Recently, Michael Clarke published a memorable post here entitled, “Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?” Michael’s arguments were carefully constructed and logical. It’s an excellent post.
And while at first I didn’t realize it, I now think the observations may rest on a different definition of disruption than I’m used to. And as I thought it through a bit more, I could see a different explanation, an alternative interpretation of the same observations.
Michael identified five traits of scientific publishing, using scholarly journals as a proxy. Two of these traits (dissemination and registration) started the whole thing, while three emerged later and inform the value of journals today:
Because journals persist, and no alternative has yet supplanted the journal format — primarily because the act of designation is so integral to scholarly career advancement — Michael argued that journals haven’t yet been disrupted, and therefore scientific publishing hasn’t been disrupted.
But disruption isn’t about displacement of the finished goods — it’s about displacement of the incumbents providing the finished goods and their processes for arriving at the finished goods. To use examples from Clayton Christensen’s original book on the topic, steel mini-mills didn’t disrupt by supplanting steel; they disrupted the incumbents by creating a more efficient, more modern, less expensive process for making steel. They did this by starting with the stuff the big companies thought could be ignored (steel bars) and used those meager profits to create an improvement trajectory (of know-how and equipment and markets) that led to the supplanting the incumbents on many fronts. But they still made steel.
Disruption is about blowing apart the provider side, not the consumable or the customer landscape.
Toyota didn’t disrupt GM by making cars obsolete. It accomplished it by making cars in a manner that was more efficient and effective and economical, slowly acquiring marketshare from the bottom-up, gaining customers through segments the high-end incumbents like GM and Chrysler thought were unimportant or insufficiently profitable.
Viewed through this lens, it’s clear that journals aren’t subject to disruption — as long as scholars value them for whatever reason and in whatever format, the “journal” will be around. Journals will go away when they fail to provide value. That won’t be disruption but irrelevance. How they’re made and who makes them — those are activities that can be disrupted.
So the question is really, Is disruption happening on the provider side?
Clearly, the answer is yes.
Look at the library. Before journals went online, libraries were central to the dissemination of journals in academic centers. Some of the savvier librarians have found ways to thrive in the midst of disruptive changes, but with many libraries being converted into education centers or otherwise taken over by other academic departments, it’s clear that this provider of information has been disrupted by the likes of Google and the other major search engines, combined with the online availability of content.
The librarians who are still flourishing have been more willing to take risks, and arguably possess more foresight than some of their peers. This is important.
But what about the publishers? Why haven’t they been turned into scrawny husks of their former selves, with hot new companies sidling up to dance with their dates?
To me, it’s entirely feasible that the main reason scientific publishing hasn’t been disrupted could be attributed to the fact that many of us read Christensen’s book or listened to the disruption gurus or somehow absorbed the lessons of disruptive innovation.
Add this to the fact that we live in a very supportive industry, where competition isn’t as fierce and cut-throat as steel mills or automobile manufacturers, and you can see how disruption could be bent to our collective will, even through osmosis. An academic sense of shared learning permeates scientific publishing, an empiricism blending with cooperation and communication, so an entire culture of publishers has been moving together through these changes.
Basically, I think publishers have been disrupting themselves, making it less likely that disruptors from below could sneak in and surprise them.
From Nature to Science to Elsevier to the American Institute of Physics to the New England Journal of Medicine to Health Affairs to Wolters-Kluwer to Springer to BMJ to JBC to arXiv to PLoS — a broad swath of incumbents of various stripes have been disrupting themselves more or less simultaneously, learning from each other, experimenting avidly.
Now, you could also claim that we’re in a consolidated industry with deep interdependencies on even slower-moving academic institutions, so much so that disruption for us will be more like erosion than earthquake.
But to me, it’s possible this industry learned the lessons Christensen taught, and has acted upon them. More importantly, it’s been able to do it in a manner that allowed nearly everyone to avoid the mistakes of arrogance and incumbency. By so doing, new entrants have emerged, but their effects have been integrated into existing brands and businesses.
From the outside, we may not look that disrupted, but in fact we’ve absorbed the disruptions (so far) rather nicely.
Scientific publishing is changing fundamentally. But instead of waiting for a new entrant to do it, scientific publishing has been disrupting itself.