Societies // May 11th, 2011

Scholarly Journal Publishing: Developments and Implications

The basic functions of a research journal were first described by Henry Oldenburg as   registration, certification, dissemination, and archiving.  This has proved a robust model, with the number of titles growing steadily in an almost straight-line graph, from the launch of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665 to a current total of around 24,000. Michael Mabe, the Chief Executive of the International STM Association and a leading thinker on the future of journals, argues that these functions (plus perhaps bibliometrics) will remain much the same in the future, though the means, by which journals are published, such as pricing and technology, will continue to evolve.

Mabe has also demonstrated that the number of journals has been growing consistently at around 3-4% per annum for centuries, a pace directly related to the growth in the number of researchers. Until recently, data generation increased at much the same pace, but this is no longer the case and, today, arguably the single biggest challenge to the established model is the staggering increase in data generated by researchers, powered by new technology and e-science.  As a result, in relation to research data at least, the growth in journals has been left behind.

 It is also true, as Mabe has indicated, that there seems to be an inherent conservatism in scholarly communication, as seen in a study published by RIN (Research Information Network) entitled “If We Build It, Will They Come?  How Researchers Perceive and Use Web 2.0”, which concludes that: “…for most researchers the established channels of information exchange work well; and, critically, they are entrenched within the systems for evaluating and rewarding researchers for their work.”

So what does all this mean for the future of scholarly publishing? Who are – or will be – the other players in this brave new world of data proliferation? What new business models are emerging? What opportunities for collaboration? And how can we maximize the opportunities and minimize the threats to the future of scholarly publishing?

The Power of the Search Engines

The biggest elephant in this room is, of course, Google, who have already challenged traditional book publishing through their mass digitization program. And, as search engines become ever more powerful in scholarly communications, there will undoubtedly be more new business plans based on their market position.  For example, David Lipman (NIH) has suggested that groups of academics could use Google or other open source systems to produce a journal, which could be available free online, hosted by PubMed Central, and with discovery powered by the Google search engine.  In addition, new forms of social media such as Mendeley, a reference manager and academic social network – which already holds 58 million documents and has 750,000 registered users – could also evolve to produce journals. 

Repositories and Open Access

Another concern is the use of repositories (subject or institutional) that make journal content available without a viable business model, for example, Green Road Open Access (OA), whereby authors publish in a journal and then self-archive either in their own Institutional Repository or in another OA website. Gold Road OA, in which authors pay to publish in a journal that then provides immediate access to all articles, is considered sustainable by publishers,  as is a third option,  Hybrid Open Access, where authors pay to have their article made available immediately on publication in an otherwise subscription-based journal. At Wiley-Blackwell, we have also coined the term ‘Grey Road OA’ as shorthand for articles posted in repositories by authors and institutions in violation of relevant copyright agreements. Both Green and Grey Road OA constitute unpaid access to publisher or society content and are, therefore, unsustainable. Both may also lead to usage migrating from (paid) publisher sites to (free) repositories.

PubMed Central (PMC) is the most comprehensive and heavily funded example of a repository, and there is some evidence that it is taking usage away from publishers’ sites.  PMC is based in the US, but has international ambitions, including a UK partner site (largely funded by the Wellcome Trust), which is evolving to become a European site.  Other SRs (Subject Repositories) and IRs (Institutional Repositories) are also emerging, though in a period of budget cutbacks, their progress may be slowed somewhat.

However, since repository content will typically comprise submitted/accepted versions rather than the Version of Record (VoR) publishers will still have a sustainable future through continued investment in making the VoR more attractive to the user by enhancing the content and publicizing it, for example, via CrossMark implementation.

Policy-makers are likely to be influenced by a major study commissioned by a group of organisations in the UK, led by RIN, and published recently. It concluded that, where an infrastructure of repositories has been built, as is in train in the UK, Green Road OA offers a cost-effective means of increasing access.  However, it comes with risks to the current scholarly publishing system, and may not be self-sustaining so, although Gold Road OA involves higher transition costs, it is preferable in the long run, given its underlying stability.

But these conclusions are based on some questionable assumptions.  The cost of creating a network of repositories run at a standard required to link to publishing and data sets does not to be fully understood and the cost of transition to Gold road OA is based on what might not be sustainable charges for the value added by publishers.

Increasing Globalization

In an increasingly global economy, a number of new countries are becoming significant players in the world of scholarly communications, both as producers and consumers of content – Brazil, China, India, and South Korea, to name but a few.  In particular, no analysis of the future of scholarly publishing can ignore the role of China, given the speed at which it is growing as a source of scientific papers (in 2010, Chinese contributions ranked second only to the USA in volume across the Wiley-Blackwell journals list). And, as China’s economy grows, it will inevitably play an even more important role in determining our future.  Currently the Chinese academic community appears to be fairly cautious over new models, although the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently announced its support for OA policies and the promotion of innovation in scholarly communication.  The next step could be a restructuring of China’s journal publishing (currently around 8,000 titles); with a small number of large organizations emerging that have the potential to become global players.  Given the level of state control in China, such changes could be implemented relatively quickly, thus any vision for 2020 must include a strong Chinese presence.

Social Media and Peer Review

Social networking, which is rapidly becoming an important form of communication for researchers, offers tremendous opportunities for scholarly publishers and societies, but may also carry some risks. 

For example, rather than complementing the existing peer review function now undertaken by publishers, social networking could potentially replace it.  It seems unlikely that this will happen in the near future not least because, according to two recent studies, researchers still value peer review and the other related services that publishers provide. A PRC survey found that only 12% of respondents were dissatisfied with the current peer review system, while in 2009 Sense about Science found that 69% were ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with peer review (interestingly, up from 65% in a 2007). Conversely, although respondents to the PRC survey saw post-publication review as a useful supplement (53%), only 19% rated it as a powerful alternative.

There is no doubt that peer review is a massive effort though – Adrian Mulligan (Elsevier) noted at the 2011 APE (Academic Publishing in Europe) Conference that 1.4 million peer-reviewed articles were published in 2009, with each review taking two to four hours.  Nevertheless, publicly expressed fears of a so-called crisis in peer review appear to be unfounded; at Wiley, we handled 12% more submissions in 2010 using online peer review management systems.

The RIN study mentioned above also found that researchers still place the highest value on well-established channels of communication, which ensure both recognition and career rewards from that recognition.  For example, although about half the respondents share their work with colleagues, only 5% publish their outputs and their “work in progress” openly. In addition, only 13% of respondents use Web 2.0 tools and file-sharing services frequently and 39% are not currently using them at all. Respondents were also concerned about the lack of formal peer review, and researchers expressed caution about sharing results when no standardised way to formally attribute authorship has emerged.

A recent survey by CIBER, the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research at University College London, produced more positive conclusions on the role of social media, finding serious application at all points of the research life cycle, with the three most popular social media tools in a research setting being collaborative authoring, conferencing and scheduling meetings, which all complement, rather than compete with, journal publishing. As Phil Davis and David Crotty have noted in The Scholarly Kitchen, however, such surveys are subject to sampling bias, basically reporting on the behaviour of a self-identified group of social media enthusiasts.

Publishing Ethics

Partly as a response to the anarchic nature of social media, publishing ethics are being taken increasingly seriously.  Indeed, Richard Horton (editor of The Lancet, speaking at the 2010 Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers conference) believes that the moral agenda will be even more important than technological developments in future. Publishers, societies, and funders are therefore investing more in quality; integrity of data; detecting and dealing with plagiarism; and implementing guidelines on conflicts of interest and the correct acknowledgement of authorship.  The role of COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, has been crucial, with its influence spreading from its base in medicine to facilitate good practice across all disciplines.  The recent launch of CrossCheck by CrossRef as a tool to help combat plagiarism is another important development.

These higher ethical standards will help set the Version of Record apart from other forms of communication between researchers which, as we have seen, will be vital in future.

Changing Technology

With most journals now available online, and the resulting increase in online subscriptions and decline in print, future technology changes are likely to focus primarily on making digital content even more accessible, especially through handheld devices, including tablets such as the iPad. However, although there are clear benefits for users, there are a number of challenges for publishers and other content providers.  For example, none of the three main mobile platforms – iPhone, Blackberry, and Android OS – uses the same operating system. With each platform currently accounting for around 30% of mobile usage, it is impossible to predict which, if any, will dominate the market in future, leaving publishers and developers with the risk of either specializing or over-investing.

Nevertheless, while we cannot know what the handheld devices of the future will look like, nor their functionality, we can be certain that publishers and developers, working together, “will find ingenious ways of bringing together information from different sources to deliver cost efficiencies and better outcomes” in the years to come. 


Unlike the music and newspaper industries, which primarily sell to individuals, journal publishing has to date become stronger through digitization and the internet.  The support of its institutional customers has been important during this change, and the academic community has benefitted from faster publication and wider access.

Continuing to build this partnership between the scholarly community, libraries and publishers is critical, not just in maintaining the “big deal” but in meeting the huge challenge of curating data for access and sharing. The Scholarly Publishing Roundtable was a step in the right direction.  It was set up by the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) on the premise that the academic community, libraries, and publishers have traditionally been partners, and that they should return to this tradition in order to solve the public access question. 

But there is certainly more to be done.  Fred Dylla (American Institute of Physics) recently described the current policy for US publicly funded scientific data as muddled, with the muddle continuing:  different rules for each department, policies varying by funder, type of research, university, and discipline.  Eefke Smit (STM: International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers) has reported a similar muddle among publishers. For example, in the Parse insight 2009 survey, 71% of the larger publishers stated that authors can submit their underlying digital research data, yet 69% of the larger publishers said that they have no preservation arrangements for digital research data.

Smit and others at recent meetings have drawn attention to Jim Gray’s (Microsoft) model of four science paradigms:

1. Thousands of years ago: science was empirical, describing natural phenomena

2. Last few hundred years: it was theoretical, using models and generalizations

3. Last few decades: it has been computational, simulating complex phenomena

4. Today: it’s all about data exploration, unifying theory + experiment + simulation

The current era of “Data Exploration” should be a tremendous opportunity for publishers over the next decade.  As Smit has outlined: “data and publications belong together” because publications: 

  • make data discoverable
  • are the most thorough metadata of data
  • provide the author/researcher credits for the data
  • gain depth by supplying data

Any vision for the future must be based on a productive partnership with other stakeholders. Together we have to face the challenge of curating data in support of journal content and making it accessible for sharing.

Based on a talk given by Robert Campbell at the PSP (Professional & Scholarly Publishing) Conference in Washington (4 February 2011



Michael Mabe, The Growth and Number of Journals. Serials: The Journal for the Serials Community, Volume 16, Number 2 / July 01, 2003

RIN, If You Build It, Will They Come? How Researchers Perceive and Use Web 2.0

Research Information Network 2011, Heading for the open road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications Mark Ware, Peer Review: Benefits, Perceptions and Alternatives. Publishing Research Consortium, 2008

Tom Kuipers & Jeffrey van der Hoeven, Insight into Digital Preservation of Research Output in Europe. PARSE, 2009