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Don’s Conference Notes- New Directions in Scholarly Publishing: An SSP Virtual Seminar

by | Dec 2, 2021 | 0 comments


By Donald T. Hawkins, Freelance Conference Blogger and Editor

This virtual seminar organized by the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) occurred on October 5-6, 2021 and was entitled “How to Move Fast and Not Break Things: Balancing High-Speed Outputs at the risk of Slamming on the Brakes”. It attracted about 100 attendees. According to its announcement, the seminar was, “a deep dive into the breakneck speed in which our industry is currently transitioning, transforming, and evolving, while also recognizing and highlighting the limits (and uncomfortable consequences) of moving too quickly.”  

A whole new world and scholarship under fire

(L-R) Chhavi Chauhan (moderator), Rachel Martin, Toby Green

Chhavi Chauhan, Director, Scientific Outreach at the American Society for Investigative Pathology said that it is our responsibility to control misinformation. 

93% of the respondents to a recent poll think we are suffering from an infodemic. Toby Green, Managing Director, Coherent Digital LLC, said that many people are not familiar with the scientific process in which it is not possible to reach a conclusion until many articles have been read. Many journals publish great content but have limited visibility. Some content goes viral because it is much more accessible. Publishers usually do not get involved with recasting knowledge into a format for the Web2.0 world. We need to translate scientific data into an interface that the public can use and find the influencers. (A member of the audience noted that journals are for communicating with other scholars, not the public.) 

Sometimes research exists but is not in the journals, only in research reports which can be difficult to find. How can we merge this content with that published in journals and make it accessible? Scholarly publishers are not generally involved in finding large audiences. We can learn by looking at other media companies on the internet and seeing how they do their business.

Rachel Martin, Global Director of Sustainability at Elsevier, noted that Elsevier published many more papers this year than last—a 275% increase over 2019. The infodemic is about the challenge of finding relevant research; interdisciplinary research is critical. 

Trust is important when we disseminate our content. The emphasis is now on open science. When we are communicating research, we must write as if we are telling it to a 90 year old grandmother. 

Preprints and New Content

This session was in a question and answer format with 3 speakers:

Alexandra Freeman from the Winton Centre at the University of Cambridge noted that science is not linear and requires many different skills. Peer review is a type of publication and an integral part of the platform.  

Joy Owango, AfrikArxiv and University of Nairobi, said preprints have been a game changer in helping researchers to improve their output. We must be realistic and understand why we need print repositories.

Michele Avissar-Whiting, Editor-in-Chief, Research Square said preprints and their platforms operate in a parallel track to traditional publishing. An Editor-in-Chief of a preprint platform thinks about operations and maintaining academic integrity. 

Preprints vs. the World

  • What are the headwinds facing preprints as a new form of communicating research?
  • What are the problems and shortcomings in preprints as they exist now?

Joy: An obvious shortcoming today is trust. Are preprints going through rigorous process to ensure it? How will we increase it? We are demanding to have access to knowledge but the challenge is whether the output is of good quality. Can authors trust their platforms?

Alexandra: The reason that preprints have become prominent is because the publishing system has failed to communicate research in a timely way. 

Michele: A complete disruption and paradigm shift is coming. We do not need to wait until publishers change their ways of doing things. We must get accustomed to a system where not everything is peer reviewed.

Joy: We have had a few pandemics in Africa, and we see a demand to access information in any way possible. Technology is moving quickly; when research is published in today’s system, people have moved on.

Today, writing is incentivized, not reviewing what other people have done. Critiquing someone else’s work constructively is a skill that we rely on. 

Preprint singularity: Are we moving toward a preprint/journal convergence?

Some journals are only reviewing papers that have been preprinted.  The manuscript is not the best way to communicate because it does not take advantage of the power of the internet. We are seeing how preprints can become manuscripts. Preprints and journals are now converging because journals are using preprint servers as a submission platform. 

How do preprint servers become sustainable? How do we fund them and make that funding sustainable, equitable, and fair?

One way is to build the community and see how it can function with a moderate fee for submission. Revenue can be generated by leveraging the services offered such as helping with manuscript preparation. 

In the description of this panel, we said that the question is no longer if you will upload a preprint of your work, but when or how quickly you will be able to do it. Is this true or false? 

During the pandemic we had to publish results quickly, but now we have stepped back and are reconsidering. There is a demand for access to information, so we need to know how we can meet it and win the trust of authors. 

Because there are cultural differences in how we share research, many people are still wary of preprint servers.  When we submit an article to a journal we know that it will go through months of work before it is published. Preprints put all the work back on the author, which is good.  

Publishing a preprint makes it available to many people who can review it, which could be a disincentive. For a long time, publishing resulted in career advancement; thus we needed to be held to the highest standards. We must make it easy for people to share information. 

New Directions in Open Access

In this session, 3 pairs of attendees each had a conversation about OA.

John Sherer, Director, University of North Carolina (UNC) Press, and Kamran Naim, Head, Open Science, CERN

The UNC Press publishes 110 books and 18 journals per year but the economics are terrible! University presses like physical formats which take a lot of money and time, so UNC Press is experimenting with a digital production process.  Many authors have a perception that OA is a different level of scholarship. A strong preference for print still exists, especially with large books. What happens to print in the long term? Does it take a big hit when an OA version appears?

CERN hosts the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics SCOAP3 ), which has been studying the transition of textbooks to OA. Many publishers objected to a loss of revenue from sales of leading textbooks in their discipline. Creating an OA version does not mean dropping print.

Martin Eve, Professor, Literature, Technology, and Publishing at Birkbeck and the Open Library of Humanities, University of London, and Susan Doerr, Associate Director, University of Minnesota Press

Publishers need to determine what should be digital to reach the most readers globally.  Researchers may think that after a platform has been built they are forced to adapt their work to it. 

With Print on Demand (POD), nothing goes out of print, so most books are still selling. We need to meet readers where they want to go and take an “everywhere” approach to reach as many of them as possible.

Sara Rouhi, Director, Strategic Partnerships, PLoS and Raym Crow, Managing Partner, Chain Bridge Group

So far, there has been no open model for publishers to reach libraries. They will benefit by working with consortia because of the reach they get. With open resources we need to induce organizations to participate. Some institutions in a consortium may think they have the option of not subscribing to an open model.


Getting models to work is a complex international issue. 

The broader the base of subscribers, the harder it is to get everyone to subscribe, which may result in a reversion to a subscription model. Challenges are buying in to the model and performing ongoing maintenance.

Let’s Get Spicy! What about the expense we invest in making physical products? Much engagement is around digital, and the print is an afterthought. What type of scholarship can be published digitally first?  Many people not in our industry wonder what researchers have spent significant time and money working on without a book to show for it. OA has costs; people think publishers do no work, but they are much mistaken. 

Historians are notorious for not wanting to change. They want to read printed books, so history monographs usually sell well. 

What’s the Issue? Impact and Metrics Updates

Perspectives on Metrics

Marie McVeigh, Head, Editorial Selections, Clarivate said that metrics are not a substitute for judgement but are a tool to guide it. A citation is individual and a narrative on its own. Information is plastic: it changes as you use it. A paper can only discuss what is known when it is written, which is the underpinning of the citation metric.

Rebecca Kennison, Principal, K|N Consultants: In the humanities, metrics are all we have.  Constraints are critical; context is also important.

Josh Nicholson, Co-Founder and CEO, scite: Metrics are diverse, and we should be cautious about using them for everything. We need context. The improvement of citations is good. With tools, small startups can do interesting things.

How can we make best use of metrics?

Rebecca: Some articles never get cited; does that mean they are not useful? A work might be cited even though it is not part of the traditional publication record (a Twitter post, for example). 

Josh: Impact means many things to people, so we may start to use metrics in new ways. 

Marie: Merriam Webster’s definition of impact: the moment when you have changed your environment, or when you make people think a different way. If one metric is not perfect for something that does not mean all metrics are not appropriate. 

Where is the impact factor being used?

Rebecca: It may take a long time for ideas to percolate. The impact factor (IF) lets us see the whole picture. 

Josh: Not all impact is the same. What we do with citations will eventually be done by all tools. 

Marie: We talk about the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) as if it is the only data point we publish.  Metrics do not stand alone; we must look at them in the context in which they are provided.

Josh: The IF survives because it is simple and easy to understand. Administrators are using these data; we need to think about how to help them. We use metrics for many purposes, even outside of scholarly publishing. 

Marie: How do we value a paper? How do we find those relevant for the moment? We can think about metrics as a way to filter out the desired papers. 

Rebecca: Novelty and originality are important concepts to consider. 

What about data citation?

Josh: There are different DOI registries. Data is treated differently than articles. Do data citations count in a researcher’s output? How easy is it to use and understand the data? Much of it lives on GitHub.  Can it be cited directly there or must it be moved to another system which might be unfamiliar to a researcher? 

Funds, Funders, and Funding

Chonnettia Jones, VP, Research, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research asked what funders’ priorities are and how decisions are made. One example of a funder is the Wellcome Trust, which is politically and financially independent and does not receive any funds from the public. They wanted to make their publications FAIR. Nearly 80% of Wellcome’s publications are openly accessible, and since the OA policy was introduced, there has been an average 5% annual increase in the proportion of OA articles. OA publications were cited more frequently, and accessibility rates vary widely by funder and country. 

Jan Philip Solovej from the Department of Mathematics, University of Copenhagen said that researchers working in different fields are very interested in OA; therefore, funders should recognize that one size does not fit all. Librarians have been very helpful to researchers in keeping track of the rules and regulations for receiving funding. Researchers do not deal with this every day so they often need help, but publishers are often not willing to be transparent about their costs. OA is not just a requirement; it should be a right! We should all have the opportunity to publish OA.

Roger Schonfeld, Program Director at ITHAKA S+R introduced the concept of the senior research officer (SRO). SROs have an increasingly centralized role in looking after research, and it is a big job, encompassing titles and reporting, academic and administrative functions, and successful scientists. SROs have a revenue role in some universities and have a lot of power and influence on budgeting, space allocation, and convening authority. Generally, they do not support libraries. Research support is necessary for both current portfolios and future aspirations. 

There have been downward pressures on revenue sources, but grants have been stable. To support research, some funders provide funds in addition to the direct costs of the research, but even so, many universities have had to reduce their general funds because of revenue constraints and budget cuts. On balance, research does not pay for itself, so SROs have been looking beyond grants for funding from corporate, philanthropic, and state sources. 

Nick Campbell, VP of Academic Affairs, Springer Nature, said that funders want to do their job and get better at doing it which means looking beyond academia. Government funders are driven by national priorities, so publications and general research papers still retain their importance. The function of publishers is becoming more important; they must view themselves as compliance partners for authors, librarians, and funders in a progressive journey that is good for research and its impact.

The key challenge for an academic library is to provide research support, but the initiative needs to come from the researcher. Both publishers and universities have a big role to play.

New Directions in tools for discoverability, findability, shareability, and impact

There are limited funds to spend on new technology. Will this come back to haunt us?

We must have a lot of integrity and not invest casually in new technology. Our industry has taken a long time to adopt things that many of us think are common sense. Sometimes we acquire technology and then put it out to pasture. We should be a little more daring to fail and do something to enhance a general thought process. Do we have the ability to be agile? 

We need both speed and care. There is a bias toward action and not thinking. The way that scientists think is through their articles in journals. 

We have been curators and have an atmosphere of perfection, but we can do a better job of selecting. 

What portion of a strategic plan should be devoted to innovation?

Innovation permeates every area of a company and is a mindset with processes around it. What problem are we trying to solve? Organizations lose sight of the problem they are trying to solve and who they are trying to serve. Inefficiencies are not necessarily bad because we are figuring things out as we go along. If we move collectively, how much stronger would our industry be? 

Continuous development of a core business will lead to innovation. Should the main product of a company be the technology? Are large publishers buying technology companies because they don’t want to be in the content business?

If we only focus on scale and technologies, we may run into unintended consequences. Do we need to create new structures to perform effectively? We are not close to where we should be in innovating how we distribute scholarly research. We do not have companies entering our industry regularly so we need to innovate and induce outside companies to invest, try things out, and be open. Do we understand what business we are in?

We have siloed ourselves and criticize what we do not understand. Our community needs to be more open. Societies should be given more direction as to what their executives can do. We can identify successes in other industries but what about ours? We should dare to do things, make mistakes, and move to things that are successful.

Donald T. Hawkins is an information industry freelance writer based in Pennsylvania. In addition to blogging and writing about conferences for Against the Grain, he blogs the Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian conferences for Information Today, Inc. (ITI) and maintains the Conference Calendar on the ITI website. He is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, (Information Today, 2013) and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits (Information Today, 2016). He holds a Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked in the online information industry for over 50 years.


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