Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"The old git slot:": a life in scholarly publishing flashing before our eyes

"I've drawn the old git slot," said John Cox ruefully as he took the stage, and then proceeded to confirm that judgement by listing the plethora of modern office necessities not yet invented when he started in publishing, and bemoaning the "witless wonders" that are our modern youth.

Yet plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Scholarly publishing is essentially the same industry as it was when UKSG was founded 30 years ago - and in fact the principles on which publishing rested 300 years ago are still relevant today. Even commercial publishing has been around longer than we think; Cox cited examples from the 18th and 19th centuries. And back at the beginning of Cox's career, journal publishing was rudely healthy. Librarians had ample funding and researchers' appetites for information were not yet overwhelmed. But social changes began to limit the growth of libraries' budgets such that journals began to be cancelled and success for new journals was not so immediate (as Paul Calow noted in yesterday's "Financial Imperatives" session, it now takes 7 years for a new title to break even).

Then along came a spider ... or, in fact, its Web. The shift from print to online may not yet be complete, but about 90% of scholarly journals are now online, and this has changed the way that libraries and publishers do business together - for example, with consortial purchasing. One consequence of online publishing is the hunger for Open Access - an unproven business model which has not yet shown itself to be sustainable, says Cox, particularly across the broader and non-scientific literature. Further, as Sally Morris had noted this morning, the Open Archive movement is potentially damaging to the scholarly journal; the world's 850 institutional repositories may currently be scantly populated (with academics actually admitting they are "distinctly unwilling" to deposit), but they are being supported by a number of major funding agencies, and may yet grow sufficiently to change the current landscape.

Cox took a detour at this point to acknowledge the effect on scholarly communications of Google, "the search engine of choice for most of us" (albeit propounding the common misconception that the search giant has indexed "most journals" in Google Scholar ). Google is getting closer and closer to us and will "shape the development of our industry over the next 5 to 10 years", having already revolutionised things with its page rank algorithm.

The future for publishers, therefore, is in the functionality within which they wrap their content. If the research itself is freely available - and easily discoverable - elsewhere, publishers have to differentiate themselves with truly useful features (e.g. supporting datasets, taxonomies, community facilities). Cox praises OECD's SourceOECD for using the capabilities of online to add massive value over the print, and Alexander Street Press for building communities in the humanities - demonstrating the value across different sectors.

Web 2.0 "will bring further changes", of which user-generated content and folksonomies have most relevance to scholarly publishing. They represent the value-adds which can differentiate publisher platforms from institutional repositories - if publishers are willing or able to make the necessary investment in technology, and to make the transition to being service providers rather than manufacturers.

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