight Report by Outsell, Inc. in collaboration with Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) “The Scholarly Communications Ecosystem is Bracing for the Full Impact of the Digital Age”, articulates a growing unease spreading through the scholarly ecosystem. This time the barbarians really do seem to be at the gate. But even more alarming, maybe the barbarians are right!

Publishers are perplexed that nobody understands the value they provide, while their customers go red in the face in frustration from unaddressed concerns. Something strange is going on.

Publishers are perplexed that nobody understands the value they provide, while their customers go red in the face in frustration from unaddressed concerns. Something strange is going on.

It’s about value not price

Early in my career I was taught that when a customer complains about price, the real problem is usually value. So, the emphasis on Plan S and article processing charges (APCs) are likely signals about value rather than cost. To be fair, scholarly publishers understand this dynamic and have ploughed billions of dollars into enhancing their products. Yet, their customers continue to express deep and urgent dissatisfaction despite benefitting from vastly improved offerings. Why?

From the publisher point of view this could be explained by blaming a small number of activists or by their own failure to successfully articulate the value they provide. But careful reading of the “Scholarly Communications Ecosystem…” report points in a different direction.

What is your mental model?

What is your mental model for scholarly journal publishing? Most people would draw something like this:

In this model, value is created by connecting readers with authors. In response to market pressure, the natural reaction is to intensify the investment in patterns of behavior that historically created value. As a result, publishers evaluate candidate innovations based on their anticipated appeal to individual researchers.

However, while this model is accurate, it only represents part of the picture. The total picture is quite complex [1], but here is an alternative simple way to visualize the “job” [2] done by scholarly journals:

Research funders spend $2 trillion per year funding research. [3] In this alternative model, scholarly publishers are the QA (Quality Assurance) department that generates signals about the rigor and quality of research outputs. Understandably funders want the best possible “signals” from the QA department since even a 1% improvement in their research investment strategy is worth $20 billion per year. In this model, readers are only important to the extent that they provide a useful signal about quality.

If this alternative model is accurate (or even partly accurate) it explains why publishers are misaligned with the evolving market:

  • The ultimate (paying) customers are research funders, not individual researchers or even other intermediaries such as libraries.
  • By investing in improved researcher experiences publishers are focusing their scarce resources on something that is not the top priority of funders. Broadly speaking funders believe that the Internet itself provides and an adequate mechanism for connecting readers and authors.
  • The service that research funders really care about (improved rigor and signaling) remains massively underserved and a low priority for publisher investment. As noted in the Outsell report there is an urgent need to: “Develop new metrics at the researcher and article levels that build upon the impact factor and focus on outcomes and quality, not just reputation.”

Re-engineering how research outputs are tracked and evaluated is a daunting undertaking and will require new levels of collaboration. The “Scholarly Communications Ecosystem…” report highlights that “multilateral problems require multilateral solutions.”

The good news is that the prescient implementation of standards such as DOI and ORCiD make it technically feasible for innovators like Rescognito to deliver new solutions. For example, Rescognito combines standards to create a visualization of the specific (CRediT ) [4] contributions made by the authors of a published manuscript or preprint. This is an improvement on traditional author listings that don’t identify specific contributions.

The Outsell Insight report reminds us that newspaper and textbook publishers faced painful “days of reckoning” because they failed to adapt. Fortunately, scholarly publishers start from a more defensible position, but to remain relevant they must evolve a more holistic understanding of their future role in the ecosystem.


[1] See http://info.outsellinc.com/rs/422-MBV-091/images/Outsell_Scientific_Publishing_Ecosystem.pdf

[2] Clayton Christensen – The “job” of a milkshake – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flKcN2x50rw

[3] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/research-and-development-u-s-trends-and-international-comparisons/cross-national-comparisons-of-r-d-performance

[4] A standardized taxonomy for identifying researcher contributions to a publication www.casrai.org/credit.html

Periodically, CCC invites solution providers to share their perspectives on key challenges facing the industry. This post does not imply endorsement of a particular opinion or vendor.

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Richard Wynne

Author: Richard Wynne

Richard Wynne has worked at the intersection of scholarly publishing and technology for more than 35 years. In 2019 he founded Rescognito, an innovative platform for structured, granular and verifiable attribution of research contributions. Previously he was a principal and Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Aries Systems for 20 years. The Aries Editorial Manager platform is successfully used by millions of researchers and thousands of journals for online submission and peer review. Aries was acquired by RELX at the end of 2018. In the 1990’s Richard created and sold multimedia CD-ROMs for professional education while Vice President of Medical Publishing at SilverPlatter. Richard holds a degree in Business and Law from the University of Edinburgh. https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9217-0407 https://rescognito.com/0000-0002-9217-0407

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