Charleston Conference Panel Discusses Getting Back To Business Post-COVID

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the Charleston Conference took place virtually from November 2–6. Appropriately, many of the sessions focused on the changes in and around academic libraries wrought by the pandemic. A panel titled “Getting Back to Business,” sponsored by the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s Scholarly Kitchen blog, offered opinions from a range of scholarly publishing stakeholders, including representatives from a university library, research society, nonprofit, and publishing consultant.

Charleston Conference logo and b&w line art of two people in robes talking with legendBecause of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the Charleston Conference took place virtually from November 2–6. (Video recordings of the sessions will be available on their pages in Pathable for one year after the conference ends; content will then move to the conference website and be available OA from there.) Appropriately, many of the sessions focused on the changes in and around academic libraries wrought by the pandemic. A panel titled “Getting Back to Business,” sponsored by the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s Scholarly Kitchen blog, offered opinions from a range of scholarly publishing stakeholders, including representatives from a university library, research society, nonprofit, and publishing consultant.

In conversation with Rick Anderson, university librarian at Brigham Young University (BYU), UT; Robert Harington, associate executive director of publishing at the American Mathematical Society (AMS); Alice Meadows, director of community engagement at the National Information Standards Organization (NISO); and Joseph Esposito, senior partner at academic publishing and information services consulting firm Clarke & Esposito weighed in on how organizations can get back to their primary work even as the pandemic continues to disrupt customary processes.

Moderator Angela Cochran, VP/publisher at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, led off with an overview of the current scenario: university funding is uncertain, academic library budgets have been slashed in some areas, and many societies that depend on annual meetings and publication revenue are experiencing a double hit—at the same time that scholarly publishing submissions continue to increase by double-digit percentages. How can scholarly communications get back to core functions, she asked, and what might they want to keep from this time?

 

NONPROFITS CONTINUE THEIR SUPPORT

Cochran began with a question for Meadows: How can organizations in the critical not-for-profit research infrastructure, such as NISO, ensure continued funding and sustainability?

There is definitely cause to be concerned about revenues over the next few years, Meadows said. Although NISO has been insulated from any funding crunch thus far because it runs on a calendar year basis, and had collected expected revenues before the pandemic hit, the coming years will be hard on everyone—universities, publishers, vendors, organizations like NISO, and the research infrastructure as a whole. Many membership-funded organizations that have been sustainable until now will have to reexamine their approach.

Those that have relied on funders may be in a better position right now, as the stock market has been fairly resilient so far. But organizations that have supported elements of the research infrastructure should think twice about discontinuing support if a crunch does come, she added, as they need those tools and services to do the work they do creating access to research—“and to do it efficiently and well and with a minimum of burden.”

 

PUBLISHERS LOOK TO INNOVATION

Cochran asked Esposito whether he was seeing opportunities in the new landscape for scholarly publishers. Yes, he said, there are always opportunities in times of disruption—and those opportunities increase rapidly as competing concerns often don’t respond quickly enough. Those opportunities, however, are not going to be seen within the community as a whole, but at the level of individual organizations. “The situation’s highly competitive, so you can’t have everybody winning.”

Some areas are less ripe for growth, Esposito noted. Publishers historically in the business of selling content to libraries will find that a hard market going forward. Established players in that market will probably do better, meaning that the big will get bigger. The real opportunity now is to come up with new content forms—he suggested newsletter publishing, which already has a number of robust platforms such as Substack and Mailchimp that make publishing increasingly feasible from a technical standpoint. Newsletters serve as a discovery tool, rather than publishing primary research, and can help cut through the noise of the sheer quantity of material in scholarly publishing today—noise, he noted, that’s increased by the addition of material generated by open access (OA) publishing.

Esposito also predicted that more material will be machine-ingested, and that publishers that see an opportunity in creating machine-readable content will have an advantage. This is not science fiction, he added—“This is the opportunity next door.”

 

SCHOLARLY SOCIETIES WATCHING THE BIG PICTURE

Membership-funded scholarly societies in particular are going to have a rough time in the next 12 to 24 months, said Cochran, as in-person conference revenue and publication sales decline. “How can societies position publishing operations?” she asked Harington.

Like the nonprofits Meadows mentioned, said Harington, AMS saw most of its revenues in the early part of 2020—but it, and other societies, are facing an uncertain future. AMS has been looking carefully at its workflows; everything is done in house, so that often involves finding efficiencies, he explained. For instance, AMS is currently only publishing in softcover for the time being, and doing its best to take advantage of remote work to adopt a paperless workflow. It has also offered staff voluntary separation packages with the understanding that the society’s budget will probably take a major hit. Other questions remain, however: will the society publish more for online instruction going forward? What will be the end result of virtual-only conferences?

Unlike the competition among publishing concerns that Esposito spoke of, however, Harington feels that scholarly societies make decisions based more on the community as a whole than the individual organization. Article submissions are up, he confirmed, but women are suffering disproportionately in their output, likely due to their taking on multiple family roles as well as professional duties, “and we have to understand that these kinds of issues are important.” Many societies are prioritizing equity, diversity, and inclusion even during challenging working conditions, he added, but more work needs to be done.

 

A RANGE OF ENROLLMENT IMPACTS

It appears that campuses won’t be returning to normal at all this school year, and we’re looking at least another semester like the last one, Cochran said. What will this mean for university libraries?

One of the surprising things that this fall semester revealed, Anderson said, was how limited an impact COVID generally had on university enrollment in the United States—an estimated reduction of about two percent across the country. But that number hides important subgroups, he added. Community colleges have been hit far harder than four-year institutions, and well-to-do white students have been more inclined to enroll in the face of uncertain instruction models than have poorer students, or students of color. The number of international students has also dropped, which in turn disproportionately affects institutional revenue because unlike domestic students, they don’t qualify for most financial aid and therefore pay the full tuition and associated costs. “The impact of one fewer international student versus the impact of one fewer in-state student is very, very different.”

Some universities are, in fact, struggling, Anderson said, and it will be interesting to see what students decide after going home for their winter break. Last spring, predictions had been that many would decide to take a gap year or enter the workforce, with enrollment dropping 10 to 20 percent. That didn’t happen, he noted, and enrollments next semester may be similarly stable.

Fall 2021 may be a different matter, however, and may vary widely among institutions, as campus policies vary greatly and may be greater drivers of enrollment than COVID itself, Anderson noted. Library policies and experiences also vary among schools, with some stacks closed and books available only through retrieval by librarians, and others fully or partially open—Anderson contrasted the University of Utah, where he worked for 13 years, and where students are not allowed into the stacks on their own, and BYU, where the library never closed and the stacks remain open.

 

IMAGINING THE FUTURE

If we all keep our eye on the collective shared goal of supporting researchers, said Meadows, people will, hopefully, put their money where they can to support research. NISO is about bringing stakeholders to the table and finding solutions, she added, and that hasn’t changed. Work is taking longer, with people having other pressures on their time, but there has been no shift in terms of a desire to collaborate—it’s actually more important at times like this, when you don’t want people staying in their own siloes.

AMS will be holding webinars for its community—authors, editors, librarians—on how to access and navigate the online environment. Some of these will be proprietary, others offered for free. “We’re trying to embrace a need through a digital opportunity,” said Harington. “Whether or not that’s going to change the way we publish our books and journals, I don’t know.”

Esposito sees more consolidation and fewer players in the academic publishing network, with large companies such as Elsevier coming out on top. Wiley and Springer Nature are both pursuing similar strategies, he noted—high-volume OA publishing, and a move away from prestige journals—and he wondered if there would be room for more than one winner in that scenario.

When it comes to the projected cancelation of big deal journal packages by libraries, Esposito noted, those had been welcomed in the library community because of the efficiencies they offered, and those concerns aren’t going to go away. When people begin to examine breaking up aggregations, they may see that they’re paying more in content value plus the administrative costs of managing so many subscriptions.

As with library policies on different campuses, said Anderson, future planning will vary widely. BYU libraries have been instructed not to ask for more money for next year, but salaries are expected to increase at a normal rate; in other libraries, budget cut scenarios include progressive salary cuts. One of the greatest economic indicators may involve athletics, he noted. “When you can’t sell 60,000 tickets to a football game every week throughout the fall semester—that’s going to have an impact on your university’s revenue in the coming year. I don’t know to what degree we can expect that impact to trickle down to academic programs, but it can’t possibly help.” (Meadows pointed out that this was a problem unique to the United States.)

None of the panelists was sure what would happen around the current urgency to flip to OA models. Anderson pointed out “tremendous benefits and tremendous risks”—that pushing scientific data and results out too quickly could result in bad information living on prepublication servers. It’s also hard to grasp the implications of wholesale change in the middle of a crisis, added Harington. And those decisions are not necessarily about money, said Esposito, but rather involve multiple decisions; a flip to OA will change the economic system that undergirds it at the same time.

The reality about all of their conjectures, Anderson added, is that “we laugh about how we keep saying ‘unprecedented, unprecedented, unprecedented,’ but no one has a good template for predicting what’s going to happen.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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