Wrong Way in High River
Wrong Way in High River (Photo credit: Scott.Webb)

This month, our “Ask the Chefs” tackles two core questions — what are STM publishers doing right, and what are they doing wrong.

The questions were posed to the Chefs as simply as that. The idea for this kind of two-part approach emerged from a discussion last month on an email thread. Soon, it became clear there were more than enough different opinions amongst the Chefs to support a two-part series.

Today, we tackle the negative question:

What are STM publishers doing wrong?

The answers follow, posted in the order received.

Joe Esposito: The traditional participants in scholarly publishing have failed to keep up with the requirements of a new age, where the sheer amount of research puts tremendous pressure on the communications systems. The toll-access model simply cannot accommodate all the work of all the professionals now adding to what we, collectively, know or could know if we had the time and resources to investigate topics fully. One way to view the growth of Gold OA is as a response to the high levels of research being funneled into the small channel of traditional publishing. The traditional publishers failed to note this problem, or if they did note it, they failed to act on it. Innovation lies with the upstarts.

Todd Carpenter: For an organization that has moved so quickly and successfully to an online environment, it seems as a community that we are not willing to move beyond our a traditional paradigm of producing and distributing content. By this, I mean most of the online content that is distributed by STM publishing remains a print facsimile. It may be in XML or run through some adaptive content management system on the back end, but it remains a text-based world. While some publishers are tepidly allowing non-traditional (i.e., non-textual materials) throughout their systems, these varied content forms are not widely embraced, either by publishers or authors.

In part, this goes to a bigger challenge that STM publisher are going to need to address: How can STM publishing be more closely tied to the heart of what scholars and researchers do? By this, publishers need to be more closely aligned with the work of research and providing services to the community beyond collecting, vetting and distributing results. This is an important function, but collection and distribution are commodity services today. There remains a business opportunity for doing that at scale, but the craft of it will be demising. Intelligent selection and collection management, as well as the value-add services of helping to navigate that collection of content in all forms (not just text, but video, audio, data, etc.) is a service that more and more will seek out. That sounds like the traditional role of librarians, which it is in part. However, the complexities of navigating and uniquely combining resources in this environment will be a growing challenge. Who better to assist in forging those connections and services than the provider who gathered them together in the first place?

A few players are amassing some of these tools, but the integration of these tools is weak at best. Without integration, they simply are a mix of interesting services. On the flip side of that problem is the reticence to adopt completely a walled-garden approach by a single provider. I also note that this is hindered by the researchers who are producing and consuming these outputs. While some publishers have tested the waters with some of these products and services, their adoption has been slow.  Indeed, getting the right kind of contributor to create these materials is no small task. Just as it took decades for the first tentative online-only journals to succeed, it will take decades more for these new forms of scholarship to grow and be accepted. The publishing industry could point in the right direction, but it can’t make the horse walk toward the water if it isn’t interested in doing so.

Rick Anderson: “Wrong” is perhaps too categorical a term here, but I would say that what STM publishing is doing more problematically is solving problems for readers. Unlike many librarians, I have no fundamental quarrel with the basic structure of STM publishing: publishers do not (contrary to the popular rhetoric) simply take free content from authors and sell it back to the academic community. The value-added services publishers provide are generally both significant and truly valuable. However, publishers seem to be relying increasingly on libraries (rather than individual subscribers) to keep their revenue streams healthy, and the current trends in subscription prices and library budgets do not bode well for the future of that arrangement. Either the current trends will change or there will be a collapse in the system. There is no third option. A collapse in the system could, theoretically, turn out to be a good thing, if a better system emerges from the destruction — but I think it would be foolish for publishers, authors, librarians, or researchers to assume that what emerges from that collapse would necessarily be better.

Kent Anderson: The basic flaw I see in many approaches to publishing right now is getting tied up in editorial, industry, or technological issues and forgetting the customer — in every case, the customer is the reader, no matter your business model or sales approach. Even OA publishers predicate their value proposition on reaching readers. Because there isn’t a strong tie to the ultimate customer, I see a lot of paralysis, strange initiatives, or tepid approaches. Worse, I see a lot of authority figures asserting themselves as proxies for their actual readers, a very unscientific approach based on pure hubris. This is especially important now for society publishers. For decades, especially for membership societies, the customer was assumed to be served by a smorgasbord of society offerings, with the journals as one of the leading offerings. So as long as membership renewal rates were strong, the journals did well, and it was assumed that membership offices knew the customer. The digital revolution has disintermediated this value assumption, so that membership and journal access are often separable. Memberships are at risk in a new way; customers and members are obscured inside institutional access licenses; and technological possibilities are sometimes substituted for basic customer-oriented business practices. Oddly, the commercial publishers seem better at moving to catch up with the customer.

David Wojick: The industry is going through a period of deep anxiety which can be damaging at the organization level. One threat is paralysis by analysis where nothing gets done except soul searching meetings and studies. The other is chasing too many innovations at once. In both cases, it is easy to lose sight of the core mission as management attention is drained away. The real threat today is economics, not change.

Alice Meadows: One of the biggest failures of our industry overall in recent years has been our lack of a collective voice. The last 10-15 years have seen immense changes in scholarly communications; the move to online has resulted in many innovations and improvements being developed and funded by publishers in response to the evolving needs of the communities we serve. And yet we have failed to articulate a clear, consistent, and powerful message about the critical role we play in the  scholarly communication process or the value we add to it. The OA movement really highlighted this, with many STM publishers caught on the back foot as OA advocates successfully lobbied governments, funders, journalists, researchers, and the general public for support. While many publishers are now embracing OA as a business model, concerns still remain, for example, around the length of embargo periods, the risk of a race to the bottom on article publication charges, and so on. And yet we are still not campaigning about these issues as effectively as we could or should be as an industry. Our influence on government policies remains negligible for the most part, and we often prioritize competition to protect our own businesses over collaboration to protect the long-term viability of the STM publishing industry overall.  Having said that, our industry bodies are arguably becoming more effective at lobbying and the last decade or so has seen the launch of a number of initiatives on which STM publishers have cooperated very successfully. So, being an eternal optimist, I’m hopeful that we will see increased cooperation in the future — and that this will benefit everyone in the scholarly communication chain, not just the publishers.

David Crotty: I think anyone who has worked at a publishing house can produce a long list of internal gripes about what a particular company is doing wrong, but in thinking about the big picture, one very common problem is a lack of perspective. By that, I mean that publishers (and their surrounding milieu of technologists, entrepreneurs and advocates) often lose track of the actual role of publishing in the big picture of academic research. We spend our days working on journals, talking about journals, having meetings about journals, writing annoyingly long blog posts and comments about journals. We live in essentially a journal-centric universe.

In reality, our readers and authors see the world from a very different viewpoint. The actual research, performing the research, learning new things, uncovering new truths — that’s the thing! Yes, dissemination of the knowledge gained is important, but it remains, at best, secondary to the main purpose of the researcher. As I wrote in these pages back in 2010, there’s an enormous difference between talking about science and doing science. No one goes into research as a career because they love writing papers and arguing with referees. For most, the paper represents a time-consuming and frequently frustrating interruption to their “real” job.

I worry that we often lose sight of this, and that we presume and expect researchers to live in our world, rather than working to best serve their needs. Publishers can argue for days and days over business models and access plans. For most researchers, these things aren’t even on the radar. Go talk to scientists and you’ll find that nearly all of the gossip (aside from the personal scandals) is about funding and jobs, or rather the lack of either, and the enormous demands made upon faculty that continue to increase.

We do the research community a disservice when we fail to stay grounded in that reality, when we expect the community’s activities and culture to bend to our process and our technologies, rather than building our systems to best suit their needs. It’s likely that for many authors, PLoS ONE’s greatest innovations lie not in opening access or in changing the demands of peer review, but instead in streamlining, offering a lighter load to carry, and a near guarantee that the entire process won’t have to be repeated in its entirety multiple times.

This is the sort of practical innovation that really matters much more than introduction of the latest technological whiz-bang or social media integration. We often serve our audience best by simply getting out of their way.

And it’s easy to lose sight of that without a constant level of contact and interaction with the research community itself. This means going beyond the editorial office and the editorial board. Engage with your authors. Take a graduate student to lunch (trust me, there’s not a graduate student on earth who’ll turn down a free lunch). The higher we climb the ladder, the more decision making power we gain, yet this seems to inevitably come with more and more distance from those we are trying to serve.

This is not an insurmountable problem though. Spend more time in the trenches with those actually doing science rather than taking the route of just hearing those within easy (physical and virtual) reach. And always keep in mind that what we do is just part of a larger process, an important but peripheral offshoot of that process, rather than the end goal itself.

Michael Clarke: I’ve picked eight things I think STM publishers are doing wrong:

  1. Organizational silos. It is amazing how some organizations have books and journals divisions that pretty much operate as entirely separate entities despite the fact that they have the same customers.
  2. Product silos. The industry continues to think of products in well established formats — a new “journal” vs. a new “book.” The organizational silos churn out the products they are organized to produce instead of starting with the user need and the information available and saying “what is the best format, including entirely new formats, to convey this information.”
  3. Marketing Itself. The industry doesn’t do a good job of telling its story. That this publication ran a much discussed article on “what publishers do” is telling. That publishers have allowed OA advocates and librarians to paint them as the bad guys is also telling.
  4. Marketing, generally. Publishers don’t market their own products well. Or they think of marketing as merely “promotion.” Marketing tends to reflect silos and to operate on autopilot (“Now is the time when we issue the same renewal notice we’ve been using for a decade or “Here is our new catalog — this year with a blue cover!”
  5. Data. Gathering it, mining it, learning from it, having staff dedicated to analyzing it, and ultimately changing business practice based on it.
  6. The Single-Faceted Customer Fallacy. As has been pointed out in a recent Scholarly Kitchen article, there is no such thing as an “author” or a “reviewer” or a “reader” — never mind a “journals reader” or a “books reader.” Customers are all of these roles at more at different times.
  7. Design. Web design in STM and scholarly publishing is, generally speaking, atrocious. Some of it is due to being early on the web bandwagon but really that is, at this point, no excuse. Web design should be a continuously evolving process, not a once-a-decade chore.
  8. Failure. Too many organizations in this space are victims of their own success. Having mature products with high margins can lead one to set a unrealistically high bar for new products. Every new product will not be a home run, and even those that succeed might take many years before that success is realized. Being open to failure and learning from it is something I don¹t see enough of.

Judy Luther: STM publishing has incorporated changes in its editorial, production, marketing, and distribution processes in order to streamline the existing products and services. While publishers have embraced considerable change, like most established industries they are not well positioned to manage the disruptive forces that challenge existing models since their role is to compete by improving products that deliver higher value and increase profits by reducing costs.

The challenges for STM publishing are going to come from those who think creatively to solve an existing problem in a different way or spot an opportunity to deliver a needed service. Evidence of such innovations abound in new products and services being launched that build and utilize networks to good effect. Individually they may not all succeed but collectively they indicate that change is overdue.  For example:

  1. Peer review services. The launch of Rubriq and PeerJ represent different approaches to lowering the cost of peer review by eliminating redundancy in the existing system or employing a network of contributors.
  2. Collaborative workspaces. Mendeley, ResearchGate and Academia.edu increase discovery of significant resources for researchers, create digital spaces for team work and leverage these networks in sharing resources.
  3. Alternative metrics. Altmetrics.com, Plum Analytics and Impact Story utilize social media in constructing timely metrics at the author level and article level that reveal impact in new and interesting ways.

Ann Michael: No matter who you are or where you are, you can always be better. Rather than provide a list of the areas where I feel we could to better, I prefer to caution us all to keep an open mind and a relatively cool head. The only thing that’s “wrong” with scholarly publishing is that we’re in the midst of change. While some trends are evident, the future is unknown. In the past everyone has understood their role in the ecosystem and in the scholarly publishing process. The norms have been established. But, those norms are changing and people as well as organizations feel threatened by that. Unfortunately, when people feel threatened it becomes difficult for us to listen to opinions that differ from our own. It becomes difficult to learn. And people on any side of a debate can learn from the other side. I would venture to guess that there isn’t one person reading this (including me) that isn’t guilty of fully or partially dismissing a point of view because of the manner in which it was presented or its source. We all need to do better than that.

(Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, we’ll explore the question, “What Are STM Publishers Doing Right?“)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


17 Thoughts on "Ask the Chefs: What Are STM Publishers Doing Wrong?"

Great publishers are great marketers and great marketers know their market. After reading the above I find that for the most part there is little that the STM publishers are doing wrong. Very few read very much of what is published. Indeed, David is right in one respect in that researchers are interested in doing research and getting funding to do it and that publishing is but one part of that process. Publishers assist in that role.

What I see as the great failure of publishers today is the old maxim that editors should wear out the soles of their shoes and not the seats of their pants. Companies have simply cut budgets for travel because they think an e mail suffices. Thus, there is a great disconnect between authorship and publishers. One can do all sorts of research from the office but would probably learn more from a good week on the road.

Great point about travel! One of the major sources of innovative papers for our journal is our society’s conference program. There’s no substitute for having an editor in the room to year your talk and coming up to you later with a suggestion to publish.

Michael Clarke hit upon something when criticizing web design as stuck in outmoded techniques. I would go further to say drop PDF of the 8 1/2 x 11 page, which does not fit most readers’ screens. It should have been replaced long ago by the htm approach now found in .mobi, .epub, etc. file formats. Let content fit the readers’ screens. Say goodbye to page numbers. Update style manuals (The Chicago Manual of Style/15 already did this). Give us hyperlinks to notes and back to the text.

Many here will wince, but the next generation will thank us. I recently published a biography (130k words, 55 illustrations, 800 notes) as an ebook only. I don’t think I will ever go back. Drop the expense and inconvenience of ink-on-paper entirely.

If you say goodbye to page numbers, please consider a means for the reader to ascertain where they’re at and how far they have to go. I believe that’s something we would miss. I like reading news articles on my smart phone much better than magazines or newspapers. The ability to adjust the text size is great and the naturally narrow column of text on the phone makes for pleasant and fast reading.

Does a scroll-bar not do this for us? And if the reader is looking for a particular quote, Ctrl+F allows them to do so. If material is online, I no longer use references beyond searching for the text title, and the specific sentence that I require.

I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. If there is enough demand for print to make it financially sustainable, then there’s no reason to fail to serve the needs of that group of readers. The same goes for the other file formats you mention. Why not instead aim for flexible content that flows into whatever format the reader prefers?

Also, I’ll note that we publish articles as quickly as we can online (“Advance Access”) after acceptance, and they are later placed into issues as space permits. There is still a strikingly large portion of authors who don’t feel their article is officially published until it’s in an issue, and can be cited by volume and page numbers, rather than by DOI. I’m not sure what the psychological barrier is here, but it does exist.


It may have to do with tenure. Also, I think, if memory serves, it has to do with protecting intellectual property in patent cases. This goes back some 20 years…..

I’m not sure what difference that would make. The article is available online, is considered published, and is fully citeable. I think it’s more a matter of being unfamiliar/uncomfortable with DOI’s.

it would be interesting to learn when a tenure committee considers something published and the same for a patent case. I recall a huge tenure case in which the journal said an article was accepted but not yet published and the committee did not take the article into consideration. This was at a major university.

Why walk when you can ride? Insisting on the costly old way when a much better new way is feasible is misguided, particularly since library spending after 1969 was systematically halved by universities that continue to press for more research publishing. Library book collections are suffering — and with them university presses. University press authors are suffering with editions of one or two hundred copies of a book that once would have rated two thousand copies. Certainly serials policies that continue to support printed issues, with waste-of-time check-in and claim functions, are partly at fault — eating up precious resources at the expense of the community at large.

Your definition of “much better” is a subjective one. A recent study showed a remarkable number of clinicians preferred reading print journals over electronic versions, as just one example. For us older folks, the positional memory of a typeset page (remembering a particular figure that was on the top left side of the second page) provides navigational cues that aid recall. So it’s unfair to completely dismiss a particular format that has proven to be highly durable and long lasting (my printed pdf will fare a lot better in the bathtub than your laptop, we have ancient paper documents still intact), highly portable (a piece of paper weighs a lot less than your tablet), and of much higher resolution than most screens.

The choice needs to be left up to the reader or as you note, the library doing the purchasing. If you don’t want to spend the resources necessary to store and check in print, you have that choice. But if any given format has the demand to sustain itself and thrive, then that format should be made available. For many journals, print is a serious profit center. Given the vastly higher rates paid for print advertisements versus online advertisements, I know several journals that, if they dropped the print version, they’d have to drastically raise subscription prices to make up for the lost ad revenue.

Only seven years ago, some of our journal’s readers opined the end of civilization was near when I changed the rules to allow active voice. (“We found…” vs. “It was determined that…”) They got over it, and we’ve continued to change a lot more. The important thing is to provide quality, innovative science. If you do that, the grumbling about format will die down.

“No one goes into research as a career because they love writing papers and arguing with referees”

I think a lot of people do like writing and getting published (I do) but probably not arguing with referees.

PS. I’ve found a trend to making text smaller in the pdfs which I really don’t understand. A lot are hard to read without blowing them up much bigger than fits on a laptop or ipad screen. I don’t get it. By the way, with ipads to read with the A4 style format is fine – anyway, I often just turn the document and my laptop sideways. But typeface was bigger at many publishers when they had to print every copy on paper than it is now. This makes no sense to me.

So I have a question, Joe, about this statement in your response: “One way to view the growth of Gold OA is as a response to the high levels of research being funneled into the small channel of traditional publishing. The traditional publishers failed to note this problem, or if they did note it, they failed to act on it.”

Are you accounting for peer review, which can certainly make the channel smaller? Would that still make traditional publishers failures? And do you have suggestions for ways that traditional publishers can widen their channels?

I would think the largest OA publishers are the traditional houses such as Springer, Elsevier, and T&F. They all now have OA journals and BioMedCentral is one of the largest OA publishers and it is a Springer Company. Thus, the trad houses are enjoying both worlds.

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