At The London Book Fair last month, Ingenta brought together a panel of academic publishing experts from Nature Publishing, Macmillan Digital Science and PLOS ONE to imagine a future for the industry beyond open access. The digital transition has been a long, rocky road for the academic publishing industry. Many of the same bumps, obstacles, crossroads and cul-de-sacs that its garish and vociferous trade publishing cousin has encountered have also been features of its own equally eventful journey.

Yet arguably academic publishing has had more to contend with. In addition to the challenges of selling content in an increasingly digitised landscape, the industry has also had to do a great deal of soul searching and introspection, eventually coming to terms with the fact that its very core values, structures and processes needed to be completely turned on their heads.

Open access, the disruptor

Perhaps the most significant disruptor to academic publishing since the advent of the internet may be open access - or OA as it has become so lovingly known. Academic publishers have been grappling with the concept of game changing OA business models for ten years now and are starting to get it right.  As a result of this phenomenon, everything from the way content is delivered and who pays for the 'privilege', to how influence and importance is calculated as a marker of an author’s academic influence, the influence of the journal and even the importance of the institutions connected to the research is in a continuous state of flux.

The notion of essentially making an author pay to publish their content, as opposed to making the reader pay for reading it, which pretty much sums up the fundamental principle of OA, has been a bitter pill to swallow for many. Understandably most academic publishers have been unable to visualise a world where OA is no longer a bone of contention, until recently anyway.

Striking gold

At the Professional Scholarly Publishing (PSP) Annual Conference in February I was impressed by the confident and robust nature of presentations from publishers such as Wiley, Springer and Elsevier. The prevailing feeling was that these publishers have now come to terms with OA, they now know what works and what doesn’t and have a clear vision on the business models and structures that will deliver growth in the future.

Whether there is an industry-wide standardisation of gold or hybrid gold OA models remains to be seen, but many publishers certainly appear to be looking upon these options increasingly favourably. And if these big players are moving with the times and adopting OA models then surely it is just a matter of time before this practice becomes the norm across the whole industry.

The impact of so-called Mega Journals can also not be overlooked. Frequently adopting gold OA models, the likes of PLOS ONE, PeerJ and eLife are gaining traction, eating up readership and market share at an astonishing rate. It will be interesting to see how traditional publishers react and whether this spurs them on to embed OA models at a speedier rate.

Future gazing

It would appear that many publishers no longer consider OA to be a problem and more so an opportunity. As they become more accommodating towards these models, other pressing industry conundrums can also be addressed. The first of which is metrics. In an industry which is so deeply rooted in peer influence and how much impact an author, paper or journal has within its community, academics have long been seeking an alternative measurement tool to the traditional Thomson-Reuters Impact Factor of journals. In a world where online views, downloads and social media mentions matter just as much as citations, the emergence of Article Level Metrics (ALM) tools, such as altmetric.com for example, that take these digital realities into consideration, is a major industry development.

The peer review process, the essential quality control procedure that weeds out the mediocre from the outstanding, particularly in science publishing, is also undergoing a radical shake-up. Criticised by many for being slow, ineffective, biased and even elitist, academics across the globe have been calling for a more effective and fair process to be embraced by publishers. Mega Journals and the online communities that envelop them have demonstrated that they are able to manage this process quite efficiently so I would envisage that new processes are structured around their open peer review models.

The next few years will be pivotal for the scholarly market. The widespread adoption of OA will enable publishers to focus on the modernisation of other aspects of their business, the innovative ways they deliver content, a fairer way of measuring influence and the peer review process.