Thursday, September 7, 2006

The Changing Relationship between Authors and Publishers

[This is the text of a talk I gave at the Society for Scholarly Publishing Top Management Round Table, held in Philadelphia on September 7, 2006. It seemed to be well-received, and speakers throughout the rest of the day referred back to the (not original) concept that the functions of Registration, Certification, Dissemination, and Archiving are key distinguishing features of the act of scholarly publishing.]

When thinking about how to introduce this session on “the changing relationship between authors and their publishers,” my first instinct was to turn to an expert, the television psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw, author of Relationship Rescue and other useful manuals. While Dr. Phil’s famous aphorisms like “you’re only lonely if you’re not there for you” may not seem to be directly relevant to this session, the language and emotional intensity of the self-help genre seems familiar. It reminds one of the heated discussions of “what authors want” that librarians, publishers, and information researchers are currently engaged in, with each group of “relationship experts” claiming preferential access to a true understanding. As David Nicholas and his colleagues at University College London write in the July 2006 issue of Learned Publishing, “scholarly communication is an area of astonishing angst, with librarians and publishers fiercely battling it out for territory that has come up for grabs as the result of the digital revolution. If you read the relevant listservs you would think people’s lives were on the line.”

Trying to understand what authors want now and what they will want in the future is clearly important. Not only do our authors provide the content that we publish or otherwise share through new venues like institutional repositories and pre-print servers, but also in most cases they act as its chief consumers. That makes for a complex relationship and, although the analogy between the discussion of “what authors want?” and day-time advice shows can easily be carried too far, I would like to continue in Dr. Phil-mode for a few minutes, and suggest a few sound-bites about ‘relationships’ which seem to me to be relevant to this session.

My first observation is that “All relationships are not the same”
or “Economists are from Mars, Classicists are from Venus.”

As all publishers know, it is difficult and dangerous to generalize about what authors want. And recent surveys reinforce the suggestion that the attitudes of authors to publishers, and their motivations for publishing, vary widely depending on age, nationality, position on the tenure ladder, and many other variables.

One particularly interesting factor shaping the behavior of academic authors is the subject area they work in. The 2005 CIBER study of the attitudes of 5,513 senior journal authors (reported widely in the literature, and available from the University College London website) reveals some broad disciplinary differences at statistically highly significant levels. One part of the study compared authors in three broad areas: arts and humanities; biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology; and economics, business and management. Although the findings are not particularly new, they are methodologically sound. I want to share some of the questions asked and answers given:

• “Speed of publication is very important. Do you agree?” Author attitudes to the importance of speed of publication were very different between the disciplinary groups. The humanists seemed to care little about speedy publication, and economists cared much less than the biochemists for whom speed seemed to be of the essence.
• “Citations are a good way to measure the value of research. Do you agree?” Humanists did not agree, putting much less faith in the importance of citations for measuring the value of research than either of the other two groups. The biochemists placed marginally more faith in citation counts than economists.
• “How dependent are you on various information sources?” The humanists were much more dependent on visiting the library for their research, but hardly ever went to a publisher’s website to obtain information. Biochemists rarely went to a library but were very dependent on publisher sites. Economists were somewhere in between.

That there would be such differences between divergent communities of practice may seem obvious, but the temptation to generalize, make big decisions, and even legislate, from studies of “the glamorous disciplines” like economics or biochemistry without considering the needs and behavior of authors in the arts and humanities, for example, is problematic. As David Nicholas and Ian Rowlands write in the July Learned Publishing article, “subject discipline proves to be an extremely influential variable in the course of this report. This strongly suggests that any ‘one size fits all’ solution imposed across the whole sector is at best likely to be counter-productive.” I hope the three panelists (an economist, a geneticist, and a classicist) will reflect more on this issue.

The second point I want to make is that “Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum” or “It’s not just the two of us.”

However carefully they are measured, the behavior and attitudes of today’s scholars are not necessarily a good guide to what the next generation of authors will want. Not only will the blogging, social networking teenagers of today have a very different relationship to technology, but the mechanisms that drive researcher motivations are being deliberately manipulated as we speak. Scholarship does not exist in a vacuum, and the dramatic policy initiatives now being taken in areas like infrastructure development and tenure review are deliberately aimed at changing author behavior.

One example of this trend is in the area of data sharing; in encouraging researchers to make the raw experimental material behind published conclusions available for re-analysis. As the recent Elsevier Core Trends survey makes clear, 75% of the 6,344 researchers who responded wanted to access other scholars’ data. However, only 52% of them were willing to share their own. This is a classic case of author-reader asymmetry, or Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde, as Michael Mabe has referred to it in a classic 2002 article.

The problem of authors hording data is specifically mentioned in version 7.1 of the National Science Foundation's Cyberinfrastucture report which was published on July 20th with today's next speaker, Chris Greer, as one of the main authors. This document states that “NSF’s data policies will be redesigned to overcome existing sociological and cultural barriers to data sharing and access.”

The movement is not confined to the sciences. Also in final draft, Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and the Social Sciences similarly describes “the conservative culture of scholarship” and singles out the lack of collaborative work on shared data as one of the main challenges facing arts disciplines.

This is a classic case of carrot and stick. On the one hand, the availability of a cyberinfrastructure within which scholars can conduct new levels of computation on large bodies of data will gradually promote a culture of sharing as exciting results show the benefits of such behavior. At the same time, it is clear that future funding from agencies like NSF and NEH will include the requirement of a data management plan, and that scholars who do not share data will be penalized. I hope that Chris Greer will talk more about the role of funding agencies in transforming what authors want.

Every good relationship guru seems to have a bullet-pointed recipe for success. Dr. Phil offers “seven steps to relationship rescue,” so despite my warnings against treating every relationship the same, I want to conclude this introduction by suggesting that there really may be “four secrets for relationship success.” These are the four functions that surveys constantly tell us authors want their publishing partners to serve, whether they are stepping out with a 300-year-old print journal, or gallivanting around with a youthful institutional repository. These four functions are registration, certification, dissemination, and archiving. Let me comment briefly on each.

“Registration” refers to the desire of authors to claim a discovery as their own and record that it was made by them on a certain date.

“Certification” implies that authors want to get their research (and by implication themselves) quality stamped in a publishing venue of known quantity and recognized brand. This is a function often discussed in the context of peer review, but I would also suggest that editing, which many publishers still spend a lot of time on, also plays an important role in signaling quality.

“Dissemination” involves authors letting their peers know what they have done. In some literature the word “awareness” is sometime substituted for “dissemination” but such a passive term does not seem to be to reflect the time and money publishers spend on proactive promotion; things like conference displays. It also should be said that, in authors’ minds, such “dissemination” is not aimed at a wide audience, but involves “narrowcasting” to a close community of like-minded researchers.

• Finally, “archiving” is an important function authors require of publishers, in order that a record of their research is left to posterity. That also involves version-control and a final form of publication that can be cited and always rediscovered.

These four, RCDA, are the Really Crucial Determinants of Advancement that allow scholars to accumulate prestige and enable them to further their careers. While factors like low cost for users, the potential for mixed media, or extra electronic functionality may be “order winners,” tempting authors to share their information through new venues, survey after survey reveal that RCDA are the order qualifiers. And when we hear about an interesting new program, like the Princeton Stanford Working Papers in the Classics repository, we need to ask whether it fulfills the four functions before we can truly classify it as a publishing venue—an issue that I know Brent Shaw (who will speak later in this panel) and his colleagues are wrestling with themselves.

What do authors want now, and what will they want in the future? What value do publishers add, and what new competencies do they need? Is the author-publisher relationship really in need of Relationship Rescue or is it still strong and healthy? As Dr. Phil says, “don’t substitute my opinion for your judgement.” I look forward to the debate.


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