R2R – the Researcher to Reader conference

The R2R conference took place back in late February. It is an event more dominated than others (46%) by publishers – those on the business, strategy, and marketing side of the publishing industry. Smaller numbers come from libraries (15%), technology (12%) and consulting (10%). It attracts high-profile speakers (with interesting things to say) from publishing and elsewhere, and its workshops are interestingly different from those at other events. Ironically, researchers and readers were largely absent from the event. I attended it this year, for the second time. It’s a good event and I can recommend it if you’re interested in scholarly publishing.

Mark Allin, CEO of Wiley, gave the opening keynote talk and touched on some themes that would recur throughout the conference – the political situation and the piratical situation (if I may call it that).

Allinn was passionate about the need for scholarly publishers to support science and the drivers of science: debate, scepticism and liberal values. He referred to John Gibbons, a past presidential science advisor, and called for publishers to be partisan for science (this was an echo of Kent Anderson’s recent blogpost).

Allin said:

It’s tempting to keep our heads down. But we can’t afford to do that.   It’s a time for outreach, collaboration, partnership. A time to be bold.

Moving on to the researchers and readers, Allin put up a graph showing that Researchgate is distributing more articles than Sciencedirect, and SciHub is another substantial source. SciHub and Researchgate are easy to use and that’s what researchers want – ease of access. Allin stated that publishers can never stop piracy but they must instead compete with pirate sites by making legitimate access easier. Initiatives like the STM project RA21  aim to do this (more later on this).

Some other soundbites I noted from his talk were:

  • use the discontent of the customer to drive innovation
  • publishing needs to experiment more, do more, fail more
  • publishers need to commit to open source and open standards
  • publishers need to embrace the values of their customers – researchers and librarians; they should become more open, collaborative, experimental, disinterested
  • article submission is a pain point; preprints have a role to play in reducing the pain

He also recommended we read a recent book by Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand – The content trap. The book reveals the need to make useful connections – e.g. between content and users, or users and other users. I first heard this articulated by Andy Powell about 10 years ago and it seemed persuasive then too.

Rick Anderson, from University of Utah Library (and a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog) shone a light on a conundrum, looking at open access, library subscriptions and budgets.

He noted that many libraries are very short of funds and badly need to find cost savings. While it’s true that big deals deliver better value, they do not lower the cost. And big deals also make cancellation more difficult, reducing libraries’ flexibility.

New gold OA journals do provide a way to make content available without subscription, but they do not substitute for the existing journals, so libraries still must subscribe to those. Only green OA can help us to save subscription costs, but incomplete and delayed OA will not allow us to cancel. Complete and immediate OA would, but if that does come about it will affect the vitality of subscription journals. A different kind of serials crisis would ensue.

I guess the conundrum is a result of two different motivations for open access: a) to create a corpus of research literature that is open and available for reuse b) to save on the costs of scholarly communications. For a) we need gold open access, but for b) it seems that green is more effective.

I recall a senior publishing figure (I think he was from Blackwells) many years ago saying that he was happy to be quite permissive regarding allowing authors to self-archive their manuscripts as this was still a marginal activity. If a high proportion of manuscripts were self-archived then, he suggested, publishers would change their policy and stop allowing it.

Anderson did not mention offsetting deals – whereby publishers offer discounts to take into account the total spend on subscriptions and gold APCs. This kind of deal offers an alternative way to resolve the need for savings.

Michael Jubb and Richard Fisher sketched out where we are with books and ebooks. Academic libraries these days are preferring to purchase ebooks rather than print books. Bookshops on the other hand are selling far more printed books than ebooks.

The world of ebooks is very messy still and discoverability is a huge issue. There is a clear reader preference for print books and publishers are selling more print than ebooks – many publishers have 90% of their sales in print books.

I am not sure whether the reader preference for printed books is just a reflection of how poor ebook technology is, or whether there is a fundamental aspect of human reading behaviour that means ebooks will always be inferior. I like to believe that one day someone will come up with a way to improve the ebook user experience such that perceived problems with ebooks will disappear.

We then had a chorus of short talks about CHORUS – this is a publisher-led initiative to help (mostly) US universities and institutions to manage their open access responsibilities. I found little of great interest in this session. Syun Tutiya exchoed Rick Anderson in saying that the green road to OA does not work. He hoped that by 2020 Gold OA will account for a much bigger proportion of papers but also suggested that 100% gold is far, far in the future, or never!

Stephen Curry, Imperial College (who is a researcher, as well as a prominent open access advocate) gave an entertaining talk, including many recommendations for interesting books that we should read. Clearly he is not just a researcher but also a reader of distinction! He asserted that the motivations to undertake research are a mixture of wanting to understand the world, and to change it; to earn a living, to be remembered. The practicalities of becoming a successful researcher mean you should publish in a high impact factor journal. This creates a conflict – the ‘how’ can interfere with the ‘why’. Stephen is known as an advocate of open access and an enemy of the over-metrication of academia – he said that the conflict he described is eased if publishing is open and evaluation is broadly based. He outlined some practical suggestions for moving towards this ideal world, including widespread adoption of preprints.

His slides are available if you want to check out his book recommendations.

Laura Montgomery (Taylor and Francis) and Graham Walton (Loughborough Univ library)

It seems that User Experience (UX) research is all the rage in libraries these days.  The publisher Taylor & Francis sponsored some work in Loughborough University library to explore UX with postgraduate students. An initial literature review by Valerie Spezi  indicated that there wasn’t much research specifically on postgraduate students.

They mapped the UX of ten research students over 18 months, looking at how the students find and manage info, and seeking to identify opportunities to enhance the postgraduate research library in Loughborough.

The first step was to hold a workshop on how to get published, then they recruited participants from the workshop. Each was asked to keep a monthly diary over 8 months. They were set thematic questions each month. Some of the responses were predictable, some were surprising.

  • One student, asked whether they preferred print or ejournals responded “I didn’t know what a print journal was so I had to Google it to answer the question.”
  • When searching, most start at Google or Google Scholar. Many went to the library catalogue. Publisher websites were right at the bottom.
  • 43% said that the physical library not important for them at all. 39% said that the virtual library was very important.
  • Students took advice on information management tools from their colleagues, supervisors and lecturers. Graham Walton suggested that there is a need to train the supervisors.
  • Lack of access is a major frustration.

In questions, Michael Jubb pointed out that there has been quite a bit of similar work looking at researchers’ information and library use.


The second day started with a panel discussion on copyright. This was informative and infuriating in equal measure.

Robert Harington (American Maths Society) stated the case for the publishers, basically in favour of the status quo. He touched on the difference between sciences and humanities, pointing out that scientific writing describes the intellectual stuff (ie patents are the real intellectual property), whereas in humanities the writing is the intellectual stuff. He emphasised the importance of the work publishers do in registering copyright, which is required in the USA if authors want to sue for copyright infringement. Registration is not required in the UK, so I was surprised to learn of this. (See Wikipedia for more on registering copyright).

Danny Kingsley (Cambridge Univ) gave an entertaining presentation making the case against how copyright currently works. She used a particularly egregious example from the music industry. But I didn’t think that such an extreme example made the case very well against copyright for research texts. She emphasised that copyright does not work and that publishers don’t need it – they just need a licence to publish the material.

Mark Thorley (NERC) made a strong case for changes in how copyright is applied to research outputs. He explained that research funders want research to be as widely and openly and readily available as possible, so that others can use and build on the research. He pointed out that research outputs should reach beyond research community.

Thorley said that the scholarly communication system must be made fit for a digital age. Barriers to access should be removed, so that any user can use research outputs for any purpose. We need to rethink how we apply copyright.

Summing up he said that copyright was not a benefit nor a detriment; it has not outlived its usefulness, but it needs amending to ensure fair exploitation in a digital world.

Alexander Ross is a lawyer specialising in publishing. He noted that copyright was introduced to deal with piracy of printed works, to protect the interests of creators.

Recently exceptions have been introduced to cater for research – for text and data mining and quotation. He said that it would be useful to have a fair dealing code for use in the academic sector.

He also noted that Creative Commons is a good attempt to standardise copyright for academic purposes.

In the general discussion session the speakers made further points:

  • Slicing and dicing rights is not helpful for research.
  • Copyright isn’t the barrier – its what the holder does with it.
  • Publishers requiring copyright transfer before they’ll publish research is the key problem.
  • Advice from publishers on why authors should assign copyright is confusing in the extreme (e.g. T&F).

Kent Anderson (CEO of Redlink and a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog) spoke on his favourite subject, telling us about the marvellous work that publishers do.  His talk was based on a blog post of his that had been inspired by Clay Shirky saying that “publishing isn’t a job, it’s now a button”. I can see how that statement was a bit provocative and an oversimplification, though there’s a grain of truth in it. But Anderson pointed out that one key thing the publisher does it to shoulder the risks of publication, and another is to provide persistence, ensuring there are no broken links. I’m not persuaded that publishers are all that good at the persistence’ part.

Anderson then worked through a long list of everything else that publishers do, but I did not find many of them all that persuasive.  At one point he seemed to suggest that academic fields are defined by and only exist when there is a journal serving the field. Cart before the horse, much.

Tasha Mellins-Cohen (Highwire) spoke on access management. Some background to her talk is in a recent blogpost.

She noted that off-site access to subscribed content can be a problem, and that’s why people go to pirate sites. Publishers have an incentive to make off-site access work better therefore. Three publisher-led initiatives may help with this.

CASA: Campus activated subscriber access – more information about this will be coming in the next few months. It provides a way to record devices that have been authenticated by IP range. So when you use your device on the institutional wifi, and later use it off-campus the publisher website will still recognise you as an authenticated user.

SAMS Sigma – This is a roaming passport that does something similar to CASA but it can be a permanent link.

RA21 is a project of the STM publishers association. Mellins-Cohen said that while the principles of RA21 are excellent she worries that it might end up raising barriers to access rather than lowering them.



Other summaries of the R2R conference have been written by Jennifer Harris and Danny Kingsley.


About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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