Judging from discussions at last week’s International STM Meeting in Frankfurt, some open access (OA) publishers seem to believe that author service is their defining characteristic and their differentiating value proposition.
Superficially, OA does align with certain key interests authors proclaim — wider dissemination and more papers being published — so it’s not unreasonable to make a case that OA publishers are more aligned with author interests. However, there’s more to it than that. For instance, subscription publishers also perform strong author service, so it’s not clear “author service” is much of a differentiator.
Maybe we need to clarify what we mean when we say “author service.” First, we need to answer a basic question:
What is an author?
An “author” isn’t a person, but a role a person adopts, usually for a minority of their professional life. A study published in 2002 by Mabe and Amin found that author-scientists produce less than one article per year on average, yet read nearly 100 articles full articles per year. While writing an article takes much longer than reading an article, consumption is still the dominant information mode in science, even for authors (authorship requires more intense scrutiny of the literature, after all). When you consider that only a fraction of many practitioners in many fields are authors in any given five-year period, the imbalance between roles becomes even greater.
Scientists are mostly information consumers, not information producers.
This becomes even more pronounced when you travel outside North America and Europe. In many countries with fledgling research communities but strong practitioner communities, information consumption dwarfs information production.
Because editors and publishers usually see the information producers, it’s easy to come to believe that everyone is an author. But authorship is a role with very specific characteristics, and it is not a dominant role. Other roles assumed by scholarly authors, roles that dominate their time more than the role of “author,” often include “researcher,” “teacher,” “reviewer,” “editor,” “practitioner,” or “administrator.”
The study above, entitled “Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde: Author-Reader Asymmetries in Scholarly Publishing,” outlines the asymmetries between the author role and the reader role as follows:
- Want to publish more
- Think that authors will have access to electronic networks
- Peer review remains important
- Find journals attractive as an intellectual package
- Want wide dissemination
- Wish for an integrated system
- See browsing as crucial
- Regard quality of information as important
- Want to read less
The study also examined primary and secondary motives for publication, finding that the leading primary motivation was “dissemination,” but the leading secondary motivations were “improved funding,” “ego,” and “career prospects.”
As we’ve discussed here, careerism — which certainly encompasses “improved funding” and “career prospects,” and possibly “ego” — may be running wild in scholarly publishing, a state of affairs the proliferation of publishing outlets certainly caters to. How this balances with the desire of these very same people to read less in an integrated system (one-stop shop) remains a central conundrum.
Another attempt to understand the author-reader disconnect comes from Morris (1998). Morris notes that while authors and readers want many of the same things from research publications — quality, retrievability, speed — they differ on some key points. Mainly, authors want wide distribution and academic credit, which aren’t relevant to readers; meanwhile, readers want relevance and breadth.
Even within these descriptions of desires, key tensions emerge. Publish more vs. read less. Wide distribution vs. relevance. Relevance vs. breadth.
For journals that have that mythological status of “our readers and our authors are the same people,” the author-service model limitations come into starker contrast — there is no audience beyond the authors, so the pivot the editors and publishers have to make is from author needs to reader needs.
It would be nice to say that traditional publishers, through the natural focus on readers and users engendered by the subscription model, focus on more of these roles by dint of their business priorities. Many manage to do so and the incentives help, but it’s all too easy to become focused on authors, even for publishers with readership incentives. Authors are a smaller and more addressable group that works directly with in-house staff and editors. Editors possess a natural affinity for authors — they are academic and often know the authors personally or via reputation. Authors’ needs are more easily and directly met. Readers are a more diffuse and unknown group, with needs that are a bit harder to define and meet, making readers more abstract and difficult to address. Making readers feel “real” to staff and editors is a challenge for any publisher. Customer service staff can help here, as can market research — both can put you in touch with readers and their needs. But in a business that puts “author service” first and has both customer service and market research revolving around authors, it must be nearly impossible.
One special challenge for OA publishers is that they don’t know, and currently have no clear incentives to know, who their readers are. They’ve not built any mechanism for audience identification into their businesses. There is no registration, authentication, or identification that precedes usage. There is no proxy site license to judge the audience even qualitatively. This is why it’s been impossible to know whether the increased usage recorded around the OA model is meaningful — or whether outlets like PubMed Central are attracting usage publishers and editors don’t care about. To borrow the famous cartoon caption, “In OA usage, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Publishers and editors who focus on the author role too intensely risk over-delivering to a role that is distinct, time-limited, functionally limited, and mostly incompatible with the other roles researchers, academics, and science practitioners routinely occupy, roles that the people in science usually assume. Creating a business model that purposefully drifts into author service while abandoning any chance of knowing readers seems destined to be less than robust.