David Payne: Innovation and scholarly publishing

David PayneAt a conference I attended in Washington DC last week we discussed innovation in scholarly publishing. One activity was to fast forward to 2022 and imagine what would have changed in the industry. Would print be dead, replaced by tablet and other mobile apps? Will journals still exist in their current form? Might authors bypass them entirely and self-publish? If so, what can journals offer instead?

We plotted these ideas on a timeline. Then our “innovation games” facilitator, Jonathan Clark, asked us to identify what development led to some of the ideas highlighted above, and to suggest a date for this also. In other words, to rewind back to 2012.

The group I was with decided that by 2022 publishers might be in the “relationship” business, and the development that led to this was the insistence by a growing number of governments that publicly funded research should be open access. The UK government, for example, has identified 2014 as a target date.

With more and more digital natives who had never known life without the internet in the academic workforce, my group wondered if more authors might routinely self-publish on their own websites, or on non-journal ones. All peer review would happen post publication.  Journals might see a future business model in aggregating content, ranking and rating authors and their papers based on citations, and by how much comment and debate their paper has generated. In other words, using crowdsourcing to map the quality of the relationship between and author and her or her readers.

We were inspired in this by an earlier presentation by Alison Denby, US Executive Editor of Oxford University Press. Alison described how its book and monograph chapters are now kept up to date in an online world. We wondered if the ability to update in this way is blurring the divide between books and journals. Alison also talked about how OUP is extending its online offering to other university press publishers, offering academic readers links to more relevant titles outside their own stable of publications.

At the start of the conference we were asked to draw a picture that described innovation. Mine was a box, but “outside the box” were products I felt had delivered genuine innnovation—the Dyson cleaner, Apple’s iPod, Google’s search engine and its subsequent sister products, bagged salad (BMJ Group’s head of marketing frequently cites this as an example of something the public didn’t know they wanted until it arrived on the supermarket shelves).

Talking of boxes, a third group activity was to create packaging for an innovative product, using old magazines. My group’s buzzwords were sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and modularity. Before long our scissors had descended on back copies of National Geographic magazine and we were cutting out images of rainforest and dolphins. For us innovation meant modularity, bolting on products and offshots as Google has done with gmail, maps, docs, google+, and phones. So our box was dominated by interlocking hexagons on top of the aforementioned rainforests.

Supermarket chains have done a similar thing, diverifying into banking and insurance (although perhaps the best example of this is the Co-op, which started life as a grocer but soon moved into funerals as well).

The same goes for BMJ Group, which started with a weekly print journal and now has a growing stable of specialty journals, a careers product, decision support tools for doctors, an online medical community, learning modules and masterclasses, all of them delivered online of course, and some with accompanying apps.

My presentation before Alison’s was to describe innovation on bmj.com, how being an early adopter online triggered subsequent innovations such as post-publication peer review (rapid responses) and being the first general medical journal with an iPad app. Our 2011 redesign aimed to make bmj.com the entry point for many of these innovative products, and our migration to the open source Drupal content management system has in itself been heralded as an innovation by the Drupal community and the journal Learned Publishing, which has published a case study of the project.

Innovation in any industry is a treadmill, and Jonathan suggested that the person who leads on innovation in a company is often an unpopular figure as he or she drives through changes and takes risks, forcing colleagues to leave the comfort zones of their day jobs and work on new projects, many of which would fail.

2022 seems a long way away, until you think back ten years to 2002. Facebook was still two years from launch, YouTube three, Twitter four, and Apple’s iPhone five.  These four innovative products so took the world by storm it’s hard to imagine life without them. What will happen in the next decade, and how will scholarly publishers respond?

David Payne is editor, bmj.com