What academic publishers wish we knew

Friends, colleagues,

I have privileged information that I need to share with you.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a seminar for academic publishers. They were in attendance to learn about ‘the researcher of the future.’

I was there as a ‘future researcher’ panellist along with six other ECRs, and we were joined by individuals working at the intersection of academic publishing and innovation.

The delegates came to learn about our perspective on the academia-publishing relationship, and they’d paid between £200 and £500 for the privilege. Being surrounded by academic publishers all day, I couldn’t fail to learn about their perspective on the relationship. And, though some of it seems obvious, I want to share what I learnt:

1) Let’s start with this: academic publishers would not exist if academics didn’t exist; without us they got nothing! Sure, we need them because they publish our work for us, but at a push we could find other ways of disseminating our research whilst they, on the other hand, would cease to have a raison d’être.

2) Next: the word in my uni corridors is that to get published you have to jump through whatever hoops the immovable academic publishers throw your way. But that is so not what our relationship looks like to them. Remember, there are lots of academic publishers, all vying for our custom, all competing with each other. To survive they’ve got to attract us, and to attract us they’ve got to be attractive. Let’s take a moment to think about the fact that ±40 organisations were prepared to pay between £200 and £500 to learn about the needs and wants of the academic community. Friends, colleagues, they are not immovable; they want to flex to meet our needs because that means we’ll give them custom and keep them in business.

3) And so here’s the next point: although they want to flex to meet our needs, they don’t know what our needs are. Because we’ve got it into our minds that they are immovable and don’t care about us, we don’t reach out to tell them what we want.

4) Final point: this is kind of surprising, and also kind of not: lots of them don’t know what it’s like to be a researcher. It’s not just our needs that they don’t know about, they don’t know what our day-to-day life looks like, nor the nature of the patterns on the many plates we are trying to keep spinning. And why would they? They work in publishing houses; we work in universities. But they want to know. In the afternoon networking session, seminar delegates started coming up to my ECR colleagues and me, telling us that our insights were the best part of the seminar. At first we joked and assumed they were just being polite. But so many publishers said it to us that we ended up believing it. One publisher said she had been to a similar meeting about researcher needs and that there had been 200 publishers and just two researchers! It seems that, except through article submission portals and the likes, communication between them and us is lacking. Yet this isn’t what they want: they want to build, strengthen and develop communication channels.

To summarise:

  • Academic publishers exist because we exist.
  • They want to flex to meet our needs and wants.
  • They won’t know what we want and need if we don’t tell them.
  • They want to develop the relationship between them and us.

To conclude:

A few months ago a friend told me about ‘the Hero’s Journey.’ It’s a narrative structure that crops up in countless stories. Once you’ve heard it, you start seeing it everywhere. The bare bones are this: there is a hero. He or she sets out on an adventure. Along the journey the hero encounters obstacles and villains, but also meets helpers who help the hero overcome those obstacles. There’s an ultimate challenge, and though it seems touch and go, ultimately the hero overcomes it and returns home changed and triumphant.

Why am I talking about the Hero’s Journey? Like I said, I’ve started seeing the structure everywhere, including in the researcher-publisher story. So let’s tell the story:

We, the researchers, are obviously the heroes (!) and to survive and triumph we must publish. Along the journey to publication various obstacles get in our way, including academic publishers….

See, I reckon we’ve spun a story for ourselves wherein we see academic publishers as obstacles; it’s us against them. But that’s not how it is. They want to help us, they want to get our publications out there; they aren’t villains, they’re helpers!

I’m not suggesting that the journey isn’t challenging and problematic, but actually, if you think about it, the obstacles we encounter such as the process of peer review, are issues with the system, and they are challenges that publishers have to deal with too.

So my concluding thought is this: why don’t we write a different narrative, see academic publishers as they want us to see them, engage when we can and look for opportunities to do so? We should remember that they want to meet our needs and want to help us. Let’s try to see them as helpers. After all, in this new narrative we’ll still get to be the heroes.

What next?