"Are you being served?"
“Are you being served?”

Editor’s Note: Last week, Kent Anderson wrote a post that skewered many common misconceptions about journal publishing. It was a reminder of the vexingly long lifespan of these incorrect notions, often perpetuated by advocates looking to score emotional points rather than provide a factual analysis of a situation. One similar misconception that I see frequently is the notion that journal authors “work for free”, or that journal publishers are selling material that they are given at no cost.

Whenever I see statements along these lines, I immediately know the author of the article I’m reading either doesn’t understand the nature of journal publishing, or is more interested in fiery progagandizing than in rational discourse. In short, journals provide services required by academic authors (namely Dissemination, Registration, Validation, Filtration and Designation, not to mention many other useful things). In our digital age, an author could do many of these things themselves, but given time constraints placed on most academics, it makes more sense to outsource these activities to specialists, freeing the researcher to spend time on research, rather than on tracking down tardy peer reviewers or checking references.

The work done to provide these services must be paid for in some manner. One of the most attractive things about gold open access is that it makes this into a straightforward transaction, the author pays a fee for services rendered. In the subscription model, the author receives the services for no monetary charge and pays via granting the publisher a set of rights around the material, essentially the right to resell the content to others in order to recoup expenses spent publishing it.

To be fair then, a more accurate description of the process is that  the author gets an expensive set of necessary services performed for no monetary fee, and the publisher provides the services, free of charge, in exchange for a chance to make some money off of the final content produced. The author is, without a doubt, not giving anything away for free.

It gets confusing because the way the publisher attempts to recoup the expenses spent on performing the services is through the sale of a product. That’s where the misconceptions come in–for the reader/librarian, journals are a product being purchased, for the author, they’re a service being purchased. Are journals a product, created through the provision of free services in return for resale rights, or are journals a service which is paid for by selling the resulting product? Your answer likely depends on where you are in the authorship/readership chain at a given moment, which reminded me of this 2012 post, asking our blog authors about these sorts of questions.

This month’s “Ask the Chef” question is fundamental, so the answers are generally both vexed and brief:

Are we a service industry or a product industry?

There is plenty of room for interpretation here — who are “we”? what is a service? what is a product?

Let the responses begin!

Joe Esposito: An economist would define a services industry as one that trades in intangible goods. Don’t take my word for it; you can look it up in the Wikipedia. Since the publishing industry trades in intangible goods, it is a services industry. That should be the end of the story, but the reason that this question of services vs. products keeps coming up is that people have multiple notions of what services are. Most commonly in publishing, a services company is distinguished from a content company.  AAS creates and markets content, but works with HighWire to host and deliver that content. In this scenario, HighWire is a services company. This is really a rhetorical debate about the meaning of “services.”

Rick Anderson: It seems to me that in the print realm, publishing is both a service and a product industry: it provides authors a service and provides readers a product. The more completely publishing moves online, though, the more it turns into a pure service industry. The service to authors remains roughly the same; for readers, the change is that they’re now buying the service of hosted access rather than a product that changes hands. The exception is when electronic files are actually transferred to the buyer and hosted locally rather than kept and served out by the publisher. In that case, the transaction is functionally the same as under the old print model — only the format has changed.

David Wojick: Product industries provide services and service industries provide products so the distinction is relatively relative. Even a steel mill has to meet specs and delivery schedules, which are not products. Engineers deliver drawings, which are not services. Publishing is really a third thing. Publishing has a product, but it also provides services, not to its customers, but rather to its suppliers, who give away their produce. But even the product, which is expressed thought, is more characteristic of a service. But it is not the publishers thought that is expressed. (No wonder we are all confused.)  In short neither the producer nor the service provider model works very well for scholarly publishing. I like the contest model myself. Is a contest a service? But then there is the communication aspect. And the payoff for winning comes from elsewhere. I give up.

Ann Michael: In my opinion, products tend to be discrete, often immutable, packages or bundles.  The creator of a product is defining, crafting and delivering those containers of content in a few standard variations with limited options for personalization or customization. Often a custom delivery means the customer choses Bundle B over Bundle A or perhaps selects an “add-on.” Services are fluid, variable, and customizable. There is still content being purchased, or partially provided for free, but the breadth, depth, and pieces within that transaction can vary.  Just like in any other service industry, there can be self-service as well. The customer can decide, at a more granular level, exactly what they want and how they want to use it. Which of these scenarios sounds more like your business? More important, which sounds more like what your customers are requesting, even expecting? While it can be argued that publishing is both a product and a service industry, I believe publishers will be far more successful with a service mentality.  A service mentality requires us to focus on the customer and their goals. It also requires us to take a holistic view of what value we provide specific user groups: researchers, authors, reviewers, practitioners, educators, etc.  The service is the entire experience through which the customer interacts with content and a publishing brand. As a result, the services that publishersprovide are becoming more inseparable from technology every day.  Does that mean that publishers need to be the source of all technology innovation? Not necessarily.  It does mean that, at minimum, they need to be expert at appropriately applying technology to content in a manner that produces compelling value for their target audiences. Publishing is now a content and technology services industry.

Kent Anderson: I think we’re a service industry that produces products, or a product industry that produces services — if that’s not too Zen for you. What you charge for (the services or the products) defines your business model. For instance, traditional publishers charge for products — discrete, time-bounded subscriptions; measurable distribution to a measurable audience for advertising; and so forth. Service is part of product support, but a background activity. If you flip the model, and charge for services and not the product, then you have things like blogging platforms, open access publishing, or a library. These provide services that can perceived as free because the product — a blog, an OA article, or utilization of library resources — is perceived as free, even though indirectly it’s paid for somehow. So just as traditional publishing is product-based with a service backdrop, OA publishing, for instance, is service-based with a product backdrop.

David Crotty: I’m going to take the cop out answer here and answer “Yes” to both. To quote Cameron Neylon from our recent interview, “We have traditionally bundled lots of functions together in the organizations we call ‘publishers’,” and that diverse bundle includes both products and services.

Scholarly book publishers are, without a doubt, based around creating products. The genesis for most books starts with an acquisition editor, who starts with a raw idea and turns it into a final physical (and digital) product. Some percentage of scholarly books do come in “over the transom,” but the majority, in my experience in the life sciences, are plotted out from scratch. The editor carefully plans and commissions content, content which wouldn’t exist without the book. The endpoint is a collection of material sold as a product.

Scholarly journal publishers are perhaps more of a service industry. As many are quick to point out, technology has reached a point where researchers can do for themselves much of what a publisher offers. The question is why they would want to spend their valuable time doing such mundane work. Researchers, scientists in particular, do an enormous amount of outsourcing. Their job is discovery, doing experiments, learning new things. As such, they pay someone to wash the test tubes in the lab rather than doing it themselves, because that’s time and effort taken away from experimentation.

Many labs buy pre-mixed solutions that they could spend the time to make from scratch themselves at a lower cost, and much of biology is dominated by kits, prefabricated sets of reagents for performing a particular assay, again, faster, but much more expensive than making everything yourself. Labs farm out common activities like sequencing DNA, making constructs, breeding flies, or making transgenic mice. This is all done so researcher time can be concentrated on the cutting edge of garnering new knowledge.

And that’s where journal publishers come in. We provide a set of necessary services for the communication of results. These are often tedious and time-consuming services, and like the dishwasher, the sequencing center, or even the campus plumber, we are paid to do the necessary things in order to free up a researcher’s time to do research.

One can certainly argue over which of the services provided are necessary or worth outsourcing, and we’re currently going through an era where technology is both opening up new types of services and making older ones obsolete.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


34 Thoughts on "Stick To Your Ribs: Ask the Chefs: “Are We a Service Industry Or a Product Industry?”"

Being a non-pecuniary transaction, there is a good deal of opportunity to obfuscate or simply misunderstand the terms. What is truly necessary in the bundle of services afforded the author? Does the cost of that bundle square with the monetary return to the publisher or are profits excessive? How can one fairly and accurately evaluate this bartering?

Outside of price gouging in a distressed market such as after a natural disaster, I have no idea what an excessive profit is.

Should a company be punished for increasing efficiency in their supply chain or taking advantage of economies of scale? These things increase profitability.

One recent flawed study shows that the much derided Elsevier actually offers lower journal bundling prices than most of its commercial competitors*:

*The caveat here is that the authors, for some reason, have chosen cost per citation as their metric of choice. It’s unclear the value or meaning of this metric in this context, and perhaps more importantly, it puts publishers that focus more on Humanities or Social Sciences at a disadvantage, as these fields generally don’t yield as many citations as the Sciences.

Consider the net profit margins reported by dominating publishers and compare those percentages to other service or product industries. Makes Apple look like a low-profit company. Dominating publishers are a bit beyond merely being efficient, and much of their profits and shareholder dividends are generated by academic labor and budgets, not simply publisher scale and efficiency.

Do you have an example Neil? We did some analysis of Elsevier in a comment discussion here a while back and the actual profit margin was around 10-12 %, which is quite reasonable, The great profits cited by OA advocates are due to a misunderstanding of corporate accounting. Specifically Elsevier is an operating company in a larger corporation so many of the parent corporate costs are not included in the operating company’s reports, such as debt service. This is a common accounting practice but it can be misleading.

Greetings David, I look at operating profit margins. All multinationals of course tend to operate with parent structures, not just large publishers, so it’s sort of an even playing field or no?

I realize that operating profit leaves out items, but these vary company to company. I think operating profit margin is a good tool for comparison (I admit I haven’t read the discussion you mention)

I don’t understand what ‘profit margin’ has to do with the question. A simple comparison of price/page or price/article clearly demonstrates that commercial publishers achieve excess profit.

Profit is defined as the amount left over when expenses are subtracted from revenue. How do you intend to determine “excess profit” or really anything whatsoever about profit without knowing either of these factors? Price tells you little in this question.

When you discuss comparable products, a higher price is generally an indication of ‘excess profit’. However, in this case, it is often an inferior product at a higher price which suggests an excessive ‘excess profit’.

I can’t tell if you’re trolling or if you really have no sense whatsoever of what the word “profit” means. Let me give you a hypothetical.

Publisher A publishes one journal, 10 articles per year. These articles are painstakingly reviewed and professionally edited. They are edited for language and the journal uses professional statistical and mathematical editors to make sure all equations and analyses are accurate. The articles go through several rounds of peer review. The articles are run through a text plagiarism analysis as well as software to analyze images for manipulation. The articles are carefully typeset into a highly readable design, with high resolution color figures, and the online journal offers a wide host of capabilities–semantic tagging, inline multimedia figures, a layman’s summary is written and a visual abstract is prepared by professional illustrators. The journal costs $1000 per year to subscribe to, so $100 per paper. They sell 10 subscriptions and bring in $10,000 total. The journal costs $20,000 per year to produce, so they lose $10,000 per year.

Publisher B publishes 10 journals, each including 100 articles per year. The articles are quickly glanced at by an unpaid intern, and the word files are converted into pdf’s and published with no further editing. Each journal costs $100 to subscribe to, so $1 per article, and they sell 100 subscriptions to each journal, bringing in a total of $100,000 per year. All of the journals together cost $10,000 to produce. The publisher thus earns $90,000 per year.

Which publisher makes an “excessive profit”? Can you tell solely by looking at the subscription price of the journal ($1,000 versus $100)?

Can you define “excessive”?

Hopefully we can rise above silly hypothetical examples and talk about the real world. Major society publishers make a small ‘profit’ on their journals, while pricing them reasonably. Major commercial publishers, make excessive an ‘excessive profit’ on their journals, because they price comparable journals at a significantly higher level. Since both are presumably operating as ‘Publisher A’ in your example, it seems self-evident that commercial publishers are making a ‘excessive profit’. A narrow textbook definition of profit doesn’t account for pricing that is unrelated to expenses … which is the definition of ‘excessive profit’.

This just isn’t true. The profits in journal publishing disproportionately come from the number of journals published. It’s a matter of scale. In fact, Elsevier (with which I have no connection whatsoever) actually brings in LESS money per article than the average. It’s all well and good to beat up on the big guys, but don’t facts count for anything around here? May I remind everyone that this is SCIENTIFIC publishing we are talking about?

You don’t know what you are talking about! Your comments are out of line and have no basis in fact. Some societies make an enormous profit off of their publishing program and others don’t ditto for commercial publishers.

I’m willing to get beyond silly hypotheticals if you’re willing to get beyond uninformed speculation and naïve guessing games. Please provide accurate profit figures for individual journals, otherwise you’re just making things up to fit your pre-determined narrative.

Here are some real world comparable journals and their prices:
Journal of Neuroscience: $3,847 (Institutional price,US, 20K seats)
Cortex: $2,229 (Institutional price, US, 20K seats)
Neuron: $3,295 (Institutional price,US, 20K seats)
Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews $3,578 (Institutional price,US, 20K seats)

How much profit does each of these journals make? Which of these journals makes an excessive profit? You can’t answer because it is impossible for you to determine the level of profit those societies or publishers earn merely by looking at their prices. You don’t know their costs nor do you know their circulation. You are attempting to magically pull numbers out of thin air.

A narrow textbook definition of profit doesn’t account for pricing that is unrelated to expenses … which is the definition of ‘excessive profit’.

This definition makes no sense. If I ignore my expenses and price my journal at a level where I lose money, that would fit your definition of “excessive profit”.

This discussion might benefit from a little higher level of sophistication … obviously comparing subscription prices tells you very little. However, subscription price and the number of articles published by comparable journals can be very instructive. J. Neuroscience with a subscription price of $3847, 1869 published articles in 2013, and a five year IF = 7.9 … and surely not operating at a net loss … sets the mark for journals in this field at about $2 per published article. Comparing this with the commercially published journals … whose price/article is at least ~3 times as much … is very suggestive of ‘excessive profit’.

This discussion might benefit from a little higher level of sophistication … obviously comparing subscription prices tells you very little.

Glad to see that you now realize that when you stated, “A simple comparison of price/page or price/article clearly demonstrates that commercial publishers achieve excess profit,” you were making an unsophisticated statement and that in reality, it does not clearly demonstrate anything. I’m happy we have been able to make this clear to you.

Comparing this with the commercially published journals … whose price/article is at least ~3 times as much … is very suggestive of ‘excessive profit’.

Sigh. Again, it is suggestive of nothing of the sort unless you know that the costs per article are equivalent.

Even the costs don’t tell you anything. There is no such thing as excess profit. There is such a thing a high value. That is what people pay for. If the profit were excessive, people wouldn’t pay for the product.

I sometimes feel that I am talking to a fence post. Given today’s technology, is there any rational reason not to assume the ‘cost’ of publishing an article is equivalent for both society and commercial publishers?

dzrlib: do you know anything about business? have you ever been in a position of responsibility in a business?

I am beginning to think that you are a troll. Are you?

Journal A charges $2 per article, Journal B charges $4 per article. Journal A costs $100 per year to publish, Journal B costs $10,000 per year to publish. Journal A sells 50,000 annual subscriptions, Journal B sells 10 annual subscriptions. Which journal makes an excess profit? If one looks solely at the price per article, the answer must be Journal B, even if it runs at a net loss.

Ah good, I think we’ve found the fundamental basis of your misunderstanding. There are enormous differences in the costs that different journals incur in publishing an article. A few examples:

Does the journal employ its own editor and editorial board? Does the journal pay those editors an honorarium or are they working as volunteers. Often a society journal will have volunteer society members serving as the editorial board, while a commercially-owned journal often pays a significant sum to editors. eLife pays its editor in chief $150,000 per year, where some society owned journals I’ve worked with pay their editors around a $10K honorarium per year (some pay nothing at all).

What is the journal’s online publishing platform? Does the publisher own the platform or is the publisher outsourcing this and paying for use of the platform? How sophisticated is the platform? What technologies does it include (integration of each, maintenance of each, updating of each must be paid for).

What system does the journal use for submissions? Is it owned (and must be paid for creation, maintenance and upgrades) or is it outsourced and paid for through regular fees?

Does the journal copyedit articles? What level of copyediting does the journal do? How much time and effort is spent on this? Does the journal employ statistical and mathematical editors? Who pays for this?

Does the journal do any plagiarism checking? Image manipulation checking? Each of these has costs both in terms of paying for the services and software used, as well as editorial time required.

Does the journal do things like creating visual abstracts for authors? Video abstracts? Each of these has costs.

More importantly, one must consider economies of scale. The more articles you publish, and the more journals you publish, the more you can share costs and do things economically. If you have one journal and employ a copyeditor, that one journal pays the entire cost of that copyeditor. If you have 10 journals and employ a copyeditor, each journal pays 1/10 of his salary. Paper is a lot cheaper to buy in bulk, as are most services (much of the outsourced software and services listed above for example, are vastly cheaper on a per-journal basis if you’re buying them for 500 journals than if you’re buying them for 5 journals).

I’ve worked at not-for-profit university presses of very different sizes. When I worked at a small press, our costs were high, and so our prices were relatively high, and very little profit was realized. When I have worked at the large end of the spectrum, we could charge much lower prices but due to economies of scale, make much larger profits than the little guys.

That’s what I’ve been trying to say all along. The prices charged tell you very little about the profits made. You also must consider the circulation. If I run the journal of all life sciences and sell 50,000 subscriptions, I can charge a lower price and make a higher profit than if I run the journal of extremely rare and specific research which only appeals to 100 subscribers.

Thanks David for the nice tutorial on the varieties of publishing … However, let’s hark back to my original assumption … namely that we are comparing generally equivalent products. A good example is the difference between Organic Letters and Tetrahedron Letters. Here are their:
2013 price – 2013 articles – 2013 pages – 2009-2013 Impact Factor
Organic Letters — $3728 – 1584 – 6,772 — 5.6
Tet. Letters — $16,773 — 1,709 — 7,206 – 2.4
I understand that TL probably costs more to publish … but 4 times as much for a demonstrably inferior product suggests that there might be some excessive profit … which could be explained by artificially inflating costs with expenses unrelated to the journals’ publication?

In what way are profits out of line for other industries?

Perhaps you can supply some figures.


Regarding who are the overworked academics? All of them are overworked. Think not? Just spend one week with on a major campus. When do they have time to do peer review? Most reviews are late and one spends hours hounding the reviewer for his/her review. I had a list of some 100 potential reviewers for each topic and would go through the list trying to find three!

It seems to me that the sudden interest politicians have in science is a direct result of the election of ignorant religious right wingers who want to make sure creation science is getting its due! Witness the up-roar over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show on Discover. For the most part little in science has value until it becomes applied to some “real world” problem. Otherwise it just contributes to our understanding of the world about us weather we are interested or not. Nevertheless, at some point some scientific discovery may just change our world view – witness Copernicus.

Regarding your point 5. Very few if any dissertations are published without extensive rewrites and additional material.

I wonder which universities are naive?

Let us dismiss David’s straw man argument that academic time is too valuable as we can dismiss the earlier video about the cost of e-books vs print books. It’s a fabrication as misdirection.

As has been pointed out, above, book publishers acquire properties either by seeking property or taking what comes over the transom. They provide curation and marketing to package the raw product and gain sales. That effort is designed to make a profit out of which the party providing the property receives a return, also. If the publisher markets the book as at a loss, then s/he needs to determine how to cover that negative cash flow or go out of business. That the author and the publisher together create value for P/T if an academic is involved, is an externality, not monetized.

Journals are a bit different for historic reasons originally around collegial exchanges. It is the academics who basically curate the submitted articles, often for no or token payment. Supposedly these are “peers” who take their too valuable time to perform the task. The publisher places the content in the hands of those over worked peers. There are similarities with book publishers where there is a need to produce (click or brick) the journal, recover a small portion of their expenses in the curating process and incurring the large expenses the same as a book publisher.

And here is the rub. Unlike book authors, there is no sharing of the profits where margins can far exceed the margins for book sales. In fact, it is understood that academic publishers use the margins on journals to cover books. And, as recently shown, the sale of journal bundles to various libraries should evoke caveat emptor.

In the STM area, if anything, the academics have farmed out the responsibility in their departments for their professional evaluation of their colleagues to journals as their surrogate. As the old punch line says, “we are just arguing about price”.

Strawman? While you may not agree with what I’ve said, I don’t think it qualifies as a strawman:
“A straw man, also known in the UK as an Aunt Sally,is a common type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on the misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument.”

Can you point out whose argument I’m misrepresenting when I state that academic researchers are pressed for time? Do you have a lot of spare time? Do you outsource any activities in your laboratory? Should we summarily dismiss your arguments about journal profits because you have only provided one inaccurate profit figure from one outlying company?

To better understand the return academics receive for their journal articles, I’d suggest reading Paula Stephan’s excellent book reviewed here:
Stephan was also interviewed on this blog here:

One can certainly argue that commercial publishers profit margins are excessive or that their journal bundling policies are problematic. These arguments, however, do not apply across the board to all publishers, and not-for-profits and university presses offer lower costs, fairer bundling policies and vastly lower profit margins than the one company you’ve misrepresented.

Is there a level of cost that’s acceptable or should we slow the research process by piling more non-research activities on the already overburdened researcher? Even a not-for-profit must create profits in order to continue to grow, to adapt over time and to weather rough patches. What level of profit is acceptable?

David: It is an old debate trick to call someone’s argument a strawman and then present one’s own argument, which by the way could be labeled a strawman. Usually when I see this tactic I read no further.

I always find the argument regarding profits interesting. I guess those who earn never save because they are in a state of equilibrium in reference to pay and needs. For this reason I generally ignore the profit argument.

There is an assumption that the playing field is uneven when it comes to publishing. However, authors (book and journal) gain as does the publisher. The author gets fame, grants, promotion, etc. and the publisher gets money. What most fail to realize is that not every journal endeavor is successful and many fail to make a buck. Yet, many of these business failures are still in print because they contribute to the body of what we call knowledge.

In short, I do not think there is any good or evil in the business but that the business serves both the public and the creators in a beneficial manner and that if it did or does not it will cease to be.

David C. may be right about acquisitions editors commissioning many books in the sciences, but that is decidedly not true for the humanities and social sciences, where commissioning of this kind is rare. However, it would also not be true to say that the vast majority of books in these fields come in “over the transom.” Rather, unlike in journal publishing, acquisitions editors are active much earlier in the process in identifying books in the making that they think would be good for their presses to publish and they work with those authors along the way to shape the final product. This is only one of many ways in which the editorial vetting process for book publishing differs from journal publishing, and it is a crucial difference. Also, for university presses, there are faculty editorial boards that play an important role in decisionmaking, and their role is complementary to, and sometimes in tension with, that of the acquisition editors. I explored all this in depth in my article “The ‘Vale Added’ in Editorial Acquisitions” back in 1999.

As they say in Swahili: Pole Pole

1) regarding the “overworked” academic, note it is the same academics in the sciences that are supposed to do “peer review”. So who are the not so overworked academics who have the time to do peer review in an appropriate manner? I know chaired professors who fight with each other to teach freshman classes in the sciences and do considerable eleemosynary work within their discipline, the institution and the larger community. Who are these professors that are so over worked that they have to abrogate their larger duties by farming out contributing to the quality and value of the literature and the reputation of ranked journals?

2) The review of Paula’s book is interesting. Please note, for those who do not have grey hair, the surge in funding in the sciences started 3 or more decades earlier. That’s when some of us were paid to go to undergrad schools, grad schools and well paid post doctoral positions and easy grant monies once becoming a tenure track academic (tenure track, today? what’s that?) The history of scientific research, publishing and collegial exchange goes back to the first journal published in the mid 19th century and before.

And, as long as the faculty had those resources they took little interest in what the administration was doing when they negotiated overhead, often better than 100% of salaries which often translated into investments other than back into science.

This is currently what is plaguing the universities today- profligate spending. It is also what is of concern to government, particularly NIH and NSF as congress and the agencies themselves are seeking value for their “investments”. NSF is asking grant seekers to clearly show the benefit to students other than names on journal articles. It’s why granting agencies in the US and UK are ignoring JIF in funding decisions.

Giving the universities patent rights? Since the cost to administer all these might be the second most costly attempts to capture value, such as airline travel miles on government funded programs. In many ways it was/os the equivalent of giving land to states for universities or to railroad magnates.

As they say in the Music Man, we have troubles right here in river city that starts with T and rhymes with Academy.

3) Prestige and honors were answered by the above comments. These “rewards” lead to promotions with pay raises, tenure, chairs and speaking tours etc- academics can’t eat prestige so above that the rationale does not seem to hold.

4) I appreciate that book publishers actually seek books that are of value to them. That basically makes Joe’s original concerns moot about universities that do not have their own presses, which started this thread. This is in the STEM, STM areas.

5) The humanities are problematic. As libraries need to allocate resources to journals, books are being squeezed for funds. And that is why some publishers’ eleemosynary tendencies justifies shifting some journal profits to books. I have never understood why the sina qua non needs to be a book, particularly for non-creative works. Most academics, with whom I am familiar, cross the journal/book line. Let’s not count the publication of the various dissertations.most of which are best left as digital downloads in the big data era.

6) You are right, the study uncovered one publisher who had differential pricing but the publisher was not an obscure one and the universities involved were not naive universities. The implications in the article were “where there is smoke there’s fire”. Regardless of publisher disclaimers that this was a singular event and that they deliver value to their clients, one has reason to doubt as with the pricing of any commodity, especially when we know that airlines and book companies, on line do dynamic pricing. Trust me?

Authors deal with an intangible good – knowledge – but an article is a product, with ownership controlled by copyright. A publisher produces and sells a tangible product – a book or journal – that replicates the product prepared by an author and makes it available to a mass market. The cost of a book or journal is more or less fixed and predictable (so many pages plus binding etc.) but its market value is determined by something intangible, the perceived value of the content, hence the difference in price between HSS and SMT publications.

Intangible goods have value. One pays a lawyer for knowledge, and the pieces of paper a lawyer prepares are valuable solely because of the knowledge they contain. However, while lawyers sell the knowledge they possess to consumers who need it, many academics sell knowledge because they themselves need publications to satisfy university requirements. One issue that bedevils academic publishing is that consumers have little or no need for some of the material being published. To the extent that our business is supply driven rather than demand driven, it becomes a highly problematic unpaid service to authors, and to universities seeking metrics to carry out staff evaluations.

  • Dr Paul H Kratoska (Publishing Director, NUS Press, National University of Singapore)
  • Jul 4, 2014, 1:19 AM

Dr Kratoska’s comments are on target. What he notes in his last sentence points out one of the unresolved contradictory functions of academic publishing. Remarks above points out that publishers often have difficulty finding “over worked” professors to do peer review. If academic peers have so little time that they do not value providing review of their peers’ works, how can those same peers sit in faculty evaluations and pass judgement on those works for promotion/tenure? And why is it more important to be published in ranked journals? It’s oxymoronic at best and disingenuous at worst. Yet the publishing enterprise would be significantly impacted if academics published for the purpose of scholarly exchange as was the intent of the first journals and not for a ritualistic rite of passage.

The other part of Dr. Kratoska’s sentence is also telling when one lays journal articles side by side with books of academics with academic publishers and with trade publishers. When does intellectual property, committed to “print” or digital representations have economic value to the author, in and of itself, rather than conversion through “prestige” monetized via promotion?

It would be naive to think that any press, including academic ones, do not seriously evaluate the economics in their decision to curate and publish and the market and pricing of the volumes.

What choices do academics have with publishers when they have hoisted themselves by their own “peer review” petards.

A bit of recalibration. I want to split this into two comments, humanities and HSS and the STM arena (journals/books)


Most of the STM area publish in journals. Peer reviews are a thankless, obscure, unrewarding task that academics weigh in allocating time. As has been noted, an editor may plow thru 100 possibilities to get 3. One of the possibilities with pre/post public reviews is to help raise the level of participation and, perhaps, give authors pause before they submit materials that up to this point remain invisible if not passed into print. Double blind peer review, in many ways, has distorted the purpose of putting one’s research out to peers for comments. It has, by default been coopted leading to a real loss that might be restored if moved out of the pub/perish domain and into a more collegial exchange (though not necessarily more sympathetic).

The recent “cuts” and shifts within NIH and NSF is not just a US phenomenon. There is global concern that the push to increase JIF has lead to piles of materials that remain untapped. The fact that some may not show value until sometime in the future is not the concern. Rather its a cumulation of factors, including the overheads and the rush to publish rather than taking the time to collect sufficient information to build a substantive picture (not throwing all the puzzle pieces out in multiple articles and then reassembling them later to see what it all means. There are many issues here.

As mentioned previously, there is concern also that the emphasis has obscured one of the primary functions of academics, that of the the teacher and not that teaching is a way to offset some of the costs to do research. It’s like the farmer getting a job in town to support his agricultural habits. There are institutes for pure research. A split is coming between research and teaching and between the “university” qua university and the polytechnic institutes as we see in China and globally.

Evolution or “disruption” is at work here and the academic and the institutions themselves are caught in this deconstructed soup, like the caterpillar transitioning to the butterfly only there is consciousness as the DNA rearranges itself.

STM publishing needs to think about what will happen. What are the implications that will play out. Meanwhile, it is in a position much like a dermatologist or allergist with a patient that is hooked.

HSS is in a pickle, more than being caught as some have said, with “science envy”. Not having the largess to hire a lab full of assistants (grad students and post doc’s) they have extended time in “servitude” for grad students. They are finally being called on their setting an extended time on earning an advanced degree, just as competency-based degrees are being introduced. They are also being challenged by “public intellectuals” and lay scholars who, with the Internet and time can carry out scholarly work in many disciplines without being affiliated with a university. And, more interestingly, they can capture the interest of publishers outside of the university press system or academic journals.

Interestingly, there is an association of small presses that will curate, often subsidized by foundations and donors. What is especially interesting is that some of these are serious publishers concerned with every detail from type font to paper, type of binding, cover and art work. In other words form and content are art in and of itself. That is not to deny the work that traditional academic publishers do but the HSS arena has a broader set of venues with different curatorial interests. Some even make money for the authors.

Interestingly Amazon has its own imprint which does produce works of academics with more than the brush given by vanity presses.

The problems, again, exist within academia which has become addicted to the default of pub/perish in parallel with STM. The venues are many, The problem is whether being published by a trade press is the same as being published by a presses that, for P/T is of lower rank.

The idea that a dissertation has to become a published book when it has been run through the academic mill to be accepted for a degree is an example that HSS scholars have put themselves in the same bind of the STM folks. Only books are more expensive for all the reasons discussed earlier. This serves only to acerbates the problems.

As the shift towards STM rose, the humanities got “squeezed”. As the shift towards pub/perish increased, particularly STM, libraries were squeezed for money and shelf for humanities books

And as the shift toward P/T became weighted towards research, the humanities were squeezed. More importantly, the balance in teaching and student education became unbalanced. In the past, academics often taught across all disciplines. Withe increased specialization, this became problematic for those academics whose departments became narrow while persons outside of the Ivory Tower could become public intellectuals and walk across disciplines gaining influence.

As with STM, the HSS folks have their own problems. The push against the academic publishing community is a symptom of a much larger problem. This is not to say that the publishing world is not ready to see the opportunities.

When the movie camera was invented, they shot film by placing the camera in the audience and shooting the stage. As has been noted, cars were called horseless carriages. Now we are in the time of e-journals which, for the most part, are print mapped into click space- regular pubs, “n” articles, submitted, curated and distributed in the same manner, so many issues/yr with the same business model.

Academics have been “trained” to the same rhythm, including expectations of number of publications/yr and the same expectations by university review committees.

All march to the same cadence. Yet, as we see from the web, now made even more visible by the questions of pre/post review/publications, this lock-step process can be detrimental, slowing important findings and pushing good/acceptable but less than substantive materials into the process. In fact, with meta tags and text search engines it may not be essential to even “publish” a “journal” or journal-related materials packaged the same as print. There are searchable databases that look like my office desk with stacks of papers randomly piled, yet well searchable by this human biocomputer.

The issue of pre/post reviews and OA offer a glimpse of this possibility. My sense is that even thinking on this causes discomfort in the entire value chain from academics to the journal curators, other departments and business office of publishers.

Perhaps publishers of academic journals may need to do what other publications have done with separate pricing for paper or e-delivery. That, of course, creates interesting, new, options for access and business models. it could certainly go a long way to solving the financial conundrums being debated here, on SK.

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