How will publishers define themselves in the years ahead?

2nd March 2022

Head of Community Engagement Claire Jackson talks about Emerald’s evolution and what its new content strategy means for interdisciplinary research.

UN SDG Publishers Compact logo

“What role should we play in the research ecosystem?” is a question that we and other publishers have been pondering for some time. We’re well positioned to effect positive change in a world that needs us all to act, so what we do now really matters. 

Emerald has supported real world impact for years and we are a founding signatory of the UN SDG Publisher Compact. But ongoing changes in the research sector show us we need new ways of thinking and working to help researchers tackle pressing issues in society around equity. 

So, in 2021, we set up a community engagement team to work with researchers and others to identify and remove barriers to publication and create a more inclusive author experience. We want our publications to be influenced by the real world at source, so co-creation and co-production gives us this opportunity. And by engaging with a wide range of audiences and organisational partners, the research we publish can inform real world decisions that make an impact.  

To support this approach, we also created a new content strategy that aligns to multiple UN SDGs and has an interdisciplinary focus that brings together many different groups. Our four goal areas are Fairer Society, Healthier Lives, Responsible Management and Quality Education for All. 

Expert advisors

Our strategy benefits from the support of our goal advisors, who are well established academics who help shape our missions and engagement activities. One of them is Fairer Society Goal Advisor Dr Wendy Purcell who shares Emerald’s ambitions to further research that can have a real impact on society. She talks about putting on our ‘SDG goggles’ to get clarity on the actions that will advance our overall purpose and sees partnership as a core activity because of the connections and interdependencies between the SDGs. “All of these interdependencies rely on radical collaboration,” she says. “It means bringing in new voices, new ways of working and disrupting in new and unusual ways. It’s not about doing something different but about looking at things with new eyes.” 

For each of our four goals we launch a mission per quarter taking on a different societal challenge and calling for researchers and partners to get involved. Last year we launched 12 missions, addressing issues like ‘How can leaders increase inclusivity and banish bias?’ and ‘Can the creative arts improve the physical and mental wellbeing of people with dementia?’ 

In 2022, our aim is to go even bigger and promote topics where all four goals come together to address interdisciplinary challenges. Our first combined campaign will showcase indigenous-related research, building on our First Voices First 2021 programme. This involves setting up an advisory board of indigenous researchers and non-indigenous collaborators to help shape our practices. The group will also support efforts to raise the profile of indigenous-related research and the value that culturally diverse experiences and perspectives bring to research and learning. 

I'm aware there is global support for the SDGs but that the speed of change and adoption will vary. Nevertheless, I’m keen that our missions resonate globally and that different voices have an opportunity to be heard.  

Creative conversations

In 2021, we also launched our networking platform Engage, bringing researchers together from more than 120 countries worldwide. It’s a safe space to exchange ideas, ask opinions and collaborate. Members can access how-to videos, guides, infographics and other research related resources. They can also join our ‘Let’s talk about’ series to discuss key issues such as how to improve their research impact and make publishing more accessible.  

To further support our community, each goal is championed by a Publishing Development Manager – a role that is completely new for the industry. These roles aren’t tied to publishing schedules and commissioning targets, so they are free to have creative conversations around partnership and the real needs of research communities. They discuss collaboration, funding, publishing and peer review through to getting research to the people who need it and translating that research for different audiences.  

Some of our newly recruited managers are academics themselves, so they understand what researchers go through and can bring those real experiences to the table. All of this helps us evolve our content strategy in step with the needs of the research community.  

It’s exciting to work with the research community in a completely different way – we are no longer seen as ‘gatekeepers’ of research, but partners who are working together to find solutions. 

Collaboration opportunities

I’m thrilled to see our goal approach paying off even just a year in. It has led to different types of partnerships and co-creation work that help amplify underrepresented voices. One collaboration was a co-produced research project that examined how the public engage with evidence and ideas to make decisions. It led to a paper published on Emerald Open Research and there are plans for further outputs and research.   

Another partnership is with Effektivitet, who are helping us share more of our logistics research with a wider responsible management audience. We do this by co-creating new practitioner content based on the findings, and including introductions in local language.  

Celebrate & change

We’re supporting the research community in other ways too. We’ve evolved our Real Impact Awards to recognise excellence in the four goal areas and celebrate the changemakers. And our refocused thought leadership programme helps us examine challenges in the industry that prevent researchers getting mission driven research out there and call for change. Activities include the Power of Diverse Voices campaign that looks at inequity within the research sector; the Time for Change report that examines the barriers to change within the sector and gives insight into what publishers need to do differently; and Break the Norm that explores thorny issues around academic culture and bias.  

Content growth

While it’s too early to measure the exact impact of our goals, we’re having fantastic engagement. People are participating in discussions and there is growth in our content aligned to these goals.  

In 2021, our 12 mission campaigns generated around 4,000 downloads of articles from the mission pages. At the same time our newsletters – one for each goal area – led to more than 10,000 downloads of featured articles and 300 ‘Submit to a journal’ clicks.  

We’re delighted to see energy and momentum both within and outside of the business, and we believe this is a great example of how to shine a light on interdisciplinary research and drive action. 

Industry challenges

It’s inspiring to see progress, but in doing anything new there are still challenges to overcome. The lack of common taxonomy or keywords related to the SDGs means that every publisher is measuring SDG progress in a different way, making it hard to meaningfully track progress of publications.  

Despite being one of the first social sciences publishers to invest in an open publishing platform that aligns to the SDGs – Emerald Open Research – in practice there is still concern about the perceived rigour of open peer review and a reluctance by some ‘journal quality’ rankings to consider open peer reviewed titles. Overcoming this will require cross-publisher advocacy and a willingness from rankings and ratings bodies to evolve in line with the needs of the research communities they serve. 

Our role isn’t to say you’re right and you’re wrong, it’s to understand that people are at different points on what is essentially the same journey and make sure we’re providing support and guidance to people at all stages to give them more choices. And that’s the challenge really, accepting that not everybody is in the same place, but pushing forward where we can.  

What’s next?

We must put on our ‘SDG goggles’ and think more strategically about our mission themes so we can get more global engagement. We need to make sure our missions have regional resonance, so we’re exploring what we can do better. At the same time, we’re looking at author experience and how we can do more to support them, and we’re sharing more vocally what we are doing and getting feedback. We’re also seeking out engagement opportunities for us and our partners to talk about themes like the challenges of open research and why SDG framed research is important.  

I’m the first to admit it’s a work in progress and the needs of the research community will change, so we must be flexible. The publishing industry is more disruptive than it’s ever been, but we have a vital role to play beyond publishing journals.