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The Future of Academic Publishing: Emerging Trends You Should Know


Traditional academic publishing comes from a time when research was slow. Galileo's book "The Starry Messenger" was published in 1610, and described how his observations of the solar system were consistent with the planets revolving around the sun. His ideas were discussed, celebrated, and challenged, as scientific ideas should be. In 1665, the first academic journals were started to further promote scientific discourse.

Unfortunately, Galileo was eventually convicted of heresy because his ideas contradicted descriptions in the Catholic bible. It would take the Catholic church more than 300 years to admit that Galileo was right. While others were much faster to accept that the sun was the center of our solar system, this understanding had little effect on their daily lives.

Fast forward to early 2020, when the highly infectious coronavirus that causes COVID-19 started to spread around the globe. Alarmed, scientists from around the world worked frantically to understand the virus, find effective treatments, and develop vaccines to stop the spread and save lives. As part of this international effort, researchers, universities, companies, and governments agreed to knock down barriers set up by the traditional system of sharing research results. Scientists shared results before publication. Publishers fast tracked the peer review process for COVID-19 research papers, and allowed them to be freely available online. Organizations helped curate the rapidly growing list of COVID-19 publications, so researchers could more easily find the information they needed.

As a result, multiple effective vaccines against COVID-19 were developed, tested, and administered in less than a year. Millions of lives will be saved, and the limitations of the old system of sharing scientific information have been laid bare.

The problem with traditional publishing in modern times

The traditional system of academic publishing—with peer review for journal articles and editorial input for academic books—was designed to ensure the quality of published work. Individuals and institutions paid for journal subscriptions, and received new issues in the mail every week, month, or quarter. Academic books were purchased by university libraries, and occasionally became best sellers. The majority of research came from a subset of institutions within wealthy, first-world countries. The peer-review and publication process often took a year or more, which was frustrating but accepted. Research typically progressed slowly, and the people who needed access to recent results were usually part of the system. Conferences and regional meetings provided ways to share results and get feedback before publication.

Nowadays, readers access journals almost entirely online, and many countries and institutions have expanded their research programs. With new knowledge and new techniques, the number of research topics continues to grow. Therefore, the number of different academic journals has exploded. Research has become more specialized, so it is increasingly difficult to find reviewers with the appropriate expertise for every article submitted. As a result, the number of retracted papers continues to increase, which reduces public trust in the system.

Meanwhile, academics remain under pressure to "publish or perish." Publication of peer-reviewed research articles or of academic books remains the gold standard for those who hope to graduate with a PhD, be hired for a tenure-track faculty position or other well-respected job, secure grant funding, or be awarded tenure. This has led to a rise in predatory journals, which offer little or no peer review, but publish rapidly in exchange for large fees.

Finally, the nature of research has changed in many fields. It's quite common for projects to rely on or produce massive quantities of data that must be stored and accessed electronically. In some fields, projects commonly involve large teams of researchers with a wide variety of expertise, and a single paper might include 50 or more authors. While many of these projects take years to complete, they can produce reliable data before publication. This data could inform related research projects, or have immediate consequences for public health, environmental protection, and more. Since much of this research is funded by government agencies, universities, and charitable organizations to benefit the public good, blocking access to potentially useful data has become increasingly untenable.

The system of academic publishing that was established in the 1600s is finally changing. Here are some emerging trends you should be aware of.

Trend #1: Continued rise of open access journals

Open access journals publish articles online, and make them freely available to anyone with internet access. Some traditional journals have adopted aspects of open access publishing, for example by making all articles freely available after six or 12 months. Other journals allow authors to post a pre-print version of their article online, often through a university repository or a central database such as PubMed. Many funding agencies and universities now make open access a requirement for any publications resulting from their financial support.

Some traditional journals give authors the choice of paying an additional fee to make their article open access. This fee pays for journal operating expenses, including an editorial team to maintain the high quality of published manuscripts. Since open access journals don't collect subscription fees, they charge authors an "article processing fee" after acceptance. Depending on the journal and the field, this fee is typically $1,000 to $3,000. For researchers from small research programs or developing nations, this can be a daunting amount. Therefore, these researchers may choose to submit to traditional journals, which typically do not charge authors for publication. The downside is that these publications will not be available to all potential readers.

As more organizations and researchers embrace open access publishing, these journals will publish a greater share of high-profile research, and become more prestigious.

Trend #2: Institutional threats to cancel journal subscriptions

Over the past few decades, university libraries have been spending more and more of their budgets on journal subscriptions. This is due to the ever-increasing cost of individual journals, and the rapidly increasing number of different journals. An institutional subscription to Science is currently $3,000 a year for a small institution, and over $23,000 a year for a large institution. Some medical journals can cost over $30,000 a year.

Institutions can try to negotiate a better deal by joining with other institutions, bundling together multiple journals, and signing longer contracts. However, traditional publishers have exclusive control over the research published in their journals. Researchers cannot publish it elsewhere, and institutions cannot purchase access through a different vendor. It is a monopoly. If institutions do cancel an online subscription, they lose access to all past issues of the journal.

While early academic journals were founded by research societies, many journals are now for-profit businesses. Elsevier and Wiley are two publicly traded companies that together publish thousands of different journal titles, and are notorious for constantly increasing subscription prices. The rising cost of subscriptions has caused university libraries to buy fewer academic books (e.g. monographs), which are a major way of disseminating scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences.

The situation has gotten so bad that many smaller institutions have cancelled subscriptions out of economic necessity, and many larger institutions have threatened to cancel. The huge University of California system actually cancelled all Elsevier subscriptions for more than two years, until it could negotiate a contract that promoted open access publishing.

It is unclear how this situation will ultimately play out, but the current system is unsustainable.

Trend #3: Alternative methods of scholarly engagement

People no longer use a phone book to find a plumber or pizza restaurant, yet scholarly research is still primarily communicated through pdfs. Online platforms can allow researchers to share preliminary results, and get valuable feedback that can improve their next steps. When COVID-19 researchers shared data before publication, they often found that other researchers were getting similar results or contradictory results, which helped focus the work. In the traditional system of academic publishing, researchers might not hear a particular criticism until after a paper has been submitted for review, and would then only have a limited time to resolve the problem.

People who grew up with Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, and social media are now becoming researchers, and will help apply the crowdsourcing mindset to improve scholarly communication.

This is new territory for academic institutions, which use various metrics to gauge scholarly engagement and research productivity. Current methods include considering the number of publications, their "impact factor," the number of citations, a person's position on the author list, the amount of grant funding, etc. These are all imperfect measures since "good" numbers can vary significantly from one field to another.

It's possible to set up an equally imperfect system of measuring contributions to online platforms for scholarly communication. Each researcher could have a unique username, and a computer system could track their contributions across multiple online forums that are perhaps divided into specific areas of research. A certain number of points could be awarded for sharing new information, and additional points for each "like", "repost", or "reply" from other registered users. The goal would be to encourage knowledgeable users to help improve the quality of each other's work, which would include offering constructive feedback. The computer system could track the progress of particular projects, from the sharing of preliminary data, to more polished results, to the submission and publication of a final manuscript, to post-publication peer review.

Meaningful research is inherently littered with errors and setbacks, so research communities should use technology to eliminate unnecessary barriers and facilitate ongoing research, while still demanding high quality work and properly acknowledging contributors.

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