Image Credit: George Hiles on Unsplash

In the world of scholarly publishing, it seems that the only constant is change. From the transition to digital-first content to the acceleration of open access and open data with funder mandates like Plan S — new publishing standards and models are being introduced all of the time. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the scholarly publishing community is confronting these changes in the face of substantial unknowns.

For scholarly societies, in particular, trying to chart a clear course of action for their publishing programs and overall operations amid constant shifts in the research landscape can make for a bit of a rocky road. Change management is becoming a defining factor of the current publishing epoch, and it’s making strategic planning more important than ever to mitigate risks while identifying and harnessing new opportunities.

In a past blog interview, Dana Compton, Managing Director and Publisher for the American Society of Civil Engineers, spoke to the importance of strategic planning for journal programs and overviewed what to cover in planning meetings. We reached back out to Compton to get her perspective on how journal programs can effectively approach strategic planning in uncertain times, and how journal planning should factor into wider organizational strategy. Read the full interview below.

Further Reading: For more strategic publication planning insights check out Scholastica’s free eBook Academic Journal Management Best Practices: Tales from the Trenches.

Q&A with Dana Compton

To what extent do you think journal and organizational strategic planning should be linked, particularly now in the face of so many changes like new OA mandates and COVID-19?

DC: I’ve been thinking about that a lot more lately. It is becoming more essential for organizations to be strategically looking at their publications program as a whole. Not just with COVID-19, but also the changes that journal publishers have been addressing for years like open access (OA), and now Plan S, and how that’s going to sort of turn business models on their heads. You can’t look at just a journal or a portfolio of journals in a vacuum and say it’s going to continue to contribute the same level of revenue, or maybe in some cases remain self-sustaining. At the same time, many organizations are facing conference cancellations due to COVID-19, which impacts not only the revenue earned directly from the event but also may impact the publication of conference proceedings and the associated revenue from that content. I think many organizations are thinking about how they’re going to replace a good bit of lost revenue, and that might mean introducing new publications, it might mean repurposing content from journals for new audiences, it might mean reimagining how to deliver valuable content in the absence of in-person conferences, it might even mean looking outside the publications sphere. So I feel like this can be done less and less in a vacuum and really does need to be looked at from an organizational level.

The other thing is, when major landscape changes occur, like the coronavirus situation, for example, there is an initial flurry of everyone asking, “how are we going to keep operations going?” At first, the primary focus is just on how you’re just going to continue to publish. But now, I think as this goes on and people are getting used to working from home, that mindset is shifting. While some journals are getting a big influx of submissions, others aren’t. For example, in the engineering space, COVID doesn’t really impact the submissions that we’re getting. On the other side of things our editors, reviewers, and authors are out of their labs, so a concern for us is whether our submissions may eventually decline because research is halting a bit. When things like this happen it can be a threat to the business model, but I think it can also be a good time to take a step back and look internally for opportunities for greater efficiencies and savings. I think it’s important, while we have maybe five minutes to breathe, to think about how we can simplify things and what old stuff we can stop doing to make room for the new.

Are annual strategic planning meetings frequent enough, or should organizations be baking in more strategic planning time throughout the year?

DC: I think tactically we can’t be looking more than a few months out because you don’t know what the landscape is going to look like. But I still think that at the high level of looking at where we are, Point A, and where we want to be, Point B, how we approach strategic planning is going to stay the same for the most part. The thing to keep in mind now is that external opportunities and threats may change swiftly. Your current situation may look very different than you thought it would perhaps two or three months prior. So I think looking at your overall strategy and factoring in ways to stay flexible and agile to respond to changing factors is the main thing. You may want to assess progress against your plan more often — while the high-level goals may stay largely the same, some adjustments might be needed to keep milestones attainable.

Do you think organizational strategic planning should be factored into editorial planning?

DC: I think connecting the two is really important. Changes in OA policies, funder mandates, and open data requirements, for example, are all things that organizations need to be thinking about in terms of how it will impact their journal programs, and that editorial teams need to be thinking about in terms of how it will impact their workflows. Editorial teams can also support the organization in thinking about what additional products can arise from journal content. Something we’ve talked about at ASCE is ways we can translate journal content for practitioner audiences, to think outside of the academic market, particularly as universities and libraries are up against so many budgetary constraints. Thinking outside of journals, as I mentioned earlier, the editorial team can help the organization continue to deliver quality content from conferences, even as the formats and venues are changing. Everyone should be asking, “what are other outlets for this content?” It doesn’t mean you have to be producing completely different content, it could mean translating what you have in a different way.

To what extent do you think publication audits should be factored into organizational strategic planning?

DC: I think, in any strategic planning, defining upfront what metrics you’re going to look at to decide whether you’ve been successful or not is so important. I think that can be a little harder if you’re trying something new with publications because you don’t have past data to build off of. But having some sort of mechanism to determine if something looks to be working is important. For example, maybe you’ve decided to produce a new kind of content. In that case, you’re probably going to want to look about three months down the road to see what sort of readership it’s gotten and whether it’s reaching the intended audiences. If you’re going out for practitioners and finding that the content isn’t being consumed by that group, then that may be telling you something about its value in the market you’re targeting.

I would also say that now probably isn’t the time to set major growth goals. If you’re trying an experimental thing, you’ll probably want to focus on setting some sort of low bars for success early on, to help decide whether to really invest in that project. I think starting small and allowing yourself to course-correct along the way, or even bail out if something isn’t working before you’ve wasted more resources, is the main thing with any new initiative.

Traditionally, at some scholarly societies, society matters and journal matters have remained somewhat separate — do you think that is starting to change?

DC: I think that’s so common. I think publications end up being kind of disconnected from what the rest of the society is doing. For example, what continuing education is doing in many societies touches on all the same topics as their publications but there isn’t a real integration between those groups. I think an editorial team that kind of supersedes individual divisions is one way to approach that, to have representatives from different sides of the society at the table talking about shared topic areas and new content and promotion opportunities. At ASCE, one of the things we’ve talked about is having common taxonomy across the organization, which can help make it easier to integrate content digitally.

Do you think journal program priorities have shifted at all in the current landscape?

DC: I still think author and reviewer satisfaction are crucial. And reviewer fatigue is a real thing, especially now that people are out of their labs and universities and have a lot more on their plates. We have to make it easy for them, or we’re not going to be able to get reviewers. Now also, journals that have had kind of natural submission growth may or may not continue to see that. So you do want to be doing whatever you can to attract the best papers. I think the need to revisit current business models and look for different sources of revenue feels more real now than before. It’s hard to try to balance what we can do while understanding that everybody’s budgets are limited. That’s a bigger challenge I think than it used to be.

What do you think has changed the most for journal publishing programs in recent years?

DC: I think back to years ago when the big question was, “when are journals going to start moving from print to digital?” Everybody thought it was going to happen overnight, but it took a lot longer for that transformation to truly occur. Now it feels like there is constantly the next thing that’s coming along, so in a way I would say it’s kind of the pace of how quickly things have been changing that feels like the biggest change. There is always the next big thing that you’re looking at — from digital to OA to open data — the big changes keep marching on.