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What has surprised you about scholarly publishing?

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 10.08.2015
Post type: Article
Subject: Technological innovation, User experience

August is the “hinge month” in the academic calendar, a time just before we walk through the doorway to the next academic year. This might be a good time to take a look at what kinds of things have been surprising in our “industry” over the past years, before we have a new year of surprises!

I’m thinking about things that are surprising because

  • they happened faster than we would ever have guessed;
  • they happened slower than we had expected (or haven’t happened yet);
  • they turned out so differently from what the breathless hyperbole or naysayer comments had predicted.

The publishing industry can still surprise me. I start with a perspective from a university and a perspective as a platform supplier and a perspective from Silicon Valley (where everything is transformational, disruptive and instant of course – except when it dies on the vine). So I’ll list my surprises (plus some from colleagues), and hope that you will find this list thought-provoking enough to provide some surprises of your own in the comments.

What has happened faster than (I) expected:

  • How quickly journals went online in the 1995-1999 era
  • How quickly “publish ahead of print” spread across science journals
  • How rapidly Google (web search and Scholar) have become a dominant discovery path
  • How quickly COUNTER usage measures took hold (and then slowed down changes in UX that would shift usage)
  • How quickly DOIs have become (nearly) universal
  • How quickly commercial publishers took up Open Access models (though largely for new journals).

What has happened slower than (I!) expected:

  • How long it took libraries to cancel duplicate subscriptions in an IP-based online world;
  • How long it took basic science journals – at least those without advertising – to go online only;
  • The persistence of the concept of articles bundled into issues — that nearly all long-established journals still rely on “issues” – though many of the new journals use “continuous publishing” models;
  • How slowly authors are taking up ORCIDs;
  • How slowly standards for data are arriving — they are coming along, but are challenging for researchers and publishers;
  • How long it took for a “biomedical ArXiv” preprint server to fly, 15 years after Harold Varmus proposed “e-biomed”;
  • That courseware, coursepacks and textbooks have not much integrated with the online scholarly monograph or article.

What hasn’t happened at all that I expected… my surprises:

  • That online only journals still have cover images for “issues”.
  • At how little the article “container” has changed, though we hang a lot more off of it now. As a colleague noted, “We are very slow to lose the structure of print.. What makes us reluctant to consume knowledge that is unbound?”
  • At how much staying power the PDF has, given how many research objects don’t fit particularly well in it.

What has turned out differently from (others’) predictions, promises, or fears:

  • There was a prediction just a few years ago that PLOS One would expand – PAC-man style – to consume the tier of journals below Science, Nature and Cell. That hasn’t happened.
  • The prediction that a thousand flowers would bloom, and that journal brands would be irrelevant seems to have run into the power of brands and corporate consolidation. Journals persist, and large publishers are even larger.
  • Our ‘enthusiasm about trends and startups’ (as the same colleague noted), though so few have staying- or change-inducing power.

So why do some things happen faster or slower than expected, or seeming stall? The reasons are interesting, and may get into something essential about our work but somewhat hidden. For example, the spread of publish ahead of print has to do with editorial competition; it spread rapidly because it gives editors a competitive advantage in attracting authors, and once your competitor had it, you had to have it too!

Any surprises to add to my list? Do any of my surprises surprise you?

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