Scholarly publishing is at a crossroads between commercial vendors and community-driven services. Eloy Rodrigues from the University of Minho makes the case that more research-centric, dissemination-oriented and innovative models are possible and that universities should be in the driver’s seat of scholarly publishing.
The research community and its institutions, universities and other research organisations, are at a crossroads regarding scholarly communications. Digital technologies, the web and the social and political demand for open, responsible, reproducible and reliable science, provide the impetus for a more innovative and research-driven publishing environment.
But the opportunities for transformation and innovation are put at risk by academic conservatism, assessment systems dependent on publication metrics, a lack of coordination between different stakeholders, and insufficient support for institutional infrastructures. They threaten to sustain the dominance of a small number of commercial players, and to extend it beyond publications to research data.
In the middle of the 20th century, academic publishing went through a deep transformation. Scholarly publishing used to be the realm of academic, mission-driven and non-profit organisations, like scholarly societies and university presses. But since the 1950s, commercial firms began their rise and, in the last several decades, through mergers and acquisitions, have been able to create what many consider to be an oligopoly market. This change to commercially-controlled and profit-oriented publishing has resulted in a highly profitable business for publishers - above 30% of the profit rate in at least one case - and a tremendous resource drain for the research community and public coffers.
Shifting to Open Access publishing, when done mainly through models like Article Processing Charges (APCs) and the flipping of existing journals from subscription to APCs, is unlikely to resolve many of the problems of the current system. Apart from concerns about costs (which may continue to rise), quality (publishers may be incentivised to publish more papers), and participation (researchers without funding may have trouble publishing), there is another fundamental problem: it may perpetuate and strengthen those who already dominate the market, limit competitiveness, prevent or discourage innovation and the emergence of new models and new players. In this scenario, the scholarly communication system will remain essentially controlled by commercial service providers.
But there are alternative models that harness the potential of the digital environment and leverage institutional and community infrastructures and resources. One such alternative is being promoted, and piloted by several initiatives, institutions and organisations, like the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), around the world.
This model, called overlay publishing, involves decoupling the functions of scholarly publishing (which had to be coupled in the print world, but not anymore), and distributing them across different actors and communities. Universities, as long-lived and sustainable institutions, will play a central role by collecting, preserving and providing access to their valuable research outputs. Research communities would continue to undertake certification and quality control using traditional peer review, or other innovative methods, through service layers that connect with the resources hosted by these institutions.
In 2016, COAR launched the Next Generation Repositories initiative aiming to position research institutions and their repositories as the foundation for a distributed, globally networked infrastructure for scholarly communication, on top of which layers of value added services will be offered. More recently, building on this vision, COAR developed the Pubfair model.
Pubfair is a framework for open publishing, which enriches a variety of research outputs (including preprints, data and software), managed by repositories or other data providers, with additional services that support quality control, dissemination and discovery. The idea behind Pubfair is to provide publishing services that enable sharing of a wide array of research outputs, support trusted evaluation and assessment processes, and empower research communities, funders, institutions, and scholarly societies to create novel dissemination channels. It allows researchers to move more seamlessly from data collection, storage and analysis to publication, quality assurance and dissemination.
At scale, a distributed, participatory model has the potential to transform the scholarly communication system, making it more research-centric, dissemination-oriented and open to and supportive of innovation, while also being collectively managed by the scholarly community.
The good news is that the components needed to make this vision a reality - from infrastructures to policies and community practices - are already coming together. There are currently over 5,000 repositories around the world, hosted mainly by universities, which provide access to research outputs. Several overlay journals and publishing initiatives have been established in the last few years and preprint publication have been on the rise in many disciplines and communities. Finally, there is a growing recognition that we need to move away from journal-based research evaluation measures, such as the Journal Impact Factor.
There is a real opportunity for universities and scholars to return to the driver's seat of scholarly communications. To usher in a new era of innovation, openness and discovery, it’s time to be wise, and it’s time to be bold.
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