Digital content and learning is nothing new. Academic journals and books have been online for decades, many universities offer massive open online courses (MOOCs), and most of us have digital search tools at our fingertips most of the time. But the pandemic has accelerated existing trends, cramming as much as a decade’s worth of digital evolution into less than a year.
Remote learning came with its own set of challenges for everybody involved, already much discussed in the media. Parents have their own tales of struggling with their child’s maths homework, or worrying about the teenager confined to their hall of residence, while teachers have voiced concerns about assessment and attainment.
The scholarly challenge doesn’t command the same level of interest, but perhaps it should. Cutting edge research, after all, underpins everything we know about the virus to date, and informs public policy on prevention measures such as mask-wearing and vaccine uptake.
Cutting edge research, after all, underpins everything we know about the virus to date, and informs public policy on prevention measures such as mask-wearing and vaccine uptake
The pandemic highlighted the importance of digital technology for academic researchers. When lockdown closed institutional libraries, digital access to content soared. But digital also facilitates the proliferation of misinformation. To counter this, OUP launched a Covid-19 information hub on our website in late January 2020, sharing research findings and data relevant to the pandemic rapidly and openly to help support the public health response with free access to hundreds of articles, chapters, and books. To date, the hub and its content has exceeded 30 million views.
Digitization is clearly a benefit in this instance, but dig a little deeper and you’ll see an uneven pattern emerging. Some disciplines are more digitally advanced than others. Academic researchers are increasingly challenged to demonstrate impact, their ability to do so often linked to lucrative research grants and career progression, creating an environment in which scholars must advocate for both themselves and their work. The scholars who may find this particularly challenging are those in the Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy (SHAPE) disciplines. If your research output isn’t a vaccine or a widget, just how do you demonstrate its impact?
UCAS suggests student numbers in arts subjects are in steady decline, while the Department of Education explicitly associates STEM subjects with better job prospects, reducing subject funding for the humanities. SHAPE disciplines face a real threat as the digital transition accelerates—not just because in some ways they are not used to operating digitally, but because they often don’t get the recognition that they deserve and risk being seen as secondary, rather than complementary, to STEM. Scholarly publishers must play their part in changing this narrative. As the world’s largest humanities publisher, OUP is already working hard to support SHAPE subjects and help them thrive in the digital environment. Key to this is content, ensuring that the breadth and depth of SHAPE research is reflected in what is available to access digitally.
In 2019, we carried out joint research with Cambridge University Press to inform an evidence-based view of the role of the academic monograph in the research workflow. Core to these findings, from almost 5,000 responses, was the widely-held conclusion that the monograph remains vital to the scholarly ecosystem, not simply as an output, but as an organising principle central to the process, providing a framework to structure research. In many fields, the monograph remains the main scholarly contribution, defining areas of study for many years, even decades.
But its use has shifted over time, with readers more likely to engage at a chapter level rather than reading a single book cover to cover. This disaggregation is made possible by digital dissemination, enabling quick reading and searching, with discoverability powering meaningful journeys between different pieces of content. The academic publisher’s imprimatur remains critically important here too, providing as it does a compass to help readers and learners navigate the mass of content online (that OUP Covid hub again, and its 30 million views). And what all of this adds up to—the curation and cultivation of quality scholarship, and its dissemination in ways that will deliver amplification and reach, to both the author and their work—is impact.
As a scholarly publisher, we need to advocate for the future of formats such as the monograph, that remain important to various disciplines, by helping them transform for the digital age. Digital allows us to experiment with changes to content, length, and dissemination. It gives us the opportunity to reduce the time between submission and publication, taking work more quickly on that journey from author to reader, and to experiment with open access and other models, driving discoverability, citation, and usage. Perhaps most exciting of all is the possibility that digital tools could help build more bonds between STEM and SHAPE disciplines, encouraging greater collaboration. The use of data analytics, machine learning, and AI to analyze texts, music, or data, on a previously unimaginable scale, combines the best of both STEM and SHAPE.
At Oxford University Press, our mission is to advance knowledge and learning by making resources available as widely as possible. As technology advances, our role as a publisher is to support scholars to understand and demonstrate their impact, ensuring that in the digital age, no one is left behind.
Sophie Goldsworthy is director of content strategy and acquisition for the global research publishing programme at Oxford University Press, where her role includes the alignment of Oxford's commissioning with the evolving content needs of the university sector, and working to maximize the reach, impact, and amplification of the scholarship OUP publishes. She is also a writer and photographer.