Predicting 2019 is a fool’s game… so here are some predictions!

Five things that may or may not happen this year — In his first post of 2019, Simon Linacre lifts the lid on what he expects to happen in the most unpredictable of years since, erm, 2018…


A very Happy New Year to everyone, and as has become traditional in post-Christmas, early-January posts, I thought I would bring out the old crystal ball to try to predict some trends and areas of development in scholarly publishing in 2019. However, please do not think for one second that this is in any way a scientific or even divine exercise, as we all know that we may as well just stick a few random happenings on a wall and throw darts at them blindfolded to try and somehow see what may or may not occur in the next few months. So, with that caveat in mind, here are five predictions that at least may have some vague hope of coming to pass this year:

  1. #Plan_S – the agreement from 11 major European funders to mandate certain types of Open Access publications from researchers they have supported – has already kept commentators busy in scholarly communications in the early days of 2019. Suffice it to say it will undoubtedly gain traction, with all eyes on the U.S. and China simultaneously to see if funders in those research behemoths sign-up to or explicitly support the movement. However, while Plan S may hasten change in STEM funding and publishing communities, this change may be quicker than academia itself can change, with petitions being raised against it and significant communities outside either Europe and/or STEM subjects still largely oblivious to it.
  2. The most popular research-related search terms in 2018 included ‘AI’ and ‘blockchain’, as the belief is that both can have a major influence on scientific development in a huge range of areas. Expect 2019 to see these both have more of an influence on scholarly publishing, with applications of blockchain to peer review systems and AI improving the ways knowledge is utilized, especially in countries set up for exploiting such opportunities.
  3. Hot on the heels of the news that the whole Editorial Board of Elsevier’s Informetrics journal has resigned to form their own journal Quantitative Science Studies with MIT Press, bibliometrics should remain in the headlines with new metrics appearing or rumored on a regular basis. Chief among these will be new rankings slated to appear from Times Higher Education and other organizations based around utility, impact or relevance rather than as a proxy for quality.
  4. While any prediction around Brexit – especially this week, day, hour, or even minute – is wholly futile, several shifts can already be seen to be occurring as a result of this and other major political events. Uncertainty around Brexit, especially based on fears of the so-called no-deal Brexit, will inevitably cause some prospective students to think long and hard about any plans they had to study in the UK, while President Trump’s one-of-a-kind presidency may have a similar effect. Major elections in Europe will also have major ramifications for higher education, not least where the EU research money goes if/when the UK eventually exits.
  5. Given the increasingly complicated nature of higher education on both a macro- and micro-scale, it is also to be hoped that we all become a little more skilled and experienced at dealing with this so-called ‘VUCA’ environment – an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Steering through these uncharted waters in the calmest way possible can be the only path to take – and it is to be hoped our leaders show us the way.

Curiosity, curation and cures

In his latest post, Simon Linacre considers ways to solve new problems in an old industry from CISPC 2018


This week saw the second hosting of the Challenges in the Scholarly Publishing Cycle (CISPC) event in London, where a motley collection of publishers, librarians and researchers convened to discuss the latest issues in the scholarly publishing industry. The usual suspects – open access (OA), discoverability, accessibility – were given an airing, as were some new issues that hadn’t seen the light of day even a year ago, such as Plan S. With these topics and a mix of attendees, it was no surprise that full and frank exchanges ensued.

Adding grist to the mill of scholarly publishing discourse was The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018 report, which was released at the event. A detailed survey of the three main stakeholder groups, the report covers the issues above and a host of others in a wide-ranging overview of what’s on the minds of the great and the good in the industry. While having an inevitable UK focus – I’ll spare the intricacies of the REF for those of you outside Blighty – many of the findings will be familiar to all. Taking each group in turn:

  • For researchers, the most important challenges they identified currently were open access and licensing, discoverability and accessibility
  • For publishers, the key challenges were trust and validation, discoverability and policymakers’ scholarly publishing policies
  • While for librarians it was OA and accessibility, as well as scholarly publishing policies.

Curiouser and curiouser

While the issues were familiar – as were the shrugs when confronted with how to bridge some of the divides – there were a couple of stark omissions from the debate that perhaps could have shed some new light. Firstly, during an animated discussion of who were the real gatekeepers of scholarly publishing, which swung between publishers and librarians, the role of editors was curiously absent. Surely, with fast-moving changes in policymaking, mandates and author choice for their outputs, the role of editor as curator has never been more crucial?

Secondly, an old favorite of The Source reared its ugly head again in the shape of unintended consequences. Particularly in respect of Plan S and how things may get shaken out, it was evident from the flummoxed faces of all in attendance that there was much to still comprehend for all concerned. Could it accelerate predatory publishing practices? Will the ‘publish or perish’ culture alive and well in many countries be marginalized? Will journals see large scale consolidation and fragmentation? Again, the sage voice of editors would have brought welcome insight.

A problem shared

What was encouraging was that the report highlights some shared issues where much-improved communication and collaboration could help cure some longstanding problems that have become increasingly troublesome for all stakeholder groups. The ills of predatory publishing were mentioned by representatives of industry members as a major challenge, as was the different rates of change in the regulatory environment. However, some of the conclusions of The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018 report offered at least a glimmer of hope in the December gloom:

  • Better evaluative metrics for researchers will support the whole industry in dealing with the rise of impact evaluation and offer ample opportunity for collaborative working on all sides
  • Greater transparency by publishers, particularly around APCs and on behalf of society publishers who may have a distinct and more compelling offer than their larger cousins
  • Continued collective action by librarians, as seen in Sweden and Germany where they have made large-scale cancellations of content, may be replicated elsewhere and hasten change
  • Moving beyond open access, in the shape of seeking to address other issues in a shared publishing system, with the aim of making progress in other areas that often get neglected in the all-encompassing OA debate.

Who knows what will happen in the intervening 12 months before what will hopefully be the third CISPC event, but for many in the UK, it is difficult to think about anything beyond the 29th March 2019. With the balance of power likely to continue changing between the main protagonists, what is certain is that further such shared events can only be a good thing.

 

Academic freedom fighters

Isn’t it worrying what your kids pick up from the radio and TV these days? When I was a child – back in the good ol’ days of four TV channels and the one radio station my parents only ever seemed to listen to – I don’t remember hearing the constant stream of news stories about rape, murder, sera misconduct or violence that seem to dominate the news programs today. Is that right, or am I donning the same rose-tinted glasses that show fashion, music and sporting icons just BETTER 30 years ago?

What prompted these musings was a question my 10-year-old asked me last week while the radio was on in the background:

‘Dad, what are they talking about on the radio?’

Me, not listening to the radio due to an intense focus on making the first espresso of the day, ‘What?’

‘Dad, on the radio. They are talking about something. And they said “post-truth”. What’s “post-truth”?’

‘Oh, erm, well, er – it’s not worth explaining. Eat your breakfast’

Difficult to swallow

Now, I am not saying an in-depth of exposition of modern political discourse and current media disintermediation is beyond me, but I need at least a couple of strong coffees before breaking that down into the proverbial bite-sized chunks for my kids. But it did concern me that while I dodged that particular challenge that morning, it only delayed the inevitable that I would have to explain in the future that there is a school of thought that believes that truth can somehow be ignored in favor of emotion, feelings – or simply shouting more loudly.

For many in academia, the notion of post-truth comes at a worrying time. While the idea may make for some interesting debate and analysis, the effect is to concentrate attention away from evidence and rigor towards something else entirely, as if truth is something that is irrelevant, unnecessary. What’s next after post-truth – post logic? Post-freedom? Post-life? At a time when the need for experts has been challenged in some quarters, and worse wholly ignored, the very essence of what an academic does is also called into question.

Global Challenges

If this wasn’t bad enough, faculty also see challenges to what has been termed ‘academic freedom’ across a wide-ranging number of cases around the world in recent months:

  • In Brazil, academics have promised to resist what they say is a breach of their freedoms by the state after campuses were stormed by police and people arrested for their views following the recent presidential election
  • In Canada, a professor was suspended by his school in the Summer after blowing the whistle on colleagues who had published in predatory journals
  • Meanwhile, in China, it was reported last month that the head of the elite Peking University was removed from office and replaced by a government representative
  • Scientific network ResearchGate has come under fire for allegedly forcing authors to upload their open access publications rather than share a link to them
  • The consortium of research funders that have come together under Plan S – joined this month by Wellcome and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has also been challenged for not allowing publication of their funded projects in hybrid OA journals

Looking at these together, it is clear that there is a spectrum of potential breaches to academic freedoms, and while all such breaches are serious, it is clear that being arrested because of your research or having a member of the ruling party put in charge of your university present major problems for academic freedom. For those academics unnerved by Plan S then, they should think themselves lucky, right?

Wading through the pages and pages of comment on this issue, there seems to be a huge disconnect on both sides. While some open access advocates stress the fundamental necessity to make funded research openly accessible, some academics stress the fundamental necessity to choose which journal to publish in. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and it may well be that both publishers and Plan S alike evolve their policies into a joined-up approach that will satisfy both of the concerns expressed. Like the TV of my youth, publication channels have exploded in number and variety, but research quality remains absolute, and a further fundamental necessity for scholarly endeavor. We shouldn’t lose sight of that or the other academic freedoms that are currently under threat.