Painting of Angel fighting Devils
Luca Giordano’s painting of St. Michael the Archangel and the Fallen Angels, Vienna, 1666

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!

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


13 Thoughts on "The Mixed Marriage of For-profit and Not-for-profit Publishing"

Scholarly publishing MUST become a normal activity of academic Universities, part and parcel of the research process. How else to preserve the scholarly record for the very long term, for the benefit of future researchers?

Hilton: Academia has made such a botched up mess of managing universities that the chances of their preserving scholarly communication is about nil. Instead, I would suggest that universities figure out how to get costs under control and not force students into debtors prisons.

Your final paragraph is especially pointed and somewhat painful. I’m reminded of the old joke about the difference between a psychotic and a neurotic: the psychotic says “White is black and black is white.” The neurotic says “No, white is white and black is black — but I hate it that way.”

In my experience, we in libraries do tend to understand that we live and operate inside of an economy, but we hate it that way — and, for that reason, we tend to embrace any opportunity to pretend that things are otherwise. (Cf. all the many references to “free library services.”)

The picture becomes even murkier when commercial publishers license the content of NFPs and NFPs emulate the business model of the commercials.

Although Joe speaks of branding being important for journals, he certainly knows that it is also important for monograph publishing. There are many surveys that rank publishers of books in regard to their prestige, and these rankings are well known to committees that make decisions about tenure and promotion. Any scholarly book publisher is well aware of this prestige factor, even if it has no formal status as an IF. University presses generally benefit in this regard compared with their commercial counterparts, but there are some commercial academic publishers like the one I work for part-time now, Lynne Rienner, who have managed to gain considerable respectability for the quality of their lists even if they cannot ultimately challenge the Oxfords and Cambridges of the world. In book publishing it is, of course, the prestige of the publisher that counts. In journal publishing it is the prestige of the individual journal that matters, not the identity of the publisher.

There are other NFPs that play an important role in scholarly publishing, like the CCC, which is mission-driven sometimes to the point of continuing programs that are no longer profitable in purely business terms.

I really cannot see much difference between the policies of ACS and Elsevier and I suspect most librarians cannot either – at least that it what they tell me. The very big NFP organisations are a special feature of the US scene and wonderful though they are I cannot see them as having been especially innovative. It could be argued that they are as keen on maintaining their surplus which helps them subsidise conferences and provide bursaries as commercial publishers are in maintaining their profits: mission driven acceptance of a lower margin has surely not been that common. In the UK many (most) learned societies work with publishing partners usually commercial partners. Whose policies determined the prices etc: it depends on the contract. When I was at Blackwells the claim was that they published for 600 societies.

re: “I really cannot see much difference between the policies of ACS and Elsevier and I suspect most librarians cannot either.”
This comment suggests that you are unaware of the cost/page or cost/article differences for comparable journals?

Is it really ‘public shaming’ to point out the unreasonable for-profit subscription rates, and that a major factor, in the rise of for-profit publishers, was allowing their authors to avoid page charges?

Nothing unreasonable about those rates. They are market-based. The big publishers knew what they were doing. What definition of “reasonable” are you using? The point about moral arguments is that they don’t work, but, boy, do they feel good! Only in scholarly publishing would someone think that sanctimony would trump economy.

I would suggest that reasonable is providing superior content at a substantially lower price. This definition moves beyond a ‘moral argument’ when the unreasonably priced journals are preferentially cancelled.

In my non-library life, I’m on the Board of our local food cooperative. Not exactly a NFP per se but definitely mission rather than profit driven. The dynamics you describe in publishing have parallels in the grocery world. Including that organic/natural is no longer niche – is now everywhere – and so what’s next for co-ops. In my co-op meetings, conferences, etc. – swap out “food” for “information” and “access” for (um) “access” and the conversations are uncannily the same!

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