Sometimes a business model hides in plain sight.
A while back I posted about the various business models available for scholarly communications. I was motivated to try to bring some clarity to a topic that often seems mysterious, with cries for “New business models! New business models!” ringing throughout the academy. My argument was that while there was much that is new in the way of business, there was little new in the matter of business models. Businesses have only a small number of ways to generate revenue, and this doesn’t vary whether a scholarly publisher works in print or digital form. I developed these thoughts further in a presentation at the recent AAUP conference.
Staring me in the face was a fifth revenue model, that of the membership society, which has a long and venerable history in scholarly communications.
To back up a minute, here are the four models of my previous post:
1. User-pays. This is the model for traditional publishing, where readers pay for access to content. Step into a bookstore, pick up a volume and head to the cash register, and you are in the user-pays world. For many people reading scholarly material, there is a proxy — a university library — that pays for access on behalf of end-users.
2. Author-pays. This is the model pioneered by BioMed Central and now used by such organizations as the Public Library of Science, SAGE Open, and in new services by for-profit and not-for-profit organizations alike: John Wiley, AIP, BMJ, among others. This model is not to be confused with vanity publishing, as most of the new author-pays services involve rigorous peer review. Most author-pays services are open access.
3. Marketing services. The best-known marketing service is advertising. A publisher working with marketing services uses content to attract an audience. That audience is then packaged and “sold” to marketers. Those ads for orthopaedic devices in medical journals are a case in point.
4. Institutional support. Sometimes a sponsoring body simply pays for the publishing process. Institutional support is found everywhere in scholarly communications, from subsidies for university presses to publish monographs in highly specialized areas to the underwriting of institutional repositories resident in libraries.
So, four sources of revenue, which can be combined in a variety of ways. For more context, I refer you to the original post.
A membership community potentially has a different way of conducting its affairs. A group of people working in the same area (the area does not have to be academic research) might decide that they have a shared interest in publishing some of their material. They thus pool their resources, appoint individuals to oversee the publications, establish policies, and make the material available to fellow members of the community. The revenue model derives from the membership fee: Become a member of this professional society and, as a member benefit, you will get the society’s publications for free (that is, as an aspect of the cost of membership). Members can also submit materials for publication, creating a network of reciprocal arrangements.
At first glance, the membership model appears to be a form of user-pays publishing, as access to content requires a fee. But this model differs from the traditional one in its reciprocal nature: One fee provides access to both content (like the user-pays model) and to the publishing process itself (like the author-pays model). It’s thus very much a community model of publishing, where membership has its privileges.
The membership model has for years been the primary means of financing many areas of scholarly communications. Over time it has evolved, of course; few professional societies use this model without also employing some of the other four models as well. For example, while a publication might be free to members, access to non-members, often through libraries, may carry a fee (the user-pays model once again); and some societies have long used a limited form of author-pays by levying page charges. Or, if the particular area of publishing supported it, a society publication might get involved in marketing services, using advertising revenue to shoulder some of the costs of publication and perhaps even to support other aspects of the society’s agenda such as membership education.
Some membership societies are struggling with their business models at this time, of course, and the reason for it is that many people working in the field no longer believe that membership is worth the dues. Part of the reason for this is that the primary membership benefit for many societies — access to the content of the societies’ publications–is being undercut by the near-ubiquity of access through academic libraries. Thus an individual in the print era may not have questioned the need to pay dues to a professional society, but when the same content is available digitally from an academic library — and by remote access, enabling the researcher to review the material at home in his or her pajamas — the appeal of membership declines. (The Pajama Factor is one of the most disruptive forces in scholarly communications today.) Similarly, a society that makes its content available through open access may experience declining interest among its members to continue paying membership dues. What, after all, is the point of being in a community unless it serves to define those who are outside it?
All revenue models have strengths and weaknesses, and this is true of the community-based membership model as well. Professional societies have trouble setting dues high enough to support all of the community’s functions, which puts pressure on the publishing group to find revenue elsewhere. That “elsewhere” is typically academic libraries, which puts professional societies in the same camp as commercial publishers, who look to library revenue (user-pays) to support their programs. This in turn accounts for why so many societies make arrangements with large publishers: they have the same economic interests in the user-pays world. Nor is a closed information system for a professional society — where the publications are only made available to members — acceptable either, as there are researchers in adjacent fields who need access to the content, though not necessarily on such a regular basis as to warrant paying for membership. The membership model thus rarely or never exists on its own but is hybridized with one of the four other economic models.
So we have five revenue models to work with: user-pays, author-pays, marketing services, institutional support, and the membership model. These models apply whether one is working in print or digital material, whether the products and services are based in text, video, animations, or cortical implants; and they apply to open access publishing. There is nothing exotic or newfangled about business models, which makes the chorus clamoring for new business models irrelevant. As a practical matter, it is unlikely that any publication will work with one revenue model alone. Hybridization is thus the norm, and thoughtful management, as always, is the key to success.