“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
— Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”
Over the past few years, the signals have become unmistakable — the Internet rewards scale. The economics of online business are skewed heavily toward commoditized and standardized approaches to shopping, social media, and search, and set heavily against redundant and non-scaling efforts that require craft and care.
For smaller publishers, especially domain-specific non-profits, this is not good news, because scale appears destined to affect scholarly publishing in fundamental ways, as well.
The emergence of mega-journals is one sign that the Internet’s natural models reward scale. While small journals languish, mega-journals thrive. And traditional approaches to scale seem to have a functional counterpart — no longer must a publisher negotiate deals with five dozen different societies to achieve scale. Now, by offering decent branding, a citable output, a market-appropriate price, and a high acceptance rate, a relatively new entrant can publish as many papers in a year in one mega-journal as some mid-sized publishing companies do across dozens of titles.
There are other ways to achieve scale online, of course. Some publishers are making the process of establishing and launching new journals very efficient. And while this is possible for commercial entities with no natural boundaries emanating from mission statements or society constituencies, organizations possessing boundaries are at a clear disadvantage.
Big data is another sign that scale is going to be the theme driving the future of publishing. Data acquisition, curation, presentation, and preservation work best if there are large sets to wrangle — the expense and effort involved with managing the first set of data well truly pays off when you have the millionth set. A few dozen sets of data will not reward the effort. Scale is required, not optional, for success in data businesses.
The structural challenge facing non-profit publishers is significant. This challenge emanates from their missions, which generally circumscribe their efforts to a limited audience. This limits their ability to scale on terms the Internet’s inherent architecture favors. Already, the feeling of being sidelined is making alignment with major publishers more appealing for many societies who were succeeding well as publishers in the pre-Internet age. It may seem to have taken a long time for this to occur, but it’s occurring more rapidly all of a sudden, from what I can see. The economic downturn has had a lot to do with it — fewer ad dollars, lower institutional price increases if any at all, and so forth. Smaller players are seeking to add their wagon to a set of already circled wagons. Leaders are either explicitly or intuitively sensing that the time may have come.
Small publishers have tended to provide the greatest value on the market — lower prices for better content, generally. This shift will have major effects on pricing at the least, and bigger bundles will only leave the laggards more exposed. The direction seems clearly established by the fundamental pressure to scale.
Unless there is a major (and I mean, major) change in the economics and trends in scholarly and scientific publishing, we are not going to unbake this cake. Scale will win, and it has been winning all along anyhow. Those unable to scale will realize they can’t beat ’em, so they’ll join ’em. The big will get bigger. The small will be swallowed up or vanish altogether. No current trend or innovation will change this.
Will this be better or worse for scientists? That’s harder to judge. More commoditized approaches to research outputs will be part of the future. That may make it easier to publish, allow for significant innovation around data aggregation and presentation, and improve discoverability. Or it may not. It may instead simply reveal deeper structural problems in the financing of research publication, problems scale exacerbates.
In any event, the future direction seems to have been set years ago. Now, without a robust and diversified niche publishing economy that allows us to pretend it was otherwise, stark reality seems closer than ever — scale will win. It may be that simple.