Looking to the future – students and academics leading the charge in publishing innovation

Dr Virginia Barbour

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

Dr Virginia Barbour
Professor, Griffith University

Dr Virginia Barbour is the Executive Director of the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and a Director of the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME). Dr Barbour was one of the three founding editors of PLOS Medicine and became Medicine and Biology Editorial Director of PLOS in 2014.

Dr Virginia Barbour
Dr Virginia Barbour

As a medical student (a long time ago, admittedly), peering into the far future to wonder what publishing was going to look like when I graduated and practiced was very far down my list of priorities, if it ever crossed it.

But, as the Australian Medical Student Journal’s Editor in Chief recently described in the Australian Open Access Support Group (AOASG) blog [1], medical students today are already immersed in a rapidly evolving world of publishing, which is changing the way that they access and publish information, via journals such as the Australian Medical Student Journal. [2]

There is even more profound change going on and unlike for much of the recent history of publishing, which has been led by publishers, many for profit, the next wave is being led by academics, even students.

How has this happened? The underlying technology driving all this is, not surprisingly, the Internet. The Internet is 25 years old [3] and for most university students and younger, it was essentially always there. Even for academics in their 30s and 40s, it was there while they grew up. As well as the technology, the Internet signalled a change in mindset – academics were not just consumers of the scholarly literature, they were generators of it even in ways that could lie outside the scholarly publishing system.

So in my mind, this enabling technology also led to a profound shift in immediate behaviour, such as blogging, but also to changes in behaviour for solving problems.

What has this behaviour change led to in scholarly publishing? Several examples illustrate this well.

First, Open Access (OA) publishers such as Public Library of Science (PLOS) [4] came about as a result of academics seeing a need to make the research literature open – that is, free and shareable [5] – and starting their own publishing houses.

A second example came about when an academic needed to have a place to deposit and share his figures and data, but was not yet ready to incorporate them into a full paper. Hence, Figshare [6] was founded.

Third was when a group of medical students saw the need to get access to papers that were not OA and also to catalogue the extent of this need. Thus, the OA button [7] came into being.

Fourth, two separate groups of academics, one in New Zealand and one in Australia, saw a problem with researchers not getting credit for peer review. Publons [8] and Academic Karma [9] took up this challenge.

Fifth, and even more relevant to medical publishing, innovation has been used to specifically improve the reliability of the medical literature. This move started in the 1990s when editors and trialists began to explore how to better report research with low-tech solutions, such as checklists, to improve trial reporting. [10] Two developments have led on from that. One of these developments is known as a ‘threaded publication’ and aims to link all parts of a medical study, from protocol to trial report, to post marketing surveillance. [11] The other, following on from the AllTrials [12] initiative to get all trials registered and all results reported, is Open Trials [13], which will have a fully linked and searchable database of all trials, linked to their authors, institutions, and funders.

This growth of innovation – of academics seeing a need, designing a solution, and then building it, is now, I believe, fundamentally woven into the structure of new publishing, so much so that there is now a site that is cataloguing all these innovations [14] (not all of which are researcher-led) and this is a movement that can only grow.

What underpins the successful publishing enterprises now is, I believe, three things. First, they are built on the principle of openness – the data around the innovation itself, as well as the content is openly available, as is, increasingly, the code. Second, is the need for solid principles to build the innovation into something that works – the equivalent of making sure a revolution has functional water systems and drains. The third is the notion of interoperability – of seamless linking of all parts of the innovation with other innovations, for example, people through their ORCiD identifiers [15], trials through their registration numbers, [16] and papers [17] and funders [18] through their own unique identifiers.

In the end, all these innovations are working in one direction – to a more open, transparent and reproducible academic literature. It is not going to be perfect at every step but at least if there are novel ideas, built on transparent infrastructure, we can ensure that what is built will allow the next generation of innovation to be built upon them in turn.

Prepared for the AMSJ, © 2015 Barbour. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


[1] http://aoasg.org.au/2015/11/24/open-access-and-why-it-matters-to-medical-students/

[2] http://www.amsj.org/

[3] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/f3fe9c4a-4bd1-11da-997b-0000779e2340.html

[4] https://www.plos.org/

[5] http://aoasg.org.au/what-is-open-access/

[6] http://figshare.com/

[7] https://openaccessbutton.org/

[8] https://publons.com/

[9] http://academickarma.org/

[10] http://www.equator-network.org/

[11] http://www.trialsjournal.com/content/15/1/369

[12] http://www.alltrials.net/

[13] http://opentrials.net/

[14] https://innoscholcomm.silk.co/

[15] http://orcid.org/

[16] http://www.anzctr.org.au/

[17] https://www.doi.org/

[18] http://www.crossref.org/fundref/