The Pandemic’s Effect on the Scientific Publishing Ecosystem


With the rise of open science, new funding mandates from cOAlition S and other funders, and global economic pressure on library budgets, the scientific publishing process is undergoing fundamental realignment. Together with Jim Hydock of Outsell, Inc., CCC led development in 2019 of a detailed map of the scientific publishing ecosystem. At the time, one of the joint conclusions was that major change in the system was needed, and that if the industry couldn’t make these changes from within, then it was likely that an outside disruptor would force the changes. COVID-19 has been that disruptor. In this post, we will look at the impact of the pandemic on the scholarly publishing lifecycle as well as review trends we’re seeing through the lens of CCC’s own platform and data as well as a broader trend overview. As the latest wave of the pandemic takes shape globally, we can undoubtedly anticipate additional changes to our publishing ecosystem.

Research and Discovery

In the first node of the Scientific Publishing Ecosystem map, research and discovery, we’re seeing some significant disruption, especially in the area of funding and library budgets. While many funders, like Wellcome, are publicly stating that their research support will remain in place for now, many others are struggling and announcing deep cuts to their budgets and programs.

Here are two dramatic examples cited in a recent Nature article. Cancer Research UK, the charity that funds about half of all UK cancer research, announced that due to the unprecedented financial effect of COVID-19, it will cut its research budgets by up to 10%, alongside a cut of 20% or more to infrastructure spending. Similarly, the Canadian Cancer Society forecasts a decrease in donations of nearly $100 million in the year ahead, or about half of its budget. Both are citing unprecedented times.

In parallel, we’re seeing disruption in libraries’ acquisition and APC open access budgets. There have been many stories in the UK about universities expecting their funding to be affected for the near to long term. A great example of this was seen when JISC, a not-for-profit service provider in the UK, advised academic publishers back in June to discount their publishing and OA programs by 25% to avoid cancellations. Publishers are watching the space closely. We’re also watching this space closely, both to track the disruption and to see where innovation is and needs to occur.

As an intermediary on the RightsLink platform, we work with hundreds of institutions and funders worldwide, and we recently surveyed this group to gain some insights. The results are still coming in, but interestingly, we’re seeing a varied response from institutions worldwide: some budgets are OK, while others are under severe pressure; and in some cases, funding needs to be allocated elsewhere. For those who are expecting cuts, they anticipate reductions upward of 10%. So, there’s some variation from the JISC projections, but these numbers were global, as opposed to UK-focused.

In parallel, we conducted a recent poll with our RightsLink publishers about their top concerns approaching 2021. Forty-eight percent said they were concerned about subscription cancellations due to COVID-19 and its impact on institutions, and thus researchers.

Authoring and Research Output/Peer Review

When we look at the second and third nodes of the map, authoring and research output and peer review, we are seeing disruption, innovation, and investment. From a disruptive perspective, the sheer volume of submissions in many COVID-related fields is causing publishers to deal with double-digit growth in submissions, and some are saying their submission rates are five times higher than the period last year.

CCC’s own data through its RightsLink platform that facilitates APC management and the management of transformative agreements is showing similar data. In aggregate, total submissions are up by 25%.  This correlates to my colleague Andrew Robinson’s recent comments that IEEE submissions are up by approximately 20%. Among all publishers, we’re seeing total acceptances also up by about 25%.

As a result of this increase in submissions, there’s a bit of a mad scramble to find researchers who are qualified and able to quickly review new articles. This problem is causing some interesting innovation.  For example, a number of OASPA publishers took the pragmatic step of collaborating on the creation of a shared peer review database.  In this shared database, researchers submit a profile of their COVID-related expertise and agree to complete rapid reviews. Within days of launching the database, researchers signed up from all over the world.

A recent American Chemical Society (ACS) case study provides more evidence that submissions are increasing. You can see that ACS had 300% growth in transformative agreements and 70% growth in transactions between 2018 and 2019. How was ACS able to manage this growth? They invested in automation. They used the RightsLink platform to codify and implement their transformative agreements. And they worked closely with their institutions and funding partners to model agreements and workflows that removed the complexity and overhead of supporting open access agreements. This means their researchers are published faster, they are better supported through the APC workflow, and they know when their research institutions can fund their open access articles. This is the kind of innovation that is more important than ever. With the convergence of the pandemic with Plan S and other new funding mandates in Europe and elsewhere, new ways for stakeholders to support researchers and do business together are necessary.

Publish and Distribute/Post-Publication

In the fourth and fifth nodes of the map – publish and distribute and post-publication – we are seeing again a combination of disruption, innovation, and investment. The pandemic has accelerated the need for researchers to collaborate faster and more effectively. In response, many publishers have opened up paywalled content and data.

Publishers realize that paywalls for COVID-related content could be a blocker to global collaboration.  And in our intermediary role, CCC helped make this happen by collating and hosting multiple COVID-19 resource centers for researchers, so that they could discover and read articles, news, and datasets as they needed to.  We’ve opened up content for more than 200 publishers and opened datasets from over 48 publishers. These sites are not fully polished products, but rather dynamic centralized resources that show collaboration that is fueling important research and discovery.

At the same time, researchers from pharma and life sciences came to us and asked for COVID information to be more readily available in their daily research and content collaboration tools. In response, CCC rapidly introduced an extensive COVID collection into its RightFind enterprise platform. This has allowed research and development communities to immediately access over 99,000 COVID-related articles, enhanced semantic search, and related visualizations of COVID collections and data.

As a result of the pandemic we are seeing significant ecosystem change and evolution that is far surpassing expectations of those of us who attended and worked together during the Outsell and CCC Future of Science events. With the current wave of the pandemic now escalating, I’ll plan to share new and evolving ecosystem insights as they solidify, and welcome your input as well.

Jennifer Goodrich

Author: Jennifer Goodrich

As Director of Product Management at CCC, Jen Goodrich leads the development and evolution of CCC’s transactional licensing services as well as its RightsLink® for Scientific Communications platform, an innovative e-commerce platform that automates the payment and collection of article publication charges (APCs) for open access content. Her current focus includes helping publishers codify and implement their transformative agreements (such as Read and Publish, Publish and Read and Pure Open Access) with institutions and funders, as the scholarly communications ecosystem migrates from traditional subscription publishing to open access publishing. Jen and the RightsLink team work closely with publishers, authors, manuscript management systems, standards organizations as well as academic and funding institutions to ensure the platform meets the needs of all open access stakeholders.

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