The academic publishing world has seen a great deal of change in the past 10 to 20 years and is set to see more in the coming years as technology develops and research output continues to grow. This article presents a brief snapshot of the digital publishing moment in which academic journal publishers find themselves and how they came to be here, along with some thoughts about the future of digital publishing. Within a shifting journals world, continuing to work in partnership with the global research community in order to make the most out of the rapid technological progressions is key to the success of the publishing business and the communication of scholarly knowledge.
Where are we and how did we get here?
Up until the early 1990s, the electronic version of the scholarly article remained very different to the CrossRef-enabled, citation-linked PDFs with which we are now familiar. Along with the rapid growth in digital technology within that decade, publishers realized that they, too, had to move away from the simple electronic conversion of the print article in order to provide the research community with the valued service required to continue the scholarly conversation. Fairly rapidly thereafter, the shift in paradigm—from print to online—had started to drive the potential for product change: the online journal.
As electronic journal products became central to the future of the academic publishing business, more investment in the technologies that would support the journal products was required. With the scholarly publishing community having spent an estimated $5bn since 2000 on digital technologies, according to STM Publishing 2010, produced by stm International Association for Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, the emerging landscape became a fertile ground for innovation in the development of scholarly communications (To read the full report, STM Publishing in 2010, visit www.stm-assoc.org/industry-videos-reports).
Through investment in technologies and e-journal publishing programs, publishers’ models embraced the digital world to provide more value-driven support for the research community. Electronic submission and peer review systems, online editing and proof correction, enhanced search and functionality, online-only sales and distribution offered more flexibility, precision, and speed to the scholarly community. More content was available to more customers and more choice provided to the library community to expand its holdings. Partnerships with international groups enabled philanthropic publishing projects to fill the gaps that traditional sales couldn’t reach and increasingly content was promoted through electronic marketing channels.
Providing the means by which the global research community could connect with each other and occupying a space in an increasingly networked world, the previous process-driven— print and distribution—publishing began to rapidly revolve around developments in technologies. However, despite the changes to publishers’ processes prompted by these developments, the basic principles of scholarly publishing remained central to the scholarly publisher’s concern: rigorous peer review, quality production, and broad dissemination.
How did publishers respond to the changes?
Our online world is constantly changing. From the early 2000s, academic journal publishers, as custodians of scholarly content, made significant investments in technologies to create stable and user-friendly online platforms. Without having to broker the publication of journal content online with an external third party (for example, MetaPress, Ingenta), publishers retained more control over the publication process and built online platforms that could support the central tenets of scholarly communication as noted above, and provide a solid foundation for future digital publishing developments.
Publishers’ online platforms required swift search and browse functionality as standard, but the validation of content online was an essential part of publishers’ copyright and intellectual property rights management. Adding value to the online version of the research article through partnerships with organizations such as CrossRef made good use of the technologies available and kept safe the online Version of Record (VoR) (see CrossRef: https://www.crossref.org/). In addition, publishers’ digitization projects and online archive hosting over the last 10 years have provided scholarly partners with access to archived content and secured a sustainable future for these archives via partnerships with projects such as CLOCKSS (see: https://www.clockss.org/clockss/Home).
Innovations in technology powered solutions for the delivery and security of the online article, but also enabled publishers to partner more closely with the library community to provide flexibility in sales options and to support access into content. Sales models have evolved to include online-only options for libraries as well as the provision of content to groups of libraries via consortia and sales deals. Digital archives have also been created and in many cases individual journal archives can be purchased by libraries whose print inventory, in some instances, has been supplanted by coffee shops and soft furnishings, completing collections and providing yesterday’s research to tomorrow’s researchers today. Initiatives such as Ringgold have also provided a simple consolidation of information exchange between publishers and libraries, enabling more efficient and accurate access into content for the end users (see Ringgold initiative: https://www.ringgold.com/).
Through digital publishing initiatives, publishers have been able to develop philanthropic access deals that make journals available to libraries in low-income countries. Projects such as Publishers for Development [(https://www.inasp.info/file/5c039878f09a104df806301113361a5/publishers-for-development.html) a joint initiative of The Association of Commonwealth Universities and International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications) ensure that scholarly content is provided to a range of researchers and libraries throughout the world.
Through the use of digital publishing to mediate collaborations with reciprocal organizations, publishers are able to provide more support for their scholarly partners. Partnerships with disciplinary organizations, such as the National Communications Association, provide publishers with essential links into research communities. In turn, through the provision of the Association’s journals online, the publisher connects the Association’s research with a global community of readers, endorsing the version of record and ensuring wide dissemination of trusted quality content.
Publishers continue to be responsive to change. An exploration of the landscape of digital publishing in relation to academic journals and their future, should consider what forces are acting on publishing and how their interaction may shape publishing over the next few years.
Where are we going?
In the landscape of digital publishing described above, two forces acting on publishers appear: platforms and partnerships. The following are a few suggestions for the landscape which may emerge from the interaction between publishers and these forces in the future.
The current, enhanced digital VoR embodies peer-review integrity and is more stable, functionally more sophisticated, and published more swiftly online with greater accuracy in typesetting and editing. More content published online means more potential readers, so the experience must be good (either as author or reader) in order for submissions to persist and return visits to be made to the site/journal. Current platforms host multimedia files alongside the research article and link out to related content and datasets—enhancing the reader experience and reaching out to new communities via blogs and social bookmarking, helping readers to collate what they want to read, and adding more source materials to the offerings made to researchers. Related to this is the potential that digital publishing provides in terms of developments for the textbook. Companion websites provide teachers and students with additional materials for use in the classroom and offer a portal through which journal article and book chapter content come together. Curating content, through joined-up online platforms and subject-specific portals, provides readers with a one-stop shop for their teaching and research needs.
In addition, academic publishers recognize that sources themselves are changing, as evidenced in the rise in the use of YouTube and v/blogs in teaching and research
To read a recent article about user-generated videos in the classroom, see Morain & Swarts, 2011 in Technical Communication Quarterly at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10572252.2012.626690.
Virtual Learning Environments and the reader’s changing experience (using mobile devices, iPads, smartphones, and so on) are already having an impact on teaching. Cost-efficient production models for mobile devices mean that the demand for teaching ”on the go” will increase, giving rise to an enhanced distance-learning digital landscape of the future.
New devices for reading mean there is scope for new forms of publication: review articles, “think” pieces, and policy-relevant short articles. Original research articles may in the future be redefined by the online medium. [see Elsevier’s Article of the Future (https://www.articleofthefuture.com/) for how this innovation is being trialled in the natural sciences.]
What people read and how people read it are key questions for the digital publishing community. The online world can provide a huge range of metrics for publisher, researcher, librarian, and scholarly partner alike. In monitoring downloads, librarians can make requests of the publisher to provide more value-driven sales options, crucial in a time of funding cuts to ensure that publishing programs sustain the connection with an expanding global audience.
More research and readers mean more scope for new products—products such as Routledge Online Studies on the Olympic and Paralympic Games (see https://tinyurl.com/7edoexg) and Oxford Bibliographies Online (see https://oxfordbibliographiesonline.com/) returning more precise search results and providing a filter into content for busy and time-poor researchers.
I have noted above how partnerships with bodies such as CrossRef and Ringgold have embraced digital publishing to address some of the problems that could never be resolved when operating in a print paradigm. Two elements where partnerships have expanded and technological innovation has provided a solution for some problems created by the sometimes crowded research space are the CrossCheck and ORCID initiatives.
In partnering with CrossRef on the CrossCheck project, publishers have been able to address the issue of unauthorised copying in materials submitted for publication. The software created to detect the plagiarism may be familiar to faculty, but through the partnerships with publishers, content from more than 50,000 titles can be searched in the CrossCheck database to identify if previously published material is included in the submission (To learn more about software that detects plagiarism, visit
The ORCID project exists to streamline the information about author IDs online in order to “enhance the scientific discovery process and to improve the efficiency of research funding and collaboration within the research community”. This project emphasises the central role that authors play in future development of digital publishing.
A further development for publishers working in conjunction with CrossRef is CrossMark. An increase in the online discoverability of different versions of a paper (personal websites, journal issues, institutional repositories, and so on) can lead to uncertainty about what is considered the VoR. The CrossMark initiative will place a logo on the publisher’s version of the paper to indicate to readers that it is the definitive and most up-to-date iteration. (The CrossMark initiative will place this logo on the publisher’s version of a paper to indicate it is the definitive and most up-to-date iteration. To learn more, visit www.crossref.org/crossmark).
Publishers are working with bodies such as Sherpa Romeo to create positive archiving policies (especially around self-archiving) that are protective of authors’ rights and manage scholarly partners’ intellectual property appropriately.
And finally, sales models also have evolved. In 2006, when libraries requested an online-only subscription rate, publishers responded. The “big deals” for consortia and library access offers for whole content or subject packages mean that digital publishing programs can easily be matched to an institution’s specialty.
Publishers are trying to find a sustainable way to publish; one that maximizes access without compromising returns that will provide continuity of investment in technologies to support the further accessibility of research online. The UK government has taken a lead in this area under Science Minister David Willetts, with the recently published Finch report, ‘Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications,’ (https://www.researchinfonet.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Finch-Group-report-FINAL-VERSION.pdf) and Open Access (OA) mandates are now very much part of the publishing landscape.
The Finch report promotes an approach that has been broadly welcomed by publishers, and characterises Open Access as desirable and inevitable. Open Access is now very much about offering a choice to authors about the terms on which they publish their research articles. (For more on the genesis of the OA movement and Peter Suber’s blog postings are a good source of explanation.)
A missing force?
A third, and perhaps conspicuously absent, force is missing from the above: academe. As primary agents in the production of scholarly knowledge, academic researchers exist to push at the edges of thought and develop new fields of inquiry and discussion. Clearly, digital publishing needs to be fully responsive to academic developments. Indeed, academic publishing has always responded to the way in which academics develop ideas and are encouraged to publish (usually by government funding agencies).
Let us take one final example, and consider the UK’s academic landscape, which is undergoing notable change, not least to its funding framework experience. Pressure on government budgets has resulted in funding being concentrated on only the “best” research (for example, the papers rated 3 or 4 in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework). Government policy is also pushing for a move to more applied research that can inform policymaking or create impact beyond academe: the so-called “impact agenda”. In a changing climate for research, digital publishing provides researchers with both formal (book/journal publication) and personal (blogs, social media) opportunities to create impact (To learn more about the Research Excellence Framework, visit www.hefce.ac.uk/research/ref – to learn more about the UK government’s push for research impact beyond academe, visit www.rcuk.ac.uk/Pages/Home.aspx).
There is no doubt that various sectors of the global academic community have welcomed the rise in social media, but the value of this is perhaps yet to be determined. Given the pressure to publish top-quality research that creates the most “impact” and the funding that is allocated to the “best” of this, any changes in the digital publishing landscape must take care not to result in some narrow version of quality publishing and retreat from the democratization of knowledge that is central to the continuation of scholarly dissemination.
In summary, we find ourselves in a digital moment. We understand how digital publishing has changed the work of academic journal publishers and may see further changes in the future. We have explored some of the forces acting on publishers. What next?
The digital publishing landscape is a complex and sometimes uneven terrain. Technology broadens access, but also demands enhanced services, which come with significant development costs. Partnerships enable connections, but also inspire campaigns for more open content. Academics are given freedoms to conduct research, but may be squeezed into an “‘impact agenda”’ come the time to publish their output. A combination of the forces acting on publishers described above, may determine how the digital publishing landscape develops in the future.
This article draws on the many discussions I have had with colleagues at Routledge, Taylor & Francis and within academe. While the thoughts expressed in this article are entirely my own, as is the authorship of this piece, I acknowledge the impact these discussions have had on its creation. All other references to sources are included in the article