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Ask the Chefs: What Are STM Publishers Doing Right?

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Winning Blackjack hand (Photo credit: Images_of_Money)

Yesterday, we published the first part of this two-part series — What are STM publishers doing wrong? Today, we tackle the slightly more encouraging question:

What are STM publishers doing right?

As usual, answers are posted in the order received.

Joe Esposito: I know I can count on my fellow chefs to list the many, many things that scholarly publishing does well, so I want to concentrate here on what I would call two “existential” aspects of scholarly publishing.  The first of these is that one of the great virtues of scholarly publishing is simply that it exists in a coherent and recognizable form. This allows all the participants in the ecosystem or value chain (choose your own metaphor) to study it and to learn how to use it.  This is no small thing.  Provosts know how to review faculty, funding agencies know how to evaluate proposals, and researchers know how to manage their own careers. This does not mean that the system (I would prefer to call it “the institution”) of scholarly communications is not without flaws, but that it is successfully navigated by its participants for the most part. Better to be than not to be.

The second existential point is that the facts speak for themselves.  Any observer of the modern world cannot help but be amazed at the medical treatments for sick children, the progressive if unequal march toward global standards of human rights, and the cell phone in your pocket.  None of these things could have come about without a method of scholarly communications that works more often than it does not.  Critics of scholarly communications are carping at the margins.  As Patrick Henry never said, give me air conditioning or give me open access.

Todd Carpenter: Compared with other industries, the STM publishing community transitioned early and well to a mostly online-only environment.  While other industries have nearly exploded in the face on online distribution, the STM publishing community has weathered the transition in quite good shape.  Consider the music industry, which in 1999 totaled some $14.6 billion in US sales managed only $7.0 billion in 2011, a drop of some 52% during that time period excluding any inflation adjustment over that time.  The photographic industry is another, with traditional film companies and photo finishing declining more than 11% per year over the past decade and has been nearly entirely replaced by digital cameras and video recorders.  Home movie and game rental in another industry decimated by more than 60% since the 1990s.  Closer to our own world, the newspaper industry has imploded in just the past six years dropping from $49.3 billion in 2006 to 2012 revenue: $29.30 billion.   Over that same time period, The STM publishing industry has grown from $9.4 billion in 2006 to an estimated $12.5 billion in 2012. Over that time period most STM publisher have shifted their income models from print-based to a site-license online-only basis for the vast majority of users.

This transition was by no means easy, nor without its missteps.  However, compared with the ruins of one industry after another in its wake, the movement of the STM industry to online distribution must be viewed as one of the shining successes of our industry over the past 15 years.  This transition has impacted every facet of our community, from the digital production departments that shifted from paste-up camera ready copy to digital composition, and from sales staff who’ve moved from simple print sales to site-licenses negotiation, to the library staff who moved from print lists to managing electronic resources.  If one were to posit in the early 1990s that the STM publishing industry would weather the online transition better than the music industry, newspapers, or camera manufacturers, I’m not sure you would find many back then with that foresight to agree with you.  To this day, I don’t think that the trade book publishers have moved successfully in the direction of digital only, and I don’t see success in its transition on near term horizon.  In its own way, STM publishing has adapted to and adopted new technologies quite quickly and with significant aplomb.

Beyond the technological, I would say there is also a very positive sociology at work in STM publishing that is unique among other industries.  In general, there is a congeniality among most in our community that is refreshing.  While there is competitiveness, rarely does that competitiveness seep into personal animosity.  Again, generally, most in our community would be willing to assist a colleague when faced with a problem or issue.  In large measure this is probably because there is little economic replacement between one product and another, so few competitors are taking business directly from others, so competition isn’t usually in a zero-sum context.  While this doesn’t make life easier for the librarians who must purchase content, it seems to foster a collective willingness to be cordial and supportive of other colleagues.

Rick Anderson: Solving problems for scholarly authors. What authors generally need is not a distribution or dissemination channel for their work (as the open Web provides such channels at virtually no cost and without significant barriers of any kind), but rather a system of validation and certification. You’re not going to get tenure for writing something good that lots of people read; you’re going to get tenure for writing something that a trusted system of experts has certified as good. STM publishing does an excellent job of providing and supporting that system, and consequently it attracts lots of authors.

Kent Anderson: Responding to emerging fields — launching new titles when disciplines emerge or subdivide; creating distinguished venues for scholarship; elevating important people in emerging fields through editorial appointments; and validating inflection points in the intellectual pursuits of science. In fact, I’d argue that publishers have been the most responsive to the emergence of new fields, and paid something of a price for this — scientists take publishers for granted, and some segments in the market believes publishers are just exploiting scientists when actually we’re doing an excellent job serving them, anticipating needs, and innovating to position ourselves well for what we see coming.

David Wojick: Every industry does what it does well by definition so there is no point in listing the core STM functions as achievements. What STM publishing also seems to be doing well is making the transition to digital technology. The process of scientific communication has changed dramatically in the last 10 years.

Alice Meadows: Having argued that STM publishing has often failed to clearly and consistently articulate its value in the scholarly communication chain, or to cooperate proactively to protect the future viability of our industry, on the plus side, where collaboration has taken place it has typically been very effective and successful. Part of the reason for this is that, in my experience, STM publishing attracts, develops, and retains smart, passionate, and dedicated individuals who are deeply engaged with the communities they serve, committed to understanding their needs, and to develoing products and solutions with them and for them. Most of us are not in it for the money or the prestige, but because we want to contribute positively to the scholarly community in our own small way. We publish great content, often on behalf of scholarly societies or other non-profits, and we want it to be widely available to researchers and professionals, wherever they are located – so we support initiatives such as Research4Life and INASP. We publish articles and books by eminent scholars and scientists and we want to make the publishing process easy for them, to protect their rights, and to make their content easily discoverable –  so we founded CrossRef and ORCID and work with them to develop new services for authors and editors; and we support the work of the Copyright Clearance Center and other CLAs . We understand that digital content must be preserved for future generations and we want to help librarians ensure this is the case – so we provide funding for CLOCKSS, Portico, and other similar organizations. In other words, we are getting lots of things right; the only trouble is that we don’t always shout loudly enough about it as an industry!

David Crotty: There are a lot of things STM publishing does right, but perhaps most important is how effective and flexible a system it is.

STM publishing is incredibly robust. Think of the enormous expansion in the number of people doing research, the number of articles published and the number of journals published. The system hasn’t skipped a beat in keeping up with this growth and progress. The system is completely open and it is a meritocracy: anyone can start a journal, and each journal can succeed if it proves itself to have value. With the decline of print, barriers to entry are lower than ever.

New types of science, new types of experiments and data are readily brought into the system which quickly adapts to them. New types of business models serving different purposes and different communities are readily brought into the system which quickly adapts to them. There’s a constant desire, across all journal publishing, for experimentation and continued improvement. New technologies are continually undergoing trials and are quickly standardized or discarded.

When a group of biologists were unhappy with the price and level of access of journal articles, they were able to start a new set of journals that worked via a different model. Those journals have proven their value to the research community and continue to thrive. It¹s a key reason to worry about the current trend toward funder mandates, which strictly limit experimentation. If funds are absolutely dependent upon publishing only in journals which publish in a prescribed manner, using a tightly limited business model, and specific licensing terms, then that stifles innovation.

There’s also a tremendous efficiency in the highly evolved form that journals present, in having a set of standards, a similar format for nearly all journal articles. This allows the reader to quickly parse the material, to find things where they’re expected to be, to compare and contrast between different papers, and to easily move from field to field with an understanding of how the paper has been written and organized. The system is self-policing and self-correcting. The increase in the number of retractions is great evidence of how seriously editors take their stewardship of the literature, and how accuracy trumps everything else.

Michael Clarke: I’ll list 10 things STM publishers are doing right:

  1. A heterodox business ecosystem. While there are a few giants like Elsevier and Springer, there are also hundreds of independents providing lots of competition.
  2. Direct customer engagement. Trade publishers think that bookstores are their customers. They haven’t a clue who actually reads their books. Not so STM and scholarly publishers – they know who their end users are and have direct relationships with them.
  3. Multiple business models. Individual subscriptions, institutional site licenses, pay-per-view, aggregators, patron driven acquisition, open access author-pays, etc.
  4. Successful digital transition. The STM and scholarly information industry shifted successfully to digital a decade ago. Contrast this to the blood and gore associated with the transitions in news, magazines, the recording industry, and now trade publishing.
  5. Collegiality. It is generally a very collegial industry. People freely share information about what works and what doesn’t and collaborate frequently.
  6. Genuine innovation. There is a lot of experimentation and new product development.
  7. Content + technology. The industry understands that great content is not sufficient and requires increasingly sophisticated delivery systems and the industry invests in such systems rather than just waiting for Amazon or Apple or Google to do it for them.
  8. Peer review. Whatever — it is better than the alternatives.
  9. Metadata. STM content has rich metadata which makes it easy to work with, discover, and repurpose.
  10. Standards. The industry is standards crazy. CrossRef, COUNTER,  ORCID, NISO — makes it easier for everyone.

Judy Luther: STM publishing has been on the forefront of adopting technology, hiring staff with the necessary skills, and outsourcing operations as needed to excel in the digital environment. Adaptability is the key to survival and scholarly publishing has embraced change in all areas of journal creation. For example:

  1. Editorial. Online tracking systems for peer review were implemented as publishers accepted more author manuscripts from an increasingly global pool of researchers.
  2. Production. Workflow was reengineered to start with “digital first,” and work was outsourced to lower costs and shorten cycle times, which resulted in articles being released in weeks instead of months.
  3. Business model. OA content initially in the form of hybrid journals, then entire publications and systems such as Biomed Central, were developed based on OA model.
  4. Restructured format. The concept of a mega-journal would not have been possible with a subscription-based model. PLoS ONE has succeeded in attracting notable authors and a significant impact factor.

Ann Michael: Scientific and scholarly publishing tends to attract mission driven, passionate, and intelligent people. In being committed to a mission it is only logical that the technology and processes by which that mission is accomplished can grow and change over time. Although not as fast to adopt change as the general consumer, no one can deny that there continue to be advances in the processes and tools used by researchers, authors, and publishers in scholarly publishing. I know my colleagues at the Kitchen will enumerate on many of those advances, but my point is that it’s the conversation, sometimes even the tension, between passionate and mission driven people with different perspectives that enable these advances. When thinking about progress and change, technology (although at times difficult) is always ultimately the easy part. People are the hard part and scholarly publishing tends to attract people with a “higher” calling.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-score, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.


4 thoughts on “Ask the Chefs: What Are STM Publishers Doing Right?

  1. STM was/is lucky. It lives in a world of brain surgeons and rocket scientists who basically tell the industry what to do. The industry is populated by people who know that the people they deal with are much smarter than they are and they accept – almost uncritically – the comments and suggestions of those whom they serve and then figure out a way to implement the ideas of these very smart people.

    As an industry, we seem to like each other and although we compete, we are able to applaud the successes of our colleagues and commiserate when one of us fails.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Jan 17, 2013, 11:07 am
  2. Yes, STM publishing has managed to make the transition from print to digital rather well. But that is because it is primarily focused on journal rather than book publishing. The humanities and social sciences, which are far more dependent on books, are still struggling to make that transition on the book side. The jury is out on whether it will succeed as well as journal publishing has, or whether it will succeed at all. There are an increasing number of OA experiments in monograph publishing, but none has yet proven to be sustainable long-term. The fate of the monograph is the digital age remains to be decided.

    As far as the kind of cooperation Alice and others applaud is concerned, I can point to the industry’s cooperation on copyright issues as one area in which there has been a mixed record. Helping to establish the CCC as a clearinghouse is one major achievement, and so is the settlement finally reached with Google, but there are also setbacks, such as the poorly marketed SOPA initiative, where the industry lost a major public relations battle.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jan 17, 2013, 1:11 pm
  3. Publishers of scholarly content give the world important, often live-changing information. I think this has a lot to do with why all those involved in scholarly communication are so collegial and the work we do so satisfying.

    Posted by Lois Smith | Jan 17, 2013, 5:36 pm


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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