Authors, Business Models, Commerce, Economics, Experimentation, Libraries, Open Access, Peer Review, Technology

The Evolving Ecosystem for Journals Publishing

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. P...

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge (died 1904), first published in 1887 at Philadelphia (Animal Locomotion). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Heraclitus said that you can’t step into the same river twice, I’m pretty sure he was thinking about the journals business. Although the temptation to find fixed points and stark contrasts is great (subscriptions vs. OA publishing, for-profits vs. not-for-profits), the fact is that the environment is pluralistic and fluid–and always has been.

Like a poor imitator of Eadweard Muybridge and his horses, I have been trying to take snapshots of this moving target for the Kitchen. There is the question of how a professional society navigates the landscape, a topic I would like to update with a case study if I can persuade a client to waive a confidentiality requirement. Reactions to the subscription model are worth noting, in particular the bold action of the Journal of Cultural Anthropology, which is walking away from an important arrangement with John Wiley to go it alone. Noteworthy as well is the creeping cooptation of OA publishing by the major commercial organizations. (That’s “creeping,” not “creepy.”) Not yet documented on the Kitchen is the development of the Open Library of the Humanities, which proposes to create for the humanities the equivalent of PLoS ONE–no small ambition considering the differences in the funding for STM and HSS publications. All these things point to change and more change.  Some of these things will evolve and grow, others will disappear, making way for many more new services.

Not long ago I stumbled on a new element, the “ghost” journal. A librarian informed me that at his institution, a clutch of journals had been established a while ago, but they were now moribund and he finds himself discouraging authors from submitting articles to them. Now, before anyone jumps up and accuses the Kitchen of once again deriding an instance of OA publishing, I want to point out that journals fail everywhere and in every way possible. That’s a good thing:  it means somebody is taking a risk. A publishing program that only has successes (I can’t think of any) isn’t trying very hard, and a management team that has only a string of successes should be shown to the door. The more telling thing about these ghost journals is not that they failed but that apparently none of them succeeded. That speaks to a fundamental conceptual error in the planning of the program (Automated question: Did the program even have a plan?) and makes me wonder what we can learn from this.

It will be a hard to be schooled in this, however, because the data has not been put together and analyzed. That’s my primary concern right now: how to get our hands on the data. There is a research project in this, which would explore some of the items listed below.

First, let’s define the object of the study as journals published in some form of collaboration with an academic library. There are several reasons for this stipulation, but the principal one is quality control. While we do indeed have to worry about so-called predatory publishers, the case for predatory libraries has not and will not be made. Even if a library does not have a formal review process for the publications it takes on, the informal process is meaningful (“We know this guy; he’s on the faculty”; “She got her Ph.D here”; etc.).

Next we have to be clear to distinguish between a library’s institutional repository and the publishing services it performs. This distinction is not going to satisfy everybody. For my part, I think of an IR not as a publishing platform but as an open and online storage medium. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s different from published material, whether open or sold on a subscription basis, with a formal editorial review process.

Which brings us to peer review and other forms of editorial selection. It would be interesting to know what the policies and practices are for library-supported publications and to find out to what extent the library itself is involved with the editorial process.

A directory would emerge from this study. It would list all libraries that have (non-IR) publishing programs and all the journals so supported. The directory would also include fields for the business model, the number of submissions, the number of accepted papers, the division between HSS and STM publications, etc.

I don’t think we can step over the business model too quickly. A study of this genre of publishing should also touch on how each publication is funded. JCA (see the link above) has a combination of free hosting services from the Duke library, membership dues, and submission fees, and all this is of course supplemented by a huge amount of volunteer labor. How do other libraries and publishers handle this? Do these programs in fact have financial models replete with income statements?

I have some hypotheses about what such a study would turn up.  I suspect that all or almost all of the journals will be open access, that they will mostly be in the humanities, that they do not in fact have carefully developed financial statements, and that the functionality of their software platforms is limited. This last point is typically overlooked: just as the technical requirements of scholarly communications are growing (I note that Wiley recently announced that they were using responsive design for all their materials), a great number of bare-bones programs are being established. Will the simpler platforms thrive or perish? Are the platforms of the largest publishers over-engineered?

The point of a hypothesis, of course, is not whether it is right or wrong but whether we can prove if it is right or wrong. So let’s find out: let’s continue to document what is going on in our little world of scholarly communications even as it changes before us.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “The Evolving Ecosystem for Journals Publishing

  1. I believe that these are good questions to be asking and that such a research program is needed. My comment is a footnote. The anthropology journal discussed here is titled “Cultural Anthropology” (1548-1360) without the “Journal of”. The following characterization can be superseded by an official spokesperson (which I am not), but the American Anthropological Association has granted the relevant internal “section” (the Society for Cultural Anthropology) permission to establish a gold open access arrangement in parallel to (not in replacement of) publication in the society program with Wiley. Thus, Cultural Anthropology content is being made available (OA) at the SCA website but it also appears in Wiley Online Library (etc.). For the remainder of its contract with Wiley at least, I do not think that it the journal has walked away from Wiley. The SCA cannot act independently of the AAA and the AAA has worked with Wiley in connection with what the SCA has been permitted to do with its very successful section journal. The AAA leadership has framed these arrangements as experimental, as proof of concept operations. The next (May) issue of Cultural Anthropology will be devoted to discussions of the changing publishing ecology in anthropology and in general.

    Posted by Jason Baird Jackson | Apr 30, 2014, 6:48 am
  2. It strikes me that one possible subject for this study might be the U.S. Geological Survey. As one of the oldest government science agencies, USGS reports go back more than a century. The USGS publication system includes a peer-review process, illustration services, and editing for regular series of reports. Change over a century can be tracked, from print to a Publications Warehouse, http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/ . Sounds to me like everything you’re talking about!

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Apr 30, 2014, 8:25 am
  3. Joe, thank you for this interesting and fair analysis, even if I don’t agree with all of it. As a library as well as university press publisher, I welcomed your point about moribund journals on library publishing platforms not necessarily being a sign of failure but a reflection of a risk taking culture. While there is no excuse not to do some analysis of the market before imposing another journal on the world, library publishers are providing lightweight options for niche journals in interdisciplinary or emerging areas which faculty feel are worthwhile but may not ultimately be commercially sustainable. If they die after a few issues, they may still have produced some useful scholarship. I do think you underestimate the capacity of some IR platforms to support publishing — Berkeley Electronic Press’s Digital Commons platform in particular has a capable manuscript management system at the back end for managing peer review. Concerning your directory proposal, I think the questions you suggest might be incorporated productively into the Library Publishing Directory, the first edition of which was published in 2014. It provides details of 115 libraries providing publishing services and is available in print for sale and open access online at http://www.librarypublishing.org

    Posted by Charles Watkinson | Apr 30, 2014, 8:52 am
    • I echo Charles’ first line, and also want to welcome and contend a bit with your point regarding moribund journals. In my experience, campuses are littered with journals that someone (usually a bright and ambitious someone) started, seeing a need, wanting to make a mark, wanting to provide graduate students with editorial experience (The [insert name of state] Journal of [insert name of discipline]). Their existence is proof of risk-taking, their often moribund state an indicator of lack of continuity in attention or central funding or both. In my experience, I have seen several such journals revive and even thrive by moving into a relationship with a library publishing platform and operation that can provide infrastructure, stability and continuity, as well as a visible place for both new material and the archive. There are still many social and financial issues to address, but the library provides a place to address them collectively rather than sporadically and case by case.

      Posted by Maria Bonn | Apr 30, 2014, 5:21 pm
      • But, Maria, that is exactly what I said! I said that the fact that the journals was moribund does not reflect on library publishing in any way, that there are moribund (and worse) journals everywhere, not just in libraries. My point is simply that this is an underexamined area and it should be looked at to improve it.

        Posted by Joseph Esposito | Apr 30, 2014, 5:25 pm
        • We can respectfully agree to agree. The point that caught my attention was that it sounded like the moribund journal phenomena was being attribute especially to journals published by libraries, whereas I think it pre-exists the current spare of library publishing activity and is, in fact, a motivator for some of that activity. Like you said. ;)

          Posted by Maria Bonn | Apr 30, 2014, 5:31 pm
      • And I would add that libraries have sometimes performed additional valuable services, as the library at Penn State did by digitizing all the back issues of the journal Pennsylvania History published by the Press, along with the back issues of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and the Western Pennsylvania Journal, all of which became a collection made available open access through our jointly operated Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing.The Press, as publisher, could never have afforded to do this digitization on its own.

        Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Apr 30, 2014, 6:12 pm
  4. How much are libraries as publishers involved with the editorial process? In journal publishing no publisher is involved with the editorial process very much, except for those few journals where staff of the publisher actually carry out some of the editorial management and peer-review functions. The vast majority of journal publishers are involved very little directly with the editorial process. They of course have to appoint the main editor(s) and put them under contract and replace them when they depart; many now also provide editorial management systems for the editor(s) to use. But that’s about it. The main difference with libraries as publishers, I imagine, is that the libraries do not need to find or appoint the editors; they come from the university’s own faculty and are, in that sense, self-appointed. But one may consider these faculty as already validated by the university’s hiring them in the first place; it would in that sense be redundant for the library to evaluate whether the editor is qualified to edit the journal. Many libraries are using sophisticated systems like not only the BE Press system but the open-source Open Journals system provided by PKP.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Apr 30, 2014, 12:20 pm

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