When the Internet stormed onto the scene, all bets were off — this revolutionary technology with limitless potential would generate all sorts of creativity, from new article presentations, new forms of peer review, new capabilities, and an end to the status quo. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and it seems little has changed when it comes to our intellectual outputs as well as the general business environment. Papers are still the coin of the realm, and they still have abstracts, titles, authors, and references. The PDF still rules. Author and reference lists are longer, but those are incremental changes. On the business front, large publishers are doing the best of all, new entrants seem destined for consolidation or sale, experiments in peer review have only yielded innovation through elimination as stages of peer review are peeled away to save money and increase throughput, and the article economy is buzzing along at a larger scale but is fundamentally unchanged.
In fact, it seems that rather than diverging through market-specific experiments via technological liberation, we’re becoming increasingly homogenized, as the volume of papers goes up, the pace of processing them increases, and the innovation fevers of the 2000s fade into memory.
There are innovations, of course — there always have been. But the innovations seem to be more on the margins than we once believed they would be. The disruptive innovations we anticipated have been more sustaining innovations, as only a few major new players have emerged while most of the same players have gotten bigger and adapted relatively quickly and ended up doing more of what they were doing to begin with.
We’ve learned a few things about technology in academia in the process:
- Video was once a centerpiece of multimedia innovation, but we’ve learned it is expensive, time-consuming for producers and consumers, and not as portable or efficient as competing formats. There’s still a lot of innovation to be done, surely, but it seems to be at the margins of the core scientific publishing economy.
- Social media was viewed as potentially transformative, but it has been slow to gain much traction, and many players seem to have lost their sheen. Social seems to work marginally well at the edges of academic cultures.
- Podcasts, RSS feeds, and so forth have, again, proven to be nice to have features, but not significantly revolutionary in the end compared to some of the main innovations we’ve seen.
- Blogs have worked here and there, but these good little CMS engines for writers and editors with something to say have blended into the landscape without changing it much.
Each of the innovations above was directed at readers, and did nothing to help academic authors get their work done. Given this, it’s not surprising that the biggest innovations we’ve seen have been around services to authors. These include mega-journals like PLoS ONE, and discovery and sharing services for researchers like Mendeley.
But why would serving authors contribute to a homogenization of efforts? Simply, because author incentives are constrained and direct. Authors want domain-specific prestige, citations, and rapid publication. A journal that seems to provide two out of three of these will be attractive for publication of most papers.
Publishers have traditionally focused on their market of users, but this changed as author voices became more dominant in their cultures. Part of the focus on authors may be one of relative convenience for publishers and editors. The move to digital distribution and the site license have obscured the end-user behind proxy purchasing habits and usage aggregations. For many publishers, librarians and authors now form their main customer contact points. Because there are more authors contacting publishers frequently, their needs dominate. Overcoming the availability effect and proactively getting in touch with readers requires investments and discipline beyond the occasional survey or online poll. Some publishers can’t or don’t pursue these extra efforts.
Innovation is not immune to economics, and the past few years have seen publishers pulling back form adventurous programs as competition has increased, economic latitude has decreased, and the appeal of selling author services has become clearer.
Other factors are contributing to the homogeneity of modern academic publishing, including:
- Increased outsourcing of editorial and composition tasks
- Fewer and less vibrant university publishing programs
- A desire to control technology costs
- A lower tolerance for risk
- Decelerated growth across major market segments
- Downstream homogeneity in indexing and licensing services acting as constraints on upstream creativity
- Less confidence in the overall direction and reliability of current business models
- More demands to deal with scale, leading to innovations like ORCid and CrossRef
We may be in a rut, one formed by many forces — our increasing focus on authors as customers; expensive technology and human resources; diminished markets; and vertical integration constraints. Fundamentally, the technology may have changed, but the academic culture has only become more enamored with citations, impact factors, publication, and productivity measures. There is more science, more competition, and more pressure driving authors to seek relief from publishers. There is less incentive for divergence from the pack. These clear requirements reward a homogenized solution.
It seems odd that the new technologies of the Internet may actually have created less variety in our publishing practices. It’s explicable, but unanticipated.