What do publishers do?

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“What do publishers do, and is their role understood by the science community?” was one of the key questions to arise at this week’s meeting of the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) in Frankfurt, and one which generated much discussion.

Like scientists, the majority of the people working in science publishing (many of whom were once scientists themselves) care deeply about what they do, and about doing it as well as possible—during a conference debate, librarian T. Scott Plutchak commented that whenever he meets publishing people he is impressed about how passionate we are.

As a result there is a shared concern amongst publishers that the people who we aim to serve don’t understand what we do, how hard we work at it, and why what we do is valuable. At the same time scientists, university administrators, government and other funders and librarians (all of whom ultimately pay for us to do it) are worried about whether they are getting value for money. We seem to be speaking different languages, and the disconnect seems to be increasing—discourse in the blogosphere and the media of “evil” for-profit science publishing companies has not been uncommon in recent months.

So maybe we need to frame the discussion differently. Publishers talk of product, of product development, of protecting their intellectual property. This is quite appropriate for magazine publishing or trade publishing, where publishers buy content from the creators and then resell it. But STM publishing is different. We don’t pay for the content and many scientists do provide their time and services for free or for very little in the producing of our journals. What we provide is a set of services to the scientific and medical research community. These services cost money, and need to be paid for, but in some areas the traditional structures of publishing may not be the most appropriate business model.

What researchers care about is being able to carry out their research efficiently, and to get credit and recognition for their work so that they can continue to be funded, and progress in their careers.

This means that they need to be able to

• have their work reviewed constructively by peers for improvement and validation

• disseminate validated results to the people who need to see them, in a way that ensures that people know those results are to be trusted

• ensure that they get the credit for their work, and that funders and employers can judge its importance and impact to inform future funding or promotion

• easily discover those working in similar fields, how they carry out their research and what their findings are (and in turn to be able to trust those results to inform their own investigations)

So the services that these scientific and medical researchers need, whether they are authors or readers, are services which validate, register, archive and disseminate their research, make other’s research easily findable and accessible, and allow them to build these findings. Currently publishers provide these services in the form of academic research journals. But these services don’t need to be provided by publishers—the academic community could decide to find others ways to get these jobs done. So if we are going to continue to be useful to them, then we need to listen to what they are saying.

We heard from the funders who spoke at the STM meeting (Wellcome, Max Planck and DFG) that they want us to publish all content under a CC-BY license. They are paying for the research, we should do that. The business models are there and have been proven to be sustainable.

When Sir Andrew Witty announced yesterday at the Wellcome Trust that GSK is going to make all of the patient data from all of their clinical trials openly available, he said that pharmaceutical industry need to move from the intellectual property structures of the 1970s to one that supports the industry in 2010, 2020 and 2030. STM publishers need to be showing that they are thinking along the same lines.