The quest for more value – challenges of the scientific ecosystem in the absence of coordination: A Long Read

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Research Publishing
By: Daniel Ropers, Fri Nov 2 2018
Daniel Ropers

Author: Daniel Ropers

Chief Executive Officer, Springer Nature

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of addressing the annual conference of our industry trade association, International STM, for the first time as CEO of Springer Nature. As a ‘newbie’ to the industry I have over the past year been doing what all people in new roles do and that is to really find out why things really are as they are. In my speech I chose to share some early observations with the aim of starting more of a conversation around the root causes of where we are as an industry, as well as some of the emotions surrounding it in order to issue a rallying cry for more openness and collaboration. This long read is a shortened version of my speech.

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Joining a new (to me) industry sector in 2017, I thought that academic publishing, as a 200 year old industry, would be very, very efficient in its core editorial, author management, pre-production and production processes, and in its value delivery to customers and the wider research community, and any opportunities and challenges would be coming from the second order effect of digitization

I also thought I would be joining a world-wide science community full of ideas on how to improve the scientific process, with lots of cross-publisher and cross-stakeholder engagement to find solutions to key issues together.

Everyone I have spoken to in the past year, publishers, scientists, policy makers, funders, institute leaders, librarians, believe in the importance of science and hold as a common objective the need to communicate it. 

I was right in some of the above, and in the fact that everyone in the community shares a strong common belief in the purpose of science.  Everyone I have spoken to in the past year, publishers, scientists, policy makers, funders, institute leaders, librarians, believe in the importance of science and hold as a common objective the need to communicate it. 

But on others I was wrong.  Some of the very core processes of publishing haven’t changed as much as I would have expected and coming, as I did, from a digital process business this was surprising.

And the degree of cooperation and coordination is also significantly lower than I expected, leaving many opportunities untapped.

But most worryingly, is that the presence of a minority of hostile voices is restricting the ability for publishers to be viewed as partners by the majority of our stakeholders.

This is extremely concerning given that there are many fundamental improvements that could create value for the research ecosystem and for which I can see no alternative than for big publishers to lead their implementation. These include but are not limited to:

  • Helping researchers make their data, protocols and methods open and access the data sets of others. This has the potential to instigate a fundamental step change in enabling researchers to make use of existing information and build on it for the benefit of scientific advancement.   
  • Improving peer review quality and improved process to save time for all involved, including a vastly reduced time between submission and publication.
  • Driving change in the reputation and recognition models and metrics, for authors, researchers, members of our editorial boards and peer reviewers.
  • Publishing negative results and reproducibility studies at scale.
  • Making usage easy: rather than fighting illegal use, we should create common standards and user-friendly interfaces that make it easy for every legally entitled user to search, discover, and consume the research information they need to advance discoveries.

So, if we have so much to offer already and we are so necessary to creating even more value to the world of research going forward then why are research publishers too often regarded by others in the research community as the joint enemy?

There are four statements that I’ve heard in many forms and from many constituents over the past year, which appear to be at the heart of this issue.

  • We are too profitable and charge too much. But profit is merely how the impact of our contribution is measured, and crucially provides us with the means to invest in new products, services and tools for the benefit of the research community. Other stakeholders also enjoy ‘profit’ but this is measured differently and therefore is not as concretely visible.  The ‘Big Deal’, digital content distribution, sharing tools, etc. alongside increasing the amount of content available to researchers, rising citations and exploding usage, are all testament to how publishers’ investment is resulting in increased value to the core academic process.

  • We are the only for-profit companies in a not-for-profit space. But only 1% of research spend in the world is spent on content licensing and getting research quality assured, published, and disseminated with the remaining 99% going on (apart from salaries) other commercial companies including catering, stationery, lab equipment, office infrastructure, connectivity, and increasingly on software licenses.

Although neither statement is correct, we have to acknowledge the emotion around these topics and take them seriously. It is clear that we must re-establish trust through showing we understand what value is for our constituents, and then proving that we deliver on our promise of providing more.

  • There is also a negative feeling of dependency; researchers feel they are too dependent on publishers and they don’t like that. With so much at stake at the very last step of their research process, with usually many years of energy and scarce grant money invested, the lack of transparency in peer review and the feeling of a power imbalance is creating tension.  Editors and editorial board members of a journal decide whom to invite for peer review, and these (in the main) anonymous peer reviewers then decide, with the leading editors, what gets published and what gets rejected. The process is not transparent for authors and they have to trust the publisher‘s process and its outcome.  The fact is however that as long as there is a need for an independent party judging the work of research and as long as there is no consensus about whether these peer reviews should be open or not, the majority of peer reviewers will continue to be anonymous.

    As these two things are true, then we must do everything we can to be as transparent as publishers as we can. I think there is a lot we can learn from B2C digital consumer businesses to make each step of the process more transparent whether that be around rejection or acceptance policies, the specific editorial focus of every journal, and the alternatives, turn-around times of journals and many more.  And most importantly,  there are so many opportunities to make the process faster and better for example to make peer review less time consuming so time can be given back to authors, reviewers and editors. 

    This will not solve the core dependency issue, but it will hopefully recreate some trust that what we are doing, to make the process better, fairer, and faster, is for the benefit of everybody involved.  For example, at Springer Nature alone, if we can save one hour in the process, per submitted manuscript, this would translate into us giving back to the community one million research hours.
  • Researchers also don’t feel we are providing the change they want. But there is no alignment on either what the change should be or whose role it is to address it. The problem seems to be that the world of research was deliberately designed as a loosely coupled network of autonomous decision makers. But research and research publishing is a massive global cooperative effort and its value creation for the world is driven by what economists would call ‘network value effects’ or ‘network economics’.

    In network value models, the value for everybody increases disproportionally with the size of the network. Let’s assume that someone creates a much better system of email. Half the contacts are super enthusiastic to take it up but half are not. It is easy to see that the value of rolling this new system out would be hugely undermined if half stick to the old system.

In research, a good analogy would be some of the more radical proposals to split the way research is funded into two parts. Using different approaches would destroy more network value than even the greatest improvement can yield. And even if everybody could agree to a new, system-wide, radical improvement, this would not be enough for change to happen. As not only the end goal would require agreement of an overwhelming and stable majority, also the exact road from A to B must meet an almost complete support for the change to happen. 

Where this has been done successfully is where there is always a large amount of coordination required. 

But in research, there is no such coordination. There are no worldwide or even regional governing bodies with the authority and mandate to execute change that benefits the system and to take care and compensate those that would be in danger of losing out from the change. 

The closest we can get, bizarrely, is a small group of leading publishing houses that could implement change to improve the system. But even if this could be achieved within the limits of cooperation permitted by anti-trust restrictions, publishers do not have the authority and power to do so, meaning any changes they might be able to implement may not be adopted for the reason outlined above.

I am not advocating changing the design of the system: there are good reasons that the system is set up the way it is. Protecting scientists’ autonomy is part of the constitution in some countries, and I agree with this wholeheartedly. But with autonomy and no central governance (neither by law, by contract, or by power) in a network value creation model, even the most valuable, fundamental innovations or improvements will not or only very slowly be realized.

We need to re-establish the connection with the research community, funders, decision makers in institutions, and help our librarian customers to make the case for the value that content brings to their institution.

But, this does not mean that research publishers should give up on change and improvements or that the research community should give up on publishers. We need to build central repositories with easy interfaces and create open data standards, change and extend the metrics of quality and reputation, and develop new processes to stop fraud. We need to re-establish the connection with the research community, funders, decision makers in institutions, and help our librarian customers to make the case for the value that content brings to their institution.

A good example of this is RA21 where publishers are putting self-interest aside to make off campus access to content easier. But we need to go further and faster.

Publishers have lost their right for a seat at the table and they need to win it back.  This means not just understanding our own interests but also the interests of others.  It means looking at what’s possible but also not shying away from the inconvenient truth of what’s not going to work for one or other constituent in our networked value creation world.  Only by doing this, can we build trust as a valued partner and focus on delivering solutions for the research community that provide the sustainable change that’s needed. 

At Springer Nature we have a long tradition of making change happen.  We were early movers in offering more subscription value through Big Deals, first to pilot offset deals and are by far the largest open access publisher in the world.

At Springer Nature we have a long tradition of making change happen.  We were early movers in offering more subscription value through Big Deals, first to pilot offset deals and are by far the largest open access publisher in the world. We invested in the future of books by digitizing our entire catalogue, were instrumental in the industry initiative CrossRef and the first publisher to enable the legal sharing of subscription content, via our SharedIt initiative. I am proud to be part of a company that has shown that it’s not afraid to introduce new ways of doing things when the whole community stands to benefit and as its CEO vow to take our role in the network value chain seriously in the interests of future sustainable change. 

Daniel Ropers

Author: Daniel Ropers

Chief Executive Officer, Springer Nature

Daniel Ropers joined Springer Nature as the Chief Executive Officer and Member of the Management Board a year ago from bol.com, a Dutch language online retailer, which he co-founded and led for 20 years.  

Daniel Ropers began his career as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co in 1997. During his work at McKinsey & Co, he was involved in the launch of bol.com. In 1999, he joined bol.com as Finance & Business Development Director and shortly after became the CEO of bol.com. He served as General Manager at bol.com b.v. and served as its Managing Director. Under Daniel Ropers’ leadership, bol.com developed into a highly appreciated consumer brand in the Netherlands and into the leader in online shopping in the Dutch language area. In addition, Daniel Ropers has served as an advisor to the government of the Netherlands, advising on various topics including digital privacy and digital government matters. 

Daniel Ropers studied at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands, and at ESSEC Business School in Cergy Pontoise, France. He holds a MSc in Economics and a master’s degree in Global Economics and Business Studies. 

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