Ho, hum. Another day in the world of research journals publishing.
For all the talk of disruptive technology, it’s hard to find evidence of it anywhere. This is true not just of journals publishing, whose arc for the next several years seems clear, but for most other publishing segments as well. The K-12 publishing business continues to be dominated by three giants, and is likely to continue to be dominated by them in the foreseeable future. What disruption that has taken place in K-12 has not been technological in nature; the biggest disruption is the growing reluctance to fund public education, but you hardly need a computer to know that people don’t like to pay taxes. Trade publishers are supposed to be doomed, doomed, doomed. Meanwhile, they grow modestly and make more money than before, as they reap the higher margins that ebooks make possible. I can’t imagine that any trade publisher likes Amazon’s growing dominance, but for all the news, the fact is that Amazon has disrupted other retailers, not publishers. The college publishing area seems ready to implode, but it hasn’t: the same five publishers continue to generate the vast majority of revenue, and those same publishers are now using digital technology to license campus-wide access to their texts, augmenting their market share and driving a stake into the heart of the used-book market.
Yes, there are disrupted segments. Reference publishing is a fraction of what it used to be (I write as the former CEO of Encyclopaedia Britannica), and anything supported by advertising continues to suffer as the huge inventory available to advertisers on the Internet has driven prices down. Nor should we expect the disruption to stop there. But for now at least, it hasn’t really penetrated to the heart of the revenue streams of the other segments. Journals publishing continues to grow modestly every year, even before taking the additive revenue from the Gold OA services into account. It’s a mature business, not a disrupted one. And for those who need more persuading, please see Michael Clarke’s excellent Kitchen post on this subject from three years ago. I repeat: Michael wrote this three years ago.
So if there has been no significant technological disruption of journals publishing, why is everyone running around as though it were the end of the world? In part this is because people don’t distinguish between disruptive technologies and sustaining technologies, but it’s also because for many people, any kind of change is a disruption. You used to have a workflow that generated PDFs at the end, which were then used for print editions and were also mounted on a Web site. Now — horrors! — you are told that the PDF is not enough. You need HTML and you need a format-agnostic workflow. So you make some investments, you may switch some vendors, and some staff may be shown to the door. None of this is fun, but it is not disruptive to the business. It may be disruptive to the vendor that lost the account and it surely is disruptive to people who are dismissed, but the same old business continues on its way, sour expression in its face, receiving 85% of its revenues from academic libraries as it has for years.
Most innovations are in fact sustaining innovations, and most of them are cooked up by established companies; the largest are the most innovative of all. We tend to overlook this because of our cultural bias, at least in the U.S., which regards any large, established organization as an incarnation of Stalin working deviously to raise the price of apple pie. O, give us the lonesome cowboy any day, who rides into town and shoots up the cabal of bankers and thieves! Cowboy-infested PubGet gives us an entirely new view of how to discover and manage academic materials, and no established publisher dreamed it up. Mendeley created a huge community for the sharing and management of scientific documents, a posse of cowboys until the very end. But now Mendeley is part of Elsevier and PubGet has been acquired by CCC. Our cultural bias gets in the way of the facts on the ground, which are not romantic — the big get bigger, the big coopt technological innovations, the big continue to derive 85% of their revenues from academic libraries.
One would think that the new Gold OA services would be disruptive, and ultimately they may be. In the meantime, however, the money flowing into them is mostly additive. That is, as predicted, the amount of money expended on scholarly communications is rising, not despite the growth of OA publishing but because of it. What makes Gold OA a very special kind of business activity is that it derives much of its revenue from a new source, authors or authors’ sponsors. OA publishing, at least of the Gold variety, differs from traditional publishing in many ways, but this, the new market, is the biggest difference of all.
So we have the sustaining technologies of the established publishers on one hand, the potentially disruptive technologies of Gold OA on the other. Over the next several years, though, these two paradigms are not likely to battle each other directly, much like China and the U.S. eyeing each other warily but stopping short of full and violent confrontation. A forecast for 3-5 years for academic journals puts the market at its current size or perhaps a wee bit bigger, with growth largely coming from Asia and perhaps Eastern Europe. That market is likely to be dominated by today’s leading players unless one buys another. In other words, in research publishing it’s going to be the same old same old for some time to come. And this is because for all the appeal of Gold OA, there is at this time no group of librarians from the major research institutions who are meeting with their provosts to recommend a 30% cut in their materials budgets, nor are provosts meeting privately to come up with ways to make comparable cuts over the librarians’ objections. The nature of institutional markets is resistant to radical change, and that resistance is precisely what the large commercial publishers feed on.
Meanwhile, Gold OA is growing and will continue to grow. The traditional publishers can only dream of growing so fast — and that is why so many of them are determined to coopt Gold OA publishing with services of their own. Over the 3-5 year timeframe we have two markets: the traditional one, served as before, and the Gold OA market, which forms a ring around the traditional market, adding to total expenditures but not fundamentally altering the prospects of the larger established firms.
What could change this are the new mandates for OA publishing coming from philanthropic associations and government funding agencies. (University OA mandates are the least disruptive as they add or deflect little or no publishing revenue.) Even by the ordinarily low standards of government policy, the recently announced OSTP requirements for the dissemination of scientific information are poorly thought out, but they are what they are and publishers will have to work with them. The new mandates will generate a flood of Gold OA papers, and there will be many, many new services to accept them. This in itself will not undermine the large traditional publishers (who are seeking to start services of their own), but there could be a fall-off in the number of papers submitted to established publications, and some of these papers may be very good indeed. This could lead to lower impact factors, and that in turn could lead libraries to view some traditional journals with greater skepticism. But even in this case it’s hard to imagine libraries making drastic cuts to their own budgets.
So all that sustaining technology is really about staying in place. The mature, traditional business goes on, dominated by the usual suspects, but it does not grow significantly. It would be better if the people working in these companies spent less time worrying about disruption and more time thinking about why something like Mendeley had to be incubated on the outside.