Dylan Tweney, the editor-in-chief of VentureBeat, has news for us, and the headline on his article from “Dylan’s Desk” states it bluntly: “Watch this multi-billion-dollar industry evaporate overnight.

You see, according to Tweney, our industry is:

. . . about to be blown wide open by much more open, Internet-based publishers.

Tweney proceeds to repeat a litany of irrelevant economic principles (he needs to read “How Economics Shapes Science“) and devalues the work and value of publishers in a way that has all the hallmarks of the business radicalism of 1998.

Doomed planet
Doomed. Image via Contactlevy.

Let this listing of assessments and assertions give you a flavor for his all-too-familiar, all-too-glib, and all-too-easily-refuted facts and reasoning.

  1. Open access (OA) publishers are new. PLOS is Tweney’s most direct OA example, and that organization is well over a decade old. Other long-in-the-tooth OA initiatives — arXiv and Academia.edu — are featured as if they are brand spanking new, when actually they’ve settled into the ecosystem in quite static positions at this point.
  2. OA publishers aren’t profit machines. Au contraire, mon frere. PLOS has double-digit profit margins, and Hindawi is reputed to be even more profitable. Springer acquired BioMed Central for its cash flows, and so forth. There are some major success stories in OA publishing. Which brings us to the next point.
  3. OA publishers are “mounting a full-frontal assault on a multi-billion-dollar industry and replacing it with something that makes much, much less money.” Not according to the data, Mr. Tweney. From the RCUK data, we learn that the large publishers are dominating OA and commanding higher per-article charges. The “full-frontal assault” has been stemmed, the invaders’ tactics appropriated, and the culture changed. There is no war. There is generally peace.

Academia.edu (which is not an .edu in the strict sense of the term) is the focus of much of Tweney’s praise. But while he dismisses what publishers provide as far as imprimatur, filtering, and process, he also fails to catch the highly correlated problem with the value proposition he accepts for Academia.edu:

[Richard] Price also hasn’t quite figured out how to make money from Academia.edu’s millions of members and papers. He figures that once the site reinvents peer review, it can charge universities and corporations for access to the short list of most-credible papers in any given field.

I love the friendly “quite” inserted between “hasn’t” and “figured out how to make money” — as if Price is within a hair’s breadth of a breakthrough, despite working on the problem for more than six years. Moreoever, Tweney accepts that Price plans on making money through peer review and charging universities and corporations for access to filtered papers with Academia.edu’s imprimatur — in other words, by reinventing the wheel.

Of course, Tweney says of this “new” era of online publishing:

It will become a classic case study in technological disruption.

On the heels of the recent skewering of Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation framework, Tweney’s arguments have an even more dated and surreal quality to them.

After 15 years of seeing innovation in our industry, it’s clear that change is much more nuanced, controllable, and predictable than Silicon Valley would have us believe. Seismic changes are rare, and smart companies see them coming. Big companies have resources to absorb change, scale change, and respond to change in ways that cement their positions. Our industry is less disrupted in some ways than ever before, and the future seems to have the tables tilted away from a diverse and disordered landscape and more toward centralization and leverage.

That’s where 15 years of change has brought our industry. Are we going to keep betting on disruption? Is that the smart money?

In another instance of cherry-picked facts to bolster assertions of disruption, Tweney fails to mention an obvious venture-backed peer-reviewed journal play — PeerJ — which has not exactly decimated the competition. If disruptive journals are poised to easily reconfigure a multi-billion-dollar industry, why has the sole venture-backed journal failed to be more than a modest presence in the market?

All this talk of disruption and inevitability in the face of profitable market consolidation and sensible strategic appropriation is to me reminiscent of the poker wisdom — if you don’t know who the “pigeon” is at the poker table, it’s probably you.

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.


13 Thoughts on "This Just In from the 1990s — We’re Doomed, Doomed, Doomed, Sayeth the Editor of VentureBeat"

I am constantly reminded of a conversation I had with a college professor who had just gotten his laptop. It was an early machine and it sat proudly on his desk. I was making editorial calls and he informed me that I should go home and seek new employment because his laptop would soon provide instant access to all the worlds knowledge and there was really no need for textbooks.

Sadly after some five years he was gone because he didn’t get tenure.

I am constantly amazed at how fast the human race absorbs new technology, discards the worthless and moves on to newer technology. I don’t really understand the concept of disruption. I understand adopt, adapt and absorb. It happens in such a natural manner that as a species we don’t even know it is happening.

To think I saw pressmen go from lead plate to pinking sheers to transferring type to front page via computer technology. The only change is in the size of the bicep!

What a wonderful species we are.

I mentioned it yesterday, but this quote from the Jill Lepore New Yorker article says a lot about attitudes and psychology, both of which factor into how we talk about change:

“The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.”

Harvey, I agree with your attitude, which is much more optimistic/realistic/empirical.

A fine example of the gushing hype that too often marks the venture world. The idea that millions of researchers are suddenly going to pay for what they now get for free, namely publication, is very strange when you think about it. Gold OA probably has a place, once the fad passes, but that place may not be large. Mandated delayed access is another story.

David, actually, there are some disciplines with page charges, some of them quite hefty. And those disciplines researches don’t publish for free.

Still, millions do, Scott. The point is to try to get the scale of the speculated changes. Nothing will happen “overnight” at this scale.

There is a Forbes article from 1995 that is basically the same as this, but more balanced because the journalist actually interviewed people from Reed Elsevier (as it was then known). Ginsparg and Harnad were saying that the days of the big publishers were numbered; Reed Elsevier doubted a rout was imminent.

Who was right? It’s been nearly 20 years since that was published.

There have been huge changes since 1995 (when the Web really began) but clearly no rout, and none in sight, just purposeful adaptation. This I think is your basic point. Moreover, the delayed access mandate in the US Public Access program may do a lot to blunt the drive for Gold OA. I was talking to a Society publisher this morning and was told that their librarians are content to get a 12 month embargo period, SPARC to the contrary notwithstanding.

The fellow who wrote this clearly has no understanding of academic culture at all.

Typically, we underestimate the tenacity of those who prefer the status quo and the sloth of those who have adapted to it but might benefit from a different future. Digital could have and may still “disrupt” the status quo in scholarly publishing but digital is only a necessary condition, not a necessary and sufficient condition. Marshall Poe hits the nail on the head when he points to academic culture as the real source of power and powerlessness.

I suggest that the fundamental social systems of science and scholarship do not persist because of tenacity and sloth. What some dismiss as (mere) culture is actually a deeply fundamental system. Such systems are not restructured by hand waving.

The “d” word. I’ll be happy if I never see or hear it used in this context again–especially where it applies to publishing by folks from the tech world. Most folks don’t understand that tech and publishing have been working together, years ahead of the general public. Yes, sometimes publishers are too slow to change–so they lose a year or two or three within a 500 year history, and usually not losing market share if the whole market is slow to change. They are usually busy shepherding ongoing projects at the same time they are planning new strategy for new editions or taking advantage of tech for existing editions. The market is often adjusting in the meantime. A software company cannot roll out a brand new type of industry changing program or new version of a program very quickly, yet they never equate that level of project to the fact that publishers may have hundreds or thousands of these projects aka books, happening everyday.Another buzzword I hear too often lately from the innovative venture funded set is “failure”. They can afford to fail. Just a rehash of the proverb–If you do not succeed, try, try again. Is it MachoSpeak for the Millennial tech set? Not only do folks not understand the academic marketplace but how about K-12 where it varies state to state. They do not consider the effects of taxpayer money on markets as well as effects of policy, politics and the economy, as well as the business cycles. Textbooks and associated materials are not the same as typical consumer products.

This just briefly illustrates one of the points mentioned in my earlier comment. Just read an article about the fact that it will take Mozilla 2 years to build the platform for the new reply segment for NYT and Washington Post. Publishing a new book or new edition, let alone updating pedagogy or platform takes just as long, but is somehow less acceptable when the product development and production originates from publishers (usually at very cost effective wages)..

“From RCUK data, we learn that the large publishers are dominating OA and commanding higher per-article charges.”

The link is actually to Wellcome Trust data. I don’t disagree with the general premise but but funding agencies such as Wellcome are going to start limiting what they will pay towards APCs so the ability of established subscription based publishers to charge significantly higher APCs is likely to be limited.

“PeerJ — which has not exactly decimated the competition. If disruptive journals are poised to easily reconfigure a multi-billion-dollar industry, why has the sole venture-backed journal failed to be more than a modest presence in the market?”

The simple obvious answer is PeerJ has only been around a year and a half and doesn’t even have an impact factor yet. In four or five years we will see how disruptive PeerJ will be.

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