At around the same time last year, publishing industry experts and analysts looked ahead with optimism, hope and excitement as they speculated on what wonders 2020 might bring. As we all know, things didn’t exactly turn out as we expected. But, while many might think that trying to second-guess what the future may hold is a bit like nailing jello to the wall right now, surprisingly there are actually many clear indications of what could be in store for us in 2021. Here are our (KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd.’s) seven predictions for what publishers can expect from the year ahead:
1. AI in the comfort zone
A report by Frontier Economics for the Publishers Association in the UK recently found that almost all large publishers are now actively using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies across their organizations, in some shape or form. Although the report acknowledges that we are only at the start of a five-year journey, where various applications are experimented with and rolled out, the signs are that trade, academic and education publishers are all starting to get more comfortable with AI and on board with the benefits automated technology and machine learning can bring. We expect wider AI adoption this year as the industry continues to overcome barriers around investment, skills and awareness, to discover additional new ways in which AI can support and improve business processes and help to achieve competitive advantage.
2. Author care back on the agenda
One of the key factors we expect to change as a direct result of this uptake in AI, is an improvement in the publisher-author dynamic. Across the publishing sector, the author experience is something which has barely evolved over the years—authors turn over their work to publishers to process and distribute it. Whether it’s a novel manuscript or a journal article, authors have traditionally had very little visibility over what goes on during the editorial and production processes. They often also have to tailor their work to specific submission guidelines for individual publishers, frequently struggling with the speed of acceptance, time to publication, and copy editing. Introducing AI into the workflow can help to ease a lot of these pain points and frustrations for authors, and we anticipate greater levels of author satisfaction becoming one of the most unexpected but welcome benefits AI can bring.
3. Research in the fast lane
Last year, as we reported in this article, academic publishers found themselves in the eye of the storm as the global COVID-19 pandemic struck. In general, the industry was quick to adapt, with many publishers making important scientific research freely available and fast tracking the publishing of new, important and potentially lifesaving COVID-19 related studies and data. It remains to be seen what kind of lasting or long-term impact this trend will have on the academic publishing industry as a whole, but it is likely to expedite the academic community’s move towards Open Access models for urgent articles, while increasing the demand for expedited yet rigorous approaches to the peer review processes, which have hampered speed to publication to date or resulted in notable retractions.
4. Accessible publishing goes mainstream
Early last year, we published an article entitled Accessibility as a Civil Right on our blog, which looked at how content creators and publishers were responding to the challenge of providing those with disabilities, particularly visual impairments, with improved access to their web content. With lawsuits and penalties for those who don’t adhere to accessibility regulations now on the rise, and with a renewed cultural awareness of equity and inclusion, we can expect the issue of accessibility to become even more prominent this year. The fact that journal publishers are now participating on conference panels to promote their accessibility journeys is a strong sign that this issue is very much front-of-mind in the industry.
5. Consolidate to accumulate
In an ideal world, a publisher would have one technology provider to cater to all their technology needs. In the real world, however, most publishers have an array of suppliers on their books and disparate systems that don’t always work well together or provide them with good service and value for money. But as an integrated editorial, production, and hosting vendor, recently we’ve noted a trend towards consolidation with publishers, particularly smaller society and journal publishers, wanting to integrate their platforms and systems with one provider. The benefits of this approach are manifold, both financially and operationally, and we expect this trend to continue into this year.
6. Digital learning is here to stay
From pre-school to K-12, right through to higher education, the digital learning landscape has certainly matured over the past nine months. While most students and teachers can’t wait to get back into the classrooms and lecture halls once the pandemic stabilizes, the technology which has held education systems and curricula together during this time will likely be a permanent fixture in some form for learning moving forward. Even when we move back into full-time in-person learning, we will probably continue to make use of the tools that have been at our disposal this year, in blended learning and flipped classroom environments, enabling us to get the best of both worlds.
7. Events go hybrid
The publishing industry and its beloved in-person events have always worked hand in glove. But in any future potential post-pandemic scenario, we are not likely to see any of the major events and conferences in the publishing calendar bringing in substantial crowds, at least not for the first half of 2021 anyway. Many educational aspects of the physical event world have been successfully replicated in the digital space by event organizers. Conferences migrating online, for example, have been able to attract a wider range of delegates globally than ever before. However, customer interactions, both formal and informal, have been more challenging to replace. While international travel is likely to remain a stumbling block, it is still feasible that domestic audiences may be permitted to attend physical events or gather in local chapters. We may yet witness hybrid event models which prioritize customer and peer interaction, whereas conference programs remain partly online where they can still operate to good effect.