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[ Publishing Workflows ] February 9, 2023

The history of 'disruption' in scholarly publishing

Taxis vs. Uber. Cable television vs. Netflix. It's easy to think about disruption as a combative, winner-takes-all business model. But the reality of disruption is much more nuanced. Let’s look back and explore how disruption has already impacted scholarly communications.

What is disruption?

Disruptive innovation is a business theory in which a new organization enters into an existing market and eventually displaces the market-leading organization. Many of our most common examples are able to ‘disrupt’ the market by harnessing the power of new and emerging technologies. 

Our response to disruption is often emotional, as is our response to change in general. But disruption isn’t anything to fear, instead it's something to use to inspire our evolution. Not every disruption is successful (take the media example of Quibi, whose 10-minute programming never really caught on), and the more willing and able the market leaders are to adapt, the less likely it is that they will be displaced.


Disruption and scholarly publishing

Technology has been transforming the scholarly publishing industry for decades. No aspect of the research lifecycle has been immune, as innovation has touched the ways science is produced, distributed, and consumed.


Digitizing scholarly publishing

As with most industries, with the rise of the internet came the rise of digitization in scholarly publishing. Content was no longer exclusively available through print subscriptions, it was available online. 

There were several impacts to this evolution. Page limit restrictions don’t exist on the internet, meaning journals could publish more content for less money. Access to the latest research could also come faster: editors did not need to wait until they had filled a volume with journal content, they could publish articles continuously and then compile into volumes when they had a sufficient amount of content. Editorial workflows could become much more streamlined and easy to manage as peer review and editing processes moved online. 

In addition to the changes to publishing processes and policies, digitizing research transformed the user experience and democratized access to the latest science. While digitization in scholarly publishing has not quite disrupted the format of the research article (despite many attempts) there has been a huge push for video and other formats to become standard parts of scholarly communication. And digitizing research has ensured access to science for anyone with an internet connection, especially as Open Access has risen alongside the digitization movement.


Open Access and Open Science

The Open Access movement has been arguably the biggest disruptor in scholarly publishing. Made possible by the increased digitization of research, every year of the last decades has seen an increase in the amount of research published OA. 

This shift has led to a necessary change in business models, and new ways of partnering with consortia, institutions, and governments to ensure access to research and the continued transparency of publicly funded science. 

Within the OA movement were several examples of disruption and industry adaptation. Sci-Hub, for example, sought to bypass traditional access restrictions and provide free access to millions of journal articles. Legal battles ensued with publishers around the world over copyright infringement, ultimately ruling that Sci-Hub’s practices were illegal. Sci-Hub was an unsuccessful example of disruption and scholarly publishing’s adaptability in the face of OA.

Technology has transformed scholarly publishing from top to tail. In the face of growing demand for more accessible, collaborative, and open scholarly communication, the publishing industry has often adapted to change. 

The changes of the last decades are just the first step to developing a scientific ecosystem as flexible and agile as possible. Emerging technologies like AI or machine learning will have an impact on our industry, the only question is how.

Disruption in scholarly publishing webinar