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Millennials, Generation Z and the future of scholarly publishing

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 31.01.2018
Post type: Article
Subject: Discovery and analytics, Technological innovation, User experience
Product or service: Products & Services, Preprint

Alvin Toffler defined change as 'the process by which the future invades our lives'. Toffler's famous thesis is that too much change too fast results in a 'future shock' as we struggle to maintain the pace. It's interesting that one consequence of our rapidly changing world is a cultural shift that positions rapidity - of delivery, service and access - as an end in itself.

The considerable changes in the amount of information we can access and the ease and speed with which we can access it has affected all generations. However, the effect is most marked when looking at Millennials, 81% of whom were, according to YouGov data receptive to "using and trying new technologies to improve the speed at which they do things". They are dubbed by the report as 'The Instant Gratification Generation'. As such, Time Magazine's famous definition of Millennials as the 'me, me, me generation' could just as easily be called the 'now, now, now' generation. Millennials are now, in the US at least, the dominant demographic. Therefore, their attitudes, needs and expectations become the most significant drivers in many B2C and B2B sectors. Hot on their heels are Generation Z, the first fully digitally native generation who may drive even more significant changes as their demographic effects are felt in scholarly publishing in the next decade or so, as they enrol first in Higher Education, then in Graduate School and then become active members of the research community.

These demographic changes raise many interesting issues within our industry. Here are three:

  • First, it's interesting to consider whether any younger generation (be they Millennials or Generation Z) can drive change in a meaningful way in an inherently conservative sector that relies on the mentorship of juniors by seniors.
  • Second, while the cultures and structure of the scholarly ecosystem may act as a 'brake' on procedural change the same may not be true for technological change. Indeed, we have observed over time that the youngest people in the research lab are the ones that drive technological change. They became "the computer expert" in 1980s, then "the web expert" in the 1990s and then "the video expert" in the 2000s.  And then the whole lab adapted.  
  • Third, it's interesting to understand Open Access within the context of the shift towards rapidity as an end in itself. Of course, OA disrupts traditional models of access and also traditional timescales to publication and level of service. The extent to which this 'service culture' is perceived to have grown in import is shown by the way big OA players articulate it in their consumer-facing propositions: "to help the world efficiently publish its knowledge" (PeerJ) and "accelerating the publication of peer-reviewed science" (PLOS ONE). But the reality may be different. Indeed, whether OA has speeded up the publication process is a point worthy of consideration - especially in the case of Mega Journals such as PLOS One. Anecdotal evidence suggests OA journals, in general, are not necessarily faster than their non-OA counterparts but for Mega Journals, authors perceive that publication is faster because there are fewer requests for the revisions that tend to slow things down. In other words, the paper is submitted, and it either gets published or not.  However, there is no doubt that the market increasingly demands 'accelerated' timescales to publication. Even if time to publication is not always a researcher's first priority, it always features in the top set. And the coming shift to preprints will further disrupt the market as researchers will be able to obtain a preprint timestamp and then may again become more sanguine about the time it takes to publish the article of record.

Two recent studies also are of further interest when considering the nature and impact of demographic change with specific regard to changing expectations of speed to publication:

  • First, a 2014 Palgrave Macmillan / Nature survey was analyzed by AJE to reveal "that approximately 65-70% of science authors consider 'the speed from acceptance to publication' to be 'very important' or 'quite important' when deciding which journal to publish in, while approximately 80-85% of these authors believe that 'the speed from submission to first decision' plays a 'very important' or 'quite important' role in their decision of where to publish".
  • Second, a more recent (2017) study of 116 science and social science Early Career Researchers (ECRs) shows that, though the speed of publication is a factor more traditional criteria (such as journal IF) are still are more important criteria for ECRs when deciding where to publish. ECRs (defined in the study as having a maximum age of 35) sit squarely of course within the Millennial demographic. We will be presenting the findings from this study at our Spring Publishers' Meeting in London.

Though the future is unknown, we do understand that changing demography will shape the future of scholarly publishing and drive continued systemic change, specifically regarding online services. Some current trends and changes that we think can be partly understood as underpinned by these evolving demographics are:

  • Attitudes to post-publication changes and associated workflows. At our recent publishers' meeting, Theodora Bloom, BMJ showcased innovations in this field, driven by changing attitudes in the 'online world'.
  • The growth in the publication of preprints. At the same meeting, Stuart Taylor from The Royal Society highlighted the two driving forces behind the growth in the publication of preprints as being 'speed' and 'openness'.
  • AI in the editorial workflow. In a recent post, we discussed our partnership with Meta to deploy Meta Bibliometric Intelligence to augment editors' effort in the editorial workflow.
  • Mobile first. Of course, access to content and transactions by mobile is one of the defining trends of Millennials when compared to both Gen X and Boomers. The smartphone and the unfettered instant access it provides to content is totemic and "brands who are winning in the mobile-first economy are designed for convenience". Anurag Acharya and Alex Verstak - Google Scholar's co-founders - presented data on mobile access at a recent Highwire Publishers' meeting at Stanford. This data revealed that Google Web Search traffic is 50% mobile yet Google Scholar is only 10% mobile.  Our current project with Google Scholar - 'Quick Abstracts' - therefore seeks to address this disparity.  The key point is that Google has found that mobile traffic is additive to traditional web search traffic - that is, mobile search is not being transferred or displaced from traditional search, but new users and new uses.  So mobile scholarly work could have this same additive effect if it is enabled, along with seamless access as we are implementing with CASA.

There is no doubt that new technologies, approaches and behaviors will continue to generate tensions between tradition and innovation, between the way things were and the way they may be in the future. Demography is, of course, an unstoppable force. Because of this millennials will only have a short amount of time to recast our industry in their own image before they, in turn, will need to consider the emergent Generation Z.  

And as Mary Visser writes in Nine things you need to know about Generation Z:

"Digital channels provide immediate social connection; immediate access to information; immediate access to entertainment; immediate service fulfillment. These young people do not expect to wait for things."

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