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Scholarly Societies and the Transition to Open Research Workflows and OAplus

Richard Wynne discusses ways that we can manage a journal's transition into Open Research.

Published onMar 01, 2022
Scholarly Societies and the Transition to Open Research Workflows and OAplus
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Richard Wynne

Founder, Rescognito

In the fall of 2021, I was one of several presenters asked to explore the topic of recognition for peer review at the ISMTE Global Virtual Event. Having worked in peer-review systems development (at Aries Systems) for 20 years and as the founder of Rescognito (a platform for research recognition), I have given a lot of thought to this topic.

The thrust of my ISMTE presentation was to encourage participants to explore reviewer recognition in a broader context. Let’s be honest, as a standalone feature, reviewer recognition is no more than a “nice to have”. However, as I argued, if it can be effectively integrated with other researcher contributions (such as CRediT, the Contributor Roles Taxonomy) and built into the overall process of researcher credentialing, it could be the foundation of new opportunities for scholarly societies.

Relentlessly Shifting Sands

For decades scholarly journal publishing has generated reliable, recurring, and highly profitable subscription revenues. However, for reasons already well known to the readers of this article, the transition to APC (article processing charge) open access (OA) publication is already well advanced.

In a rudimentary attempt to quantify the speed of this transition, I recently analyzed publicly available data from Crossref and Unpaywall for a typical scholarly society generating more than $20M a year in journal revenues. As seen in Table 1, the proportion of APC-funded OA articles compared to paywalled (subscription-funded articles) has steadily increased over the past five years.

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

APC-funded article share

43.5%

43.5%

47.4%

51.5%

58.6%

Table 1. APC (article processing charge)-funded articles as a percentage of total number of articles published for a representative scholarly society. Calculation based on gold plus hybrid open access articles.

How long will this trend continue? What is the end point? Will the proportional increase in APC articles eventually reduce overall journal revenue and profitability? As noted in a recent issue of Clarke & Esposito’s newsletter The Brief, publishers see that “the world is shifting to an OA paradigm where revenue per article is sharply reduced relative to the subscription model”.

In view of these dynamics, scholarly societies should consider re-tooling away from subscription-focused workflows to author-centric workflows, and explore new ways to add value. This approach can be characterized as an “OAplus” strategy.

Back to Basics

In times of disconcerting change, it can be beneficial to go “back to basics”. What purpose does a scholarly society serve? A comprehensive analysis is clearly outside the scope of this article, but most would agree that scholarly societies undertake the important functions of (1) coordinating activities and facilitating reciprocity, and (2) credentialing.

Running a scholarly journal is a highly sophisticated way to deliver these services. The journal coordinates the work of authors, reviewers, editors, copy editors, etc. Participants are credentialed based on their contributions and judgments made about the value of their contributions. The same analysis can be applied to conferences, standards committees, and numerous other activities typically undertaken by scholarly societies. In other words, scholarly societies are “hired” to coordinate and credential member activities, and running a journal is one way to achieve these objectives.

In this context, “going back to basics” means re-evaluating the bundle of services offered by a scholarly society to see if there are ways to improve core deliverables in the context of open research.

Open Research

In addition to the potential economic consequences discussed above, open research has several characteristics that will impact the future shape of scholarly workflows:

  • More granularity in shared research outputs (e.g., multiple, slightly different iterations of the same document/output).

  • More content dissemination and discovery venues (e.g., preprint servers, institutional repositories, data servers, content-sharing networks such as ResearchGate, social media platforms, and geographically specialized channels such as WeChat).

  • More focus on individualized audience building through social media, especially Twitter (see a recent HighWire webinar on this topic).

  • Demand to recognize a broader array of research outputs (software, data, protocols, etc.).

  • Greater workflow agility to respond to today’s fast-changing, global research context.

  • A growing culture of openness and transparency—researchers, especially early-career researchers, are less tolerant of opaque “gatekeepers”.

  • Well-founded demands for greater research integrity and accountability, and improved approaches to research evaluation (e.g., DORA, the Declaration on Research Assessment).

Personally, I believe that most scholarly societies will successfully navigate the transition to open research by adopting an OAplus strategy. However, the transition risks being needlessly painful and financially damaging if creative new workflows and revenue opportunities are not embraced.

To help illustrate the issues around the transition to open research, let’s take the example of CRediT implementation. As you probably know, CRediT is a 14-term standard taxonomy approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/National Information Standards Organization (NISO) that enables standardized identification of specific contributions made to scholarly research outputs. Implementing CRediT fits squarely within the core mission of scholarly societies and could be the foundation of exciting new services offered to members. For example, CRediT recognition can be combined with reviewer recognition and society recognition for activities such as committee work, mentoring, and contributions to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Curating member contributions in this way keeps a scholarly society at the heart of open research.

Despite this potential, CRediT adoption by scholarly societies has been excruciatingly slow and suboptimal. Why? Because most scholarly societies make the default assumption that CRediT should be retrofitted to existing manuscript workflows. This approach necessitates modifying peer-review systems, retraining staff, changing XML structures, and updating hosting platforms. As a result, CRediT implementation had been painful and expensive, has added administrative burden to already overloaded staff, and has produced data that are not easily aggregated or reusable.

However, in my recent ISMTE conference presentation I demonstrated how taking a more open research approach (summarized in this brief video using my Rescognito Open Ledger as an example) enables CRediT implementation at almost no cost, no administrative burden, and in a way that generates standardized reusable outputs of high value. CRediT and reviewer recognition are about people, not about manuscripts.

Similarly, when it comes to reviewer recognition and other forms of researcher credentialling, deploying a people-centered workflow greatly facilitates the speed and agility of adoption.

Suggestions for Managing the Transition to Open Research and OAplus

Executives and staff who work at scholarly societies face the unenviable task of picking which new initiatives will best serve their constituents. There is no “magic bullet” to ensure a smooth transition to open research, but here are some suggestions to help with the evaluation process:

  • Explore approaches that are people-centric rather than product-centric.

  • Assess new investment opportunities in terms of their contribution to core services offered by scholarly societies (coordination, reciprocity, and credentialling).

  • Look for ways to break down the current compartmentalization that exists between systems used to manage journals, membership, and conferences.

  • Find partnerships that have minimal administrative overhead.

Future ISMTE conferences are a great venue to continue this discussion. I look forward to seeing you there in person!

Disclosure Statement

RW is founder and co-investor in Rescognito, Inc., and is a strategic advisor to Cactus Global–Impact Science.

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