Guest Post- STM US Annual Conference Goes Virtual, April 28-30, 2020- The Rumors Blog

by | Jun 1, 2020 | 0 comments


By: Anthony Watkinson, Director, Charleston Conference, and Principal Consultant, CIBER Research  and Honorary Lecturer, University College, London

The STM US Annual Conference was a three-day event, and it would seem that many of the registrants signed up for all three days. It is official that there were more registrants to the virtual conference than there had been for face to face.

All the programs can be reached here. Last year the slides were usually made available on the sites of the individual days but the policy of whether to do the same this year has yet to be decided. There are a few links in situ which will be pointed to in this report, as will any others which I have picked up. The videos, which were of high quality, are only made available to those who paid, which is reasonable.

The three days were separately programmed and chaired, but the STM Director in the USA was visible and behind the scenes. The organization by Jo Dinnage, STM General Manager for Events and Sponsorship, was excellent.

These are essentially internal publishing meetings unlike, for example, the Charleston Conference. But, librarians should find lots to learn, especially from the first and second days which will be concentrated on in this report. COVID glowered over the proceedings, but change was often accelerated rather than initiated by the changed scene we are all in, and some will have been held back.

Society Day

The first day (April 28) was the Society Day which appeared for the first time on the STM agenda in 2019. It was dominated by the big self-publishing societies and associations who, until recently, used to gravitate towards the Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishers Forum [PSP]. The audience was dominated by staffers of the big society players such as ACS, AIP, AGU, APS (Physics, Psychology and Physiology), ASME, ASPB, ASCO, ACM and IEEE. The chair of the Executive Planning Committee was Penelope Lewis, the chief scientist of the ACS, the biggest of them all, and she moderated this day of the conference. There was a lot of frankness in the presentations. These organizations are rarely in competition. 

The strapline for this day was “future proofing your society through transformation” of particular interest for library publishing or library owned university presses.

Jasper Simons, the chief publishing officer of the American Psychological Association, explained in his keynote how they had done this. Even before COVID it was clear that traditional publishing models were too reliant on revenue from subscriptions by academic libraries (in their case 75% in 2015). He decided they were concentrating almost exclusively on one part only of their large membership, the research psychologists. His answer was diversification and his target was undergraduates. You have to make a choice. You have to achieve a consensus among your leadership and bring along your internal stakeholders. It is hard work managing the process but worth it. The actual products/services described can be seen here– a prescient choice. Processes have to be rethought as products are developed. At the same time current revenue earners could not be neglected; the mantra was: grow and protect

The following panel – “growth beyond the core” – followed naturally. The moderator, Christine Dunn of Clarivate, said that in discussions before the meeting that what her team were really talking about was now survival or present proofing. Casper Gratwohl of OUP spoke of a three month rather than a three-year plan. Big schemes were put on hold while short-term/immediate revenue possibilities were explored either through licensing or partnership. Katherine Fryer of ACS honed in on the needs of her members as a starting point, currently provided for in a variety of silos. Cory Wiegert of Cancer Link had been brought in by ASCO to bring in a commercial focus to this audacious enterprise. He majored on the concept of the customer as the north star which appealed to his colleagues on the panel.

The conference moved on to another recognizable topic: “navigating the changing landscape of open access”. Colette Bean of the American Physiological Society had convened a panel of two publishers (one from Europe) and a senior librarian. There are links on the site  (URL given earlier). Scott Delman of ACM described how his new Read and Publish business model originated and was carried through. It was built collaboratively with a number of university librarians. He had provided a lot of internal cost information to create trust. He did not think that he could have been so open in his previous jobs with commercial publishers. He had to convince those libraries who would have to pay more – no easy task. It is too early to know whether or not it worked.  Tasha Mellins-Cohen concentrated on the Society Publishing Coalition. There are 69 members including the ACM, but mostly smaller. There are no costs and no membership fees. They do not want an unsustainable paywall to be replaced by an unsustainable “playwall”. They have worked constructively with initiatives like Plan S and UKRI in the UK. At a time when societies are in danger, they feel that this is important work. Finally, the librarian spot. It was filled by Elaine Westbrooks of UNC Chapel Hill. She admitted that librarians are not used to partnering with societies but their values are aligned. The sustainable scholarship initiative starts from the premise that the current system is broken. This was based on extensive discussions with staff and students in preparation for their Elsevier negotiations, which demonstrated a lack of education among patrons.

Their next session was on “Cooperation amongst societies – shared initiatives”. As was to be expected, there was a presentation on the Seamless Access Project (formerly RA21) among other collaborations. Ralph Youngen of ACS, who now fronts this for the STM, was saddened by the level of scepticism. 

The final panel was given the ambitious title of “Framework for the Future”. Only one publisher was involved: Brooks Hanson of AGU. He led the way on how you reach out to the general public and policy makers. It seemed to me (as a European) that they were looking for a US equivalent of Sense about Science.

The impressive concluding keynote  was from Alix Vance the CEO of GeoscienceWorld on “Transforming for Growth and Adaptation” who returned to the first keynote from Simons: “Change relies on our ability to develop forward-looking cultures within our organizations” was one insight relevant to libraries as well as publishers

Open Science and the Future of Research Communication 

This was the theme of the confusingly titled Day 1 of the STM US Annual conference. Open Science as a theme did not entirely come through in all the sessions but this is partly because so much of openness is in the science(scholarly) process which is the domain of the researcher. They were represented in the first keynote and in the final session where you could see the difference. The Chair and chief organizer was Jayne Marks of Wolters Kluwer. The registrants were welcomed by Ian Moss, the new CEO of STM, who drew attention to the fact that the speed at which publishers made available the Covid related content was due to past investment on the infrastructure.

The first keynote was from Dr. Arthur Lupia. He represented the National Science Foundation as assistant director and thanked the industry for all that it has done as far as open science is concerned. Some things look better, like outreach and diversity, but there are questions for publishers. Why should we pay for what you do? Why should we trust what you do?

 For him, Open Science is access to research products and workflows. It is trust in the scientific method which is why you need the access. What NSF wants from publishers is following from the Holdren Memo (the executive mandate). They are improving their repository so that content is easier to find [PAR 2.0]. Data is being held elsewhere but they want to link.

A question for many was about the ambiguity of science. Why different views? There is no single public and with some part of it you can explain that science is not a theology but is a process. Other people will not understand this: it is important that we explain that we are all working on this to get to a consensus. Another question was: is what publishers do worth paying for? Anything can put a blog post up. Publishers curate.

A third question was is green with embargoes to be preferred to gold? This is not part of his remit. They can do data management plans but embargo policies are handed down to NSF from the Executive.

Ian Moss moderated an executive debate:  “What is the future of pre-prints?”  He pointed out this was not about whether to use preprints but rather how. It is a matter of context. Their limitation is that they have not been through the validation of peer review. The two speakers were Jennifer Polka of ASAPBio and Kent Anderson the founder of Scholarly Kitchen. There was no meeting of minds.

Polka went first. She provided some good slides – not available yet. Recently she has been much involved in ASAP Bio’s project to draw attention to Covid materials in preprints, but she recognizes that, though peer review is not perfect in traditional journals, the preprint question is how to maximise benefits and minimise dangers. The job must be to enable broad early feedback while there is still plenty of time to correct before submission to a journal. A lot of the comment is outside the preprint server. We need more tools for collating distributed commentary. 

Anderson had begun to get worried about preprints. They by-passed journals and this is a “permissioning” posture. Preprints were originally drafts which were privately exchanged among trusted friends. Now they are open and they are often put up at the same time or after they are sent in for submission. They are not necessarily quicker – see The Geyser, his subscription newsletter. Preprint servers do not clean up stuff which do not get published or which are rejected. They undermine peer review: they get a DOI and they are cited without peer review. He sees preprints morphing into journals, journals which do not take responsibility or neither do the authors.

Niko Pfund, Academic Publisher at OUP, moderated a session on “the evolution of the book”. What is the impact of Covid? It is different for scientific books compared with trade books? 

First was Lisa McAllister, VP of Medical Books at Wolters Kluwer. Market research shows medical students do read books, but in bits, and they use lots of other stuff, often doubtful. They are short of money. Institutions buy content which is often digital based on books and libraries will buy these books if they are used. Online only now is to be expected. It is going to continue after Covid and there will be a decline in print books. There is going to be more of a push for coursepacks (word not used) which may be produced by a separate company bringing content together on a license basis.

Henning Schoenenberger from Springer Nature says reading will be different. The books sometimes include virtual reality or are in abridged forms or in other ways that help memory retention. He spoke about his first machine generation book on Lithium batteries. None of this is new, but there is now a massive acceleration in the rate of change and behind that there are user needs. Publishers will have to respond. Exactly what this meant for libraries is clear.

Simone Taylor of AIP Publishing is launching a new books program. They talked to librarians and end users. Librarians do not want any digital rights management and want lots of functionality. Users are more interested in print still. They had decided on a whole range of different types of content. In all cases print on demand is available but what was a book is now a database. Some of this information is available hereHoward Ratner updated that conference on CHORUS. For what is new see the site.

Alicia Wise provided a description of the transparency program which was commissioned from plan S and is as such mainly European but it will of course impact on US publishers of journals that accept European articles from those funded by the S group. For more information see here.

The next session was on “Content Marketing 2.O : Get your articles read” moderated by Erik-Jan van Cleef from SciencePOD. Van Cleef introduced the theme: OA is not enough. Wider society as well as funders think in terms of wider access. Questions came up about who will pay for this outreach. For his panel, see the program.

The final session was on “Delivering open science – challenges faced by key stakeholders”. The moderator was Dean Sanderson, the Managing Director of Magazines and Partner Services at Springer Nature. He did include a Researcher in the shape of the Chief Science Officer of the American Physiological Society with publishing represented by Alison Mudditt, CEO of PLOS, and Michael Stebbins from Science Advisers, the funding bodies.

This is where we come to the hard stuff. Sanderson says everyone nearly agrees to open science (good, compelling and probably necessary) but what stops it moving forward more quickly? Mudditt (see above) has been pushing boundaries for years, especially at PLOS. Brown has an important academic position (Harvard Medical School) as well as his society role. He has been the editor of major journals. Stebbins is a geneticist leading to both a former policy maker in the Obama White House and a Heath consulting firm founder.

Each speaker explained their position first. Sanderson asked Mudditt from her publisher perspective what does open science mean? It is both research outputs including data, code and methods as well as publications, and there is the process that goes on before the publications. How to collaborate earlier in the scientific workflow is the big question for her. We have made some progress, but the three key issues holding us back are that researchers do not see the advantages, for example, over preprints leading to loss of your work to thieves, the assessment and awards system giving wrong signals, and tendency for a one side fits all solution. “What can publishers do?” asks Sanderson. Mudditt says strong data policy is a good example along with the “scooping” policy over all PLOS journals  and (as said before) new types of research articles uncovering the process including pre-registration options. The data policy was a stick but it did them (PLOS) no harm. 

Brown says that, in his view, researchers recognize open science more than open access but where is the individual benefit? He agrees that the competitive culture is a problem. It may be changing. No-one asks whether you are open with your data – yet. “But,” asks Sanderson, “do researchers see any actual problems?” At a virtual meeting,  he says Brown researchers are worried about putting their posters online but this will change. He gave an example of another problem. What do you call data in cell biology including video? Who is going to pay or curate this? Even the cost of storage is a problem. Over open data we do need incentives; shift in attitude is needed. It is scientists who judge other scientists and must give them credit for sharing. Differing views of postdocs and PI’s and in various different ways. We have a fear of regulatory burdens in labs. 

Stebbins said that policy makers and funders are very interested in open science but have different views of it depending on their political views. Overall, they see that if the government pays it should be open. Can collective action result in a better system which opens up the ecosystem and gives more bang for their bucks?  Not everyone understands that there are perverse incentives. Universities will not solve this and nor will publishers, but what about policy makers? There is the question of more burdens, which worries many. If requirements for data being properly held were followed (everyone has to do it) because demanded at publication we shall get somewhere. He was partly responsible for the Holdren memo which set current open policies, but needs following up now.

There were more questions from the audience.  Is open science helped or hindered by the current administration? Not helped by negative relations between policy makers and industry, says Stebbins. There are differences across disciplines with physics not being worried about openness. More support for open data and methods which is due to improved attitudes in the academic communities. Mudditt says data review is coming in and that is the key to reproducibility, but too much work for the publisher. PLOS datasets are being downloaded from Figshare which is good news. As he said before, Brown sees the small bits of data like images is a big problem. What formats is a question? Shrinking of methods sections is a problem. In the American Physiology Society there is a lot more discussion over their journals (13?) since Holdren.

Final question from the chair was who should pay for Open Science? The real problem at PLOS.  Stebbins says that if you are funding the research you should provide funding for openness. Standards are crucial. Brown gets his money from research grants and anything that goes to publications comes away from bench work. What he gets from the government does not cover publication costs.

Marks wrapped up. A poll taken online confirmed that 100% think OS is going to impact us all. She concurred. 

Innovations Day

This was billed as day two of the conference proper. Innovations is now a regular feature of STM conferences. For the program, see the site.  The emphasis was essentially internal to the publishing industry and their technology partners but there were outside voices mostly in basic agreement. 

The chair was IJsbrand Jan Aalbersberg of Elsevier and in charge of the STM Standards and Technology Executive Committee.  “What the user wants: smarter data, smarter machines, smarter science” was the strapline. What researchers should do about data and publisher and funder policies relating to this was central to the program, but rather surprisingly problems for researchers in making data available were hardly mentioned.

The conference for the day began with the launch of “STM Tech Trends 2024 – connecting the dots:  it’s all about the user”. The graphic can be found hereEefke Smit, Technology and Standards director for STM, stressed the need to take into account the new digital natives with their new demands and the continued importance of trust and trust verification.

 For years the article has been central but what is changing? Asked Liz Marchant of Taylor & Francis in the first session on What these tech trends mean for your business? One did not feel that there was any clear view about what researchers want which could be built on. An example is whether users want a customized interface or a simple one – something that has troubled librarians, too. 

Progress in data sharing was noted and described in a session on the “intersection between data science and open science” chaired by Joris van Rossum. 2020 is the STM Data Sharing Year. Publishers were in a minority in this group. 

Michael Huerta from NIH/NLM. National Library of Medicine lives at this intersection (see title of session). There is a strategic plan for data science for both organisations. There is a draft policy for all those who are funded by NIH. NIH wants data put in open domain-specific data repositories with PubMed Center as a default and also (for larger data sets) Mendeley and others.

David Mellor of the Center for Open Science is involved in reproducibility projects.

Ian Hrynaszkiewicz of PLOS argued for the policies of the Research Data Alliance as a framework. We can see that when publishers implement a mandating policy for data availability statements this works.

One angle which came up in questions was the costs of reviewing data. PLOS offered three to four hours as the time involved.

Debbie Sweet of Cell Press (Elsevier) explained, and confirmed that mandating data availability does work. She has a paragraph in the program.

It was not clear to me how these various organisations and their policies fit together. There was no obvious disagreement, but experts will no doubt see differences in emphasis. It is now clear that publishers are not trying to monetize data so there is no reason why there should be outright disagreement among stakeholders. Van Rossum was positive about sharing FAIR culture but not that many researchers know about the principles

There was another presentation on Seamless Access – see Society Day. Youngen argued for a renewed urgency in pressing platform providers.

The last session was entitled “Fairness in data science versus the danger of the autonomous bias” moderated by Chris Graf, director for Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics at Wiley.

The powerful keynote by Julia Stoyanovich of NYU emphasised wider societal issues. A 2019 course piece from her is available here. The points raised were discussed by a panel which was composed of Merce Crosas of Harvard and Jabe Wilson of Elsevier.

Kent Anderson moderated and dominated the final session entitled “internet paradigms lost, internet paradigms regained”. He likes the subscription model. It works for him now that he no longer works for a large organization. You can find his recent ideas here, including some excerpts from his newsletter, in case you want to subscribe.

Discussants were Phaedra Cress whose views on predatory publishing are available here and Josh Nicholson of who explained about his company.


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