Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The future of editing is...prehistoric?

Last Friday, I was at a fascinating meeting at the BMJ looking at the future of journals. Incidentally, I think it’s interesting how many publishers are starting to think about how their services fit into the workflows of readers and authors, not just about how readers or authors respond to the services they provide. Is this a new thing, or just new to me?

Anyway, one thing that came up at the session was the role of the editor in 20 years time. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and, with the caveat that I know predictions about the future can end up looking a bit like this, I’d like to use this post to ponder a few ideas. I’m borrowing a framework suggested at the meeting by Ginny Barbour, which she calls ‘hunter-gatherer-farmer’, and using it to explore some thoughts.

In my imaginings of the future, the hunter is roughly equivalent to the current model, which I don’t think will completely die out (although others aren’t so sure). Editors will continue to stalk the academic landscape searching for the plumpest, juciest, most impact-heavy authors. Their bait will, as now, be high impact factors, quick publication times and a large readership. Though I think new temptations – the ability to publish data, good performance on more sensitive measures of impact and probably some that haven’t even been thought of yet, will also be important lures for those future authors.

The gatherer is a bit different from the hunter. This editor isn’t really interested in the thrill of the chase, or acquiring authors that needs to be ‘caught’. Rather, they’re after content that need to be discovered, dug up and brought into the light. They’ll use knowledge of their scholarly domain to seek out interesting stuff that’s currently ‘in the wild’ – outside the formal scholarly publishing system. This might be blogs, datasets, interesting bits of code, informal notes – anything, really. The gatherer’s job is to know where to find something useful and to guide their information-hungry readers towards it. And also to let them know it’s not poisonous: recommending something will no doubt involve some element of quality assurance so that the journal brand isn’t damaged by association, although it’ll probably be pretty light touch.

The farmer is different again. This type of editor is also interested in the kind of wild content that the gatherer likes, but they want to ‘cultivate’ it so it’s more useful to readers. This might involve working with authors to turn blogs into more formal, quality assured outputs. Or it might be about providing additional services overlaid on wild content – for example, markup, annotation facilities, linking, aggregation.

In my future landscape, most editors will need to have all of these skills if they are to keep their platforms current and relevant to researchers. The balance might be different from journal to journal, but already we’re starting to see a diversification of services in some online offerings. I think the next step is to stop being so rigid about ownership of content, and to start exploiting the enormous amount of ‘stuff’ that academics make available for free on the internet. Yes, let the journal promote its own Twitter feed, but why doesn’t it also recommend the tweets of an academic, practitioner or even journalist in its field? This will need to be done carefully, to protect the platform’s reputation, but we know that researchers are very keen on tools that put everything in one place for them.

To bring the prehistoric metaphor, gasping, to its logical conclusion, future editors need to put down their bows and arrows, settle into their scholarly geography and start to make use of its rich offerings. They are the conduit between the nourishing content available in the wilds of academia, and the hungry readers lighting a fire back in the cave, ready to consume whatever the hunter-gatherer-farmer can bring them.

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