Finally, academic publishing is catching up with the future

Finally, academic publishing is catching up with the future

Santa hasn’t even come down the chimney yet but the talk in academic publishing definitely has a feel of 1 Jan about it - everyone at recent event industry events such as ConTech and STM Week in London and ITHAKA’s Next Wave in New York was talking about pushing new frontiers, ringing the changes and publishers coming of age.

The recent FutureBook conference and Digital Book World events for commercial publishers carried the same buzz of enthusiasm for “out with the old and in with the new” - with authors talking about working with augmented reality to produce reative work and new predictive technologies from the likes of Amazon that track customers’ emotions and enables retailers to sell more stock “with feeling”. 

OK, so perhaps scholarly publishing hasn’t quite reached this stage with it’s user experience yet… but the arrival of new technologies like AI, blockchain and machine learning are causing more than just a stir in the sector, with several key players commissioning R&D projects using this kind of tech to see how they can improve what they do and how they get it to customers - SAGE, Springer Nature and Elsevier among them.  

But Sam Herbert, founder of publishing technology firm 67 Bricks and Co-chair of ConTech warns academic publishers not to get too caught up in all the hype, and to start by paying careful attention to the “essential fuel” behind the “apps and hacks” - in other words, to focus on the data and content that is the heart of scholarly and academic research. “Learn how best to store, manage, enrich and deliver this data to your customers and then you are in a great position to harness technologies like AI to power new products and services and help customers find the right information, better, faster, and cheaper,” says Herbert.

Coming of age was a message mirrored by Elsevier Chairman Ys Chi at the ITHAKA’s Next Wave Conference in New York, where, in a keynote, he spoke of his company’s total transformation from publisher to analytics firm. Chi said the company had started by asking itself some brutal strategic questions about where the industry was moving to (data and digital fuelled) and how relevant they would be if they continued as they were. Chi said in an interview reported by industry blog Scholarly Kitchen:  “We asked ourselves; what do we want to be when we grow up?”

It comes as little surprise that the internal push back was “violent and robust” at times - a natural rite of passage to buck against change.  But as in life, age and maturity were inevitable and Elsevier embarked on a cultural and business turnaround.  Now, although they still produce the same world renowned content in science, healthcare and humanities, they do it from the position of an analytics company that packages and sells “curated content” in all different forms, and through a number of innovative channels - rather than a traditional publisher of document-based materials.

Thats a 360° strategic turn but other publishers had stories to tell of how they had come of age “in stages”, and breathed new life - and in some cases a potential additional 50+ years trading and profits - into their businesses by becoming more data driven in “bite sized chunks”. At ConTech, food and health publishers IFIS spoke of how they used new technologies to reinvigorate their “middle-aged” ways of working, and broke down the work into manageable phases.   

The team at the Royal Society of Chemistry, who spoke at STM Week, are another example.  Promoting chemistry and supporting innovation for almost 200 years, the society was keen to update its manual open access management system and “put authors front, first and centre.” The team developed an automated and streamlined open access system that was tailored entirely around the customer journey and funder requirements.  Authors are happier, funders satisfied and the data in the new system has the potential to become a more valuable asset. The team now wants to take a broader look at how it interacts with its authors to ensure they are delivering a world-class service.

These are interesting times in academic publishing and recent events have provided much food for thought.  So as we move into 2019, why not ask yourself - “What does your firm want to be when it grows up”?