The evolution of academic publishing in a digital age

The Cambrian explosion marked a period of intense evolution – a time characterised by an abundance of life. The academic sector is going through its own evolutionary phase as it enters a digital age of learning. The challenge is, of course, to avoid becoming a fossil. To do this, the role of the academic publisher must continually develop as new technologies and new ways of life, learning and research emerge.

Despite this period of intense change, it nonetheless remains essential that published work continues to uphold the quality and values that have earned these publishers their reputations over time – in Oxford University Press’s case, over several hundred years.

The digital revolution in academic publishing is already happening and has been for some time, so it’s important that as publishers we rise to meet these changes and the opportunities they present head on.

Technology has delivered access, meaning information-hungry readers are spoilt for choice, whether that be new insights on a topic from the latest ‘grey literature’ flooding our search results or user-generated content of all kinds bypassing traditional gate-keepers.

The traditional publishing model has been disrupted and disintermediated and reader behaviour has evolved. Even in the world of literary fiction, novelists of the stature of Salman Rushdie are experimenting with the serialisation of their work on newsletter subscription service Substack.

COVID-driven acceleration

This flourishing demand for digital services has only been exaggerated by the experiences of the pandemic. COVID-19 has deprived many researchers of the opportunity to browse library shelves and directly access library resources, regional lockdowns making online the only means of access to learning for many, for prolonged periods of time.

During this period, Oxford University Press’s Oxford Academic platform saw a huge upsurge in traffic across our content, as did all digital channels. As part of the global effort to counter misinformation, we created a digital COVID-19 hub, making freely available the latest research on the subject from across the journals, books and other types of content we publish.

A year-and-a-half later, that hub is still there, serving the researchers and medical professionals flocking to find relevant and trusted resources online and has just passed 30 million views.

But the demand for digital is not just a reaction to the pandemic. Just before COVID-19 struck, research conducted by Oxford University Press into the way people use monographs in a digital environment suggested that, while scholars still valued the traditional printed form of the monograph, more needed to be done to make it readily and easily accessible.

The responses, from around 5,000 scholars of all ages and nationalities across the humanities and social sciences, were clear.

For the monograph to remain relevant now and in the future, its digital possibilities must be embraced. Digital allows us to experiment with changes to content, length and dissemination. It gives us the opportunity to reduce the time between submission and publication, taking work more quickly on that journey from author to reader and to experiment with open access and other models, driving discoverability, citation and usage.

An interconnected web of content

The Press has been publishing monographs online for two decades and there are now more than 25,000 books on its online platforms, but their use has shifted over time, with readers now more likely to engage at chapter level, reading in an extractive way to find particular information, rather than reading in an immersive manner, cover to cover as they might have done in the past.

This disaggregation of the individual book, metaphorically pulling it apart – if you like – to get at the most relevant facts for your particular need as a reader, is powered by digital dissemination, with discoverability powering these meaningful journeys between different pieces of content.

Digital delivery has allowed us to take our books and journals down from the library shelf and transform them through aggregation into an interconnected web of content, available right at a reader’s fingertips, wherever in the world they may be. All the pandemic has done here is accelerate existing trends, cramming as much as a decade’s worth of digital evolution into a single year.

Sustainability and open access

The balance between affordable access and publishing sustainability is also critical and the race is on for publishers to provide the best open access services.

While the principle of open access isn’t new, the availability of open content and the range of models for its funding and delivery continue to proliferate.

The best-established models are self-archiving in a freely accessible institutional repository (known as green open access) and the publication of work into an open access journal (known as gold open access) and both models have widely increased access to journal content, although their sustainability depends upon a mix of embargo periods, sponsorship or funding for Article Processing Charges.

These models continue to be added to, with experiments in hybrid access, subscription and crowdfunding models all entering the market.

The launch by Oxford University Press of a flagship open access journal series, the Oxford Open, in 2020 highlighted the importance of marrying the principles of open research with a sustained commitment to rigorous peer review and publication ethics.

The series launched with Oxford Open Immunology and Oxford Open Materials Science, but is quickly building out into new fields, furthering the Press’s mission to advance knowledge and learning by publishing high quality, cutting edge research in a wide range of disciplines.

The series represents a decisive step on the path towards a more open world for academic publishing, supporting the community of authors, editors and readers in making the transition.

New opportunities

While the digital age brings its own challenges, such as the deepening digital divide, it also presents new opportunities to take content to new audiences. The publisher’s imprimatur remains an important signpost of quality and relevance amidst the mass of content available online.

Going back to our evolution metaphor, it’s not a question of whether publishers will have to evolve and adapt, but rather how they’ll address the shifting demands of the market, and how quickly they can transform, that will determine whether or not they thrive or sink into the sediment.

Sophie Goldsworthy is director of content strategy and acquisition for the global research publishing programme at Oxford University Press (OUP), where her role includes the alignment of Oxford’s commissioning with the evolving content needs of the university sector and working to maximise the reach, impact and amplification of the scholarship OUP publishes. She is also a writer and photographer.