Visions of the future for academic publishing

This month sees the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions – the world's first science journal – which is still published today. Much of our contemporary approach to publishing research began with the launch of that journal, but what does the future hold?  

Philosophical Transactions’ first editor, Henry Oldenburg, famously conceived the principle functions of publication in a research journal in 1665 as registration, validation, dissemination and archiving. He also carried out an early form of peer review where he asked colleagues for opinions on manuscripts outside his area of expertise – though peer review as we know it wasn’t widely accepted until the 20th century.

Journal publishing has evolved – a little – since 1665. We all recognise the typical format of the scientific article and support the concept of the final published article as an immutable version of record, fixed at a point in time. The published article has become an important element in the assessment of an individual’s or an institution’s research; in fact, one of the most widely used measures of success in research is citations to the publications resulting from that research.

To what extent has this evolution led to a gold standard system, and is this as good as it gets? Or are we constrained by standards developed while we printed articles on paper, bound them and posted them in the mail?

Fit for purpose?

BioMed Central senior editorial staff look to the future of publishing.
BioMed Central senior editorial staff look to the future of publishing.

The first journals were launched in order to disseminate research more widely than was possible through personal networks, but now it seems that the traditional format of the article and journal is restricting dissemination.

Could the growing support for themes such as openness, accessibility, collaboration and effectiveness, driven by technology and social communications, radically change the format and role of the research article and journal publishing?

At the recent BioMed Central roadshows in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland, four of my colleagues took a look at journal publishing and cast their eyes to the future. We hope our thoughts – captured below – provoke the same discussion and debate that our audiences took part in.

Beyond the printed page
Sabina Alam, Chief Editor, BMC Medicine

Once upon a time someone decided that Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion was the optimal format for dissemination of scientific research articles. This may have held true in the era of the printed journal, but in this digital age why does this format persist? We’re no longer constrained by space, so why create an online article to simply mirror a PDF?

This traditional article format is not the best way to disseminate and communicate the volume of new results being published everyday.

This traditional article format is not the best way to disseminate and communicate the volume of new results being published everyday. The rate of research output poses a challenge for researchers to keep up-to-date with relevant content in their fields. For example, in the field of breast cancer, 22,712 articles were published last year alone, according to Scopus. We must develop ways to improve the experience for busy researchers.

The PDF remains popular, but mimics the printed page. Why not harness technology to develop the online (html) version of an article to complement and enhance the content in the print version? It should not only improve the reader experience, but facilitate tracking post-publication discussions.

Related articles from the same study should be linked from a single hub. For example, everything published on a single randomised controlled trial, which can take many years to complete, can be threaded together so that readers can easily link between the study protocol, through to the primary outcomes, and eventually secondary outcomes.

To address these, there are changes afoot, some of which include enhanced html, graphical abstracts, and the aforementioned threaded publications. There are also suggestions about how webdocs could change the face of publishing.

To quote Daniel Mietchen, “What if research publishing were to focus on the process rather than coarse snapshots thereof?” So how do you think the format of online research articles should change to suit your needs as researchers?

Will writing articles be so important in the future?
Andrea Melendez-Acosta, Associate Publisher

What if researchers moved away entirely from using paper to record methods and results? Using electronic notebooks allows data to be stored and shared between lab members and others outside of the lab. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that data could be automatically uploaded to a repository or a cloud for analysis to be run. When a significant result is found a paper can be ‘created’ by the flick of switch pulling in methodology and references from lab books and submitting to an appropriate journal.

What if researchers moved away entirely from using paper to record methods and results?

Technical infrastructure needs to develop for this to become a reality and there are cultural shifts within the scientific community that need to occur. Data deposition practices are more common in some areas of science instead of others. The benefits are well documented in an Editorial published in BMC Ecology but there is still hesitation. Concerns about scooping prevail, as the ‘success’ of researchers is currently measured in publications and citations.

Obama recently appointed a Chief Data Scientist and Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy, and Celina Ramjoué from the European Commission has outlined a vision of moving from open access to open science – where all additional material, including research data, is open.  We can be sure it will be high on the agenda for funders and researchers for years to come.

Results aren’t just for researchers
Kathryn Wilson, Associate Publisher

Patient and public involvement in research is defined as research  ‘by’ and ‘with’,  rather than ‘about’ ‘to’ and ‘for’ patients, carers and the public. It’s a concept  that is embedded in the work of a number of organisations such as the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK, and the National Institute for Health Research. Indeed, it has gained enough traction to spark the launch of a BioMed Central journal, Research Involvement and Engagement.

Patient and public involvement can be incorporated into the entire research cycle.

Patient and public involvement can be incorporated into the entire research cycle: from identifying research priorities and study design, through to implementing and evaluating results. Ensuring this happens is partly the responsibility of the research community, but it is also important to ask what role the publisher plays in facilitating this.

Patient and public involvement is currently incorporated into the publishing process to a greater or lesser extent via methods such as lay summaries and the use of patient/public peer reviewers. But more could be done to make the process of publishing research, and the findings of that research, not just more transparent  and accessible to the public, but also more inclusive of them.

At our recent roadshows, Jack Nunn, a member of the Editorial Board of Research Involvement and Engagement asked a key question: Could the publisher better enable the sharing of data, invite ideas and criticism of existing practice, and drive forward new innovations that allow the public and patients better access and understanding to the research they want to see?

Measuring the impact of research, not journals and articles
Diana Marshall, Senior Managing Editor

People like measuring things, establishing order, categorising and ranking. The Impact Factor is an established journal-level measure of citations. Every year journals, editors, authors and institutes prepare to receive new Impact Factors which might affect their journal strategy or where they publish.

Should factors such as public engagement, reproducibility or the impact on policies be considered when measuring the impact of a piece of research?

There is debate about the value of Impact Factors and whether other measures better reflect the impact of a piece of research. Should factors such as public engagement, reproducibility or the impact on policies be considered when measuring the impact of a piece of research?

Article-level and alternative metrics such as Altmetrics are now available and widely used, as well as platforms like Impact Story and Plum Analytics, which allow authors and institutions to look at the impact of their research in a new way. In future, metrics will increasingly take into account more than simply citations but other measures such as how the data in an article is used and cited, reproducibility, applications of the work in places such as policies and software, and engagement or social media impact.

With increasing attention to the impact of the original article – and indeed the impact of the research itself rather than its published summary, could journal-level metrics in future be entirely redundant? Publishers have an important role in facilitating better metrics and enabling authors to look at metrics across all their outputs.

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