This post is the second in our two-part series on key publishing trends to watch for in 2021.

Our first post, “Outlook 2021: From Diverse Voices to Digital Transformation,” highlights the predictions of CCC thought leaders on trends critical to the transformation of publishing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly become a once-in-a-century catalyst to advance the speed of science and accelerate the digital transformation of scientific publishing. In this last quarter of 2020, we are operating in a scientific publishing ecosystem that is more open, immediate and accessible than it was just a few months ago.

Here, we explore key trends that have emerged from the coronavirus disruption of the scientific publishing ecosystem and that are likely to continue in 2021. These trends were discussed at the CCC’s panel, “Publishing Meets the Pandemic,” at the virtual Frankfurt Book Fair this October.

1. Reprint Growth

Many publishers have opened up content related to COVID-19 so that it can be shared more quickly. There has been a large increase in the volume of research posted on preprint servers and a drive toward more open research publishing. As part of this publishing spike, there has been a parallel interest in science by the general population. Readership and article views of COVID-related preprints is almost seven times the number of views that some publishers get on preprints related to other types of research.

2. Social Media Attention

According to Rachel Burley, president of Research Square Company, social media is a key emerging trend helping to create this new awareness for scientific publishing. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that social media is driving a lot of attention to scientific publications. A manuscript we published in June, for example, has reached 13 million followers on Twitter alone,” she said. The increased accessibility of preprints linked with the way that social media is driving access to that content is a trend that is going to continue.

3. Workflow Automation

To accommodate and respond to researcher and journal demands during the pandemic and accelerate speed to market, the workflow complexities of scientific publishing, including submission, editorial management, peer review, production tracking, and publishing channel distribution are being automated through new system communications protocols and integrations. One example of workflow automation is Aries Systems’ Ingest API (Application Programming Interface). The Ingest API mirrors the standard process that a researcher goes through when submitting a manuscript to a journal, except that it is done in an automated way, eliminating the need for researchers to perform file upload and data entry. While simplifying researcher effort, that automation accelerates peer review and reduces time to publication. This helps researchers more easily comply with data deposit and disclosure mandates, and it promotes open data. In addition, it facilitates the adoption of fair data principles of making data findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable.

4. Machine Learning

Standard methodologies for integrating third-party tools that use artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform various types of evaluation on submitted manuscripts have accelerated the peer-review process and given authors, editors, and reviewers useful analytics that before COVID-19 would have taken days to produce or required hard-to- find specialized skills. AI tools are able to extract essential metadata and to populate a database with the added benefits of reduced effort and manual mistakes. “The intended result is to allow more of the scholarly assessment of the research article to be captured as data to reduce errors by centralizing interactions with the content and, ultimately, to shorten the time to publication by converging peer review and the production process,” said Tony Alves, Director of Product management at Aries.

5. Fast-Tracking Peer Review

A member-led nonprofit organization, IEEE is at the forefront of engineering research. As a result of the pandemic, the organization reacted by creating a fast-track peer review process for any content relevant to COVID-19, a process that will continue into 2021. According to Andrew Popper, Senior Director of Global Products and Marketing, this meant any content related to ventilator engineering and design, imaging, modeling and simulation. “We’ve also taken a set of content from the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, which is the most specifically focused in areas that may be of big consequence to COVID-19 and made it accessible. It still goes through the peer review. But it goes through a special queue to make sure that it gets out there really fast.”

6. Disruption Leads to Innovation and Collaboration

With open access models, Plan S and Projekt DEAL initiatives, the scientific publishing process was already undergoing fundamental realignment. The pandemic has been a disruptive force accelerating that realignment, stimulating innovation and collaboration at every stage of the publishing lifecycle, according to CCC’s Director of Product Management, Jennifer Goodrich.  Together with Jim Haydock of Outsell, Goodrich led the development of a publishing lifecycle map for the scientific publishing ecosystem that reflects the new realities. As the leader of the development and evolution of CCC’s transactional licensing services as well as the RightsLink for Scientific Communications platform, her current focus includes helping publishers codify and implement their transformative agreements with institutions and funders. Goodrich looks at the impact of the pandemic on the scholarly publishing lifecycle based on some significant disruption, especially in the area of funding and library budgets.

7. Budget Cuts Amidst Growth

“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,” said Goodrich.  One dramatic example is Cancer Research UK, the charity that funds about half of all UK cancer research. Due to the unprecedented financial effect of COVID-19, it will cut its research budgets by up to 10%. Similarly, the Canadian Cancer Society forecasts a drop in donations of up to $100 million in the year ahead, or about half of its budget.

In parallel, we are seeing that the sheer volume of submissions in many COVID-related fields is causing publishers to deal with double-digit growth in submissions. Some publishers report their submission rates are five times higher than the period last year.

CCC’s own data, through its RightsLink platform, is showing similar data. In aggregate, total submissions are up by 25 percent.

8. The Talent Gene Pool

As a result of the increase in submissions, there has been a rush to find researchers who are qualified and able to quickly review new articles. This problem has led to 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 launch, researchers from all over the world signed up. With the convergence of the pandemic with Plan S and other new funding mandates in Europe and elsewhere, this kind of innovation is more important than ever. The pandemic has led new ways for stakeholders to support researchers and do business together.

9. Opening of Paywalls

In response to the fact that researchers needed to collaborate faster and more effectively than ever, many publishers have opened up paywalled content and data. Publishers understand that paywalls for COVID-related content could be a blocker to global collaboration. In its intermediary role, CCC has helped make this happen by collating and hosting multiple COVID-19 resource centers for researchers so that they can discover and read articles, news, and datasets as needed. In 2020, CCC has opened up content for more than 200 publishers and opened datasets from more than 48 publishers. These sites are not fully polished products, but rather dynamic centralized resources that show collaboration that is fueling critical research and discovery.

10. Attention as the Competition

With the vast volumes of research now being published, how do publishers differentiate themselves? How do you make your research stand out? Promoting research to the right audiences is one way to help researchers. But helping research become more understandable to a broader audience can be a significant differentiator. In 2021, we expect to see tools such as video abstracts, lay summaries, and infographics that can make research more accessible to wider audiences.

No Going Back

At the start of 2020, discussion about open access business models was at the top of the list of publishers’ concerns. Unexpectedly, a world-class disruptor widened the discussion. Every stage of the scholarly publishing lifecycle has shifted significantly and stakeholders have stepped up to meet the rigorous expectations of scientific researchers worldwide. The shifts have been about open science, rapid open publishing, accelerating discovery, collaboration, and making results universally available to new audiences.

As with the other areas of publishing, there is no going back. These trends are here to stay.


Author: Christopher Kenneally

Christopher Kenneally hosts CCC's Velocity of Content podcast series, which debuted in 2006 and is the longest continuously running podcast covering the publishing industry. As CCC's Senior Director, Marketing, he is responsible for organizing and hosting programs that address the business needs of all stakeholders in publishing and research. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The Independent (London), WBUR-FM, NPR, and WGBH-TV.
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