At this point in a global pandemic, it may feel like we’re all moving in one direction (simply, onward!), improvising and experimenting and guessing at what comes next. But as the two days of sessions for the "2020 SSP Virtual Seminar: New Directions in Scholarly Publishing" proved, there are plenty of novel paths to consider, discuss, and map in our current situation.

SSP New Directions screenshot

Sessions were pre-recorded, which helped protect against unforeseen technical glitches and also allowed the speakers to be present in the accompanying chat, answering questions and engaging with attendees. Additional “live” components like Zoom Q&As, interactive buzzword bingo, and a social hour with themed breakout rooms kept the event lively and engaging. It was the closest thing we’ve experienced during the pandemic to the feeling of being at an in-person meeting. We connected with colleagues, asked questions of industry experts, and joked about missing stale conference-hall coffee. Below, we share our notes and takeaways from the sessions.

The “New Normal” in the Workplace, Events, and Research

In the Opening Discussion with the Chefs, Lettie Conrad, Haseeb Irfanullah, Judy Luther, Alice Meadows, and Charlie Rapple discussed various themes that would arise over the two-day seminar, including positive trends in collapsing the distance between the 'western world' and 'global south,' adaptation on the fly as a key marker of success for organizations, and the need to translate research to practice quickly but thoughtfully during this time. In terms of silver linings in the pandemic, some areas noted by the chefs include:

  • Improved accessibility -  with recorded meetings that are easier to share broadly, transcripts, and DOIs on recordings
  • Increased collaboration -  recognizing that there's no one "outside" of this disaster to save us; we have to work together to overcome the challenges we've faced
  • Renewed focus on infrastructure - research infrastructure can be taken for granted, but it remained resilient and became critical during the pandemic, resulting in initiatives that weren't seen as urgent in the 'before times' being seen as far more important now
  • The ability to hear from a wider range of voices and the global community since no travel is required
  • A new level of humanity and vulnerability in our interaction, seeing people more as people, and extending grace to one another
In Navigating the “New Normal” of Academic Publishing, Monica Hoh, Alexa Colella, Simon Holt, and Clair Irwin led an engaging discussion (accompanied by a robust discussion in the chat!) about advocating for visibility, acceptance, and inclusion of differently abled individuals within the workplace. The shared experience during COVID has helped to destigmatize some mental health issues in the workplace, which makes this a key time to address remaining stigmas and marginalizations. Normalizing disability allows for more individuals to be more open about their different experiences and approaches, and centering voices that have not been traditionally listened to can strengthen not only research, but also workplaces, as people with disabilities are problem-solvers by necessity, having learned to navigate various challenges in unique ways.

The entire New Directions event was an excellent example of some of the best practices discussed in Cancelled, Postponed, Reimagined: New Directions in Participating in Academic Conferences, which discussed how things have changed for events and what might carry forward. The session included a recorded discussion between Violaine Iglesias, Nisha Doshi, Colleen Scollans, and Charley Thompson and an interactive “buzzword bingo” that kept viewers even more engaged. Key topics included: the importance of analyzing the needs of all the various stakeholders (attendees, organizations, sponsors, etc.) and being specific about return-on-investment requirements; the wider global pool of both speakers and attendees in a virtual environment; improved sustainability, reducing carbon emissions by ¾ in some instances; increased data and personalization opportunities; and the inevitable co-existence of in-person and virtual components moving forward (which sessions work best in each format, how each can be reimagined, and whether hybrid options are destined to fail).

Supporting Researchers, Not Just Their Research (Adriana Romero-Olivares, Jason Heustis, Jory Lerback, Jordana Schmeirer, and Koen Vermeir) looked at science as privileged career, not only in terms of income and cost, but in language and accessibility. This makes the identification and addressing of implicit bias an important part of the research lifecycle. Double blind peer review, actively incentivizing groups traditionally absent from the system, and being mindful of burden-sharing in various stages of the review process are all actions discussed by the group as ways to support researchers more fully.

The second day of the seminar opened with a keynote by Magdalena Skipper, Editor-in-Chief of Nature. A fascinating stat: almost 50% of all available scientific work relating to COVID first appeared on a preprint server. Compare that to the 5% that appeared in preprints on the Ebola and Zika outbreaks in 2014 and 2015. This shift has meant that there's been pressure for faster peer review on more papers, hoping to get in front of retractions and media touting preliminary findings without properly contextualizing them. Journalists need to work with the research community to create trust around communicating science to the public.

Continuing in the same vein, Preprints: Testing Science’s Need for Speed Limits (with Heather Staines, Iraxte Puebla, Richard Sever, Colin McAteer, Jasmine Wallace, Jennifer Regala, and Jon Gurstelle) went further, looking at funding, publishers’ position as caretakers of the version of record, and the place of preprints in the humanities and social sciences. Concerns around sharing work before peer review have been elevated by the high stakes of the research around COVID, calling again for wider education on what preprints are how they function in the lifecycle of research. One benefit of preprints is the ability to elicit comments in advance of formal peer review, potentially strengthening the study and informing other ongoing research projects. Panelists discussed commenting patterns on-platform and via Twitter as well as issues of reputational risk inherent on both sides of such engagements.

New Directions in Tools, Visibility, and Findability of Research

The final session was the one landing closest to home for us: New Directions in Tools, Visibility, and Findability of Research, with John Shaw, Lettie Conrad, Ian Mulvany, Stephen Rhind-Tutt, and Nancy Roberts.

Publishing was one of the first industries to commit to going to the web early, and it has established and maintained good margins. However, the revenue pales in comparison to web giants. That level of revenue is needed to innovate in such a way to satisfy the emerging desires of visitors and users who encounter research not in a vacuum, but in the full context of their entire online experience.

To address this, technology is increasingly shifting away from placing content at the center, and instead centering the user in strategy, innovation, and data. This also means changing our ideas about what an indicator of success is—for example, shifting in mindset towards engagement from ROI. This focus on the user means letting go of things like content packages that were created 600 years ago (i.e. books) and expanding those concepts to contain everything from Tweets and emails to blogs. Future generations may look as those artifacts the way we look at the correspondence of Charles Dickens: as something that can deeply inform and enhance our understanding.

In approaching this user-centric shift, it’s crucial for publishers to first consider their core competencies and areas of excellence as the main driver of new innovation. Reconfiguring your core competencies to serve the needs of the users you know well allows you to develop new business approaches based on your strengths and core customers. For example: creating a book isn't the ultimate goal: helping to publish, disseminate, and preserve research with indexing, archiving, etc. is, and that framework opens new directions for what publishers could become.

In encouraging other publishers to invest and engage in innovation, the panel urged attendees to see it more as a mindset shift than as a huge monetary investment. By rapidly iterating, focusing on experiments and minimum viable products, and considering low-code and no-code solutions, the barriers to entry are vastly diminished. For example, before doing the market research to figure out if a move is the right move, see how much it is to launch a pilot out of that idea–it might cost less than the research and will provide real results to consider.

Ultimately, in this age and in this kind of innovation, not doing something is riskier than investing in it. Closing gaps between technological capabilities and business problems (aka not applying AI or blockchain to every problem, when sometimes a more sophisticated spreadsheet would suffice), and marrying those to what you know about your users and your core competencies allows you to achieve real goals through technological solutions, and to serve your readers and missions along the way.

Thank you to the presenters, SSP organizers, and fellow attendees for the engaging and informative break from our pandemic routines!

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