During the 2018 Charleston Conference, we had a panel of several of the “Chefs” from The Scholarly Kitchen (TSK).TSK is a blog that publishes five days a week on, as the tagline says, “What’s hot and cooking in scholarly publishing”. David Crotty (Oxford University Press) was the moderator of the panel which included Alice Meadows (ORCID), Lettie Conrad (Maverick Publishing Specialists), Robert Harington (American Mathematical Society), Judy Luther (Informed Strategies), Lisa Hinchliffe (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign), Ann Michael (DeltaThink), and Joe Esposito (Clarke & Esposito).
(The following is the first part of a two-part edited transcript of the panel. Part 2 is available here.)
David Crotty: I’m going to put one question to our bloggers across the board.
About a year ago as part of my job at Oxford University Press, I was asked to give a “State of the Publishing Industry” talk to our U.S. research society partners, our journal editors, and being a fundamentally lazy person, I thought “this is great; academia moves at such a slow pace. I am going to be able to use this talk for years with little, tiny tweaks to it.” And then, six months later, I was asked to give the same talk to our UK partners and I had to rewrite about half of it. It’s six months later and now I’m rewriting the other half of it! I’d like to think of the period that we’re in now as “The Great Acceleration”. We aren’t really dealing with new issues. Arxiv has been around posting preprints since 1991. Consolidation is not a new phenomenon, Wiley merged with Blackwell more than 11 years ago. The open access movement has been with us since at least the year 2000. But, like every other aspect of our lives in this wonderful, interconnected, digital utopia in which we live, we’ve reached the point where it feels like everything is happening at once. Every week there’s another piece of crucial publishing infrastructure that is changing hands, or there’s a new open access policy, or there’s a new open letter petitioning for a change that you’re expected to sign onto, or there’s a new technology, a new standard that you absolutely must implement. The upside to all this accelerated pace is that it gets us closer to our goals faster. We know the field of scholarly communication is still far from perfect. We’re still stuck in traditional ways — our readers still strongly prefer PDFs for example. But, right now with these tools we have, it’s much easier, faster to hear from our authors, hear from our readers, hear from our library partners. It’s so much easier to publicly discuss potential plans and hopefully put those plans into action.
The downside of moving really fast is the faster you go the less effective are your breaks. Scholarly communication is a complex ecosystem and one that, despite its problems, largely works pretty well for most of the participants. Deliberately disrupting one aspect of the ecosystem, one part of the chain may have unexpected consequences elsewhere. And by then it may be too late to stop things from unraveling. We have observed the sort of damage to our society at large that the “move fast and break things” philosophy from Facebook has wreaked. Is this what we want for academia?
So, with that in mind, I put a question to our Chefs, our blog authors, asking them not just what is happening right now that’s important, but what’s happening that is important and fast? We framed this in the question of, “what keeps you up at night?”
It was interesting to hear their answers because a common theme emerged — the importance of trust and authority. There’s so much going on in the world of scholarly communication, let alone the world at large, that we need trusted sources of information more than ever. At the same time though, trust is eroding, systems are being gamed, alternative facts, propaganda, all these things are being injected into our daily lives. The notion that everything should be free on the Internet has devalued content of all types, so much so that a lot of the quality control processes that we use to vet information no longer seem to have the same impact. So, with that in mind, I’m going to turn to our Chefs and ask them for their thoughts.
Alice Meadows, I’m going to start with you – your response was very big picture, the erosion of trust in science and research in general. Can you talk about how you’re seeing that, and maybe what we should be doing different?
Alice Meadows: I’m going to start with the big picture. The kind of scary world that we live in, slightly less scary today maybe than it was yesterday [the panel took place on November 7, the day after the US election], but it is still kind of a divided world that we live in. I think particularly worrying for all of us in this room and in the scholarly communications community more broadly, is this persistent and in many cases deliberate, although in other cases kind of ignorant, erosion of trust in science and the kind of questioning of science. Now, some of that is due to people not understanding how science works and that’s understandable. We don’t do a terribly good job of educating people on that, but some of it is a deliberate effort by certain politicians to discredit science and to ignore what scientists tell us. They believe in favor of their own beliefs, which are perhaps not quite as valid, so this does genuinely keep me up at night. But, I think that, although we can’t necessarily solve the problems of the political world, we can and should in our own ways, both as individuals and at an organizational level, try to contribute to solving those issues within our community, and, in doing so, make science and scholarship and research stronger and more credible and therefore less vulnerable to these attempts to discredit it. To be fair, public trust in science overall remains very high.
There’s a Pew survey from last year which showed that 72 percent of Americans (I shouldn’t say 72 percent of Americans. 72 percent of respondents from the U.S.) do still trust scientists, and a similar poll in the UK showed an even higher number, 83 percent, whereas our politicians, surprise, surprise, are very much less trusted — around 17 percent in the UK and 26 percent in the US, I think it was. So, we scientists are very much more trusted. However, we as a community can be divided and I think that’s where we need to focus more on what we have in common and less on where our differences are. A lot of the rhetoric that we hear is, “open versus subscription, librarians versus publishers”. It is a kind of good/bad of debate and we dichotomize ourselves and I think we weaken ourselves by doing so. I think, having said that, there’s some really nice examples of where this isn’t the case — where we have chosen to focus on what we have in common. So organizations like mine, ORCID, was very much founded out of the community by a mix of commercial and not for profits, universities, publishers, vendors, funders. So, that’s a really nice example and there are a number of others. I honestly think if we could spend more of our time focusing on the 80 percent where we have things in common and we share the same goals, we could really do a huge amount to make the world a better place. Is that too grandiose?
David Crotty: No, that’s good. Thanks, Alice. You mention this sort of animosity. You know, “libraries versus publishers” and that led me into Lettie Conrad’s response. Lettie, your answer was similar to Alice’s, but you focused on the heightened animosity and devaluing of the role of academic publishers, who used to be seen as the guardians of the literature and are now often cast in the role of the enemies of academia. Is this characterization fair?
Lettie Conrad: I think the things that are keeping me up at night are, as Alice put it, the divisiveness and the animosity in our industry. The first approach is an adversarial one rather than a collaborative one. And part of what has been troubling me specifically is around what seems like a vilification of publishers, the assumption that publishers are this monolithic entity. I’m not denying that there is corruption out there, and there are ways that all of us can improve what we do. But, this anti-publisher sentiment really hit home for me a couple of years ago when I began my doctoral work.
I’m about three years now into a part time doctorate in information science and I’ve now been in three sessions directed to doctoral students by our faculty around publishing. My jaw hit the floor the first year, I was a bit more prepared the second year, but I did not attend all of the third year because the negative messages that come through those sessions. I do think our faculty have been doing their best to prepare and protect doctoral students in the publishing experience. But, what I came away with was “Get ready. Get your guard up.” What I heard was lots of horror stories, lots of worst-case scenarios, lots of us / them rhetoric. Instead of instilling a sense of “we’re all in this community of scholarly knowledge and we all have more that unites us than divides us,” the message delivered to my cohort was a very adversarial approach to publishing that doctoral students should get ready for a fight when they submit their article. Not only do I find that is completely inaccurate and totally unproductive, I think it ends up focusing our time and our energy in places where we’re not going to get anywhere except further down our partisan holes. And so, I would echo Alice and call for each of us every day to rise above the “us and them” and stop talking about “the publishers versus libraries.” Ultimately, the “us and them” dynamic is made up of each and every individual here. And if each of us brings a greater level of integrity to our work, I think we can avoid painting one another with broad brush strokes, we can move past publishers as evil or whatever the “us/them” dialogue is of the day.
David Crotty: I think that’s really interesting. Even as individuals we are very often playing different opposing roles. Many editors of journals are authors and researchers themselves, and peer reviewers all come from the author community. And you can have this sort of schizophrenia of making demands on other authors and then being furious when the same demands are made on you.
You also said that publishing is not monolithic. One of the central pillars of the research information world has long been the scholarly society, but here too we’re seeing erosion. The publishing market is rapidly consolidating down to a small number of big commercial houses and it’s increasingly difficult for the independent scholarly publisher to survive. Robert, you’re with The American Mathematical Society. Can you talk about the struggles that you’re seeing for the societies and whether there’s still a role in the community for the Research Society?
Robert Harington: the AMS is an old society founded in 1888. Our publishing program is significant, at least it feels like that to us. We publish around 100 books a year and 25 journals. We have a very successful and prominent database for mathematicians called MathSciNet.
About 70 percent of our revenues, as a society, come from our publishing operations. Preserving our contribution to the mathematical community keeps me up at night. If all of the scenarios that are out there came to be, without a real, practical understanding of how to implement those in a sensible way, that also suits mathematicians, and then that money evaporated, as a society we would not be able to do all the good things we do, and we do a lot. For example We run Mathematical Research Communities for early career mathematicians, create all manner of networking opportunities and for research collaborations, seminars, and so on. We fund travel grants, and some of the major prizes in mathematics. We have a competition called “Who Wants to be a Mathematician?” for high school kids, which is actually remarkably successful, and fun to go to.
It seems to be a theme that funders say “well, in the face of ‘Plan S’ or in the face of ‘read and publish’ agreements, societies need to come up with another revenue model”. “Don’t worry about publishing. You need to come up with other revenue models”. While it’s easy to say, I suspect that if we were squeezed out of doing all of those good things, our community would suffer. Our 30,000 members certainly would like us to do what we do. At the STM meeting in Frankfurt it was actually interesting listening to Daniel Ropers, the new CEO of Springer Nature talk about how we’ve come to a point where the conversation is no longer rational. You have advocates at all ends of the OA spectrum which makes it hard to talk about practical solutions.
It struck me that whether you are an independent society, such as the AMS, or a large company like Springer Nature, or Wiley or any of the big publishers who work with societies, we are all a direct bridge, a connection to those research communities. Trust can be built into these relationships.”
David Crotty: There is something of an insular nature to academia and particularly in academic publishing, where we see a lot of advocates arguing in a circle with one another. Judy, your answer was about the need for research to reach a broader audience. Is that the solution for building back trust in what the research world uncovers? What sorts of innovation are you seeing in new ways to broaden the audience?
Judy Luther: I’m going to echo some of what my colleagues have said about the perceptions of research being done today. I read a variety of news sources and am concerned when they are dismissive of academic research. Some of the criticisms today characterize research as if we were involved in medieval debates about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. That view doesn’t recognize the important work being done within the academy and by researchers across many disciplines. Part of the challenge is that the language of science is highly specialized which makes it fairly impenetrable to people outside the academy and sometimes hard even for people in related disciplines to grasp. There are a couple of innovations of note — both in how abstracts of journal articles are evolving, and how workflow is being streamlined that will make research content more accessible to a wider audience.
Abstracts have traditionally covered three primary points — the objective of the research, the methodology, and the results. But that approach can be very dense. A recent example of an abstract involving “P” factors shows a dozen of them in one row which makes it hard to decipher for those in the field and serves as a barrier to those in related fields. Who has time to scan articles of potential interest when there isn’t enough time to read the essential ones?
Publishers are dealing with this in different ways. Some require authors to submit three short bullet points that highlight the results and the value of their research. Others employ illustrators to create graphical abstracts that provide a visual summary of the research. These enable researchers to quickly see what was done and determine whether it is relevant to them. Podcasts are popular for those who like to multitask during a commute or workout as they can listen to an interview with the author or discussion of the research.
Earlier this year Google Scholar released a new workflow feature for mobile devices referred to as Quick Abstracts (https://scholar.googleblog.com/2018/03/quickly-flip-through-papers-on-your.html) which streamlines the process of selecting articles. Readers swipe left and right to review their search results and can read abstracts or explore related articles. Then, with one tap, articles of interest can be saved in the Scholar library to be read later. These enhancements enable researchers to easily find and filter articles with minimal effort from wherever they are at any time.
David Crotty: Thanks, Judy. Now I want to turn to libraries. Just as academic publishers are in danger of losing their place at the center of the information landscape, so are the libraries. Lisa, your suggestion of what keeps you up at night is the shift from local support for scholarly activities and workflow to increasing use of external services and platforms. Is this just the natural progression of the digital age, or something libraries should be actively working to counter – or at least manage?
Lisa Hinchliffe: I’m Lisa Hinchliffe from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And I particularly mentioned that because one of the things that I’ve been reflecting and listening to in Charleston or over the past couple of years is the degree to which we conceptualize the community that we serve from our particular institution or organization shapes some of the things that we think about. I am wondering if some of what can come out in a confrontational or adversarial way isn’t so much intentionally adversarial so much as a centering on different priorities and then disagreement about the correct ends or the correct means to even the same ends in certain cases.
And so one of the things that I think we don’t want is to paper over real disagreement for the sake of presenting agreement. We want to be able to collaboratively interrogate these differences and these different viewpoints.
I was thinking about the way you framed this question, and it raised the question of what is the actual shift that libraries are experiencing? I think the shift that we’re experiencing is a shift away from being the provider or the gateway or the holder of content which we acquired from many of you. When we were the interface, we were the front end, if you will, the gateway through which you had to come in order to get access to these scarce resources which are highly valuable. And of course, as these things have gone digital, things have changed, which is a wonderful thing — this is actually success, right? Libraries were set up in order to create access to scarce resources. so, now in this digital age we’ve been able to create the kind of access to scarce important resources for scholarship like we never have before.
I’m not a big one for “never before” kind of framing of things but this is a significant shift between coming to the library using a paper index. Some of you in the room don’t even know about paper indexes. I was giving a talk that was being translated into Chinese recently, but the younger librarian who was translating me, when I said something about having gone through the era of delivering electronic journals on CD-ROM, she stopped me and said, “I do not know what that word is.” It’s an interesting thing how quickly this has really changed.
I think what’s moved is rather than centering now on the library as “the place” we’re really freed up to center ourselves on the user and the needs of that user. So, I guess in some ways it’s managing this expectation, but particularly we now know that users also experience frustrations that they never experienced before, and that is something where I think we have a lot of common cause. It’s really painful as a librarian to know that we have paid lots of money for systems that are impenetrable to people, and because of this they’re not getting access. Users think they actually don’t have access to things that we have access to.
Last year I was on sabbatical for nine months. So, for nine months I did my library research from my home. I did it from off campus. I filed ticket after ticket with my tech department pointing out the ways that things were not working. In fact, there are at least three publishers in this room who I ended up with hour long conversations doing personal usability tests. So, this issue of how do we center on the user as opposed to on all the institutions that come into play in organizations, I think might in some ways be a bridge to a collaborative notion, not because we need to say “oh, we need to stop hating that awful publisher,” but because instead we’re all focused on how does this user have a better experience?