BMJ Group blogs: BMJ » Blog Archive » Richard Smith: Did the future of scientific publishing happen?
“Ten years ago editors and publishers from the BMJ produced four scenarios on how the future of scientific and medical publishing might look. After I read Des Spence’s column arguing that the BMJ pay wall should be taken down and Peter Suber’s editorial on open access. I thought that it would be fun to revisit the scenarios and see how well we did in thinking about the future... We named the scenarios after characters in the Simpsons ... The familiar world we named Homer, the lazy father: ‘Researchers continue to publish in the same old way because it’s familiar and doesn’t demand big changes in the academic reward system.’ Publishers of scientific journals continue to make substantial profits, and they ‘have increased the value they add to information—through filtering, distilling, and organising better.’ The world of open access we named Marge after the wise mother: ‘All original research is made available for free through the web—either through something like PubMed Central or on sites owned by universities, research institutions, or companies.’ The journals that are left have become free magazines. Academics are electronically alerted to the research that matters to them, and their academic status is based ‘partly on the number of hits received by [their] research on the web, partly on how much [their] research is mentioned in the magazines all doctors receive, and mostly on whether [their] research improves patient outcomes.’ Neither of these scenarios has come to pass exactly as we imagined, but there is considerable truth in both of them. Traditional journals are making as much money as ever—and perhaps even more judging by the profits of Elsevier... But at the same time the proportion of articles that are open access is steadily increasing—up to 41% of those on UK Pubmed Central from 33% in 2009. The recent announcements by the UK government and the European Commission on requiring publicly funded research to be open access will accelerate this trend... Academics are increasingly notified of relevant research electronically, and Google Scholar has just introduced a service to do just this. Article level metrics have been introduced, particularly by the Public Library of Science, but there is still a tendency to measure the value of a piece of research by the impact of the journal in which it is published. Importantly academics in Britain will be measured by the impact their research has in the real world, something that some of them have resisted. Our most radical vision of the future we named Lisa after ‘the smart, well informed daughter,’ and we described it as ‘a world of global conversations.’ We imagined that people would ‘be connected to a series of electronic communities who will keep [them] up to date with her interests.’ Academic credit would come from the ‘buzz’ in the communities. People would pick up general information from the mass media and from chat in their communities. ‘When something interesting happens in medicine or health care,’ we wrote, ‘it spreads very quickly, like gossip, through the linked communities.’ Publishers would have only a small role. When we wrote this neither Facebook nor Twitter existed, and Google was unknown to most people... Our fourth world was named after Bart, the streetwise son, and we described it as a world where ‘the big guys have taken over.’ Scientific and medical information would be provided increasingly by large organisations, particularly companies, ‘as a side product of their usual business...” This was the scariest of the worlds we imagined, and mostly it hasn’t happened ... the main value of scenario planning is not to predict the future but rather to free up thinking on the present, but the other value is to think about what will be important in all of the worlds. We ended our article trying to do this, and I want to end this blog by commenting ... on how important these things are now...”