The machines of scholarly research and content dissemination require monetary input at some point(s) in the process in order to run. Despite this reality, many mission-driven organizations are uncomfortable acting as (or, in some cases, are ill-suited to be) commercial survivors.
What fascinates me is that the governing boards of prestigious journals are interfering with the necessary moves to counter these developments. Author-pays open access is growing in strength but conservative boards do not always understand the competitive circumstances that their operating staff bring to their attention.
On popular industry listservs, commercial publishers and vendors are cast as thousand-pound gorillas who use money and influence without regard for long-term industry impact — who prioritize profit and business strategies over quality and mission, and hold patrons hostage with high prices that marginalize opportunities for smaller businesses.
Open access publishing models, long the darlings of the defiantly non-commercial, are increasingly vulnerable to for-profit influences. Formidable commercial publishing houses, Nature and SAGE, have recently released new open access journals. This underscores that gold open access models are not noncommercial by definition. They simply apply different algorithms for generating revenues.
In open access journal publishing, more submissions + more acceptance + less/different forms of payment + increased use + varying levels of peer review translate (one hopes) to high impact factor = success. Volume (of content and use) are key drivers of success, but money is not absent from the process. Ultimately, it cannot be.
When commercial and nonprofit innovators come to blows in the open access ring, those most at risk may be publishing societies that, as Phil Davis put it, “established their brand in the age of paper to provide limited scope and select on quality and novelty.”
Appreciating that some governing boards may have difficulty grasping the cascade effects engendered by newly mainstream models and market entries, it’s reasonable to be concerned that their organizations will not be in a position to respond with agility to critical market changes and emerging opportunities.
Most members of the publishing community, for-profit and not-for-profit, are interested in commercial strategies. The scholarly information economy is being squeezed from all angles. Even not-for-profits are more focused on revenue and funding as formerly reliable gravy trains begin to dry up.
Members of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, responding to a post-meeting survey, underscored this recently by telling meeting organizers that they wanted more information about how to deal with new commercial opportunities — emerging markets and innovative business models and delivery systems.
There are common elements to the new business models emerging in and outside scholarly publishing. For example, Kent recently re-posted a round-up of “10 business models that rocked 2010“. Most of the models featured involved first building audiences and then working levers to generate financial wins (a re-ordering of old-school models in which a product was produced and marketed to audiences that were built over time, through sales).
The mechanisms for commoditization in these new-school cases included:
- Selling customer data
- Crowdsourcing ideas
- Upselling high-volume audiences
- New storefronts and cloud-based points of purchase
What strikes me as remarkable about these examples is how unremarkable the core transactions (what is being exchanged by whom) really are. The tools and re-ordering are new, but the commercial exchange of goods is very basic, ancient even. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
One of the big overarching differences is the reversal of the ordering sequence. Rather than if you build it, they will come these models conform to if you get them, you can build it (and ultimately sell it). Is this substantively different from what we can expect in future from the community building and open access initiatives we are seeing from commercial publishers? One presumes that they are not putting all their eggs in one basket but are diversifying their strategies.
In most industries, transactions involving supply and demand are central to the survival of any long-term endeavor, whether the actors are for-profit or not-for-profit. In order to grasp new models and work successfully in a quickly evolving space, all organizations, including publishing societies and their boards, may be required to embrace monetary drivers for their critical role in ensuring long-term sustainability — and then work towards achieving consensus around innovative mechanisms that commoditize research contributions and ensure that most audiences will be served best.
Those who, for any reason, bury their heads in the sand, may find themselves buried completely.