Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

AI Tech in Publishing and Research Promotion with Duncan MacRae

May 30, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 14
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
AI Tech in Publishing and Research Promotion with Duncan MacRae
Show Notes Transcript

Nikesh Gosalia and Duncan MacRae continue their conversation on the current issues in the publishing industry, starting with the use of AI technology to manage the recent boom in journal submissions. They discuss the increasing importance of research promotion in recent years and the need for journals to establish a brand, particularly on social media. Duncan shares his thought on the eventual tipping point that will make research promotion a necessity for journals. Duncan also discusses the goals of Wolters Kluwer Health to not only publish academic research, but also to directly improve patient care. They then touch on the quirky community feel of the publishing industry, where personal connections and technology are enough to foster networking in this small industry.

Duncan MacRae is the Director of Editorial Strategy and Publishing Policy at Wolters Kluwer Health.  He is involved in implementing editorial policies for open access publications in Wolters Kluwer and Medknow. With almost 25 years of experience in academic publishing for societies, he has worked as a Managing Editor for the publications Neurosurgery and Brain Pathology. Duncan can be reached on Twitter

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:

 Nikesh Gosalia [00:00:11]

While I was listening to you talk about SSP, and we've had numerous discussions around this particular topic which is technology and use of AI, just wanted to hear your thoughts, Duncan, how do you think it's going to pan out in our industry.  I know for a fact a few years back, there were a lot of jargons being used, AI and blockchain, and we are starting to see some of it happening.  But just from your perspective, based on your experience how do you see that playing out?


Duncan MacRae [00:00:43]

Yeah, I think there was a point, maybe 3 or 4 years ago, you are right, when we first started hearing these terms.  It seemed a bit to a lot of people like a solution in search of a problem.  I think one of the things that happened during the pandemic that was really interesting was in 2020 this boom of content.  And I think it was pretty much universal across the board.  It threw all the metrics.  Every journal metric was absolutely thrown because of this anomalous year where people were just submitting so much content.  And it wasn't just COVID content, there were people who all of a sudden had an opportunity to get caught up on writing because they weren't at their research institutions physically.  And so even journals that have nothing to do whatsoever with COVID saw these huge booms.

At the same time, there's the underlying increasing output, especially from China, Korea, and India, and these markets where we are starting to see more and more submissions come every year.  I think now we've got a situation where there is a problem that requires a solution.  And so, the problem is that editorial offices are just overwhelmed with submissions.  It's the variable you have no control over as a journal.  You open up your submission system and you say, here you go, submit to this journal, you cannot control how many people submit.  There's no way to cap it.

So, if you've got a staff that has been brought about to handle 1000 manuscripts a year, and you've got an editorial board that is constructed to handle 1000 manuscripts a year, and then all of a sudden you are receiving 1500 or 2000 a year, you've got a serious problem on your hands. 

So, tools that have been developed and are being used now and will be developed to handle editorial triage is huge, improving manuscripts prior to review, assessing connecting manuscripts to the appropriate journal through use of AI.  Because we don't control where manuscripts get submitted, there's an incredible amount of inefficiency in terms of authors who, through no fault of their own, I certainly don't want to point a finger, but just submitting to the wrong journal – the number of rejected manuscripts that occur simply because an author has sent their manuscript to a journal that it's not within the journal’s scope, it's not really what they publish, it's an article type they don't usually handle.  These are things that I think technology can assist with, directing rejected manuscripts to the appropriate next journal in line is hugely important.  And so, I think there are a lot of solutions that now seem to have a value that probably didn't 3 or 4 years ago.  That was a very little – or not very little but I would say that the amounts of journals that sort of were actively complaining about being overwhelmed by submissions was probably one-third of what it is now because there's just so much more content. 

And tools that can handle that that don't involve hiring just more and more people is going to be of enormous value to editorial offices moving forward.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:04:08]

I know another topic that we've spoken a lot about Duncan is just research communication and science communication.  We know for a fact that a lot of the consumption going forward is changing in terms of maybe moving from reading a whole manuscript to shorter formats, videos, infographics.  We know for a fact that there's a lot of requirements, expectations even from funders to say what is the real ROI on all of the research that's happening?  And suddenly, I think over the last 2-1/2 to 3 years, the importance of engagement, dissemination, communication has grown a lot.  I know that you are a firm believer in that as well, Duncan.  But just again, from your perspective what do you see has changed and what do you think is probably going to be further accentuated in the next few years?


Duncan MacRae [00:05:00]

It's funny about this, because I'll admit I was not a firm believer maybe 3 or 4 years ago.  I was very much show me the data.  And I remember –I won't mention the product, but I remember piloting a product 6 or 7 years ago.  And it was about spreading the word through social media.  And I remember at the end of the pilot, just saying, great, so we spent all this money and we got two citations out, where's the ROI, as you said.  I think that I've come around on this because for the first time now we really are seeing data that shows that citations are different for Open Access articles and different for articles that have been consumed in different ways. 

So I think as recently as 4 or 5 years ago, you could make the argument that none of this stuff makes any difference.  And an article can have an Altmetric score of 20,000, that doesn't necessarily mean it has any more citations.  And ultimately, for most journals, citation is what's going to matter to them.  I think now, one of the side effects of having so much content out there is that we are constantly now trying to figure out ways to be heard through the noise.  So, you could say, okay, you need to be in the index.  Well now, the indexes are full of content.  Okay, we'll now be on Twitter, well now, all these articles are on Twitter.  Okay, so now you have to have a video that goes with Twitter.  Or now you have to be on TikTok or wherever it is.  And I think there are now correlations between not just articles receiving that kind of exposure and drawing more eyes to the journal, I think part of this is for a long time it was very article focused.  And even journals who participated, it was mostly around content.  I think the shift now is to do things that are a little more based around journal branding, which is something a lot of journals didn't have to worry about for a long time.  Because as I kind of mentioned before, if you are the Journal of Blank, then you don't really have to advertise yourself.  You are going to be in every reference list, and every editorial board member is going to be well known in this kind of thing, you have an advantage.  I am not sure that exists to the same extent anymore. 

So, all of these other things that are now available to journals I think are important not just for promoting individual articles but have become a lot more important in establishing a brand.  I am not sure to what degree there's brand loyalty in publishing.  But I do think that there is something to be said for, look, if I am an author and I am writing a paper.  And I am already thinking about the three or four places that I'm going to submit that article, you want your journal to be in that list of three or four.  And I think engaging in social media, especially for up and coming researchers who are so much more active in those venues than the old guard, let's say, that's going to have some significance to it.  And it's something that I think we are always looking for to draw these correlations, but I only imagine these correlations will get stronger as the years go on.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:08:23]

Absolutely.  Yeah.  So, very interesting comments.  And I think that's something that I've heard over the last 12 to 18 months as well.  And it's starting to change to some extent, Duncan, where a lot of conversations early on would be around, okay, this is probably nice to have.  And just building on that, one question for you just based on your experience, your perspective, what do you think could lead to a tipping point where we start saying, okay, this is probably a must have.  Maybe, I've assumed a few things here.  Do you think we can reach a stage where it can move from nice to have to a must have?  And if so, what could trigger that?


Duncan MacRae [00:09:03]

I think ultimately for most editors, if you can show them that group A got more citations per article than Group B and the variable was this implementation.  I think there's some debate about this, but just anecdotally from my perspective I did some analysis of the 2020 impact factors across the Wolters Kluwer portfolio.  It was the first time that I had run that data where there was a clear citation advantage to Open Access articles, not for open access journals over non-open access journals but within the same journal, so a hybrid journal that offers both options, right.  That there was a clear citation advantage for articles within that journal that were open access over subscription articles that were behind a paywall.  That was the first time I'd seen that universally across the board.  Every journal I looked at that was hybrid, the Open Access articles had more citations.  That's the argument that no editor is going to ignore. 

So, the next thing would be, okay, so the variable there was open access.  The next variable is, okay, what are the articles that received formalized Twitter promotion?  Did they receive higher citations?  Okay, what were the articles that had an accompanying infographic or a video abstract?  Did they receive more citations?  Because I think that puts it in a language that editors understand.  It's hard to say – it's clear in open access because there's a much more direct connection between submissions and revenue.  So, it's easy in an open access journal to say, look, if our impact factor goes up by 0.5, we generate 20% more submissions, which generates 18% more revenue.  So, we can literally say this resulted in more money, right. 

For subscription journals, there may be more variables involved or there may be more nuance.  But I think when you can start drawing those direct correlations between promotional activity on an article and citation activity down the road, then you are speaking to something that editors can clearly understand.  That'll be the tipping point.  I think the tipping point with OA is probably getting there.  It's a hard thing to track. 

The other part of this too that makes it difficult is that an article gets published and immediately is receiving social media attention, it's immediately getting a metrics score, but it's not going to get citations for a minimum, let's say realistically, 6 to 9 months before it even sees a single citation.  It's not going to see the bulk of its citations for 12 to 18 months.  So, there's a big delay there between those two activities.  So, it takes some patience to be able to make those correlations.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:12:05]

Absolutely.  Very interesting.  Talking a little bit about Wolters Kluwer Health, obviously it's a hugely prestigious brand.  Everybody knows.  But just from your perspective, how does it help researchers?  And maybe a second question to that, what do we as a society get from it? 


Duncan MacRae [00:12:23]

Yeah, it’s really interesting because Wolters Kluwer Health and Wolters Kluwer encompasses more than just journals.  And I think one of the things that even were fairly siloed off in journals management and publishing, but there are other products that Wolters Kluwer owns that address great part of a lifespan.  And actually last week we had an internal presentation from the product up-to-date, which is a physician right based product where physicians are actually looking up expert recommendations background on disease states and diagnosis.  It's a point of care tool.  Drawing the line between a research paper and its conclusions ending up in a recommendation and up-to-date, where there's a direct impact on a patient who is in a doctor's office is difficult to do.  And the up-to-date folks actually describe that as a holy grail.  But that is ultimately what we do and what other commercial publishers do.  The lifespan of the article doesn't end when we publish it. 

We are part of this beginning process.  That research article ultimately gets read by other researchers.  Societies play an enormous part in developing practice guidelines within their specialty.  Those practice guidelines then trickle down to the physicians who are actually dealing with patients.  And so, it's not unreasonable to say here's this research paper and it goes through these steps, and then eventually patient care is impacted positively by this.  And we see it more often than you would imagine.  We see papers that are published by our journals that talk about significant changes in how a particular disease state is dealt with or a particular specialty area, and that changed the way it does diagnoses to make it more efficient, more accurate, those have real impact on patient care later on.  So ultimately, our initial mission is to publish great research.  Ultimately, our mission is to improve patient care.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:14:47]

Thank you.  Thank you so much, Duncan.  That was extremely useful.  One final question from my side.  I know that a lot of listeners would be quite curious to know how do you keep yourself updated with publishing related news or should I say science related news?


Duncan MacRae [00:15:03]

The publishing industry in general, it is a relatively small community in reality.  The overlap of people that you and I know is probably huge.  And so, I think there's a lot of personal connections in this industry that may not exist in industries that are maybe more broad in terms of the number of people involved.  People move around, we keep in touch.  So, if you've been in the industry for X number of years, eventually with somebody everywhere, you know what people are working on.  In the sort of technological development, it's probably even smaller group.  So, that's one way.  I think it's just personal connections that you have are really interesting.  We do have two or three main meetings that now obviously we are going to go to in person.  Those are great.  I think there's been a boom in webinars and podcasts over the last 2 years to make up for the lack of those meetings.  And the technology is now there for us to do those things. 

So, I think there's a lot of different ways.  One thing for example as well at Wolters Kluwer, we have a mentor program to really bring new employees, younger employees into the fold of here is how to kind of get connected in the industry.  That's a valuable tool as well.  But it's such a people driven industry that I think really that's the main one.  And it's not networking in terms of we don't necessarily have sort of events where people wear name tags and meet each other.  It's very organic in terms of how people come into contact with each other.  People tend to stay in the industry for a long time.  So, I think that's really been the main way that people meet. 

So, for example, you and I, when we first partnered with Cactus.  I was working with Don Samulack a lot.  And then when I was in Philadelphia, you attended a meeting there.  And we've known each other for 10 years.  And we compare notes.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:17:02]

We certainly do that Duncan.  Yeah, I agree with you.  I think that's actually something that I did not think so deeply about.  It's a very people focused industry, and it is definitely a small world.  And that probably is one of the most important channels to stay in touch.


Duncan MacRae [00:17:22]

Yeah, it happens occasionally but I don't know of a lot of people who just completely leave the industry.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:17:27]



Duncan MacRae [00:17:28]

I mean, there's movement between publishers and there's movement from people who go from societies to commercial publishers and vice versa.  But I can't say I've known a lot of people in the last 25 years who have just said, I am completely leaving academic publishing and I am never coming back.  So, that's a quirk of the industry as well.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:17:50]

Yeah.  I agree with you, Duncan.  I think even with the recent, I think the last 12 months of great resignation, but at the same time the job market being really hot, I think mostly I see people moving within the industry, but quite very few folks have moved out.  Yeah.  So, you are right about that. 

Brilliant.  Thank you so much, Duncan.  I think this was fascinating as always.  And if I were to share a few insights just as a summary of our discussion, I know that you spoke about the importance of smarter processes, things like triage, desk rejects, the importance of peer review of course.  And even in the general context it's very important, but especially in medical publishing I think it becomes all the more critical especially because it has a patient impact. 

We spoke about technology.  And it's interesting you mentioned, maybe 4 or 5 years back, things were a little difficult, a little fuzzy, a lot of jargon being used.  But now some of the technology solutions clearly has value in a few areas.  We spoke about research communication, research promotion.  And I think you rightly pointed out that the tipping point will happen when there's a more direct correlation between the promotional activities and the kind of change in citation, the growth in citation that we would see. 

And finally, we just spoke about Wolters Kluwer Health and the kind of impact that the group's having.  It's not just getting papers published, but a lot of activities that happen actually after that.  But yeah, as always, really great to talk to you, Duncan.  And we literally can go on and on.


Duncan MacRae [00:19:30]

I could go on for another hour.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:19:33]

I know.  We can literally go on for an hour and then we can probably switch gears, talk about football and so many other things as well as we always do.


Duncan MacRae [00:19:41]

I don’t want to talk about it.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:19:44]

Yeah, probably we'll save it for some other day.


Duncan MacRae [00:19:49]

That was great.  I appreciate the opportunity.  Thanks a lot.  Always good to talk to you.  And I am looking forward to running into you and having a drink in Chicago.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:19:56]

Likewise, Duncan.  Thank you, everyone for joining us.  You can subscribe to this podcast on all major podcast platforms.  Stay tuned for our next episode.