The past, present, and future of scholarly communication.

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Executive summary [extrait]


Scholarly communication is a key component of scientific activity. Researchers do not keep their discoveries for themselves but disseminate to peers so that the research can contribute to the advancement of knowledge. More than 25 years ago, the advent of digital means of communication changed the ways researchers could disseminate knowledge: digitization provided opportunities for improving the creation, curation, and access to knowledge. Such transformations of scholarly communication are still happening, and radically modifying how research activity is valued, disseminated, and accessed. This knowledge synthesis describes the current changes in the scholarly communication system and how these changes affect knowledge production across disciplines.

The first section provides a brief historical overview of knowledge dissemination, with an emphasis on two innovations have shaped the ways in which it is performed: the creation of the scientific journal and the emergence of the Internet. Scholarly journals and associated scientific societies allowed for broader dissemination of knowledge and were instrumental in the process of nationalization of scientific activities. More recently, the Internet democratized both production and access to scholarly knowledge, while at the same time increasing corporate control over the scholarly publishing system. This section also recalls the historical functions of scholarly journals, and shows how these functions have changed in modern academe: while dissemination used to be the core purpose of journals, it has lost importance in the digital age given the creation of many online alternatives. Conversely, journals’ role in certification and research evaluation have become increasingly important, given the current incentives structure of academe and research evaluation practices, thus reinforcing the symbolic role of publications and the associated capital of publishers.

The second section discusses how researchers’ knowledge dissemination practices have changed over time. The number of scholarly journals and papers published has risen exponentially since the 17th century—and even more so since the creation of the Web—and, contrary to what was optimistically believed 25 years ago, the digital age did not democratize scholarship but, rather, increased the control of the research system by for-profit publishers. For example, in 2018, three publishers (Reed-Elsevier, Springer-Nature, and Wiley Blackwell) published more than half of the papers in natural and medical sciences indexed by the Web of Science. In addition to chronicling the rising concentration in publishing, this section also presents the strengths and weaknesses of new innovations in scholarly communication, such as megajournals and preprints. Although preprints are not particularly novel, their importance has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the value of timeliness has increased in the current situation. The section also shows how monographs have decreased in importance in most disciplines and presents new forms of publications, such as data.


This content has been updated on July 23 2021 at 12 h 33 min.