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The future of scholarly publishing


What is the future of academic publishing? We’re celebrating University Press Week (8-14 November 2015) and Academic Book Week (9-16 November) with a series of blog posts on scholarly publishing from staff and partner presses. Today, our Editorial Director for OUP’s Academic and Trade publishing in the UK reviews trends in the field.

In thinking about the future of scholarly publishing – a topic almost as much discussed as the perennially popular ‘death of the academic monograph’ – I found a number of themes jostling for attention, some new, some all-too familiar. What are the challenges and implications of open access? How do we make our content relevant to a truly global audience? What is the right response to the shifting market, the decline of the library budget? How might we shift our position along the value chain? And whither print?

The advent of digital, market changes, the rise in importance of emerging economies, the decline in library budgets, the move towards open access: these are shifting sands beneath the feet of traditional publishers. But this is nothing new. As Michael Bhaskar points out, in his lively book, The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network, “Publishing, famously, is always in crisis.”

The Internet is a powerful democratising force and the barriers to entry are falling fast, meaning the role of the publisher as gatekeeper needs to change to remain relevant, while continuing to capitalise on brand as a signifier of quality in an era where filtering the sheer volume of content online can prove overwhelming. Digital also makes it possible for us to analyse user data and behaviour, letting us consider the needs of the researcher, the teacher, the student at every stage of the process, and to put the consumer at the heart of what we do for the very first time.

“Scholarly publishers have always served academic constituencies by publishing in what might be called an “intra-tribal” manner—works by scholars in a discipline directed at scholars in the same discipline—but increasingly there will arise a need both to publish inter-tribally (to scholars in other disciplines) and also to serve as a bullhorn for thoughtful, empirical work in an arena of public debate that has become muddled by a rising drone of white noise.”
Niko Pfund, President of OUP USA

The most significant changes are an evident shift in the market from supply-driven to demand-driven publishing, with libraries adjusting to a difficult budget situation with hybrid models such as evidence-based or user-driven acquisition, which offers more control in the selection of resources and a direct means of matching purchasing decisions to user needs. In short, access is opened to a wide range of digital content, and purchases are ultimately made to reflect the content that sees use during the period.

“The role of the scholarly publisher is changing fundamentally. It will no longer be enough to offer content you can read to aid your research, publishers will need to offer content you have to read. If they don’t do that, they won’t survive. And the quantity of essential content is limited – which has challenging consequences for the number of scholarly publishers.”
Dominic Byatt, Publisher & Senior Commissioning Editor, Politics

A number of broad trends characterise the industry at present. At one end of the spectrum, publishers are shifting their position in the value chain, and redefining themselves as they go, into training and assessment, information systems, networked bibliographic data, and learning services. Presses are also continuing to consolidate, with mergers and strategic acquisitions building scale and shoring up their output. These shifts are echoed in trends around the aggregation of digital content, with multi-publisher books and journals platforms such as Project MUSE, JSTOR, our own University Press Scholarship Online, and CUP’s University Publishing Online.

At the other end are new entrants defining particular niches: dedicated Open Access presses such as the relaunched UCL Press and Goldsmiths Press, looking to digital first to deliver new and unconventional forms of academic publishing. Meanwhile, start-ups queue up to break ground with the latest author tool or new business model. Want to help drive visibility and impact, build your own bibliographical database, take notes online, develop narratives in a new way, crowdfund your project, sponsor the open dissemination of content, increase your amplification, build networked communities or members clubs with bespoke offerings, provide tools for content translation and transmission, for indexing citations and data mining, or self-publish via a range of options, from do-it-yourself to a full suite of outsourced services? There’s an app (or online tool) for that.

What these contrasting shifts – the move to corner the market and the counter move to provide a focused solution to a single process – have at their heart is the response to a lively and exciting time for the industry. Publishers are redefining their traditional roles, unpicking exactly what it means to deliver content to different sets of users, and the activities this enables – literacy, learning, assessment, research, open dissemination, building communities, and many more – and experimenting with the digital technologies that make this possible.

The future is challenging, no doubt. Research funding and library budgets aren’t likely to blossom any time soon, open access solutions will take some time to find their level, the drive to innovate makes false starts and wrong turns ever more likely, and there are challenges in convincing a digital audience growing accustomed to ‘good enough’ of the importance of filtered and authoritative content. But the underlying opportunities are powerful, and go right to the heart of what we are all about: the chance to commission and create meaningful research and educational content and take it to the widest possible global audience, working with our authors and readers in new ways.

Featured image credit: Woman at laptop. CC0 via Pexels.

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