Annual Meeting Reports

Plenary Address: The Leading Edge of Publishing

Sarah Tegen
Vice President
Global Editorial and Author Services
American Chemical Society
Washington, D.C.

Annette Flanagin
Executive Managing Editor
Vice President Editorial Operations
JAMA and the JAMA Network
Chicago, Illinois

Alex Humphreys
New York, New York

Cassidy R Sugimoto
Associate Professor
School of Informatics and Computing
Indiana University Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana


For the 2016 Annual Meeting, the organizers changed the format of the plenary address to a 90-minute colloquy among three panelists about the leading edge of science publishing. The discussion covered many current topics in publishing. If one theme flowed through the address, perhaps it was disruption—continuing disruption of the editing profession, of scientific communications, and of the publishing industry.

The session began with the question “What is the biggest challenge in peer review today?” Annette Flanagin said it was the threat posed by predatory publishers and journals. She mentioned hijacked journals, bogus papers, and nonexistent reviewers. Underneath all these problems, she said, was a rapid increase in the number of science articles being published. “I would argue that many of these articles probably don’t need to be published. There are problems with the sheer volume, and the fact that some of these articles are of dubious quality and are associated with problems like unrecognized and unmanaged bias and conflicts of interest, and just pure shoddy science. Articles with shoddy science are threats to the public trust in science and to the overall scientific enterprise,” she said.

The panelists identified bias as another big challenge for peer review, including bias by gender, institutional affiliation, geographical location, celebrity author status, and other forms. Flanagin cited studies showing bias is ubiquitous. While you cannot really avoid all bias, she said, you can be transparent about it, recognize it is there, and try to educate editors and reviewers about it.

The discussion then shifted to publishing metrics. Cassidy Sugimoto reflected on journals’ continuing preoccupation with impact factors. Journals cling to impact factors even though they recognize impact factors can cause distortions in science. She argued journals should think about more nuanced ways to assess the value of what they do. New research is finding ways to better assess scientific communications, she said, such as sophisticated composite indicators that encompass not just scientific citations but social media, news impact, and many other signals.

Alex Humphreys talked about JSTOR Labs, where he and his colleagues work with partners in the community to develop new tools and products for research and teaching. A big issue for JSTOR is choosing what products deserve to get development time and resources. The old way was to simply ask users what they want and then build it. Humphreys called this the “product death cycle” because, by the time you have built the product people said they wanted, either the need has changed or you find what they wanted wasn’t really what they needed. This can lead to a product that isn’t useful. To make useful products for JSTOR, Humphreys said he must focus not on what people say they want, but on what users’ problems are. He must test products in development with users, early and often, to ensure the products are really solving the users’ problems. This has allowed his lab to build many interesting products, such as a mobile app that makes it possible to take a picture of any page of text to find articles in JSTOR on the same topics.

An audience member asked about differentiating between “posted” and “published,” triggering a discussion about preprint servers and Sci-Hub. Humphreys said he thinks Sci-Hub is a symptom of the bigger problem of access to scientific content. Access is heterogeneous across the world, and everything we have done to improve it has had little effect on equitable distribution. Users still need to jump through hoops to access content they have a right to, especially on mobile devices, he said. Flanagin agreed, saying publishers make it very hard to get content and even to let people know a lot of content is available for free. Sugimoto agreed, too, that Sci-Hub is a symptom of inequitable access. She pointed out many Sci-Hub users are not in the developing world but are North Americans who use Sci-Hub to more easily get content to which they already have access.

Someone asked about the role of mega-journals. Flanagin said they are a potential threat. Mega-journals are working on a different business model than other journals, she said. For example, a mega-journal can publish tens of thousands of papers each year and have a 60%–70% acceptance rate. A big question is how users will be able to manage the sheer volume of this content. Sugimoto suggested more tagging of content and more metadata could help provide signaling so readers can find the content they need. There is also a role for crowdsourcing as a way to bring the most salient content to the surface, she said.

The final question was, “What is the biggest disruptor in publishing?” Flanagin pointed to her cell phone and said, “I think this little iPhone thing has been the biggest disruptor.” She observed that while scholarly publishing has existed for about 360 years, the iPhone has existed for only nine years. “This little disruptor,” she said, “and the mobilization of our content, have driven more change than anything else.” The next big disruptor is the “multimediazation” of scientific publication, when we go from being able to review scholarly content on a tiny screen to serving our short attention spans with snippets, tweets, key points, audio and video summaries, infographics, and cartoons. The good news for us, she said, is that you cannot have all this without underlying structured, scientific research articles and databases.

Humphreys said when he thinks of disruption, he worries about how diffuse the system of scholarly publishing is, and about its ability to grapple with the big changes coming from enormous companies such as Amazon, Google, and Apple. Scholarly publishing is ripe for a disruption even bigger than Sci-Hub, he said.

What will all this continuing disruption mean for CSE? Flanagin said, “at least in the near future this means we’ll still be coming to a CSE meeting—for the next 10 years or so. After that, I’m not so sure.”