Every segment of publishing has its own characteristics. For trade publishers it is extremely important to be able to tap into large-scale commercial media for publicity; college publishers to this day are highly reliant on the sheer muscle of their sales forces; business intelligence publishing is, interestingly, not especially sensitive to price; and K-12 publishers must cultivate extensive political relationships with the decision-makers that determine the allocation of tax dollars. Identify a new segment and you will uncover a new characteristic or two that do not play a large role in other segments. For scholarly publishing those characteristics are the reputation economy (people write books and articles not for immediate financial gain but to enhance their professional situation) and the curious mix of for-profit and not-for-profit (NFP) publishers. Out of these distinguishing characteristics grow many other things–for example, the emphasis on metrics as part of the reputation economy and the crucial role of the brand for journals. Anybody who thinks that journals’ brands do not matter for scholarly publishing has never spoken to someone who has sat on a tenure committee.
It is worth thinking a bit about what it means to have for-profit and NFP publishers striving side by side. It is such an unusual circumstance. How many NFPs are there in aviation? In cable television? If you are unhappy with your wireless phone carrier, is there a mission-based alternative? Does the contractor who worked on my kitchen have to compete with an NFP organization, whose sole aim is to improve housing and whose surplus goes right back into other housing projects? While there are NFP publishers in almost every segment of publishing (e.g., the Sierra Club, which is a specialized trade publisher), it is only in scholarly publishing where the NFPs are truly prominent. Just think of some of the names: AAAS, The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Chemical Society, IEEE, The American Physical Society, and that upstart PLOS. And let’s not forget the 134 members of the AAUP, the university press association, which cumulatively publishes just under 15,000 titles a year and bears the principal responsibility for academic certification in the humanities.
In my experience the for-profit and NFP participants in scholarly publishing have a great deal of influence on one another, though it is not always acknowledged. The obvious illustration to put forward in this regard is to state the truism that we all live within the economy whether we like it or not. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for many people in the NFP sector, including countless librarians, OA advocates, funding agencies, and university administrators, but you can no more operate outside the economy than you can outside of history. For-profit organizations recognize this and exploit it, often to the disadvantage of NFPs. Indeed, one of the unfortunate aspects of NFP publishing is how the appeal to an organization’s mission often encourages the NFP publisher to let its guard down. This is why the largest scholarly publishers today, and not incidentally the most influential in the overall marketplace, are all for-profit firms. They know how this world works and play hard and tough. A common NFP blunder is to focus on the wrong metric or on one good metric at the exclusion of others. So, for example, it’s not uncommon for an NFP publisher to boast about its impact factor (IF) even as it loses market share year by year. At some point that will catch up to the complacent publisher when the market-based realization is finally brought home; and that realization is that a high IF without a stable and growing market share ultimately leads to a drop in submissions and an erosion of IF. IF can help to build market share, but market share (often in the form of forced consumption through Big Deals) can and does drive distribution, which may encourage authors to support for-profit publishers over NFPs.
But before anyone unloads a jeremiad about the horrors of the commercialization of scholarly communications, let’s not forget that the marketplace itself is significantly influenced by a host of NFP participants. At the top of this list are the funding agencies, whether governments or philanthropies, which may insist on practices that would not otherwise emerge from a pure application of the laws of supply and demand. Open access is a good example of this, especially its Green variant. What for-profit publisher would ever propose to allow copies of articles to be deposited into open repositories if their hand was not forced? (Gold OA is a different story, as it could expand the market.) Thus non-market players create features and requirements that pure market players have to take into account as they pursue their business interests.
We should understand that for-profit organizations have no incentive to make any incremental investment whatsoever unless it leads to a larger market opportunity, reduced costs, or defends an existing market position. For all the talk of innovation, innovation, innovation in the for-profit sector and all the social benefits that are alleged to come of it, the fact is that innovation is a handmaiden to forecast ROI and social benefits are an accidental outcome, not a goal. When a NFP publisher begins to offer authors new services, even with no prospect of making money from them, the for-profit competitors have to grit their teeth and match these features item by item. To do otherwise is to risk alienating authors and to create problems in brand management, as the absence of certain features may appear to be an expression of greed or indifference. Thus mission-based organizations doth make missionaries of us all.
It’s really a shame that the NFPs don’t understand this. They could all be so much more influential, libraries especially, if they understood how the marketplace worked and intervened in common practices with well-thought-out tactics. Instead we have pointless public shaming–pointless because so many organizations are shameless. It’s widely held in the NFP sector that the commercial giants must be toppled, but I think there is more to be gained by altering the market dynamics, thereby forcing for-profit entities to to take on new costs that are not offset by additional revenues. Better to domesticate a wild animal than to shoot it. But the moral satisfaction of firing a shot! Ah! We feel so good about ourselves!