The advantages and disadvantages of the digital boom in publishing

This interview is part of a Series
This interview is part of a Series

Interview with Pippa Smart

This series documents our conversation with Pippa Smart, independent research and publishing consultant with over 25 years of experience in publishing. Pippa talks about a variety of topics, from changes in the roles of editors, publishers, and librarians to how journal editors can develop their skills better and publish high-quality publications. She focuses on the challenges faced by journal editors especially with regard to finding peer reviewers in time. Based on her interactions with authors, editors, and publishers in developing countries, Pippa highlights visibility and credibility as the topmost challenges in the journals publishing scenario in developing countries. Towards the end of the interview, she talks about her experience editing the Science Editors’ Handbook. Pippa’s incisive understanding of journal publishing and the concerns she expresses about some issues in the science communication landscape are the highlights of this interview.

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10 mins
The advantages and disadvantages of the digital boom in publishing

Pippa Smart is an independent research communication and publishing consultant with over 25 years of experience in publishing. She is the owner of PSP Consulting, a company that offers advice and consultancy services to publishers, journals, and editors across the world. She advises publishers (particularly non-commercial associations) and editors on the development of their publishing programs and journals–particularly on editorial strategy. She also runs customized training on topics such as editorial skills, journal development, and copyright. Following a degree in Publishing and Anthropology from Oxford Brookes University, Pippa worked for several publishers including Cambridge University Press, Blackwell Science, and CABI. She was Head of Publishing at International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP), an information development charity, where she developed and implemented the publishing support program to provide consultancy services to publishers in developing countries. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Learned Publishing, the official journal of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), and an editorial board member of Science Editing and International Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. She is a non-Executive Director for Practical Action Publishing and a Council member of the European Association of Science Editors (EASE). Pippa is also one of the editors of the Science Editors’ Handbook, a trusted guide used by digital and print editing professionals.

Given Pippa’s experience, it was exciting to have this opportunity to connect with her and learn her views on all things related to research publishing. In this interview series, Pippa talks about a variety of topics, from changes in the roles of editors, publishers, and librarians to how journal editors can develop their skills better and publish high-quality publications. The first segment of our interview is all about changes in academic publishing. Pippa first talks about how journals are changing their publication models and goes on to share her thoughts on the increasingly popular trend of post-publication peer review and whether and how it may affect research quality. When asked about where the current tides of changes will lead the academic publishing industry, she says that she can “see a future with a very different journal landscape” where greater discoverability of research is enabled with the help of collaborations and digital technology. Pippa also briefly talks about the roles of librarians and publishers before explaining how authors publishing open access are unaware of the implications of copyright licenses.

What kind of projects do you typically take up as a scholarly publishing consultant?

I undertake a wide range of work, and most of it comes from specific problems that publishers or editors experience. These can include helping an Association negotiate an agreement with a contract publisher; working with editors to resolve ethical problems they have had with articles, authors, or reviewers; assisting publishers to write contract agreements with editors; advising journal publishers and editors on developing their publishing strategy (everything from how to increase visibility, raise the quality of editing, improve review processes, and develop the journal website to how to comply with international initiatives such as DOIs); and developing support documents for publishers (“how-to” guides for editors, for example).

In recent years, there have been many changes in the journals environment. How easy or difficult is it for small- or medium-sized journals to adapt to these, e.g., switching from print to electronic publishing or from subscription based to open access models?

The work of the editor has changed very little in the past 20 years; however, the expectations of readers (and some authors) have changed and this can be difficult to accommodate. Readers now expect sophisticated online delivery and many journals simply cannot afford to provide this – further disadvantaging journals in the periphery of the mainstream (mostly EU and USA) commercial publishing environment. The online environment is becoming increasingly complex with international initiatives such as CrossRef/DOI (article identifiers) and ORCID (author identifiers), so the knowledge of journal publishers (and editors) needs to be constantly updated. Last year, I undertook some outreach work for CrossRef because they are finding that although they have many small publisher members, these members often do not deposit updates to their URLs, or take full advantage of the benefits of membership (the other services that CrossRef provides). It is technically difficult for small publishers to comply with the various initiatives (even when they are aware) and I worry that the online environment – rather than improving global communication – is actually further disadvantaging smaller publishers.

How can journal publishers and editors stay up-to-speed, then? Who can help them?

There is a real need for the national publishing associations to provide better advisory services for scholarly journals. Some international associations such as EASE and ALPSP provide valuable news updates and access to resources and training, but the difficulty is reaching out to editors and publishers to let them know that these resources are available. Unfortunately, many of the national publishing associations focus on educational and trade publishing and provide little information about the scholarly environment – and I would like to suggest that this is an area that they should address.

Some of the latest experiments in journal publishing propose alternative solutions for quality control, i.e., newer models/systems of peer review. The primary argument underlying these is that the conventional peer review system is flawed or that reviewers need more credit/visibility for their work. As a journal editor, what are your views on newer models of publishing and peer review? Is the traditional peer review system really flawed? Is open, post-publication peer review the ideal solution? If not, what is the best way to ensure the publication of good quality research?

This is a question that is very difficult to answer. On the one hand, peer review is a deeply flawed system that is heavily influenced by personal bias; moreover, it can be slow and can be detrimental to the flow of scholarly information. The various initiatives being tried by several journals tackle the review workflow, but do not address some of these other problems. Initiatives such as F1000Research (publish before review and then add reviews as a “quality measure” to the article) are interesting, but are risky because they provide little filter to inexperienced researchers and pollute the internet with (potentially) unsubstantiated and bad science. Open peer review (naming the reviewers and sometimes making their reviews available) also runs the risk that people will not be as critical as they should be – especially if they are junior researchers – again leading to sloppy science being made available (and promoted as being “peer reviewed”). Of note, all the studies into peer review find that researchers actually want single or double blind review, and although personally I like the transparency of open review I can fully understand the problems inherent with it.

Regarding rewards for reviewers, yes, I agree that they should be recognized in some form. The difficulty is how. In 2015, several Australian researchers made a petition for reviews to be counted in the country research assessment exercise but Aidan Byrne from the Australian Research Council made a point that whilst he agreed that reviewing should be rewarded, the reward needs to be associated with the level of intellectual contribution made by the reviewer and this currently cannot be quantitatively assessed.

Academic publishing is increasingly relying on and utilizing the possibilities enabled by digital technology. Do you see the balance shifting completely in favor of online publication? Will print journals cease to exist?

I can see a future with a very different journal landscape. I believe the top ranking journals will continue to exist, partly because they provide so much accreditation for the authors and also because they are seen to provide a valuable filter on information (high quality standards). However, I can also see a publishing landscape where journals merge to form large “portals” of articles – perhaps with the F1000Research model – to provide greater search and discovery for readers but also with an accreditation mechanism for authors (and perhaps reviewers). Digital technology can facilitate this easily, and it would provide a more cost-effective and efficient system if greater collaboration is allowed.

How has the recent tide of change in the journals publishing landscape modified the role of libraries? How are libraries keeping up?

I believe that libraries may be struggling in this environment. However, not being a librarian myself, I stand on the outside looking in. The traditional role of curation has changed, and now many librarians serve a different role within their institutions. They need to be able to provide advice on the entire range of scholarly communications from how and where to publish to how and where to discover information. They still play a vital role in accessing and making content available through library catalogues and negotiating license agreement with commercial publishers. Many librarian roles have changed dramatically and the profession has had to change its perspectives substantially – but from what I can see they have managed to do so very well and whereas back in 2000 there were questions about the continued need for academic libraries, any suggestions of discarding them seem to have died away.

More and more publishers are diversifying the scope of their work by developing and selling customized solutions to help authors with different aspects of research: what are your views on the changing role of publishers?

I heard a while ago that nobody buys ScienceDirect (from Elsevier) for the content, it is only purchased for its services. I am convinced that the role of publishers has changed from a content supplier to a service provider, and the purchase of service technologies and companies convinces me that publishers need to build on their strength in content delivery and information support rather than to simply look at building content collections. Some publishers are very good at this, but not all, and it will be interesting to watch the landscape continue to evolve.

Today, many researchers are choosing to publish open access. How aware do you think they are about copyright in an open access model, especially about the implications of liberal licensing under the Creative Commons licenses?

I worry that the majority of authors are ignorant of the licenses under which their articles are published and do not understand the rights that they are giving away when they publish under the CC-BY or other similar licenses. My fear was recently confirmed in some research undertaken by De Gruyter. In a survey of authors, they found that the majority (who had published under CC licenses) were not willing to give away rights of translation and commercial reuse when asked specifically. There needs to be greater education about author rights, and in our environment this should be addressed at the university/researcher level as part of general education about how to write and publish research. However, publishers also have a responsibility to be as clear as possible about the rights that authors have and of the license agreement and I fear that most are not very good at this.

What role does social media play in scholarly publishing today?

I have a love:hate relationship with social media. Whilst I use Twitter extensively (@LearnedPublish), and LinkedIn to a certain extent, I fear that I am too old to get to grips with Facebook. However, I do feel that there is a role for social media to encourage debate about scholarly articles and move discussions beyond the article. This does, or course, lead to popularizing the articles that are on some “hot” topic whilst selecting against those that are “boring but important”, so it needs to be treated with care when evaluating the importance of any published article.

This  brings us to the end of the first part. In the next part, Pippa reveals some of the challenges journal editors face in today's publishing environment.

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Published on: Jul 28, 2016

Passionate about scholarly publishing, always looking to have memorable conversations with researchers and industry professionals across the globe
See more from Jayashree Rajagopalan


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