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In my opinion

Canada must embrace new digital developments in scholarly publishing

Exciting innovations in journal publishing worldwide are leaving us behind in terms of knowledge dissemination.


The 21st century has delivered instantaneous, inexpensive, media-rich publication and communications engagement around the world. Suddenly information and, more broadly, the knowledge economy, are opening new paths to social good and human betterment. How well is Canada positioned to take advantage of these developments?

Notwithstanding our early leadership in electronic communications technology, Canada has been slow to embrace opportunities derived from the publication of ideas and information in both print and digital forms. The groundwork for government engagement with periodicals came in 1961 with the advent of postal subsidies for magazines and other publications. Fourteen years later, in 1975, Canada focused on content generated by Canadians by amending Section 19 of Canada’s Income Tax Act to recognize the costs of creating original Canadian content.

Significant action on book publishing came earlier but took longer to reach fruition. Discounted postal rates were established early on, and in 1971 the Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing outlined issues hindering the domestic book publishing industry. The following year various federal and provincial subsidy programs began. But it took until 1986 for the federal government and industry to find reasonable formulas for ongoing support of the publishing of Canadian books.

Late and limited though these policies were, they certainly had an impact. In the magazine sector, Canada has produced over the years international innovators who commanded the highest ranks of the global magazine industry. In book publishing, Canadian authors are short-listed for the world’s most prestigious literary and subject-oriented book prizes, and the presence of Canadian books on all manner of subjects in our domestic and foreign markets spells continued success.

But what about the publication of Canadian research? While scholarly monograph publishers became eligible for book-support programs, scholarly and research journals were outliers. In science journal publishing, the National Research Council founded a press in 1929 to make Canadian science public. It has evolved into a successful 38-title, not-for-profit publisher that complements international publishing opportunities for Canadian scientists.

New publishing activities

In the social sciences and humanities, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council has supported the editorial offices of over 100 independent scholarly journals. However, with the worldwide advent of instantaneous, inexpensive, media-rich, digital global communication, the doors of knowledge reporting and dissemination have opened to a wide range of new publishing activities. The inclusion of non-print media, interactivity with data, the possibility of instantaneous global dissemination, the full dynamics of intellectual property, global sales and marketing positioning, to say nothing of emerging artificial intelligence, have brought publishing to the forefront. Worldwide, scholars, academic editors and a range of for-profit and not-for-profit publishers are building journal publishing industries that allow societies to more readily reap the rewards of the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

However, particularly with social science and humanities journals, it appears that Canada is increasingly being left behind. The focus of support provided by SSHRC remains on editing and not-for-profit cost recovery. In contrast, successful modern journals are staffed by a team of professionals editing and budgeting but also: recasting meta-data elements such as keywords, titles and abstracts; making decisions on non-textual elements such as illustrations, overview diagrams and interactivity with data; working with persistent identifiers for people and things; developing best practices for access while maintaining revenue; maintaining currency with emerging data policies and practices; managing relations with publishing partners; maintaining the technical and aesthetic elements of a journal’s website; taking advantage of evolving external content-enhancement services; gaining access to usage data and analytics and managing their dissemination; and undertaking software evaluation.

The result: Canada has become a slow boat in catching the wind of development in digital journal publishing in spite of our above-average contribution to research. We’ve been far too focused on open access and neglectful of investment in digital innovation with a focus on building a knowledge economy.

Research must be circulated to be evaluated

Accessibility, of course, is key, especially in the research arena. Without public circulation and evaluation, research represents measured but yet-to-be accepted claims of understanding. These claims are transformed into certified knowledge when they are accepted and cited by members of expert knowledge communities. As I argue in a recent editorial in the journal Scholarly and Research Communication, from a public policy perspective, the opportunities that investment in digital development make possible, beginning with proper professional recognition of journal staff members as knowledge economy workers, have enormous short- and long-term potential.

In Canada, we need to embrace investment in digital developments focused on journal publishing. Adapting our business-oriented publishing industry support programs to scholarly journal publishing would be a powerful first step. Extending Canada’s publishing support programs to Canada’s research journals would bolster, directly and indirectly, Canada’s participation in the knowledge economy and open a substantial, socially and personally rewarding sector and profession that has been expanding dramatically around the globe over the past few years.

Rowland Lorimer is the founding director of the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing, and a professor emeritus, at Simon Fraser University.

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