When markets decline and companies fail, it is easy to look back and point fingers, usually at corporate leaders who didn’t understand the core purpose of their industry. In the case of the railroad, they failed to see that they were essentially in the transportation business, and not in the business of laying track and building engines.
In the December 22 edition of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki, financial columnist and author of the best-seller, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” focuses on the rapid demise of the newspaper industry. While other commentators have focused on anemic revenue from online ads and the failure to attract a new generation of newspaper readers, Surowiecki argues from the consumer perspective:
The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.
Does this sound familiar? Substitute journal for newspaper and scholar for reader, and we have something that sounds surprisingly familiar to the market for scholarly journals. We have a generation of students growing up in an online environment not understanding what a subscription is, and a new cohort of faculty and researchers believing that the articles they access are free. From their perspective, they are free, and in good financial times, libraries can keep this misperception alive. In bad financial times, the perception is a liability to publishers and their products. Surowiecki warns:
Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.
So what if publishers failed? Would the business analyst of the future look back and claim that publishers held on to publishing when they should have realized that they were really in the business of something else? Strip manuscript management, editing, layout, financial and access models away from publishing and you find four essential functions:
- Registration (essential for establishing priority claims in science)
- Certification (for establishing the validity of truth claims)
- Distribution (providing access to the literature)
- Archiving (maintaining the record of science)
In the print world of publishing, these four functions were inextricably bundled together. Enter online repositories (institution repositories, digital archives, or subject-based repositories like the arXiv) and you’ve just covered functions 1, 3, and 4. Find a way to compete with the validation process (aka, peer-review) of scholarly publishing, and you’re now in direct competition with journals.
If scholarly publishers fail in the future, it will be because they let go of the most valuable function they provide — the validation process. If they succeed, it will be because they understood the deeper meaning of validation and not considered it the mundane act of peer-review.