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Future of Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication

European Commission (2019) future of scholarly publishing and scholarly Communication. Report of the Expert Group to the European Commission. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Https://
Translation: Dr. Manuel Loyola
Publisher: Dr. Francisco Osorio
Forum of scientific editors of Chile
February 2019

Group of Experts on the future of academic publishing and academic communication

The Expert Group on the Future of Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication was set up to support the policy development of the European Commission on Open Science. The Expert Group was asked to assess the current situation with regard to scholarly communication and publishing and to establish general principles for the future.

This report analyses the recent past and present states of scholarly communication and publishing. It proposes ten principles through which a vision for scholarly communication is shaped over the next 10-15 years. These principles also serve as a way to examine shortcomings of the current scholarly communication and publishing system. The report then offers recommendations to key actors in the scholarly communication system about the best ways to address these shortcomings. The discussion in the report focuses mainly on journals and articles, although books and monographs are also considered, as well as the significance of new and emerging forms of scholarly communication.

The perspective for improvements is researcher-centric, with research contributions considered as a public good. Locating research within society at large, and taking into account the needs and possibilities of those who are not professional researchers – the majority of people – is another fundamental reference point for this report. H. G. Wells’ image of the world brain provides a useful metaphor to sketch the shape of the desired outcome.

Scholarly publishing (and, in particular scientific publishing) has deeply changed since the Second World War. With few exceptions, society and association-based publishing have declined in importance, while commercial publishing has become dominant. Then, in the 1970s, the “Science Citation Index”, a bibliographic tool based on citations and designed by Eugene Garfield has led to the development of a journal metric called the Journal Impact Factor (JIF). This metric has contributed to re-organizing the competition among scholarly journals, and has led to a mode of research evaluation based on which journal researchers manage to publish. Finally, the prices of scholarly literature began to rise well beyond the inflation rates observed since the 1980s, and the growth of the scholarly literature, while significant, does not entirely account for a trend that has increasingly burdened universities and research centres.

Digitisation (online publishing) also began to transform scholarly publishing in the mid- 1990s. Its main consequence was to shift the commercial transactions from buying copies of the literature to negotiating rights of access (licensing). It also led to the practise of bundling journals into “Big Deals”, where libraries buy access to entire collections of journals from publishers. This business model deeply affects the market structure of journals. A system of sharing research outputs has been established across the planet, but it does not reach everyone in an equitable manner. Some innovative features have been added to that output, but much more could be done.

Open access is made possible by digitisation. The motives behind its emergence are linked to the desire of making the fullest use of the possibilities opened up by computers and networks. Finding a way to constrain prices was a second motive. The same innovative spirit leading to open access also led to exploring new publishing models with open access as a basis.

Key principles for scholarly communication in the 21st century, and current shortcomings

Deep changes have affected scholarly publishing, but the process itself has remained remarkably stable. It includes four key functions that have accompanied scientific publishing since the 17th century: registration (attribution),, Certification (Peer review), dissemination (distribution, access), preservation (scholarly memory and permanent archiving). Evaluation is another function that has been associated to scholarly publishing in the last few decades, in particular though the JIF, but its role is increasingly contested. Digital technologies do not disrupt the publishing functions, but they allow for their distribution among different actors, and not just publishers (in the traditional sense of the term).

The expert group proposed a set of principles that should characterize scholarly communication and which can help achieve an effective world brain with researchers at its centre: scholarly communication, needs accessibility, maximum usability, and accommodating an expanding range of scholarly contributions (data, software, new documentary forms, etc.). Scholarly communication, given the nature of scholarly activities, also needs to rest on a distributed infrastructure based on open standards to ensure access and interoperability. The specific values attached to scholarly communication lead to paying much attention to issues of equity, diversity and inclusivity, and to the need for community building. They also lead to a deep concern for the quality and the integrity of scholarly contributions. Finally, scholarly communication should be designed in such a way as to promote flexibility and innovations while also retaining its focus on cost effectiveness.

In its present state, the scholarly communication system displays a number of shortcomings that need to be addressed. On the open side, open access is far from its objective of reaching 100% of publications, and even when open, usage is regularly limited because the access licenses to content are either unclear or missing. On the technical side, the traditional article, often in PDF format still predominates and the interoperability of platforms remains limited by the competition-driven constraints of commercial publishing. Structural inequalities (money, resources, prestige) are also intensified by competition organized around rankings and the impact factor despite many studies showing how such a metric is both simplistic, and may even distort the research process. The building of research communities is hindered by various forms of delays (peer review, embargoes). The process of certification (peer review), while essential to scholarly communication, is increasingly criticized for biases, opacity, etc. Commercial firms also tend to treat new technologies as elements of competition, thus favouring fragmentation and tactics such as lock-in. Finally the journal market, which, in itself, is not completely aligned with the research forum of theories, concepts and facts, also lacks transparency when considered from the perspectives of production costs and price setting.

Key actors in the scholarly communication system

Complex inter-relations characterize the key actors involved in scholarly communication and publishing, while their roles are also changing, as enabled by new technologies and newly acquired aspirations.

At the centre of this ecosystem lie the Researchers, but they themselves display contrasting forms of behaviour. On the one hand, they are information seekers; on the other, they are status seekers. They are strongly influenced by the reward system and the tools used to assess their work (in particular the impact factor). However, a system organized around the impact factor privileges competition of all against all, despite the fact that scholarship also needs collaboration. Researchers’ selection of a publication channel is, on one hand, unduly influenced by a concern with rankings and, on the other hand, decoupled from the financial implications of their choice. With article processing charges, researchers are more directly involved in the financial dimensions of scholarly publishing, but this element can also translate into further forms of competitions for limited funds. Researchers, therefore, need to find ways to act more collaboratively, more collectively, and they need to assert these needs to balance competition with cooperation and collaboration. Scholarly/learned societies and other researcher communities are best positioned to affect change across all aspects of scholarly communication. Finally, an important, yet poorly studied, subset among researchers needs to be taken into account: at the interface of the research world and the publishers, one finds the journal editors and members of editorial boards.

Universities and research centres seek to foster research and the dissemination of knowledge to the research communities and society at large as part of their missions. However, universities and research centres are financed in various ways – government or private funds – and their financial base is related to various forms of assessments and rankings. As a result, many institutions attempt to craft their incentives and assessment tools to secure better national and international rankings.

Universities and research centres collaborate as well as compete with each other. It is to the advantage of these institutions to see all their research contributions openly available, discoverable, and re-usable, and they also have the ability to change their own internal reward system and their incentives. With their libraries and university presses, universities and research centres also have the means to redefine their publishing and other roles within the scholarly communication system.

Research funders and policymakers in both the public and charitable sectors support research for public good purposes. Funding of research as a public good implies a particular concern for quality, access and effective dissemination. They are often directly involved in the evaluation of institutions, while they organize the evaluation of grant submissions. Such evaluations are usually based on a measurable performance basis, the usual result of which is to intensify competition, including in publishing. They set the quantified parameters of such evaluations. Research funders, therefore, can affect directly or indirectly all functions of scholarly communication, and have considerable power to promote change, most notably in the incentives and rewards systems of research. Funders and policymakers have already played a significant role in the expansion of open access by mandating policies, as well as supporting open science through infrastructures (repositories and public publishing infrastructure) or paying for APCs. They are also increasingly becoming involved in other aspects of scholarly communication, including publishing.

Publishers, both commercial and not-for-profit, are presently the major service providers to researchers, universities and other research institutions, as well as funders, for all the key functions of scholarly communication. They compete with each other, with competition focused mainly on the ‘brands’ of their journals (as expressed through strictly quantified rankings), the scope and efficiency of their services, and the effectiveness of their interactions with other actors involved in scholarly communication. Digital technologies make it possible, to disaggregate the key functions in scholarly communication and publishing. The future roles of existing actors is therefore likely to change, and what is already clear is that publishing is involving an ever greater number of players who provide services in scholarly communication, with for-profit and not-for-profit actors participating, a mix of financial resources supporting them, and new business models emerging. The continuing digital revolution presents a number of challenges (and opportunities) for publishers, not least since it increasingly calls into question what scholarly ‘publishing’ means. The current uncertainties in scholarly publishing lead publishers to pay great attention to what makes the present system work, in particular the underpinnings of the journal ranking system, the JIF. Publishers can work on new systems of evaluation, but they will probably design and accept them only if they link economic and intellectual value in some fashion. Publishers can also offer solutions for the improved presentation and use of research contributions in a digital context, and they can optimise publishing functions in the digital environment.

The fifth category of actors includes practitioners, educators (and their students), and other social groups with professional or personal interest in research (e.g. patients, civil servants, citizens involved in specific issue, etc.). This variegated group – society at large, in effect – lacks a voice to influence research orientations or priorities. Often constrained to popularisation as way to relate to knowledge, this category of actors often feels removed from research to the point of inducing feelings of scepticism. They deeply need open access, and they also need structured channels of communication, in particular with funding agencies, policy makers, and research communities. They should have a voice in the orientation of research and its priorities. They can also participate in certain types of research projects (including, but not limited to, crowd-sourced collection of data).

Recommendations to key actors
Researchers and research communities should:

    1. When participating in research assessment, for example in hiring, promotion and tenure, and funding decisions, focus on the merits and impact of a researcher’s work and refrain from the use of metrics – particularly journal-based metrics – as a proxy. In particular, they should incorporate the recommendations from DORA and the Leiden Manifesto into the assessment process.
    2. Take responsibility for ensuring that all research contributions are made openly available, discoverable, and reusable according to agreed community standards (including the FAIR principles).
    3. Increase awareness of, and sense of responsibility for, implications of choices and actions in roles as authors, reviewers and members of decision-making groups.
    4. Strive for a balanced and diverse representation including, but not limited to, gender, geography and career stage) when hiring, seeking collaborations, when organizing conferences, when convening committees, and when assigning editors and peerreviewers, and building communities such as learned societies.
    5. Work towards increased recognition and appreciation of peer-review work as core research tasks. To this end, support greater transparency, including the publishing of signed reports. Support better training and inclusion, and focus on quality of the research in peer review (Publons And F1000Research are but two examples of sites where peer reviews can be included in a researcher’s curriculum vitae).
  1. In the case of communities of researchers, such as learned societies, develop policies and practices that support modes of scholarly communication in line with the vision outlined above. Along with universities, learned societies and other research communities need to alert and train their researchers to the importance and the responsibilities of communicating knowledge, either formally, through publishing, or through other means.

Universities and research institutions should:

  1. Develop policies and practices to ensure that all research contributions are made openly available, discoverable, and reusable according to agreed community standards (including the FAIR principles).
  2. Promote and implement the recommendations of DORA and the Leiden manifesto to ensure that research assessment takes into account a wide range of scholarly contributions including research articles, preprints, datasets, software, patents and materials (e.g. in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions).
  3. In deciding which infrastructures to use, support, and contribute to, choose platforms using free or open source software, offering open data via an open license, and leveraging open standards where possible. Acting in this fashion will also reinforce researcher-led initiatives that aim to facilitate scholarly communication and publishing.
  4. Strive for a balanced and diverse representation including, but not limited to, gender, geography and career stage) when hiring, seeking collaborations, when organizing conferences, when convening committees, and when assigning editors and peerreviewers, and building communities such as learned societies.
  5. In negotiations with service-providers refuse non-disclosure clauses and include clauses which enable cost and price control, and compliance monitoring. Strive to facilitate collective action with other institutions by e.g. sharing cost and price data through joint initiatives (e.g. OpenAPC).

Research funders and policy-makers should:

  1. Develop policies – along with appropriate funding mechanisms – to ensure all research contributions arising from their funding are available to everyone, everywhere, without any barriers to access or restrictions on reuse.
  2. When evaluating researchers, ensure that a wide range of contributions (scholarly publications, but also data, software, materials etc) and activities (mentoring, teaching, reviewing etc) are considered, and that processes and criteria of evaluation are both appropriate to the funder’s research programme, and transparent.
  3. Develop funding mechanisms to support the development of open, interconnected and distributed scholarly publication infrastructures, and for their maintenance over the long term.
  4. Consider how funding policies affect diversity and inclusivity of research on a global scale. In particular, funders should work to ensure that review boards, committees, panels, etc., are diverse – in terms of gender, geography, and career stage.
  5. Work with the other actors in the scholarly communications ecosystem to ensure that the total costs of enabling research to be openly available to everyone, everywhere, without barrier or restriction, be also open and transparent.

Publishers and other service providers should:

  1. Develop and publicly announce transition plans to move as soon as possible to comprehensive open access (Springer Nature and Elsevier have differing views with respect to this recommendation, a result of extensive disscusions in the expert group).
  2. Develop, use, and support interoperable tools (including open source software wherever possible) and services not only to facilitate access and reuse of scholarly outputs, but also to facilitate innovative interventions of new entrants.
  3. Strive for balanced diversity (including, but not limited to, gender, geography and career stage) among authors, reviewers, and editors who work with publications.
  4. Foster transparency and accountability in peer review, for example by publishing peer review reports and author responses alongside the published articles.
  5. Make all publishing charges public (including special pricing and waivers), and provide full descriptions of services provided, in order to enable the development of a transparent and cost-effective marketplace designed to support the open communication and reuse of all scholarly contributions.
  6. Experiment with new approaches to the evaluation and communication of research outputs, and share the outcomes so that a body of evidence can help to optimise future systems.

Practitioners, educators, and other societal groups should:

  1. Organize and advocate for free access to, and right to reuse of, publicly funded research results.
  2. Reach out to funders, research institutions, and policy makers in order to develop new communication channels, new forms of co-creation and co-planning of research, and new forms of funding in response to needs, concerns and issues emanating from the population at large.
  3. Look for opportunities to engage with research topics / results that are of interest to societal groups and their communities.
  4. Bring forward research topics/questions that are mis- or underrepresented (e.g. by contacting relevant researchers, attracting the attention of other actors in the science system, or mobilising action in organised interest groups).

Concluding remarks
The present situation reveals important flaws in the scholarly publishing system. Because the next decade or so in scholarly publishing and communication will be determined mainly by the ways in which the main actors interact with each other, looking for a technological solution to these flaws will not be enough. Two other ideas have also come to the fore: the main sources of money are in public or non-profit hands, and the key publishing functions can be readily disaggregated and re-allocated among the actors.

The most important structural element of the present research ecosystem is the evaluation system, in particular the JIF. It is a direct or indirect concern for the JIF that shapes many of the decisions taken by many of the key actors, researchers, universities and research institutions. The JIF also determines many of the strategies or tactics developed by many publishers. Getting rid of the use of the JIF would create real, if specific, challenges for each category of actors. For researchers, universities and research centres, and for funders, it would diversely affect deeply ingrained habits of evaluation rituals. The idea of dropping the JIF altogether worries many actors. Only the funders can act relatively freely from the JIF. For one thing, they are not ranked. And they control much of the money available to all phases of research. Any attempt at changing the publishing ecosystem, therefore, is difficult to imagine without a central, leading, and strategic role by the funding agencies.

In alliance with research institutions and their libraries, and researchers (in particular with the help of learned societies), funders can reform the general landscape of scholarly publishing and communication, and bring a better balance between the public and private sectors in the ecosystem of scholarly publishing. In particular, funders can ensure the presence of open infrastructures, open standards, and open access to all contributions emanating from their funding. They can choose to become involved in some or all of the publishing functions, and can do so in such a way as to ensure the presence of an optimal degree of openness to scholarly publishing.

Obviously, leadership taken by the funding agencies will need to be supported by collaborating actors. Funders control some strategic phases of research evaluation, and collaborating with the researchers, the universities and research centres should prove fairly straightforward. With publishers, it is clear that cooperation is also needed, and we encourage publishers to report the broadest range of evidence possible to contribute useful information for informed decision-making. Working with the general public in all of its forms should include imagining and creating communication channels allowing for the general population to exercise its influence on research priorities and orientations. For their part, some publishers may encounter difficulties in designing business models that do not take research evaluation into consideration, and all publishers will increasingly need to adapt to rules and mandates that exclude some business models.