The academic digital revolution is here... again

What’s an industry painstakingly crafted on authority, history and traditional processes to do, when suddenly the world rips up the rule book and says: Forget the last 300 years. Do something else! Now, your authority is challenged, your history less important, and your traditional processes focussed on the wrong outcomes. First, the internet wrecking ball of the 1990s, quickly followed by mobile, big data and AI; and now, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified all the things you can’t do and won’t do, and accelerated the need for true digital transformation in the academic publishing world.

La la la can’t hear you

Where digital evolution is concerned, lots of academic publishers have been stuck for the last 5-10 years, continuing to survive on traditional revenue streams, but seeing them slowly flatline or decrease. They are certain that change is needed, but unsure how big a change to make and how to proceed. And who can blame them?  Switching from content provider to data-driven product company feels like a large-scale, coarse demolition of everything they have worked towards: lovingly built archives, ink, print, gravitas, years spent pouring deep specialist knowledge into print journals and books. Going, going...  

In today’s smartphone era, it's no longer just the quality of your content that matters. Speed and ease of access are now just as important. What are your users interested in? What outcomes are they looking to achieve? How do they want to consume the information you have? You need customer and content data to answer these questions. But many publishers don’t have that data because  they have outsourced their publishing platform, and the data that goes with it, to large monolithic vendors. Why? In the past the delivery platform was just a bolt on - a box to tick, a generic shop front for the content. And, in truth, being tied contractually into these partnerships has been a good excuse for more stalling… After all, if you don’t have control over this information, how can you get to know the customer and change your focus?  Let alone think about creating new products for them?  

The publishing platform as the heart of your brand

But in the new era, publishers are their content platform. It is how your customers experience you. It is how your authors first interact with you and it informs them how you will disseminate their work. It is an important part of your ability to develop a unique market position. This mindset of publisher as platform is a painful, wholesale strategic change that can be hard for publishers to make. 

Those who resist change, who don’t understand that transformation is not a simple move from A to B, or have a rigid view of what a publisher is and why it exists - or indeed have never had their view challenged - cannot embrace digital whole-heartedly. The move to XML and online publications was successfully achieved as an industry with varying degrees of effort. For many, this ‘digital transformation’ was painful enough - even though they were really just moving print business models online. They grudgingly accepted them because they didn’t really shake up the industry; in fact, they rather fitted with the focus on output, output, output. Even as GoogleScholar, Sci-Hub and Open Access began to disrupt the industry and put the user front and centre, still many hid in the past. But you can’t hide forever.

Change is the new normal

Pioneering scholarly publishing companies did ask themselves hard strategic questions. SpringerNature launched its first AI curated book. BMJ is developing user-focused ‘information products’. But still many publishers held back, afraid of the tough decisions that had to be taken, the cultural upheaval. Going, going… 

Denial is no longer an option. Data makes it far easier to produce content and drive product development that keeps revenues alive when the rest of the world is thrown a curveball. And what do you need to make the most of that data? New technologies to build products that deliver value to your customers. Products that require newly skilled, digitally-minded people. 

So, here we are. That undeniable turning point of realisation is upon us. The comprehension that change, disruption and technological innovation are now going to be constants in academic publishing. And that publishers have to evolve to survive in this new environment.

The bar just got high

But what of those traditional definitions of publishing? Built so solidly and lovingly over the years? Here is the good news. There is a union of the best of both that scholarly publishers can reach for. A powerhouse combination of a desire to disseminate knowledge and share scientific integrity AND make brilliant digital products that delight users. 

What is more, there are product-minded publishers who are already showing us the way. Publishers such as Vicky Williams at Emerald Publishing, Steven Inchcoombe at SpringerNature and Patrick Spencer at British Medical Journal are retaining the very best of historic academic publishing - the rigour, the integrity, the intelligence - and implementing the best of new digital technologies in modular components, developed and implemented iteratively, that enable their businesses to flex and grow. They are building modern information products fit for the 21st century and bringing along the next generation of publishers, whose fresh skills, diversity and attitude kickstart a new dawn in scholarly publishing. It is time.