English: Idea Engineer
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Recently I attended a presentation of a new and thriving information service for scholars. It was pretty nifty. The software was good, the feature set robust. The service has gotten a great deal of traction on the Web and now boasts a large and growing user base. Business model? Well, not too much on that, though it was apparent that part of the attraction of the service was the sharing of documents published by third parties. The presentation was well received.

The irony of this was that not long before I had had a conversation with a publisher about this very service, who described it as “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” I changed the subject, as I did not want to get caught in a crossfire, but I did wonder how matters had come to this.

What I wondered about was not whether the new service infringed anybody’s copyrights. That’s a legal matter, best left to lawyers. What I wondered about was why the publisher I had spoken to was waiting for the lawsuit. I would have thought (considering how expensive and time-consuming litigation is) that a better strategy was to try to avoid a legal dispute. Why hadn’t this publisher created a service very much like this before the upstart got the idea?

This is a question I ask myself repeatedly. The supreme example of this is arXiv. How in the world did the physics publishers get beaten to the punch on a simple preprint-sharing service? Creating such a service would not have been hard to do. Especially ironic is the fact that the publishers themselves were in a privileged position to hear the complaints that authors had about the traditional publishing system, especially the long delay between the submission of an article and its publication, one of the key motivators for building arXiv. Was Paul Ginsparg the only person on the planet at that time who knew how to use a computer?

We can stack up other examples of services that could very well have been conceived of by publishers, but instead were put together by others, who did not necessarily operate with publishers’ interests at heart. Book digitization was something that librarians wanted for years. Did no publisher hear what librarians were saying? It should not have taken Google to come along to get this project started. Or Creative Commons:  here is a way to streamline the cumbersome rights and permissions process, which I would think that even the most beady-eyed publishing accountant would agree is a great idea, but it took an academic lawyer (and no friend of copyright), supported by philanthropies, to get this moving. Or there is the orphan works situation, which is silly.  Here are books without commercial significance (otherwise they would not have gone out of print), but rather than come up with a practical solution to this, publishers have allowed the cause of orphan works to be taken up by groups who see it as a way to overturn the entire copyright regime.

This list could go on and on (A rights registry, anybody? Oh, yeah, and how about online bookselling?), but the point will be the same: by failing to get ahead of the curve on things like this, publishers leave a vacuum for others to fill; and those others are often people and organizations that either don’t have much interest in the concerns of publishers or even see these new services as a wedge to overturn publishing models completely. When you don’t do it yourself, others do it for you, and they do it to help themselves, often at your expense.

Publishers have a number of options to deal with new services and challenges to their positions, some of which are better than others. Let’s work through the list:

Preemption. This is the preferred path. The preemptive publisher looks out and tries to assess what kinds of things others may launch. This is a tough thing to do because (a) you can’t think of everything, (b) some of your rivals may have no concern about business models and thus may taunt your enterprise with a service that cannot make money, and (c) you have to fund all these things and put some of your best people on them. But the benefits to the preemptive publisher are large, not only in anticipating challenges to the organization but also in putting the organization in a position to exploit those new services. It also does not hurt to be viewed as a serial innovator.

Cooptation. Since you can’t have all the bright ideas yourself, you will inevitably stumble across things that you failed to preempt. Cooptation is thus a fallback strategy. A publisher may approach a new service and try to develop marketing arrangements. Since so many of these services struggle financially, waving some money around could influence the upstart’s direction. The most extreme form of cooptation is an acquisition.

Legislation. This is what was attempted with RWA. Whatever the merits of RWA, seeking a legislative solution goes in the category of “be careful what you wish for.” Today’s compliant congressman is tomorrow’s industry opponent; as Will Rogers wisecracked, America has the best politicians that money can buy. Besides, it’s not as though Congress can pass a law and then expect everybody to observe it.  We already have on the books a requirement that researchers who receive federal grants must submit a report on their work, but this is honored more in the breach. Don’t call your congressman; call your head of business development.

Litigation. There will always be occasions where litigation is necessary, but a preemptive publisher aims to keep these occasions as few as possible. The problem with litigation is that it drains an organization of management resources while the litigation proceeds. I have yet to see anybody attempt to quantify the opportunity cost of having a CEO kill a couple hours every day in meetings with lawyers. Another problem with litigation is that it is immensely unpopular. A publisher can sue someone on principle, but lose far more in branding as the publisher’s action gets pilloried on the Internet. There is a problem with a “no-litigation” strategy as well, as it may make the publisher look like a pushover and thereby invite others to challenge the publisher’s prerogatives. Litigation may be the course of last resort, but it is the mark of a skillful management team never to reach that point.

Toleration. Sometimes it’s best just to turn away. I had a conversation with a publisher who was incensed about the NIH’s policy concerning open access, but upon investigation, he discovered that only a small number of the authors he published had received federal grant money and were subject to the NIH guidelines. While no one should tolerate a gross abrogation of rights, it’s not always wise to stand up for principle for what has little value in practice. Toleration is a bet on the fecklessness of many high-minded organizations and governmental bodies, which may not be able to implement the programs they so ardently fight for.

But this brings us to another strategy: innovation. Or perhaps we should call it distraction through innovation. When a company has a record of ongoing innovation, it can distract people from other actions it takes. There will always be lawsuits, and Apple files many of them, but the media and the public are too caught up with Apple’s new gadgets to pay much attention to Apple’s corporate strong-arming. Innovation is valuable in itself and it is valuable in shaping a company’s image such that the organization can get tough when it needs to. But the more innovative a company is, and the more preemptively it acts, the need to get tough diminishes.

Moving an enterprise forward — if you must be a target, be a moving target — is the best defense. The next time you see a presentation of a gee-whiz new technical service, let it be yours.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


13 Thoughts on "The Preemptive Publisher"

There is one option Joe has left out. It is collaboration. One of the biggest problems for a scientist is the scattered, fragmented nature of the literature. As a result, any tools or services that ameliorate this fragmentation have the edge. And third-party, publisher-independent outfits are best placed to provide those. It takes a lot for publishers to collaborate, as naturally they compete, they don’t quite trust each other, they fear being dominated by the larger players, and, not to forget, antitrust legal constraints. In many ways the third-party outfits play the classic intermediary role of solving the many-to-many problem by being the one in the middle and tackling the much easier to solve many-to-one-to-many problem. It is difficult for publishers to get their collaborative act together, but not entirely impossible. CrossRef is an example that did work out.

You might want to acknowledge that the embers of the Association of American University Presses alsdo have a long history of collaboration extending back nearly a century now.

Embers? Has the fire died down? I’m happy to acknowledge their collaboration and only hope they don’t do it in any antitrust way (as currently in the news: http://on.wsj.com/A1qfDp).

I was at that same meeting, I think. Some of those discussions percolate through the publishing community pretty frequently. I believe one of the factors limiting some “innovations” is a greater awareness of legal constraints among publishers than among non-publishers. We know about Texaco and Napster and other cases that defined boundaries around information services. Being conservative by nature, our organizations don’t want to skirt the law. And we get early views into services like DeepDyve to see if they’ll work as planned. Between limiting legal exposure and seeing modest returns from ideas appropriated from other domains, a lack of innovation may simply be a lack of opportunity. As you note, sometimes it’s best to just turn away. There are a lot of little experiments being funded out-of-pocket, and some of them are courting significant risk with very little reward likely.

There are also only a few publishing businesses with the size and governance positioning to do things like this. Most governance bodies want to “stick to their knitting” and are careful to the point of miserly with their funds. Many publishers view themselves as content businesses, not service businesses. Even service businesses like PLoS tend to drift into being a content business. There’s more prestige in being a content business, after all, and scholarly communication is about prestige a lot of the time. There’s also the other governance challenge a lot of NFP’s face, which is ever-changing leadership. This year, the president wants to pursue medical records; next year, the president wants to pursue resident training; the third year, the president wants to pursue allied health outreach. It’s hard for a 3-5 year plan to take root, and creates a routine of impatience and short-term thinking. There’s also a lack of marketing savvy and modeling in a lot of our businesses, and even those who know what they’re doing have trouble getting decision-makers to trust the numbers. If you’re careful with your money and don’t trust your investment advisors when they suggest a new allocation, you’re stuck in the status quo.

These things and others eliminate a lot of options for new business options in scholarly communications.

This comment by Kent is right on target: “Many publishers view themselves as content businesses, not service businesses.”

Yet scholarly publishing never was a content business, but always a service business in a content cloak. Slogans such as ‘content is king’ always were a bit strange in a scholarly community that works on the principles of res publica. Besides, seen from an academic community angle, the members of which produce the actual content, calling publishing ‘content business’ looks suspiciously like inappropriate appropriation. That is the root cause of the friction between academics and publishers that is now producing so much heat. Open Access shows publishing as the service industry it is, and inappropriate appropriation dissolves as an issue of contention.

Publishers may find that King Content turns out to have a lot in common with Louis XVI.

While I agree completely that at its core, scholarly publishing is a service business, I’m not sure this is an entirely fair characterization. This may just be quibbling over semantics, but the service offered by the industry revolves around content. My mechanic and my doctor both offer services as well, but neither has anything to do with content. So there must be some way to differentiate them. If I start a company that opens clinics, can I say I am in the medical business, even though I am not manufacturing medicine?

Furthermore, what you say has relevance for particular types of journal publishing. But scholarly publishing encompasses more than that. In those same journals, paid editors are creating content through editorials. They’re commissioning review articles. So there is a level of content creation going on. Review journals then extend that further. And many scholarly publishers employ and pay authors and illustrators to create textbooks, laboratory manuals and other works. The creation of this content often begins with the publisher and is steered and driven by the publisher. Doesn’t that firmly put a publisher in the content business?

I take your point that some of what is seen as scholarly publishing is to do with content creation. Indeed, my comments concern the primary research literature. But the mainstay of at least the larger STM publishers is the primary journal literature, and that is the focus of the friction with the academic community. Lab manuals, textbooks, review journals rarely feature in the criticism levelled at science publishers.

The core business that ‘publishers’ are in, when it comes to primary research literature, is that of organising and applying the ‘tagging’ of content for the convenience of public approbation and referencing. It’s the sorting and giving content a place in the academic pecking order.

Unfortunately, in this electronic web day and age, this sorting and pecking ordering is more often a hindrance than a help to scientists, and the service of publishing is best moved to providing open access along the lines of, say, PLoS.

I think it’s something of a myopic view. There’s a world outside of science and world in science outside of journals. As this article points out, if one is locked in to existing paradigms, one misses out on new opportunities. And I’ll add that textbooks are certainly a huge area of controversy and complaint focused toward science publishers.

I’d look at the business on a wider level though. We are, as you note, a service industry. Much of what we do can be replicated by our customers. But in doing so, they’re likely to spend more time than they do by outsourcing these activities to us. Time is a researcher’s most precious commodity. Just as a researcher hires someone to wash the test tubes in the lab in order to free up more time spent doing actual research, they outsource much of the process of communication of results as well. If researchers wanted to spend all their time doing the jobs of editors and publishers, then they would have made very different career choices.

As a service industry, we will respond to the needs of the community or go out of business.

While it’s anecdotal, I don’t know any scientists who want to wade through an unfiltered literature, nor more than a handful who find the ranking done by journals to be a hindrance. Most are struggling with finding effective filters to sort out what’s reading from what’s dross, and appreciate any help they can get.

At the same time, access does not appear to be a major concern for the vast majority of researchers. If it was, then how does one explain the minimal compliance with the NIH mandate before it was made mandatory? How does one explain the constantly increasing number of submissions made to subscription-access journals? How does one explain the very low and declining levels of OA uptake in hybrid journals? One would expect just the opposite from a community who placed access at a high priority level. Increasing access is clearly a good thing, and a goal we should all work to. But if we’re talking about things on a purely mercenary business level, then we succeed by responding to actual proven customer desires rather than the ideological pursuits of the minority.

The good news is that many publishers are not strictly run as commercial entities, and we can thus focus on things that are good for the academic community, rather than solely on the bottom line.

But I’d argue that the main advantage of PLoS ONE is speed, and that’s something we need to address and do a better job of providing for our authors. And that’s an important focus for any publisher, if our real job is to do things more efficiently than a researcher can on their own.

“Many publishers view themselves as content businesses, not service businesses.”

I think this may be the most important thing anyone has said about publishing in recent weeks, and I would appreciate seeing that thought developed into a post.

I’m not sure what you’re asking for here is realistic. Disruption rarely comes from within an industry. And I think Jan nails it pretty well in his comment above. Most of the things you’re talking about almost require a neutral third party. No individual music company could have created the iTunes store. A store with just one content company’s offerings is of little value to the shopper. That’s why, despite offering online book sales since the early days of Amazon, no individual publisher’s storefront has caught on in the same way.

Other publishers have indeed tried to create their own version of arXiv. Nature Precedings is a typical example. Because Nature is seen as a competitor, other publishers consider anything posted there as a prior publication and will not consider it for their journals (examples here: http://www.cell.com/authors and here http://www.oxfordjournals.org/our_journals/nar/for_authors/ed_policy.html ). F1000 Research is the newest attempt at this, and we’ll have to see if it fares any better. They’re sort of a third party, but one that’s already entrenched and given their ownership’s history of selling off products to major publishing houses, they may see the same lack of cooperation.

Let’s see, what else did you mention:
Book Scanning: every publisher I’ve worked for has made great efforts to scan in their back catalog including out of print works. Many, if not most are now made available electronically or via POD. We can’t offer the same overarching service as Google because unlike Google we are unwilling to break the law and infringe on the copyright of others. As you note, the costs and delays of legislation are difficult to face, a lesson Google is learning quite readily. Furthermore, given the state of library budgets, how would we pay for such a thing? Google is an advertising company and can offer their services for free, as it provides a channel for selling ads. Should publishers shift their business away from selling content and toward selling advertisements? How well have ad-based business models worked for content companies like newspapers?

Rights Registry: Scholarly publishers have CCC, which seems to serve us pretty well in this area.

Creative Commons: Not sure what advantage we’ve lost by having others create these sorts of licenses. Have this damaged any publisher’s business? Has it prevented publishers from creating their own individual variations on the licenses that best serve their needs (see RUP’s licensing terms as an example: http://www.rupress.org/site/subscriptions/terms.xhtml

Can you provide examples of similar services and products that came from within the content industry? As Jan notes, to do it right, you need buy-in from fierce competitors which is not easy to achieve, and even if you do so, can lead to legal problems of collusion. The closest thing I can think of is Hulu, owned by Universal/NBC, Disney/ABC and Fox. And that hasn’t really been a huge success and plays second fiddle to third party companies like Netflix.

This does a great job of highlighting some really big issues. Publishers have had plenty of time to get to grips with digital opportunities, but something about the industry seems to stifle innovation. Perhaps it’s that the traditional publishing model is so well-defined and in some ways rather straightforward – yet simultaneously complex enough in its details to absorb the energies of many whose minds might usefully be directed at the bigger picture. Roles have evolved around that model and in the main exist to serve rather than question it.

Another relevant factor may be a general cultural bias in favour of extreme simplicity. We are taught that to be listened to we must make one point strongly, not try to represent reality in all its messy multifactorial complexity; companies, similarly, are expected to focus on one core business, and to approach it with a simple and simplifying strategy. This facile, black-and-white kind of thinking is just great until the world changes, when you discover that four years ago you divested yourself of the services that are suddenly relevant again, or that all the paths you didn’t take the time to investigate are exactly the ones where the action is now. (In biology, evolvability evolved for a good reason.)

In addition, while recent developments might lead one to overlook the point, there has been (in general) an agreeable inertia on the academic side. Most researchers want nothing more that to get on with their research, and certainly don’t want the hassle of starting up and running journal publishing operations. If only to the extent that they have for years saved others from the bother of all that, publishers can legitimately be said to have been adding value. Maybe more of the profits should have been spent on speculative R&D, however.

That leads on to how technological factors and cultural values might have contributed to the situation Joseph describes so well. Again, publishers for a long time reflected wider society, where it often proves convenient to brand those with an aptitude for technology as ‘techies’. This sort of pigeon-holing makes it easier to stop worrying about the things we don’t really understand: we don’t understand those people or what they do, and we shouldn’t try to, because we’re just not like them. The result is that technically oriented work becomes ghetto-ized and remote from the corporate power-centres where strategy gets developed. We become blind to the sheer diversity of computational specialities. We think that because we’ve got an army of web developers we’ve somehow squared things off – oblivious to our deficiencies in visualization, information retrieval, NLP, etc. I suspect that what we’re starting to see is the extent to which this inability to think computationally limits our ability to comprehend the space of publishing possibilities defined by human information needs and their intersection with technological developments.

Great points but… is there really anything specific to publishing in this situation? I’m surprised you don’t reference “The Innovator’s Dilemma” et. al.. Clayton Christensen and others have cogently analyzed why incumbent leaders aren’t, generally speaking, effective at innovating, especially during disruptive market transitions (and the shift to digital publishing certainly qualifies as such). Making a call to action for publishers to innovate and preempt is all well and good, but how about mentioning the intrinsic structural impediments that they face in trying to do so? Overcoming these is where the rubber meets the road.

As a historical point, the AAP was proactive and out in front of the “orphan works” problem a long time before many other associations were–and long before Google even existed.

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