Amidst a ‘Revolution,’ Publishers Are Told, Know Your ‘End Users’

Washington — Scholarly publishers that want to flourish in the 21st century can’t just keep producing content and selling it to customers. They have to understand how those “end users” work and come up with solutions to help them do their work better.

That advice dominated the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers’ Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, which concluded here on Friday. The meeting brings together commercial academic publishers, including Elsevier and  John Wiley & Sons, some of the larger university presses, and scholarly associations with significant publishing programs, like the American Chemical Society and the American Psychological Association.

“If we’re going to sustain ourselves, we can’t just continue to take what our authors deliver to us and provide publishing services,” Steve Smith, Wiley’s president and chief executive officer, told the gathering. “We happily survived for 200 years not knowing who our end user was. We can’t do that anymore.” Publishers must “build out from our traditional business” and look for opportunities “to expand their presence across the whole value chain of higher education,” he said.

Blaise Simqu, president and chief executive officer of SAGE Publications, talked about the difficulty of being a publisher at a time when public opinion has swung toward open access. He spoke of “the outrage that the public feels toward academic publishers,” and recalled how he had gone into publishing because he thought it was a good, honorable thing to do.

In his opinion, Mr. Simqu said, “open access is a burden on the individual researcher,” who often has to find money to cover some publication costs, like article-processing fees. Meanwhile, “the faculty has very much decided they don’t want to pay for information” anymore.

“Publishers are, for the first time, having to care about the end user, and that’s a huge cultural shift,” Mr. Simqu told the audience. “I do know that we are in the midst of a revolution.”

The cultural shifts are real and must be faced, Mr. Simqu said, but higher education will survive, if only because “college is the most respectable way to kick your children out of the house.” Joking aside, he predicted that “the institutions that we serve, the market that we serve, will survive our careers in publishing.”

Madeline Jacobs, executive director and chief executive officer of the American Chemical Society, made it clear in a talk on “the future of value in the professional association” that publishing remains central to her group. Some 92 percent of the society’s revenue comes from publishing, she said.

One of her colleagues, Sarah Tegen, emphasized that better interactions with the society’s contributors was “key to moving forward.” Ms. Tegen directs the group’s editorial-office operations. “This is the holy grail,” she said. “Let’s really get involved in the researchers’ processes early.” Offer them seamless access to literature, better reference management, more-efficient peer review, article-level metrics, and more opportunities to showcase their research, she said. In the future, she suggested, publishers will deal more directly with contributors and rely less on libraries as middlemen.

A very different glimpse of a researcher-driven publishing future came from Randy Schekman, editor in chief of eLife, a new journal. Mr. Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, described the journal’s emphasis on streamlining and speeding up the submission-and-review process. There’s a pervasive feeling among researchers that “it simply takes too much time for one’s most important work to be published,” Mr. Schekman said. Authors who submit papers to eLife can expect to hear back quickly, he said, and the average time from submission to acceptance is only 60 days.

Mr. Schekman faced a few tough questions about whether the journal’s financial backers—the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Max Planck Institute—might exercise undue influence over what it publishes. “The funding organizations have no say whatsoever in our editorial decisions,” he responded.

He also dismissed suggestions, published on the Scholarly Kitchen blog and mentioned by a questioner, that the journal’s connections had gotten its articles listed in the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central database too soon. “We sought, as any ambitious journal [would], to have our papers posted on PubMed Central as soon as possible,” Mr. Schekman said.

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