What is the future of academic publishing?  In an environment of paywalls, predatory publishing and a publish or perish approach to funding, what are the pressures our researchers are facing?  This month we take a look at a recent Nature Article which unpacks the future of academic publishing according to scientists.  

The challenges. 

Academic publishing is frequently criticised for being unequal, exclusionary, and opaque, with nearly 70% of scientific articles hidden behind paywalls. This is undoubtedly true in part, and this issue partnered with ongoing observations that the peer review system can be inefficient and biased does indicate something is broken in academic publishing. 

Is the publishing model at fault?  

Publishing has never been an altruistic model, and long delays in processing submitted articles can cause research dissemination to stall.  This all seems insurmountable yet perhaps the greater problem is the current publishing model itself.  The current prestige model means the ranking a journal enjoys can sometimes unjustly outweigh the intrinsic value of the research itself.  In reality this means potentially highly significant research published in low-ranking journals will be ignored or overlooked.  Similarly, research published in languages other than English often fail to reach the wider research community.   

A prime example exists in various countries across Latin America. In making the lion’s share of their research publications open and free to encourage equity and collaboration for the advancement of human knowledge, this research is underrepresented in databases such as Scopus and Web of Science. In short, this makes potentially highly valuable research undiscoverable, to the detriment of the researcher, the community and scientific advancement.  

Is Open research the answer?  

Adding to rising concerns, the ongoing move by commercial publishers towards article processing charge models, a system which charges authors/researchers substantial fees (that often are not covered by the host research institution) to publish their research. The effect of this?  Researchers are greatly disadvantaged, especially if they are from emerging economies and developing nations or have little access to funding. 

In response, the call for Open research grows as the best collaborative and social practice, as research institutions and governments continue to grapple with the tension between societal needs and major commercial influences. With this in play, publishers have responded with income driven predatory journals practices.  This practice is fueled by the pressure researchers are placed under to publish their work in order to obtain research funding and advance their careers. Researchers are faced with a dire decision if they don’t publish, they perish.  

Preprints (which are free and open) are proposed as a solution to many issues in academic publishing, offering a way to accelerate the dissemination of research, gain early feedback, and increase access. Preprints are seen as a means to reduce publication bias and create a more equitable and diverse research landscape.  But does this go far enough to mitigate the issue in an ever-shifting space of practice, reputation and funding? 

Does technology hold the answer? 

Artificial intelligence (AI) remains a controversial solution but is it the panacea as pundits are proposing? AI might have an impact on traditional academic publishing with large language models (LLMs) like GPT-4 being able to manage knowledge in different ways by examining the raw data and drawing its own conclusions without having to read any written articles to explain the research. The potential here is to address publishing issues by eliminating the published article all together. However, this idea is futuristic and unlikely to occur any time soon and without significant shifting in governmental and industrial thinking and business models. Perhaps more feasible is the idea that AI will be able to conduct peer review reports, producing quality assessments of research. 

The future of academic publishing is still unclear and at its very best we are entering the earliest stages of understanding the broader implications of slanted practice that focuses on commercial interests as opposed to societal benefit.  

Read a comprehensive article about the challenges of and possible solutions for academic publishing put forward by prominent scientists in the Nature article titled The future of academic publishing. 

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