While it is often futile to attempt to predict the future of anything, that is what I am going to try to do here. I will also include some elements of a future that I would like to see–not necessarily the future that I think will happen.
In the area of libraries, there has been a spate of blog posts and articles concerning the future of libraries (for example, see here, here, here, and here), including both academic libraries and public libraries. In this blog post, I intend to write about the future of scholarly communication covering a span of 10-50 years. Libraries and scholarly communication are close cousins and the activities of one often have a big impact on the other. However, the areas of libraries and scholarly communication live in slightly different environments, and the people who work in those industries perform different roles and have different functions.
I am mostly going to concentrate on the journal publishing business side of scholarly communication. The scholarly monograph industry is under great turmoil right now, and I don’t have as good of a grasp of that side of the business to begin with, so I will leave prognostication of the scholarly book and ebook industry to others.
You may ask yourself, why should we try to predict the future of scholarly communication? In my case, I have an interest as an academic librarian. I would like to know where the academic publishing industry is headed, and putting my thoughts down in this blog post helps me organize my priorities for action as a librarian.
Enough of the back story.
Scholars and researchers will continue to use articles as the means to communicate research results, but the structure of article communication will change. For example, preprint and post-print servers have been used as primary communication mechanisms in some fields of physics and computer science for over 20 years. This is the case even though the final peer-reviewed and layed-out published article is needed by researchers to attain tenure and promotion at their institution. As altmetric indicators become standardized in various fields, more and more researchers will submit altmetric numbers to document additional use of their research beyond article citation counts and journal impact factors.
At some point, when administrators become more familiar with altmetric use indicators, the value of the journal as a container will go down, and the situation will flip. It will be more important for the researchers to publish in open sources (just about any open access journal will do) or publish the research in a repository, in a blog, or any place that is on the web. As long as the research is out there on the open web, anybody will be able to find it, read it, use it, cite it, and draw knowledge from the article.
These changes will lead to a decoupling of the scholarly journal, but the decoupling will not happen at the same time for all fields of research. People in different subject areas will encourage greater experimentation with decoupling of various types and forms. In computer science and engineering, for example, I could see research that used to be published in formal conference proceedings will be published as manuscripts or presentations on the web. The peer-reviews could take place after the conference is done. Committees or groups of people could set up systems to rate or rank the research that had been presented at conferences.
The life science research system may adapt to change in different ways, and they may take other approaches to decouple the journal. For example, PeerJ is a new publishing system with a membership model of publishing. This form of publication may become extremely popular. Contraction of research into a small number of megajournals such as PLOS ONE may become more prevalent. PeerJ and PLOS ONE are not decoupling the journal and peer-review system, but they are good examples of experimentation. With new publication systems, the title of the journal will not be as important as the availability of the research to a world-wide audience.
Much of the change is going to be mandated from the funding agencies. If the NIH, the Wellcome Trust and other funding bodies require the research to be available as Open Access, then the researchers will work to meet the demands of the funders. The prestige of big name subscription journals (Nature, Science, Cell, etc.) will go down because administrators will recommend that their researchers publish in less expensive open access journals, or simply post the research to an institutional repository. As long as the article is available to the rest of the world, altmetric systems will be able to monitor the use and value of the work to other scholars and researchers.