Friday, 22 November 2013

Who are the innovators in academic publishing?

It's been a while hasn't it? Sorry to my avid readers who've been checking in every week in hopes of a new post (hello Mum!). And to the rest of you - welcome back to my occasional ramblings.

I've been in America. Lucky me! One of the highlights of the trip was a flying visit to Stanford University, where I witnessed, with some awe, what an $18.7bn endowment will buy you. I was visiting a biologist friend, and once we'd finished poking gentle fun at the extravagent memorial to Mrs Stanford's former tennis partner, I took her to the library. Turns out that it was her first visit, in almost three years as a post-doc. (That's a subject for another time, perhaps.)

Stanford Library is a wonderful set of buildings with outstanding facilities and collections, but that's not what I want to blog about today. No, instead I am going to write about Donald Knuth. Knuth is a Stanford computer scientist and mathematician, who I am more and more impressed with as I learn (thank you, Google) that he is the subject of an xkcd comic who also owns a pipe organ. But neither of these wonderful facts are what first drew me to him. No, it was a few scraps of paper in a small archival cabinet in the Green Library at Stanford.

In 1976, Knuth received the proofs for the second edition of his seminal work, The Art of Computer Programming. The first edition had been published using metal type, while the second used photographic techniques. Knuth was deeply unimpressed with how his mathematical equations appeared when set using the new technology, and turned his considerable talents towards devising something better. It took him more than ten years, but he developed a typesetting system, TeX, which is used to this day by publishers including CUP, Elsevier, OUP and Springer.

This got me thinking. We talk a lot about the unpaid labour that academics put into the publishing process: generating articles, undertaking peer review, in many cases doing much of the work associated with editing journals. But Knuth's work went beyond this: he saw a problem with the wider publishing system and set out to resolve it, leading to an innovation which is now of benefit to publishers and academics worldwide. He encouraged and enabled change.

It's not an isolated example. Open access publishing seems to be particularly rich in evidence of academics leading, or even forcing, innovation. Researchers were crucial in setting up PLoS and arXiv, organisations which have subsequently driven developments among other more traditional publishers (think of the mega-journals that seem to be popping up like mushrooms, or RSC's new open access chemistry repository). The Open Access Toolset Alliance is full of interesting researcher-led innovations in publishing infrastructure, including the kind of typesetting work done by Knuth. And the next generation are getting involved as well: Open Access Button, which tracks reader encounters with paywalls, was founded by two undergraduates, and launched just last week.

There are more innovations beyond the bounds of open access. Figshare was set up by Mark Hahnel while doing his PhD; it helps researchers receive credit for all their outputs including data. ImpactStory was established by a researcher and a PhD student, while the h-index and the Eigenfactor measures of article impact were both designed and developed by researchers; all of these are starting to influence the way that publishers talk about the reach of the work that they publish.

None of this is to diminish the important work that publishers do in stimulating innovation and driving thinking. Figshare is part of a stable of really interesting companies under the Digital Science umbrella at Macmillan, a model which can provide stability and integration with a large publisher to help small projects grow into fully-rounded services. Altmetric, a fellow Digital Science company, was not an academic venture but a start-up purchased and nurtured by the publishing group. Nature did some interesting and innovative work with Connotea, now deceased. Elsevier Labs has done important thinking around issues such as contributorship (although the website seems to have gone a bit quiet of late). BMJ produces a wealth of data on issues from peer review to ethics, designed to make them the world's first evidence-based publisher. And Palgrave Pivot reflects some interesting thinking by a publisher on the best way to support long-form publication in the humanities and social sciences.

Furthermore, it is probably right that researchers drive a lot of these innovations. They are, after all, the end users of publisher services, as both authors and readers, and they are the ones who know best what is working in its current format and what needs to change. But it's important that publishers acknowledge the important role that scholars often play, not just in providing and reviewing content for journals, but in shaping how those journals look, behave and are brought into being. We don't always talk about that enough.