October 21, 2013 | Dr David Green, Global Journals Publishing Director

Zen and the art of journal publishing


Zen Picture

Pink Sherbert Photography CC BY

Heraclitus of Ephesus can truly be considered the Publisher’s philosopher. He elaborated the doctrine of change being central to the universe. Change does indeed seem to have been endemic in the publishing and research communication worlds since the beginning of the technological and industrial wave based on the invention of the microprocessor in 1971. For the past twenty years or more, every time publishers have gathered together, the talk has been of nothing but change – changes in technology, economic and political context, library finances, the legal context around intellectual property, and sociocultural change. Although there is a real tradition and continuity in our industry, we can take another image from Heraclitus, that even though a person steps in the same river, those who step into it are always washed by different waters: “each individual atom of water, does not constantly change; the totality of things constantly changes” (Roger A. Shiner (1974) “Wittgenstein and Heraclitus: Two River-Images,” Philosophy, 49, 191–197).

This period since 1971 has also witnessed the current industrial wave based on information and communication technologies (ICT), initially leading to process revolutions in our industry, and increasingly now, as we truly enter the deployment phase in the 2010s, to new products emerging. This digital revolution has driven a paradigm shift in our industry from print-based manufacturing to online service provision, causing major disruptions for both markets and products. As with any technological revolution, there are both threats and opportunities which arise from these “waves of creative destruction.” If one area of publishing has responded to the challenges of digital technology, and embraced many opportunities offered, it has been journals publishing.

Since the year 2000, it is estimated that the journals industry has invested over £2 billion in technological systems, as well as innovated in areas such as electronic online editorial systems, author tools, production workflow, plagiarism checking, content management systems, online content platforms, global sales management, and many more elements (“Access to Research Outputs: A UK Success Story,” PA, STM, ALPSP, London, 2010).

The world has changed, business models are changing, and the social, economic, and political context of research information publishing is changing, but the fundamentals haven’t. The other major philosopher who employs a river image is Wittgenstein. He distinguishes between the movement of the waters on the riverbed and the shift of the bed itself; and he states that the bank of the river consists partly of hard rock subject to no alteration or to only an imperceptible one, and partly of sand, which may get washed away, or perhaps more sand will be deposited.

For our purposes, the moving waters could be seen here as representing the changing journal content and its surrounding context and technologies, and the riverbed as the basic structure of scholarly communication with the solid rock and the more mutable sand. Will the rocky riverbed itself change, with some of the river banks getting swept away – a true paradigm shift heralding a new age of scholarly communication – or is it all just the sand and shingle moving around with the flow of the waters?

Scholarly publishing involves groups of researchers judging what is worthwhile work through conference presentations, sharing drafts and research outputs, informal discussion and ultimately peer review; publishers then convert this material into readable and/or functional form and distribute it to groups of researchers active in that field through journals; researchers read and cite the work, citing papers of most relevance, and so create a hierarchy of importance for papers, journals, and authors; in turn, this influences future submission behavior, creating a strong positive feedback loop. Put another way, there are huge volumes of communication between researchers about their work. Publishers convert this into formal, version-of-record papers – which are the building blocks of future science.

The journal age was launched by Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, in 1665, establishing the four principles of registration, peer review, dissemination, and archive. These have been the constants, the unchanging immutable bedrock of scholarly communications – yet are there signs, for example, in the rise of the scientist’s blog and phenomena such as “peer review lite” in some new publication venues, that they represent a riverbed which is eroding?  Together these 350-year-old principles provide the basis of scientific authority – the definitive, authenticated version of the material output from a scholar’s research. It provides a context in which information and knowledge claims can be elaborated, disseminated, and brought into the broader academic and scientific realms. Citations are a positive act of further engagement with that material, and are seen as one of the best proxy measures of a work’s quality.

To these principles should now be added further key publishing requirements which a resourceful publisher is best placed to provide, namely discoverability, visibility, and access – and which can be characterized as representing a new, more permanent deposit on the riverbed and river banks. This involves steering a publication’s audience to the right content and conversely to ensure that that content reaches the right networks. This will partly entail making content easily discoverable via search engine optimization (SEO) and by enabling key functionalities of a smart platform. Article-level marketing push and pull are the key to driving usage, citation, impact, and reputation.

In the connected, open, digital world, we must now add to the principles of scientific authority those of lay popularity – the public engagement and lay audience impact of the scholar’s work. Government and funders, significant new players in the scholarly communication world, wish research output to be unlocked from the ivory towers and for public access to be enshrined in new dissemination models. Ensuring public engagement with the academic and scientific worlds and their outputs is not simply a matter of generating promotion and publicity via traditional news outlets and new channels of social media. There has been a view of the Internet and the “containers” of digital content that, “if you build it, they will come’.” There has been an explosion of platforms, repositories, and the upsurge of “predatory Open Access publishers” (http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/) where there is no indication as to the version, level of peer review, validation or authority and trust mechanisms attaching to this content. The professional publishing groups including T&F have developed important mechanisms around the version of record and the integrity of trusted peer-review content (http://www.crossref.org/crossmark/).

As the work of groups such as Sense about Science emphasizes, there is a clear need in a world of so much information for the broader public, practitioners, and policy makers to be able to have tools to assess a diversity of information and knowledge claims resulting from research. With so many publication venues now available, trust factors become so much more significant. We are a lead publisher collaborator in a major research study funded by Alfred P. Sloan Foundation which aims to look at mechanisms of trust in the digital world.

In future postings we will examine some of these projects and processes that we are involved in, which provide a solid bedrock for the future, even though the currents of change are so strong.

Please do follow me on my new Twitter account @zenpublisher

Dr David Green

Published: October 21, 2013 | Author: Dr David Green, Global Journals Publishing Director | Category: Front page, News and ideas | Tagged with: