It has been a parlor game in STM and scholarly publishing the last decade and a half, making predictions as to when journals will cease being printed. Usually the prediction is “in five years” with the five-year horizon pushed back on an annual basis. The question of when print will end is often framed as if it is a natural occurrence (like predicting where a hurricane landfall will occur), an evolutionary question (when will the pinky toe just go away already?), or the likely outcome of a sporting event (leaving aside, of course pennant races involving the Cubs), rather than a business decision that publishers may revisit on a regular basis.
I have a deep appreciation of the printed journal and have labored on several occasions in my professional life to painstakingly redesign the print edition of several prominent titles. I have spent weeks deliberating over questions of weight, hue, and finish of paper stock. I’ve spent many years with a pica ruler in my desk drawer and am proficient in its use. I can talk Pantone colors all day. My office shelves are filled with printed journals and books and my living room resembles a library reading room. As a member of the last analog generation, I have an abiding reverence for, fascination with, and love of, printed works in all forms.
It is therefore with not a little sadness that I put forward the case that print editions of journals have, with a few exceptions, become a luxury that the industry can no longer afford.
A brief aside on what I mean by a “print edition” or being “in print” is necessary here. When I use the term “print edition” I mean an edition of the journal that is printed by default, in large volume, via offset printing, and that is bundled with membership and/or library subscriptions. I also mean a copy of the journal that is meant to be definitive or at least a facsimile of the definitive (online) edition.
I should also note here that this post only addresses STM and scholarly journal publishing. Books are an entirely different animal as are periodicals outside of the STM and scholarly space. Also, given the scale of commercial publishing businesses, their focus on Big Deal aggregations, and the lack of public reporting at a level of detail sufficient for this analysis, this post primarily focuses on society publishing (though equally applies to both self-published societies and societies published by commercial houses).
With those important caveats, let’s examine the costs of continuing to keep STM and scholarly journals in print:
The Direct Costs. Unless you are fortunate to publish one of the handful of clinical medical titles that generates more revenue from print advertising than the total cost of printing, shipping, and warehousing that title, or you have unbundled print from online pricing and pass the actual costs of printing and shipping on to all print recipients, your journals are probably losing money on printing. Possibly a great deal of money. Over the years I have had access to the detailed financial statement of a number of prominent society publishers, either due to my employment or through my consulting and other advisory work. In preparation for this piece, I’ve further analyzed the annual reports and publicly filed 990 forms of over a dozen prominent STM and scholarly publishers and societies. The costs of are illuminating.
Let’s take the example of what I’ll call Society Publisher X. Society Publisher X derives just over $16 million in subscription revenue and another $650 thousand in advertising revenue from its journal program. Additionally, a small portion of membership dues goes to support of the journal. Throw in reprints, permissions, and page charges, and let’s generously call it $20 million in revenues from journal publishing. This same publisher spends over $4 million annually on printing, shipping, and warehousing. In other words, approximately 20% of gross revenues are spent on printing and distribution. This example is on the high side but is by no means unique; indeed, there are examples of organizations with even higher percentages of revenues dedicated to print. On the low side of the spectrum, there are few STM organizations that spend less than 10% of gross journal publishing revenues on printing and distribution.
If this were simply the cost of doing business, as it was a decade and a half ago, such costs would be unavoidable. The print journal was the product being sold, and this is what it took to produce and distribute it. By not printing their journals, a publisher would have quickly gone out of business. But that was then. The key question to ask now is how much revenue would Society Publisher X forfeit by ceasing to produce print editions of its journals? I would posit that the answer, if the transition is properly framed with stakeholders, is almost none. As I will discuss in more detail below, few if any members will cancel their membership, and few if any institutional customers will cancel their site licenses. Secondary revenue streams like reprints, permissions, third-party licensing, and author page charges would remain unaffected. The only revenue stream with a substantive risk is print advertising. For a handful of clinical titles, this is a significant revenue stream. For 99% of STM and scholarly titles (Occupy Paper!), however, it is minor enough to be a non-factor in this calculus. In the case of Society Publisher X, perhaps some percentage of the $650,000 in advertising – we could conservatively predict that two-thirds or $433,000—would not transfer to the online edition, meaning the direct cost of printing and distribution – an unnecessary cost – is $3.6 million for Society Publisher X.
The Opportunity Costs. I put the following scenario to you: Company A takes 10-20% of its gross revenues and invests them year after year in developing new products and services. Company B sinks 10-20% of its gross revenues into a product with no return and no future, while investing a fraction of this sum in R&D and new product development. Which of these companies is likely to be more successful? Which of these companies is likely to be in business in five years?
The largest cost of print is opportunity cost. The STM and scholarly industry is collectively not investing to the extent it needs to in the products, services, and technologies that will define its future. Nearly every publisher I analyzed in preparation for this post counted printing and distribution as their single largest cost after human resources (indeed, there are examples where print and distribution costs exceed human resources). The industry’s biggest collective non-human cost is directed to perpetuating a product line with no return and no future. Meanwhile, technology companies, often from outside the industry, are making in-roads because publishers are failing to invest in their own futures. Google, Apple, Amazon, and even Microsoft are knocking at the door. Private equity is funding technology start-ups to take advantage of this dearth of investment by established organizations. Growth will occur over the next five years in STM publishing, the only question is which organizations will capture the growth.
The Innovation Costs. In addition to the opportunity costs, there is a related drag on innovation within existing product lines. How many aspects of journal publishing are constrained by print considerations or, more subtly, to print-centric thinking? This cost surfaces in the form of innovation being held back due to the perceived need to reconcile online development with print workflows. Examples of this include:
- Supplemental data – Supplemental to what? Supplemental to the print issue. If the data is valuable, why is it supplemental? It is supplemental because large data sets, large numbers of images, videos, or interactive media cannot easily be printed or else take up too much space in print journals. We therefore treat experimental data as ancillary and do not integrate it into the article in a manner most beneficial to readers.
- Early release – Early compared to what? To the print issue? Why is Early Release not just “normal release” with an ancillary print edition to follow?
- Color charges – How is it acceptable to anyone in 2011 that the quality, fidelity, and usefulness of images in scientific publications are subject to additional charges if rendered in color when there is not an image in a journal that was not created digitally?
- Page restrictions – While I can appreciate a requirement for brevity for the sake of reader’s time, such requirements are often driven not by concern for readers but rather with an eye towards printing and distribution costs. Should article length be determined by an arbitrary limit instead of the number of pages necessary to best describe the research?
- Editorial page budgets – These are the budgets given to editors the world over that dictate the number of articles a journal can publish in a given year. And while there are other factors involved in such a calculus, including the impact factor and the costs of copyediting and composition, the cost of printing and distribution often takes an outsized role.
The Organizational Costs. Organizations develop tools, workflows, skill sets, values, and cultures around their activities. The ongoing support of print creates a constellation of effects both subtle and glaring. Ann Michael has probably thought more deeply on this topic than anyone, writing in a Scholarly Kitchen post earlier this year:
. . . content creators are not always aware of how deeply print requirements have become embedded in their thought processes. It’s almost impossible for some publishers and editors to envision content separate from presentation (delivery mode and/or package). This situation leads to a cultural rift when content-centric thinkers naturally evolve at, or are hired by, print-centric organizations. They can meet with great organizational resistance.
One primary source of resistance is that print-focused staff, and the processes that have evolved over centuries to support print, focus on print’s immutable nature. Near perfection is required prior to distributing printed content. While no one advocates that quality be thrown to the wind in other delivery modes, the measures of quality, the culture of correction and discussion, and the ability to change content even after it has been distributed, all contribute to a different definition of quality in non-print modes.
The organizational costs can be seen in the expenditure on the internal friction over priorities, on lost digital opportunities due to a staff orientation towards and focus on print, and on workflows optimized for print that inefficiently serve online editions.
Given these direct and indirect costs of print, why do STM and scholarly publishers continue to publish print editions of their journals? In my experience it is often due to one or more of the following fallacies:
The Convenience Fallacy. One of the arguments I hear often is that print is convenient as it so portable. Such sentiments are widespread despite being anachronistic in today’s age of tablets, smartphones, and laptops and their attendant article organizing software (e.g., Papers, Mendely, Readcube, Zotero), all of which require digital content.
Journals, however, aren’t even terribly convenient or portable if we confine ourselves to the print medium. This is because with the exception of a handful of titles (such as the BMJ, JAMA, the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science), no one reads a journal cover to cover. If you are only going to read one or two articles from the journal, why would you want to carry around the full issue? Even if you want to read a print copy of an article, you can just print out the PDF from your desktop printer and carry around a 10-page document (five if double-sided) instead of several hundred pages of content you are not ever going to read.
The Membership Fallacy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard society publishers say that they would love to cease printing but their members still want to receive the print journal. In many cases they mean that their editorial or organizational board still wants to receive print, which is often not representative of overall membership. In instances where they have surveyed membership, I always ask what exactly they asked their membership. Invariably it is something like, “Would you like to continue to receive a print copy of the journal(s)?” Of course the answer is “yes” as the question carried no consequences or alternatives. The better questions to ask would be, “Would you like to continue to receive a print copy of the journal, or would prefer that we spend $X millions of dollars ANNUALLY to develop new online tools and resources to help further support your practice/research, develop a suite of mobile applications to replace the print copy with a truly portable resource, provide dozens of new travel grants for young researchers/students to attend our annual meeting, and reduce our organization’s carbon footprint substantially?”
Add to this question, a note that members who really want to continue to receive print can do so at cost — a printed copy that is explicitly an ancillary product can be printed using a digital short-run press and sent to members who wish to receive it and are willing to pay for it — and I would be shocked if a significant number of respondents would affirm their desire to continue receiving a bundled print edition.
The Library Fallacy. Most of the librarians I talk to say they are trying to get rid of print journals as fast as possible. Some are literally packing them in boxes and shipping them off to warehouses, institutions in developing countries, recycling facilities, or elsewhere. Shelf space is worth more to them than copies of journals that they can retrieve online. Are there some libraries that still want print copies, due to archival considerations, tradition, the desire for a reading room copy, or antiquated VAT policies? Sure. However, why not simply print them a copy via a digital short-run press? Make it clear that this is a subset of the actual journal, and does not include things like videos, podcasts, interactive visualizations, “supplemental” data, or even all articles, and is delivered weeks if not months after the articles were published online.
The Prestige Fallacy. PLoS has showed that one does not need to print a journal to receive a high impact factor (PLoS Biology) or attracts gobs of manuscript submissions (PLoS ONE). Besides that, as I said to one journal editor recently who was reluctant to jettison print due to the Prestige Fallacy, “How would you know if your journal was no longer in print?” Publishers can print a limited number of copies using digital short-run presses and distribute them to a journal’s editor and editorial board, to distribute at meetings, or for other marketing purposes. If such copies can be printed more-or-less on demand but distributed only where they are wanted, how would you know if the journal was “in print” or not? Would such a distinction matter? And moreover, would the vast majority of journal readers and prospective authors notice or care?
Of course there are many benefits to print. Chief among them is the immediacy of the tactile object appearing in your mailbox. It is a visceral reminder that you have a journal subscription or a membership benefit. The question, however, is not whether a print edition is desirable or valuable — it is certainly both. The question is whether it makes economic sense to continue to provide a print edition and whether your organization can continue to do so while making the levels of investment in new digital products and services that are necessary to remain competitive in today’s marketplace. The cost/benefit calculus will, of course, be different at each publisher and indeed for each journal.
As I have written about previously, the STM and scholarly publishing industry has not heretofore been substantively disrupted due to the inherent cultural bulwarks of the academic and scientific reward system. While these bulwarks may continue to protect the industry from the tsunami waves unleashed by networked computing technology that have reshaped the news, music, and trade book industries, growth (at least the kind of growth the industry has come to expect) over the next 5 years will not come from existing product lines. Publishers have focused their efforts on maximizing site license pricing and extending markets over the last decade and half. While I do not believe the subscription model is in imminent threat, institutional budgets are flat at best and therefore site licensing will not be the driver of growth that it has been in the recent past. Substantive growth will only come from developing new digital products and by tapping new markets (funding agencies, individuals, departments, corporate). To develop these products, publishers will need to make investments, which may prove challenging if a large proportion of revenue continues to be dedicated to supporting the significant costs, direct and indirect, of print.