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Why Innovation in Academic Publishing Is Essential


by Mark Hahnel

ALPSP last night announced the winner of their ‘ALPSP Award for Publishing Innovation 2013’.
We were proud to be listed as a finalist along with:

Drama Online

Massive congratulations to PeerJ who took the award for (amongst other things), their innovative approach aiming to bring the cost of open access scholarly publishing down as low as it can go.

ALPSP Award for Publishing Innovation 2013 winners

When I was an academic, I wasn’t that aware of innovation in the publisher space. I saw that there were some aesthetic improvements, but nothing too far from the traditional publication process that has seen academia disseminated in paper documents for 400 years. However I was wrong. It appears that academic publishers can be the ones initiating change in this space, much like the library often pioneers change at the institutional policy level. Publishers are not scared to push boundaries, with examples such as Nature Precedings and the recently announced Peer Review Consortium.

Since figshare was formulated nearly 2 years ago, there has been massive innovation in this space, including but not limited to:

  • Altmetrics: Fellow ALPSP award nominee Altmetric has had large uptake with publishers as ImpactStory and Plum Analytics focus on individual researchers.
  • Open peer review: PubPeer has recently gained the most prominence in this space when a reviewer spotted an error in the much talked about Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer paper.
  • Pre-print services: As well as figshare’s ability to host preprints, we have seen biologist begin to use arXiv and PeerJ Preprints.
  • Document management tools: Readcube gaining big traction to add to Papers, Zotero and Mendeley.

There have been previous debates on why open access is important, how people are not getting new information quick enough due to a lack of access to the latest literature and even going as far as stating that people are dying as a result. This is obviously very hard to quantify. One thing that is not hard to quantify is the following:

Aaron SwartzOn January 6, 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested by MIT police on state breaking-and-entering charges, after systematically downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. For those who don’t know, Aaron played a big part in the formation of Creative Commons (whose licenses figshare use), as well as several other well known technologies such as RSS feeds and Reddit. For downloading academic papers, federal prosecutors later charged him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution and supervised release. On January 11, 2013, two years after his initial arrest, Aaron was found dead in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn apartment, where he had hanged himself.

Again, it can not be assumed that the one thing came about because of the other. However, there are few who can argue that these charges would not hugely affect the mental state of a 24 year old. He believed open access in academia was a human rights issue:

“The world’s entire scientific ... heritage ... is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations... The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it.”

Luckily the tipping point has come with open access. It is now law that all research funded with public money in the UK must be made openly available to all. The White House has followed suit and mandates are drawing closer and closer in the States. This combined with the digitisation of research that Aaron referred to are two of the biggest drivers for this innovation in the academic publishing space. Open access has taken the money out of the hands of the institutions (to some extent) and into the hands of the academics. This shift in power has led to publishers focussing their attentions on the authors. This is where academia in general is benefitting. By working with tools such as the ones figshare can provide, researchers are able to disseminate their content in the format it was produced. They can publish large amounts of data and get credit whilst at the same time adhering to new open data mandates. All in all this gives academics more time to do what they do best, research.

As with all things in a time of transition, there will be further innovation as certain tools become part of a researchers workflow and other fall away. The key to success here seems to be with those tools that make the lives of the stakeholders easier, whether its an easier publishing submission system, or an interface that helps researchers provide better reporting on the output of their impacts to funders. What is clear is that the publishers are helping to lead in this innovation, through models such as Digital Science, PLOS labs and SciVerse. Long may it continue, so this space is never again left with blood on their hands due to a resistance to change for societal good.

As always, feedback, comments, suggestions and ideas are welcomed. Please get in touch at or via twitter, facebook or google+.

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    19/11/2015 04:52    by Dara Dara

  • Thanks a lot for your article, so very nice. And its very good you have shared this ;)

    20/11/2015 16:29    by Marina Aranguren

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