Research and higher education organizations around the world experienced shockwaves of disruption and disaster from 2020’s onslaught of public health, environmental, and social justice crises. Both individually and collectively, we were challenged to be resilient and resourceful in our work. So, what can we expect for 2021?
At the start of the year, we scanned some of the initial datapoints that offer us clues about what to expect for scientific progress, education, and trends in scholarly communication in the new year ahead. We know that libraries of all kinds globally scrambled to pivot and rework programs to support remote collaboration and online instruction. For a variety of economic reasons, enrollment in many colleges and universities suffered, as reflected in other financial metrics. Most libraries saw budget cuts in 2020, and some are expecting deeper or lasting reductions in 2021. Publishers and providers were not immune, as many reported staff layoffs or reorganizations to accommodate budget shortfalls.
The impacts have not all been financial, of course, as a number of studies are beginning to capture the human and social effects of 2020’s numerous emergencies. This includes the short- and long-term impacts of the many traditional research efforts that were put on hold, where humanities research and instruction has been the hardest hit. Institutions are under pressure to prioritize work that directly addresses pandemic-era demands – some in economics, social work, and education, but most the most dramatic spikes we've seen have been in scientific, medical, and technical (STM) research productivity.
Many publishers reported an increased number of submissions to journals across fields of study, with particular growth in STM articles published, some up by 30%. Springer Nature saw submissions increase by 26% across all titles in the first half of the year, where medical journals saw growth of up to 51%, including 10,000 Covid-related articles published during that same time. Despite these impressive figures, this level of productivity was not felt by all researchers across the board.
In a survey reported by Research Information, 32% of academic researchers “felt their research had been either very, or extremely, impacted by the pandemic.” Other studies observed how female researchers with families and younger researchers struggled most from crisis-related impacts on their work. Early-career researchers reported being under extra pressure to drive innovation in research practices while still being assessed via traditional rubrics for success. The effects of burnout and stress were noted to impact instruction and research alike, across the disciplines, and around the world.
Looking ahead, we can expect many of the same trends to continue in 2021 and beyond. In particular, we will see ongoing acceleration of initiatives that drive speed and transparency in scholarly communications. That means more open-access experiments, more pre-print servers, and a growing focus on research data publishing. I would guess these will be especially important for biomedical fields and others with a need for fast dissemination of open data. The folks at bioArxiv, Dryad, and others should be prepared for increased demand. We can all likely count on further demand-driven computational innovations, such as COVID Scholar inspired by the need to quickly synthesize the high volumes of pandemic-related preprints.
For libraries of all kinds, we can expect to see ongoing demand for remote access and improved institutional access. I would guess more publishers will show interest in SeamlessAccess and related initiatives that both serve speedy, secure access and benefit publishers with strategic opportunities in user identity management. This will mean more libraries shifting toward demand-driven models or what Lorcan Dempsey calls a “facilitated collection.”
Remote user engagement with digital collections is likely here to stay, as are the digital-first priorities for many library budgets. While online teaching and remote collaborations were often found to be poor proxies for in-person schools and conferences, the necessity of continuing remote and hybrid programs will drive further innovations. We have an opportunity to capitalize on the benefits of greater global reach and inclusion for those who could not previously participate due to travel or other logistical impediments.
Academic and research libraries will continue to evolve and respond to the changes in priorities and pressures from their institutional partners. While budgets are under pressure, the expected impacts on external research funding should hold steady, in particular for STM initiatives. Funds for studies in other fields are less certain – for instance, where enrollment and other sources of university funding helps fuel research funding. However, the year-end approval of budget increases to arts and humanities organizations gives me hope for brighter days ahead – where well-funded research programs embrace diverse perspectives and we see a return to valuing scholarly endeavors across the disciplines.