In Europe: eLife contributes to a report on the future of scholarly communication

An Expert Group appointed by the European Commission identifies reform of the scholarly incentive system as a key requirement for the continuing improvement of research communication.

By Mark Patterson @marknpatterson

Over the past 16 months or so, I’ve been participating in a European Commission Expert Group charged with looking into the future of scholarly communication. This group was one of several groups formed under the umbrella of the Open Science Policy Platform, all aiming to support the Commission’s drive towards greater openness in scholarship and research throughout Europe. The product of our efforts has now been published in the form of a 62-page report.

The 12 members of the Expert Group represented differing perspectives of the scholarly communication system – including researchers, institutions, publishers and funders. Our work was facilitated by Jean-Claude Guedon as the chair, and with support initially from Michael Jubb, and especially for the final six months from Victoria Tsoukala of the European Commission.

Our task was to look ahead 10–20 years and consider what an ideal state for scholarly communication might look like, and then what kinds of actions might be taken now to move towards that state.

We didn’t aim to prescribe a particular implementation for the ideal future system, because we felt that this was unlikely to be possible or helpful. Instead we considered the key functions of scholarly communication and agreed on a set of core principles that any future system should strive for under the following headings:

  • Maximizing Accessibility
  • Maximizing Usability
  • Supporting an Expanding Range of Contributions
  • A Distributed, Open Infrastructure
  • Equity, Diversity & Inclusivity
  • Community Building
  • Promoting High-Quality Research & Its Integrity
  • Facilitating Evaluation
  • Promoting Flexibility & Innovation
  • Cost-Effectiveness

Linking all of these ideas together is the overarching principle that “knowledge and understanding created by researchers should be treated as public goods”. And a metaphor that runs throughout the report is HG Wells’ world brain from the 1930s – the notion of a collective intelligence, whose work and outputs are open to all.

There was some time spent on examining the past and the present state of scholarly publishing, but mostly we thought about the future and how we could improve the system. We considered the needs and roles of the major participants in scholarly communication, and identified constructive actions that these participants could take, as listed in the Executive Summary of the report.

In terms of the recommendations, the strongest theme to emerge is the urgent need for reform of the incentive system in scholarship. The report states that:

...nothing will do more to foster change in accordance with the principles set out in this report than concerted work and institutional change in the area of rewards and incentives.

Achieving greater transparency, and widening the activities considered in research evaluation featured in several places in the recommendations. The report also emphasises that all the actors involved in the scholarly communication system have their part to play. Funders, in particular, have the potential to exert a powerful influence. But there was also recognition that we are dealing with a complex system, with many interdependencies, and therefore no one stakeholder holds the key to reform.

Another major theme in the report is the idea that the core functions of scholarly communication can now be disaggregated, instead of being wrapped up in a single publishing process. This has already happened in some fields with the increasing use of preprints for example, but could go much further. This disaggregation of functions also raises the possibility that creative new entrants into scholarly communication will help to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of existing approaches. Once again though, it is only with the reinvention of the incentive and rewards system that such innovations can really flourish.

The changes that our group envisaged during the course of our work together represent threats as well as opportunities for the communities and organisations that are closest to us. Although we didn’t always agree on points of emphasis in the report, we did agree on a shared vision of the future. I enjoyed this collaborative exercise and was heartened by our work together. I wondered whether we should extend the metaphor of the world brain to include a world heart – representing the fundamental purpose of the work that we’re all contributing towards. I hope that others might find some useful ideas in the report for action that could be taken. In the words of the report:

Whilst researchers, communities and organisations can all take action individually, these actions will be vastly more effective with concerted and collaborative approaches between the actors. Individually, we can influence the system; together we can transform it.

Questions and comments are welcome. Please annotate publicly on the article or contact us at hello [at] elifesciences [dot] org.

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