The report proposes a vision for the future of scholarly communication and publishing. The strengths and weaknesses of the current system, and its main actors are analysed. The expert group reviews their roles and makes recommendations to key actors.

Future of Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication

Report of the Expert Group to the European Commission

Preface by Jean-Claude Guédon, Chair of the Expert Group

The following pages are a testimony to a collective voice. All members of the expert group on the future of scholarly publishing and scholarly communication were involved actively at every stage of the work. They chose to engage very generously with their time, and, in doing so, they revealed the formidable reach of their expertise. Thank you, each one of you, for your efforts.

The European Commission personnel must also be thanked. Jean-Claude Burgelman has constantly supported the expert group. My personal thanks go to him. The role of Victoria Tsoukala, always central, became critical after September 2018 as the preparation of the report entered its final phase. She extended her efforts beyond measure. She constantly made sure that the the expert group was moving along well, and that the Chair was not forgetting a “detail” or two, otherwise known as crucial elements. Thank you, Victoria! Until September 2018, Jean-François Dechamp also played a very important role beside Victoria Tsoukala, and he too must be thanked.

The collective voice of the report is a complex one, and although complete agreement was not always possible, a shared vision of direction of travel was achieved. Involved in what is generally known as “future studies”, the expert group gradually found itself involved with a subcategory of this field, known in Europe as “foresight”. Foresight corresponds to a form of future studies that privileges critical thinking applied to shaping the future through influencing public policy. In this particular case, this meant identifying the key actors, establishing the nature of their status and roles, identifying their inter-relationships, understanding the nature of the tensions between them, and understanding also where room for collaboration and synergies existed. In the face of an extremely mobile communication and publishing landscape, it was also important to identify elements of permanence, continuity and stability. In effect, by identifying functions and principles, the expert group was setting its sights on fundamental bearings. It could then adumbrate what new social, institutional, technological and economic configurations could come together to form a desirable future for scholarly publishing and communication.

The report has achieved these objectives. Functions and principles offer the needed guidance in a highly fluid context, and they also provide a clear foundation to describe what is not working well in the scholarly publishing world. The report then examines each of the actors with a view to determining their specific degrees of freedom.

The conclusion is actually simple: the evaluation of research is the keystone, and it has already been identified by scholars around the world, and by various expert groups within the European Commission, as structuring a global research architecture characterised by an unlimited quest for rankings. The ranking imperative affects all levels of the research structure, and it tends to constrain change for nearly all actors. This is true of individual researchers, of research groups, of whole research institutions, and even of whole countries. Symmetrically, publishers design their marketing strategies around journal rankings. But they too have become prisoners of this strategy, even though they benefit from it, and they have difficulties seeing beyond it.

Funding agencies also use rankings, sometimes abundantly. However, unlike the other actors, private funding charities are not ranked, and public, national, funders are ranked only indirectly, through their own country. As a result, funders in general enjoy more latitude than the other actors in scholarly communication and publishing. The European Commission, as a public funder, also operates transnationally, and this special status tends to shield it from the ranking anxieties that may affect national funders.

The report concludes with the general thesis that the scholarly publishing landscape can be meaningfully changed only if the funding agencies take the lead and initiate change. But, to achieve this goal, they will need to work in close association with researchers, research institutions and learned societies which, for their part, will need to increase their responsibilities in this regard. The age of outsourcing-by-default – or is it punting? – may be at an end, and, if so, it should be replaced by strong networking efforts among these actors. Funding agencies will also need to provide more of an effective voice to the general public and its various constituents. They can also work with publishers who are willing to support the development of a scholarly publishing and communication system that corrects the flaws presently observed. For their part, publishers can meaningfully cooperate with other actors, but only if they adapt their business models to an evaluation framework where intellectual and economic value are not entangled as they presently are.

Funding agencies, with their access to money and their relative freedom to act, are probably best suited to shape and develop the scholarly publishing landscape of the near future, and their growing collective commitments to open science are positive signals in this regard.

Finally, attentive readers will note that a number of common words such as stakeholders or sustainability are largely absent from the text. The reason is that such labels simply paper over real problems without addressing them. Their value is diplomatic rather than analytical. For example, it is clear that the sustainability of a large commercial publisher, of a small society publisher, of a library, or of a research institutions each rests on very different parameters, and corresponds to very different objectives. Likewise, the word “stakeholder” originally emerged within commercial companies facing deep internal divisions: it refers to conflicts that cannot be explicitly mentioned. In short, they work against being truly informative. Resisting these terms also helps against recycling familiar tropes too easily. Thinking, true thinking, can be foregrounded in this manner. Readers will decide if the foregrounding actually took place.

Jean-Claude Guédon, Chair
Expert Group on the Future of Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication


© European Union, 2019