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Push to Print

The changing nature of academic publishing. By Prof. Amir M. Sharif, acting head, Brunel Business School

Nine hundred years.

That is the approximate period of time since which humans began the process of transferring letters onto parchment and paper. Although we have clearly moved on from the printing press developed within the era of the Chinese Han dynasty, we are once again at a one thousandth year point-of-change as far as the distribution of the written word is concerned.

Academic publishing may not be the very cutting edge of technology as we know it, but it is very much affected by the rapid changes in how we design, produce, deliver, consume and recycle knowledge. As we know and as seen in the world of mass media, academic (and hence research-based) publishing is facing an extreme challenge in terms of not only who produces content but more importantly how it is distributed.

It is certainly a given that within higher education that academics seek to share their research and findings through publishing in all manner of esteemed journals and periodicals. Activities such as the REF exercise attenuate this need further – and whilst important as a measure of output, is academic publishing really a sustainable business?

Clearly the growth of open access in recent years (spearheaded via platforms such as Plos One and Archiv – and to a certain extent JStor) has meant that academic publishing has been and continues to be perhaps a more significant although quieter disruptive innovation as compared to say, MOOCS. 

Academics will no doubt be familiar with the demands from publishers, editors, reviewers, researchers and perhaps even REF panel members who wish to read their research outputs. But the open access movement suggests and demands a far wider attention in terms of what this means for Universities as well.

Certainly owning and running a university press may be prestigious though costly endeavour. Certainly, open access research policies have been enthusiastically adopted by many universities already, through repositories which store working papers right through to links to published articles elsewhere. 

This is hardly revolutionary, so where is the disruptive idea?

Put simply, the opportunity now is for universities to rethink the business models behind academic publishing and for universities to consider becoming their own publishers (again). The disruptive ideas here is to provide access to the underlying data; and to further develop the research by engaging researchers with consumers of the outputs. Universities may then be able to provide a “spine” of the core research protocol but with access to datasets, and corresponding research which branch off each published paper as a set of meta-resources. Secondly, as noted in the recent Harvard Business Review article by Andrew King and Karim Lakhani, Universities may then also seek to stimulate further development of the research through either research idea generation or research idea selection through a crowdsourced approach. The greater the level of crowd engagement in the development of the research, the greater the potential future impact.

Whichever path is taken, it is clear that the HE sector will need to figure out a way in which to ensure it’s research outputs remain relevant and more importantly, openly accessible, for the next 900 years.

Views and opinions expressed are personal and not those of Brunel University