Stakeholders present Innovations and Evolution of Scholarly Publishing at AAAS

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21 February 2014

During the opening day of the 2014 AAAS Conference held this year in Chicago, several of my colleagues participated in a symposium on the evolution of the scholarly publishing business. All four of the participants were members of the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, a working group organized four years ago under the aegis of the US House Science and Technology Committee. The intended purpose of the Roundtable was to bring together the primary stakeholders in scholarly publishing—research administrators, librarians, and publishers—in an attempt to bridge the increasingly polarizing debate on public access to publications resulting from federal funding. The goal of this AAAS symposium was to assess the effectiveness of the Roundtable four years after the group submitted its recommendations to Congress. I was joined on the dais by John Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of the American Universities, who chaired the Roundtable, Crispin Taylor, executive director of the American Society of Plant Biologists, who presented the prospective of a small, society-based publisher, and Scott Plutchak, director of the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  

AAAS 2014 Annual MeetingSo did we think the Roundtable made any progress on solutions to the access problem? We concluded that deliberations initiated by the Roundtable put the public discourse on a different, more productive track, one that is still playing out both here in the United States and internationally. The panel’s recommendations largely ended up in legislation that is still guiding the evolution of US public access policy: The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. This act set up the process currently being administered by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for the design and implementation of public access policy for most of the US research funding agencies.  

The difficult part of fully realizing the objectives of the Roundtable has yet to unfold: crafting policy that strikes the right balance between improving access across the board without stifling market-driven innovation and without significantly harming the enterprise of scholarly publishing as that enterprise evolves in the digital environment. OSTP’s public access directive of February 2013 initiated the next stage of the process by requiring agencies to develop agency-specific policies in consultation with key stakeholders, including the research community, librarians, and publishers.  

There have been three major responses to the OSTP directive to make accessible articles reporting on research funded by the agencies: the development of repositories by federal agencies, including the possible expansion of the NIH’s PubMed Central (PMC) repository; the SHARE project being developed by university and library groups; and the publishing community-offered CHORUS project. Our panel agreed that all three systems could address OSTP’s requirements, although by very different routes and resources. We agreed that all involved should work in collaboration where possible to minimize the duplication of resources, especially in the current funding environment where federal research funds are static or decreasing from prerecession levels.  

Mutually beneficial collaboration appears feasible between the SHARE and CHORUS projects. Both are based on the interoperability of distributed platforms (publisher sites and institutional repositories). Our panel feels there is room for both systems to co-exist with potentially increasing collaborative activities. Discussions among SHARE and CHORUS representatives have already revealed several common areas for possible collaboration, including identifiers and metrics. Both systems hold the promise of providing timely and important data on the existence and discovery of digital content tagged to public funding.  

We had one other area of broad agreement in our post Roundtable analysis. In the midst of competing legislative proposals in Congress, the panel believes that the continued implementation of the OSTP policy directive has the most promise for effectively expanding public access to the results of federally funded research. 

We refer interested readers to our four presentations in the AAAS session. As moderator, I set the stage by describing the present scope and size of the international scholarly publishing business. In 2012, more than 5,000 publishers published nearly two million articles in over 28,000 journals. Over the last 10 years, journal models have diversified beyond the traditional subscription model. John Vaughn reviewed the policy landscape since the Roundtable report was published and emphasized how important it is for the research community to maintain the key deliverables from publications, including peer review. Publishers must also strike a balance between innovation and cost control, keeping in mind that public funds underlie most reported scholarly research.  

Crispin Taylor provided a cogent example of the economic and technical pressures of small society publishers to stay on top of innovations demanded by both authors and readers. His society, the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), has introduced a number of open access options. In compliance with the NIH mandate, ASPB submits relevant published material into PMC, which is made publicly accessible after a 12-month embargo. ASPB was also an earlier participant in a publication-linking project with DOE. This interaction led the society to strongly support the CHORUS project, a broad-based access initiative that can be implemented fairly quickly because it’s based on existing cross-publishing infrastructure. 

Scott Plutchak introduced the librarian perspective by discussing the results of an informal poll of librarians that he recently conducted. He intentionally used leading questions about factors that promote and impede access to test how attitudes may have evolved since the Roundtable. It was clear that significant distrust of publishers’ motives persists in some quarters, but others in the community are becoming more receptive to strengthening publisher–library relations, for the mutual benefit of both business partners.  

We were fortunate that the audience could pick up on several topics that we did not cover in detail, such as public access to data and simplification of the license environment that governs reuse of publications. The speakers and audience alike voiced that there is plenty of work to do before this policy topic is laid to rest.


A recent posting to The Scholarly Kitchen expresses many of the same sentiments expressed by this panel. See Collaborate, co-operate, communicate! by Alice Meadows of John Wiley and Sons.