The arrival of eLife, a new open access journal, together with new science networking sites and new metrics to measure the impact of research publications may force the pace of change facing the business of scientific and academic publishing. We may be witnessing a tipping point in collaboration, faster access and new opportunities.

What is changing?

Scientific publishing is a huge multinational industry worth billions of dollars per year, with some 1.5 million new peer reviewed articles added each year to a growing pool of subscription journals. But the traditional business model is under pressure from a number of directions. It needs to keep up with a growing number of researchers and a growing number of publications; the industry is fragmenting as new players, especially open access journals, arrive; funders are expecting growing returns on their research investment in the form of wider and faster access to results; universities and the research community are under economic pressures and face cuts.

Meanwhile, open access research journals have been gaining ground over the last 10 years, but still represent only a small percentage of the total in terms of actual articles: there are now an estimated 5000 journals and some 200,000 articles. Establishing precedence, competition between authors, general conservatism among research communities and concerns about quality and reliability of items are among the constraints to growth in acceptance which have been identified.

The aim is to require more open access publishing as part of grants, to provide reliable and verifiable quality, publishing independence, and peer review controls.

The advent later this year of the new open access journal eLife, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will provide open access journals with the status needed: the aim is to require more open access publishing as part of grants, to provide reliable and verifiable quality, publishing independence, and peer review controls. In short, to challenge the top subscription journals such as Science and Nature.

Another piece in the pattern is that the impact and significance of scientific/ research articles has, until now, been measured primarily based on citations and references in other peer reviewed journals. Altmetrics is an emerging set of research into new ways of measuring the significance of research. It relies on a wider set of measures including tweets, blog discussions, bookmarks e.g. on Mendeley, a research network/ content management site, citations and HTML views. As a result, it hopes to measure different forms of significance and usage patterns, looking not just at the end publication but also the wider process of research, collaboration and contact around the research publications.

Why is this important?

Not only are there changes within academic publishing, but wider changes, needs and expectations are also playing a role. Combined, they are likely to create a new landscape in academic publishing.Scientific networking is changing and will almost certainly change expectations of publishing.

New generations of scientists and other academics, who have grown up with social networking and sharing as a way of life, are moving in larger numbers into the research community making networking a more standard tool. While the debate continues over the success of dedicated science networking sites, such as Researchgate, it is clear that there are growing numbers of tweets, Facebook communities and blogs which attract growing numbers of scientists and other academics. Scientific networking is changing and will almost certainly change expectations of publishing.

Research solutions increasingly lie outside a single discipline or organisation..

In addition, multi-disciplinary approaches to research are becoming more critical to success. Research solutions increasingly lie outside a single discipline or organisation, as reflected in the growing use of open innovation among corporate research centres.  New ways of finding solutions, contacts and content are needed: a combination of open access publishing and networking may provide the solution.

Emerging economies are creating both new demands for access and new content. The growth of reliable internet access in emerging economies is enabling access to online materials as never before; open access publications will enable more effective access and also speed up the process. Their research capacity is also growing, with countries such as India and China expanding their university base and the number of PhD students creating new demand for effective publication and sharing of results. Many of the challenges we face today to which research will hopefully contribute solutions are truly global in scale: they need global collaboration and approaches.

It is usually the co-occurrence of several trends that creates the biggest change and opportunities: we may be approaching one such tipping point in the growth of open access publishing and the changing face of scientific, technical and academic publishing. The arrival of eLife may provide the impetus to bring both the industry and other wider changes together to create a new landscape of opportunities and more rapid, wider access.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.