30 Years of Publishing Transformation: A Q&A With the Editors of Learned Publishing

September 7, 2018 Anne-Marie Green

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Learned Publishing, the scholarly journal of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers which has played an integral role in documenting the evolution of the publishing industry during a period of marked transformation. To commemorate the occasion, we asked editors Pippa Smart and Lettie Conrad to reflect on the past thirty years and challenged them to do some future-gazing as well.


Q. Looking through your digital timeline is a fun and fascinating review of the past thirty years. What stands out to you as one major catalyst for publishing’s digital transformation?

A. It has to be the launch of the PDF and Acrobat in 2003 – suddenly we had a format that (nearly!) everyone could read, was easily transmitted and downloaded, and kept the familiar print formatting. But, if it had been the only thing, we would have only reached halfway – for instance, the PDF “container” gave rise to data standards and new ways of doing business, such as the DOI and the CrossRef registry. It was fascinating to create this timeline, and we had so many “aha!” moments about how each incremental change added up to digital publishing transformations. Following the dawn of DOIs in 1997, then came Catchword in 1994, XML in 1998, the ALPSP guidelines for licensing e-publications in 1998 ... and the list goes on!

Q. What prompted the creation of Learned Publishing and how has the publication itself changed over the years?

A. In 1975, when the Bulletin (the Learned Publishing precursor) launched, its purpose was to inform members, and provide a forum – it says it was not intended “…as an excuse for the Editor to waffle, or as a further contribution to the great waste paper chase”! When it changed to Learned Publishing in 1988 it retained the objective of providing information to members and the wider publishing community, and mostly provided news on events and news items. However, it increasingly started to include original content, mostly views and experiences. Notably, in the past decade we have increased the amount of original research and the globalization of our authorship. The journal remains a “practice journal” with the objective of providing publishers with useful information that will help them improve their operations – but we now base more of this information on evidence: research rather than opinion. And we still try to avoid contributing to the great waste paper chase!

Q. Learned Publishing is pretty meta being a product of the community and industry it is chronicling, how does publishing about publishing offer perspective? Were there any surprises when you put on your editor hats?

A. That’s a really interesting question and, generally, our experiences prove that publishing is both an art and a science. Being part of Learned Publishing means we are witnessing both the incremental advancements in our industry, but can also easily step back to see a bigger picture about what it means to publish quality research in the modern age. One thing we’ve learned is that being an excellent publisher does not make you an excellent author. We’re sometimes surprised when our authors demonstrate gaps in their understanding of how a rigorous, ethical editorial and peer review process works. As an industry, to ensure dissemination of high-quality, unbiased research, we ask authors to jump through a lot of hoops during the submission and peer review process. Yet, some industry experts find this challenging when they act as Learned Publishing authors. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned there!

Q.The timeline mentions that the most downloaded article from LP is on the failure of the publishing world to combat piracy thus far. Do you think that publishers can turn the tide?

A. Just as some publishing experts struggle to fill the role of the author, I think some in our industry do not truly understand the access and discovery experiences of researchers. Ultimately, if we are not truly listening and responding to the challenges of end-users, then someone else will fill that space – whether honestly, or not.

Q. What’s to come for the journal and community as a whole in the next 30 years?

A. As libraries increasingly act as publishers, and publishers increasingly influence information experiences, we’d really like to see the broader field of Information Science provide more evidence-based research on which to develop journals and scholarly communication. This is happening in open scholarship and other modern academic information initiatives, but less so in our environment. The journal model is still a great validation tool, but we hope that there will be more experimentation with sustainable publication models that include diverse voices and better meet the needs of research, policy, and practice.

With the proviso that crystal-ball gazing can be tricky, we’d like to suggest that the journal model as a validation tool will continue. However, we also anticipate a much more mixed market with layering of information in repositories and personal sites, of both formal (reviewed, approved) and informal (preprints) content, with spin-offs (secondary publications including blogs and other social media) adding to the mix. The different elements of the information chain (e.g. peer review, editing, hosting, data services, archiving, etc.) may separate, each handled by different organizations. It is possible that publishers will become the service providers of technology and “value-added” overlay services, whilst the dissemination of research content takes place elsewhere. However, this raises threats of “fake news” and cluttering of the information environment, so it is likely that overlay services (selecting the “best of the best”) will increase in importance. But if change is really to be achieved, it is not the researchers and publishers that will drive this – the academic reward system needs to change its focus away from the traditional established models.

Thanks for the look back Pippa and Lettie.

Check out the video below to learn more about the past 30 years of Learned Publishing.


About the Author

Anne-Marie Green

Content and Communications // Anne-Marie has worked on the marketing and communications side of publishing for over 15 years. In that time, both the marketing and publishing worlds have been turned upside down. She currently serves as Managing Editor of The Wiley Network

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