The process of peer review

Can great storytelling restore trust in scientific publishers?

Building trust in publishers with the right science storytelling

There have never been more scientists. There has never been more research completed. There has never been more to publish. However, the art of science storytelling has yet to be perfected. And, amid the bounty, the relationship between science journal publishers and their paying customers is far from frictionless. Major academic institutions and national libraries, like in Canada, face ever-rising subscription fees of around €10M annually. They are refusing to pay for swathes of journals and boycotting the entire portfolios of some of the biggest names in the business. What this amounts to is a breakdown in trust.

In theory, it should be simple: publishers use their communications expertise and marketing savvy to make scientific findings accessible to the academic community through science storytelling. It’s a serious business and huge amounts of money are at stake. Total global revenues are somewhere in the region of €23Bn each year and the industry employs an estimated 110,000 people globally, of which about 40% are based in the EU. The basis of the business model adopted by major global publishers, with profits in the billions – not the millions – has raised many eyebrows and trust in the industry is at an all-time low.

Everybody loves a good story

How can the relationship between publisher and reader recapture the trust of a kinder spirit in the digital age? Loss of trust comes from a disconnect at the reader level: poor quality content fails to move people. Every person has an opinion and no-one wants to feel that they are being ignored. Publishers can look to what other large sportswear brands (read: Nike) have done in the digital age, and connect with people on a more individual basis. Make them feel their uniqueness again, that they’re not just marketing commodities through storytelling.

Representation of storytelling restoring trust in scientific publishers
Storytelling as a way of restoring trust in scientific publishers


Nike can garner wider stories of heroes standing up against authority (read: NFL player Colin Kapernick refusing to stand for the US national anthem). By contrast, academic publishers can play to their strengths – they have many, many more stories to tell. The tens of thousands of journals they have are repositories for inspiring tales: life-saving drugs, species on the brink of disaster, calls to social action, and the infinite wonders of the universe, with the first picture of a black hole, recently published.

Creating good content and marketing it well will remind people of the good old days of publishing. Back when the community eagerly consumed great stories and publishers were more transparent about what they were offering. People feel good about positive stories, and the feel-good factor is critical to a re-emergence in trust between publishers and the academic community.

Harnessing new approaches to storytelling

It’s been said that publishing start-ups have the tech – what they need are the stories. There are new approaches to be picked up from emerging media start-ups across Europe, like Reedsy’s connecting ethos or Blendel’s micro pricing model.

In a publishing ecosystem open to innovation, author-centred solutions, such as ScienceOpen and Kudos allow authors to add storytelling infographics or non-specialist summaries to make articles more accessible and shareable to different audiences. This need and the demand is there for publishers to harness. And this applies to the big science publishing companies, not just start-ups.

Scientific publishing is our past, present, and future. There’s a story for everyone, and combining the right multimedia (infographics, articles, videos) with raw creativity can reconnect with audiences across the world. And yes, this science storytelling, based on original research studies, must be Open Access – free for all to share.

Arran Frood, SciencePOD writer

Discover the ScioWire research newsfeed: summarised scientific knowledge ready to digest.