Three-D Issue 19: The future of academic publishing

Mila Steele
SAGE Publications

Over the past 500 years, not much changed in academic publishing. We printed books; people went to bookstores and bought them. We published journals; libraries subscribed to them.  All of a sudden, none of that seems to be the case anymore. How are simple things like books and journals changing – and how quickly? How are the relationships between scholars, students, libraries and publishers becoming new and different? This is a set of 20 predictions for 2020: what the landscape of academic publishing could become, what I think will change and what won’t, who will survive and how.


Think back ten years ago: the big prediction then was the end of the ‘book’ as we know it. Surprise: I think in 2020 people will be buying print, even the students. Publishers keep assuming the digital natives will insist on only materials that are fully online, and yet students still line up for print textbooks in surprising numbers. Most commercial publishers still rely on print as the main source of revenue in educational publishing, and students still seem to find reassurance in buying their paper copy. When digital supplements are offered, print sales rise, but it doesn’t look like online only resources will replace the print version any time soon.


But…students will want a mixed media learning experience. The textbook is a reassurance and a bookshelf reference, but interactive e-books are on the rise as a necessary complement. Students will use e-book functionality to highlight, annotate, do quick self-tests, watch TED Talks, link to podcasts, and interact with other students in their class.


Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) the future of learning, and therefore publishing? While universities are rushing to set up big online courses, it does not look like this will become the new norm for education.  MOOCs will work on high numbers and low individual investment, and few think they will provide a new publishing avenue for online textbooks or learning materials. There will, however, be new partnerships between universities and large publishers in provision of testing and assessment, which publishers will charge for.


The main change in course provision, however, will be the big corporate publishers moving in to provide course qualifications themselves – and provide all the materials too. So we can expect the ‘Pearson College’ model of for-profit education to expand.


Back in the dark ages of 2006, it looked like print-on-demand (POD) technologies might reverse the fortunes of monographs, by allowing people to buy them one at a time and so freeing up the publisher from investing in large print runs and warehousing. There’s been little change. The university presses and few commercial houses which published monographs still do, and yet POD hasn’t opened up new opportunities for anyone else. Will digital be the fix this time? I don’t think so – or at least not by 2020. One reason is that the marginal costs in publishing are low, but the initial fixed costs are high. Regardless of how the book is delivered, these upfront investments won’t change and the low demand for monographs means online-only  publishing doesn’t save much by way of costs for publishers (in some cases, it adds them in the form of new workflows for tagging, uploading and hosting). That first copy is still very expensive.

What would change things is if libraries decide it is a good idea to bulk purchase monographs in huge digital bundles, creating a new subscription model that would allow publishers to cover costs. I don’t think this is likely, unfortunately for those disciplines in the humanities and social sciences that rely more on monographs for career advancement and scholarly discourse. Librarians will assume that the scholar will have got a few journal articles out of the research anyway – so why pay twice?


As universities club together in consortia to buy content, I think there will be possibility to tcontent collectively too. University presses are under the gun: they are finding the realities of the market as tough as commercial publishers, even if their mandate is only to break even. I think there is a chance for university presses, particularly in Europe, to work collectively on digital output, in both open access journals and book publishing. One reason is that universities are ideally placed in a strategic position between government and scholarly communities to manage funds that will support open access initiatives as recommended in the Finch report. This intermediary position is occupied by publishers, and the university press is well placed to change its role here and take charge of the new open access mandates. The key to success will be collective action.


Copyright? Open source? I predict something in between, with licensing arrangements that run more by menu than by strict copyright assignment.  The law moves very slowly, but everyone recognizes that copyright was invented to serve a very different technological landscape. Creative commons licensing offers researchers a variety of choices in how their readers will access their information.


Gold open access, or OA provided with payment of an Article Processing Charge (APC) at acceptance of an article, will take hold internationally in specific research fields. These will be the fields with most access to public funding, and so those required by public mandate to publish research open access. All that research in the social sciences and humanities that is conducted without public funding – and that’s most of it – will still be published in the old way: in journals that are provided to libraries under subscription. This ‘hybrid’ arrangement of journals having subscriptions and some OA articles within them is likely to persist, with contradictions and wrinkles, for quite some time, at least until collective options for unfunded scholars to pay APCs are in place. What’s for sure is that there will be no ‘one size fits all’ policy. Despite the feeling of urgency from scholars and funders, the reality is likely to stay messy well into the future.


Green open access, that is placing an early version of a research article in an institutional repository, usually after an embargo, will remain limited. Some universities, most notably Harvard, have made firm requirements of their faculty in this regard, but even among senior scholars there is a mixed reaction. Simply put, scholars of all seniorities still need the symbolic value of the ‘publication’ and the quality assurance, credibility and citation value provided by the published journal version. Hiring committees and individual scholars will still value the published version and many will still prefer for that to be the version accessed and circulated in their research community.


Journals will not be online only, but almost. Librarians are incredibly tenacious when it comes to their role as custodians of information for future generations, and print is still the only medium that guarantees protection from data corruption. Publishers will still print for the archives, but the print issue will have all but disappeared from the public view. PDFs will still be in circulation – for many reasons people seem to like files – but most journal content will be accessed in an html version.


Will there be Spotify for scholars? Will people be able to stream journal articles and sync comments and bibliographies? Will the micropayments of the music industry take over, with Mendeley becoming the new iTunes for journals? Perhaps eventually, but there are so many crucial differences between academia and entertainment that we no longer look to the music or film industry for our futurology.


Peer review will change less than many think. It will take a committed, if not hardcore, community of tech-savvy scholars to make the ideal of open, online peer review work. There have been some experiments in putting a text ‘out there’ online to crowdsource peer review. In most cases, the reality is that just because we build it, doesn’t mean people will come. Peer review will still work best when it’s curated and regulated and mediated – that is, managed by editors. That said, I would not be surprised to see more adoption of an unblinded peer review policy, where both reviewers and authors know each others’ identities. And peer review still won’t be paid!


Digitization and interactivity will open up a new world of possibilities for primary source collections, and this will increasingly be the must-have for librarians. This is what publishers can respond to. Publishers, not libraries, will be the new curators of primary sources, by creating packages that allow scholars to explore, navigate, mix, cross-reference and use primary source collections as a multimedia context.


What about the stability of the text? Books will still need a ‘published’ finality that can be cited and referred to; texts will still need ‘authors’, and, as with peer review, outside the most committed communities  books will not become the large webs of content and interactivity we recently imagined as the future of the book.


Amazon will continue to move into publishing. It’s clear Amazon no longer wants to just distribute content; it wants to produce it too. Now that Amazon is into cookbooks and self-help, the question is whether they will set their sights on providing materials for some of the biggest US-style courses. This is unlikely to affect social sciences or communication studies in the near future, but if academic publishers start competing with the pricing power and distribution networks of Amazon for core areas like business & management and health, the whole business structure of many publishers could be seriously undermined. This is one big wild card, for all of us.


Social media will only marginally be a way of delivering content, but it will be crucial to how publishers understand our audiences. We will crowdsource market information, especially for textbook development. We will talk directly to students and find out from them what they want (and will pay for) – something that hasn’t been in most publishers’ market research mix at all. We will use social media to interact with communities, not just individual ‘readers’. But it will not be a way of collective writing, and we won’t have books on Facebook.


There’s an app for everything, it seems, but there will be few publisher apps. It’s been difficult to imagine a genuinely useful function for such a thing, and it’s a terrible way to deliver content, which is what publishing is still all about. Wiley has had success with apps that link their content into conferences, but apps really succeed with constant use and the challenge is find a publishing function that works this way.


For 500 years publishing has worked on a scarcity model, with the publisher working to find as many eyes and minds for texts as possible. The digital age has turned that upside down. Now the problem is not scarcity (of books or eyes to read them), but rather dizzying over-abundance. The transition is a stormy sea right now, but I predict that by 2020 we’ll have made the transition. The publisher’s role must now be to assist in navigating the overload to find what scholars need for their students, their citations and their own research. We will continue to do this in a number of ways. Publishing will still be the stamp of ‘quality assurance’; it will still matter to be a trusted publisher and not a suspicious shopfront or unscrupulous publisher hoovering up anything and email-blasting the conference listservs. So rather than managing scarcity, publishers will provide navigation. Publishers will mastermind new packages of content where the ‘product’ is as much the map and navigation tools as the written work within it. These will be new ‘communities’ of previously published content, with huge networked resources of books that allow easy, relevant discovery. The publishers that survive will be the publishers that can manage this new role.


Let’s not forget the political economy of publishing. There are costs and there is work – lots of each – and we can never expect that universities or departments will manage it all. Publishers, not universities or libraries, must manage the digital labour behind the huge amount of work in tagging, coding and cross-referencing that allows the networked hyperlinking across journals and, soon, book content online. The gift economy that underpins academic publishing will never be entirely replaced. With 3 million journal articles submitted every year (and 1.5 million of them published) peer review will remain unpaid, while the pressures to contribute this work to the system will only increase. While it will get ever easier to find journals for your research, it will be more difficult to know how to build a career strategy with your publishing. Trying to get into prestigious journals, prove ‘impact’, get your research open access and satisfy your head of department all at once will be just as difficult in 2020 as it is today. So it will be easier to get published, and harder to get tenured with the ‘right’ publications. There will be more investment required to keep up, and less money to go around for everyone: authors, libraries and publishers. Some journals and publishers won’t survive and authors will be working even harder with writing and reviewing. Scholarly societies who rely on their journals for revenue will have to balance their budgets in new ways. Sounds grim but it’s not all bad news for authors. There will be more readers reached, more research widely shared, more potential for ‘impact’, more scholarly contribution to public debate and knowledge, and hopefully a stronger role for the social sciences to play in public life. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all in it for?


The final question: will we publishers still have our jobs in 2020? Of course I have to say yes! Given the scale of scholarly output, the increasing time pressure on teachers, the need to demonstrate ‘impact’, the time scarcity among students and the new digital challenges of finding and serving academic and student audiences, there needs to be someone in the middle. That’s still going to be us.

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