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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.