Succeeding in the Next Decade
Written by: Peter Phillips
The following post is a full transcript of the opening address given by our Chief Executive Peter Phillips, to the 16th Fiesole Collection Development Retreat on 11th April 2014.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and thank you Anthony for your kind introduction, and for the equally kind, if daunting, invitation to lead off the conference today. In the next half an hour I want to set out what seem to me to be both the challenges and opportunities for Cambridge University Press and scholarly publishers more generally. I hope I can set up at least some of the themes that will shape the discussions in the sessions to come, conscious that academic libraries are also experiencing significant, sometimes disruptive transformation, and that their functions are likewise evolving, even if their ultimate purposes remain constant.
As Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press, I’m responsible for the continued health of, arguably, the oldest media organisation in the world, and I don’t need to tell this distinguished audience that what the Press has stood for has differed, greatly, at different times in our history, now well into our fifth century.
We’ve already published 21 volumes of Charles Darwin’s correspondence, with more to come. So it’s no surprise that successful adaptation has always been the key to our continued prosperity.
The Press came into being on the back of seismic change – the English Reformation, the invention of movable type and the breaking up of the early monopoly by London printers. It expanded by taking advantage of new technologies – like its huge growth in the early nineteenth century following the early adoption of more efficient printing using stereotyping. Different business models too – the Press’s ‘publishing’ only emerged within the last century as bigger than its printing operations.
During the 1990s, Cambridge launched some of the first digital publishing initiatives beyond academic journals, and was one of the first ten media organisations that both Google and Amazon ever spoke to. Yet it was only a couple of years ago when – after 430 years – we stopped our in-house printing and outsourced our warehousing to concentrate all our efforts on fulfilling our mission to advance knowledge, learning and research through our ever-more digital publishing.
The underlying needs of researchers and students are the same as they’ve always been. So academics still want to make their research widely available to their communities, in a form that underlines its credibility and helps advance their careers. And they still want to find other researchers’ work easily and in ways which help highlight the authoritative and the important.
But despite that, everyone in this room confronts a world in which research and learning models are being transformed.
It’s a moment of huge opportunity and change for all of us: publishers, libraries and universities.
Fundamental questions about the generation and dissemination of academic research, about modes of access to that research, and about the nature of peer review are challenging universities, libraries and publishers too. The centre of gravity of research is also changing. Chinese scientific research has gone from 3% of the world’s scholarly articles in 2001 to 11% of a larger total a decade later, changing the balance of competition and increasingly the source of our authors.
The world of higher education is undergoing change every bit as fundamental as research. Competition for the best students and academics is international in many subjects. Chinese students make up 23% of all masters students in the UK, almost as high as the 26% from the UK itself. Only just over half of all doctorates in the US are awarded to US citizens or permanent residents.
For publishers, digital is still evolving. The first phase – turning existing print content digital – has been happening for many years. The second phase – introducing rich interactive media – is also well under way. We are now in a third phase – the deep use of data to provide new and more personalised experiences, and more powerful solutions and tools, all of which offer the potential to improve outcomes. New approaches to learning based around rich digital material with teachers acting more as coaches than as instructors could lead to major changes in all kinds of teaching institutions, as well as altering fundamentally the services from publishers.
Billions of dollars are pouring into educational technology companies looking for opportunities to disrupt incumbents, both publishers and universities. The spread of open educational resources, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), is changing the landscape – not yet creating the revolution some suggested a year or two ago, but still likely to have a longer term impact. Expectations and possibilities have been fundamentally changed by the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, and the resulting desire for instant access to everything, anywhere and at any time.
Whichever way we look, it’s a time of huge change.
But all that change is happening against a backdrop of university budgets under pressure. The world economy’s still fragile and levels of rich-country debt remain high. So public spending is constrained in many places, affecting research funding as well as education. The increasing cost to students of higher education in many countries means they expect more from universities. Growth in open access models with upfront payments is putting new strains on funding flows within and across universities. In universities which are net exporters of research, like here in Cambridge, that is also likely to lead to an increase in cost.
But it’s not a homogeneous world. Far too much discussion of scholarly communication, especially in the blogosphere, is bedevilled by generalised assertions about ‘what students want’, ‘what researchers need’, ‘what librarians require’, ‘what governments determine’, when in practice the world is pretty diverse. For librarians, the latest Ithaka Library Survey rams home that what you seem to want, and incidentally what you and your governors think that you should be doing, is not at all uniform. What drives say young and committed life scientists in Stanford or here isn’t, necessarily, what drives all researchers under all circumstances.
One obvious area of divergence is take-up of digital. Print has remained important for longer than many had expected, and not just in territories like Japan where both institutional and cultural frameworks have slowed digital adoption. It’s striking that most academics find journal articles digitally but tend to read hard copies of those which run above half a dozen pages. It is a commonplace, or at any rate used to be one until the latest Ithaka Survey, that the more influence faculty had over acquisition policy, the slower the take-up of digital books in university libraries.
I’m sure that many of you will tell me that generational shift has started to change that, and that lack of digital availability means invisibility to the consumer, both for students and faculty. But we aren’t at all unusual in still having the majority of our global academic book sales in hard copy form, despite the rapid growth of digital. British members of this audience may have seen a big feature in The Times Higher Education Supplement in March on ‘Publishing Your First Book’, in which various senior academics were canvassed for their do’s and don’ts: what struck me was the resolute assumption by everyone that this would be a printed artefact, first and foremost. Indeed, digital availability wasn’t mentioned by a single respondent. That’s changing, but there’s some way to go.
That flags another divergence, that between humanities and sciences and the differing fortunes of long-form research books. For many arts and social science scholars it is the research article or book itself where the value lies, as opposed to the applications or replications to which that research might be put (which lies behind the dominant science perspective).
You might be interested to learn, incidentally, that no fewer than half of the members of the History Faculty of this University enjoy the services of a literary agent, primarily engaged in selling the fruits of their research, in selling their content (the two being one and the same).
This divide has been at the heart of much of the recent debate between the historians and the life scientists. It also informs the frankly schizophrenic views of many universities about Patent Law (of which in general universities are warm and protective supporters) and Copyright Law (against which some universities rail, as restrictive, expensive and protectionist).
What’s clearly endangered is the long-form Science research book, whether in print or on-line. The incentives for scientists to write long-form content are clearly in decline. Pressure on scientists to produce more frequent outputs is one cause. Another is the need to get work out rapidly because of global competition.
The English language is now pretty dominant in advanced scientific communication (though not at all in arts and social sciences). That may also discourage some non-native Anglophone scientists from writing 300 page monographs. It is quite possible that within the next five to ten years long-form science research publication, outside the arenas of textbooks and popular science, may be a tiny fraction of what it is today.
There are more general questions about the future of the academic book. Lots of projects are now underway to reimagine it. The most recent is the new Arts and Humanities Research Council proposition, directed by our host Librarian Anne Jarvis. We’re taking part in several open access books experiments. But I don’t yet see signs of culture and practice changing much. That’s hardly surprising as the incentive structure around academic career progression and tenure remains mostly resolutely traditional. And those incentive structures have been strengthened, not undermined, by the vast increase in world-class English-language research from centres in Asia.
The final area of divergence to highlight is around Open Access journals.
Many of you may have seen online the recent thoughtful address to the Smithsonian given by Rick Anderson, the librarian at the University of Utah. He was trying to bring some cool and dispassionate sanity to what remains all too often an area of messianic claim and counter-claim. One thing Rick is surely right to emphasise is that OA publication is at present a minority activity, and I share his sense that one abiding reason for this is that, for many tenured faculty in established institutions, if not for their librarians, the current system isn’t sufficiently broken to provoke them to the personal inconvenience of changing their own publication practices. Hence the enthusiasm for active mandates from many of the leading OA advocates and indeed from certain funders. That’s in contrast to the classic Ivy League position that you never, ever tell a tenured professor where, how or with whom to publish.
It is very striking – and entirely understandable – how much of the advocacy pressure for OA has come from those who feel themselves disenfranchised by the current system, and from those who feel that the current system only speaks to – is only accessible to – those within the ranks of the resource-privileged. The latter perception matters a lot more, it’s self-evident, to some faculty members than to others.
There’s marked variation too in the take up of OA by subject. Within science journals, life sciences are clearly leading the way driven by funders’ requirements but areas like chemistry have barely moved. And in subjects driven by individual endeavour rather than large grant-funded teams – like humanities, history and my own field of mathematics – peer-reviewed open access remains a very small proportion of published articles.
Finally, it’s striking who open access payments are going to. One of the first major pieces of funder OA reporting was published by the Wellcome Trust a few weeks ago. Elsevier accounted for 25% of Wellcome’s total funding for article processing charges in 2012/13. Elsevier plus three other publishers (Wiley with 12%, PLOS with 9% and OUP with 8%) made up more than half of the total. It’s possible gold OA will lead more to market consolidation rather than disruption.
Nonetheless, the tide of governmental and funder sentiment – particularly in the UK – is flowing in one direction only. The challenges this poses are considerable – especially in book-based disciplines in the arts and social sciences.
So the changing world is anything but homogeneous out there.
Where does that leave Cambridge University Press in the future? For me the starting point is that we’re part of a major university and so intrinsically aligned with the academic community. Our values and purpose are those of our university – to advance knowledge, learning and research. That means our response to the new challenges and opportunities is to support new models, not to defend vested interests. As an illustration, as we grow our own Open Access propositions, we do so not only with “gold OA” journals but with an author-friendly and green approach which has always equalled or bettered those of any major publisher. Even as our policies evolve as they must, we will continue to meet that benchmark.
We’ll continue to work with scholars in a way which recognises what they need. With much academic publishing, the key aim for the author is not the often-modest stream of royalties but professional recognition and increased chances of research funding.
One of the most important things that our Academic group achieved in 2013, regardless of sales, reviews, global exposure and Nobel prizes won by our authors, was 100% compliance on behalf of our UK-based book and journal authors with the terms of the most recent British Research Excellence Framework. Late publication could have led to lower research ratings for departments and hence lower budgets – huge consequences for an author. So I was delighted that my colleagues managed to process record amounts of material over the course of a crazy three months to get out every single relevant book and article. We need to keep satisfied those authors and users who continue to want to operate in largely unchanged ways while at the same time building something quite new.
That’s a challenge but not an impossible one.
In this complex, rapidly changing and diverse world, one thing of which I’m certain is that no one knows the future. It’s a moment for experimentation and trying things out, and one where flexibility and responsiveness are critical for us all.
Like others we are busy doing just that, in Academic publishing and also in the other half of what we do: publishing for English Language Teaching and for schools education. That might be launching our first MOOC for schools computing a few months ago or trying out adaptive learning technologies in interactive textbooks. We are adding new areas like researcher services, technical support, user advice, to the myriad of things that we already do. As I mentioned, we’re working with a number of OA book experiments like Knowledge Unlatched and The Open Library of the Humanities. And underlying many of those things is in my view the most profound opportunity from digital – the creation of a direct connection between the end user and the publisher. That data and interaction – more than anything else – will help us to reshape our products radically and faster to meet the needs of our users. Of course not everything we try out will work as intended. The most critical thing is that we learn and evolve rapidly.
To help us do that, we have over the past nine months completely restructured our global academic operations, integrating appropriate journal and book functions, and ensuring a resolute focus on what best serves the ever-changing needs of our authors, our customers and our readers and users.
I think two of the most important elements of what publishers have done historically will remain central to our future: quality assurance and the dissemination/discoverability of content.
First in our quality assurance, ‘Significance’ has always been a major criterion of publication for us, and we retain our commitment to the highest standards of peer-review. The tinned salmon manufacturer John West trumpeted a few decades ago that “it’s the fish John West reject that makes John West the best”. Just like John West, our underlying editorial principle has always been it’s the books we reject that makes us what we are.
New scholarly undertakings, including PLOS, have been established that question whether such a premise is always appropriate for the digital world. In my judgment it still is, and for a major University Press the assertion that what we publish is qualitatively better, and more important, as a result of that rigour remains central to our academic proposition. In a digital world of almost infinite choice, the Press’s world-wide reputation for academic rigour is a powerful sign to help people find high quality products and materials. I think that will become even more valuable in the future.
The second key element is dissemination and discoverability. One of the things the Press did well early in the digital revolution was to realise the importance of the apparently dull area of metadata to improve the discoverability of its content. Indeed it was this metadata expertise that prompted the very early interest in the Press shown by Google and Amazon. A big opportunity is the value which can be added via digital access to content. It makes it easier to discover insights rather than just articles through search using multiple parameters. Other opportunities are the need now for deeper metadata, to ensure chapters of books are as discoverable as journal articles or to make permitted use clear for open access.
The advent of social media, open access, new tools for discoverability and disaggregated content are all changing many aspects of what’s needed, although again it’s not yet universal. Another is facilitating dialogue around content on social media, which again aids discovery. And crucially, it’s not enough to disseminate to the purchaser – we need to work with libraries to do this at several levels to reach users, and on an ongoing rather than an on-publication basis.
So in conclusion. For more than four centuries we have been passionate about sharing the world’s best learning and research – elite but not elitist. As part of one of the world’s greatest universities, that will remain our purpose. So changes for us are about how we deliver in the future rather than what or why.
The danger, and one to which any organisation with a long history can be prone – like many publishers and most universities, is to emphasise too much of what we might lose in adapting to these new worlds, and not embrace sufficiently the new opportunities.
The world is changing fast for publishers and universities. As part of the University of Cambridge, we remain committed to the highest levels of quality, being part of and sharing the values of the communities we serve. We’ll adapt by widening further our range of digital products, looking for new ways to make them more discoverable. We recognise it’s not a homogeneous world so it’s crucial for us to experiment and learn from interaction with faculty, students and librarians around the world. That’s why joining conversations like today’s retreat is so important.
We live now in a very interactive world. So I’m looking forward to the debate now and to an exciting set of conversations during the rest of the day.