“Disruption” sounds sexy, like “Inception” sounds sexy. It also sounds harmless enough — there was a slight disruption at the back of the classroom. But “disruption” has specific business and technology implications, and tracking these to common usage can provide some insights we could miss otherwise.
In a US News & World Report article from June (“Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?”), the term is used to compare the “disruption” open access (OA) journals might have to academic publishers to how e-books are disrupting the book publishing industry.
But the disruption of e-books isn’t the same as what open access proponents are hoping their efforts will yield.
There are two phases of disruption as postulated by Clayton Christensen — disruptive technology and disruptive innovation. I wrote about these in a post in April. Disruptive technology is often just a harbinger of a disruptive innovation. But I want to refresh things a bit further.
A “disruptive technology” is one that usually preserves the output the market desires (good cars, good light, good journals, good books), but reshuffles the underlying value chain in such a way that some old players are sidelined and some new ones emerge. In our world, online is a disruptive technology for printers, not for publishers. Some printers have left the field, and platform providers have entered. Because technology is very frequently sustaining, even as it drives change, one could argue persuasively that online has been a sustaining technology for academic publishers — preserving its core functions while actually making it more efficient and effective.
A “disruptive innovation” is a market-oriented change, one that revolutionizes by changing the purchasing preferences of the market. The mass-produced Model T changed the purchasing preferences of millions, despite being based on old technology. The disruptive innovation wasn’t the car — it was the assembly line. For music, the disruptive innovation wasn’t the MP3 or digital, but the iPod. In both cases, and many more, the market changed forever because the innovation made the market better. The e-book existed for years before the true disruptive innovation arrived — the Amazon Kindle, with its built-in Whispernet connection at no cost, low-cost books, and so forth. The market responded quickly.
OA is cited in the US News & World Report and elsewhere as the disruption we’re facing. But I don’t see how it fits. It’s not a disruptive technology, because it uses the same technology we all use to reach the majority of our readers and users. So, is OA a disruptive innovation in the academic market?
It’s hard to say, because OA is not one thing, even inside the Gold/Green color schemes.
There is what I’ll call “parity Gold OA,” which uses the Internet to recreate the editorial and brand quality of top-tier journals. These journals are using the Internet technology, but it’s not disruptive because the vast majority of journals have successfully grappled with the Internet. Because the same processes and positions and costs seem to be part of achieving editorial and brand parity, the playing field is pretty level, and subject to normal value-equation shifts, not disruption.
Then there is what I’ll call “mega Gold OA” for journals that eschew some aspects of editorial review in order to keep a relatively high volume of low-priced publishing going. The recent introduction of PeerJ as an even lower-priced (seemingly) option indicates where this part of the OA market may be headed — into price wars and fewer services for authors (or requirements for author service). Minimalist Gold OA seems closer to a disruptive innovation. These journals don’t view readers and their proxies (institutions, aggregators) as the market, but rather view authors and funders as the market, and they sell services rather than an end product. New value proposition? Check. New market? Check.
In the US News & World Report piece, Heather Joseph of SPARC is quoted as saying that in the last year-and-a-half, “we really saw an incredible explosion of new outlets, new models in particular, coming into the marketplace.” It’s clear that these are coming into the marketplace to change it from a readers market to an authors market. But are these new approaches sufficient to change the overall market?
It all comes down to how great a challenge is shifting academic publishing to a market that sells services to authors and their proxies rather than finished information products to readers and their proxies.
First, we have to accept that mega-OA is part of the same market as traditional readers-pay journals. This may not be the case — thousands of papers have been published in mega-OA journals without any apparent effect on the submission rates to traditional journals or to parity OA journals. So, there’s a potential distinction here in how authors use these mega-OA journals in the market. If mega-OA journals are viewed as inexpensive ways to publish incremental work easily and at a low price, these journals will have a hard time moving up-market, and their potential for disruption decreases. The appearance of PeerJ as a clear lower-cost alternative suggests the market is headed into a price war.
Are there many authors demanding to pay to publish? Only 2% of traditional journal revenues come from author fees, and gold OA only accounts for 5-8% of all articles published. Authors aren’t accustomed to paying for publication in most fields. This means the price mega-OA journals are battling against is “free” if authors are the purported market. This is a difficult price to beat, and diminishes the disruptive potential even more. Recent data from PSP suggests that OA is losing a little ground as an option for authors, with fewer articles published as OA in hybrid OA journals in 2010 than in the prior year, despite more available outlets.
There is also the problem of where the money to move the market toward mega-OA disruption will come from. There seems to be no easy answer to this profound barrier to any significant switch in the market. Austerity programs, mixed funding priorities, price pressures, author preferences, market precedents, and many other factors suggest little funding slack and less enthusiasm for new spending to support a sustained interval of major market transition.
There is not even really a moral high ground differentiating the current approach within the academic community, which is where an appeal like this would need to resonate. On a recent episode of “Marketplace” from American Public Media, Robert Darnton from Harvard’s libraries says:
We the scholars do the research, write the articles, referee the articles, serve on the editorial boards — all of this for free — then we have to buy back the product of our own labor at a ruinous price.
As we’ve noted in other posts, there is no guarantee that if a market shift were to occur we’d never hear:
We the scholars do the research, write the articles, referee the articles, serve on the editorial boards — all of this for free — then we have to pay to have these things published by a third-party OA publisher, at a ruinous price.
A shift of market players doesn’t mean an end to market pressures and incentives.
Disruptive innovation is a high bar that requires not only a major technology to arrive and be transformed into something profoundly enabling to a latent market need — it also needs a market that is ready, willing, and able to follow that technology into a market shift. The benefits have to be clear and compelling, not debatable and abstract.
Right now, if market forces were the only forces at work, I’d say that disruption isn’t likely. Most authors can publish at no charge. Most scientists can get the information they need. Free review and editorial volunteer duties are common to all approaches presently on the table because of how basic academic market incentives work. (And can you imagine the scandals we’d see if authors and reviewers were paid real money? We have enough problems with non-financial incentives and indirect benefits to publication.) There is no clear market force driving a broad adoption of mega-OA approaches.
Despite that, various participants in the market are trying to shift the market for academic publishing from a market for academic publishing products to a market for academic publishing services; so that the market shifts from one of users and readers to one of authors and funders; and so that the market comes to believe that one path is virtuous while the other is not. We are no longer talking about disruptive innovation. We’re talking about something new — disruptive legislation and disruptive administration.
In that case, it’s possible we’re seeing a new type of disruption being invented right before our eyes. I have an inkling that this explains why legislative bodies and funding bodies have been full of OA talk while most working scientists still don’t pay much attention. And while I’m still learning to live with the terms, I can say that adding them to my vocabulary has helped me see things more clearly when I read lay press accounts of “disruption.”
Consider them your totems when you enter the dreams of others . . .