Reflect on the past century of revenue sources for scholarly publications, and you might see a pendulum swinging between individuals and institutions, with the rate of traversal increasing recently as technology and economics all add pressure to various parts of the system.
Prior to World War II, scientific publications amounted to luxury items, provided either via libraries, by mail via a membership society, or shared informally. Print was the only option, and having information bound to physical forms limited distribution, making the economics of individual subscription inevitable and structurally protected.
After World War II, with more scientists and physicians trained and new-found prosperity, first in the US and UK, then elsewhere, personal subscriptions to favored publications became more common. As lists of recipients lengthened, the “Mad Men” era of advertising took note. The resulting advertising subsidies allowed for cheaper subscriptions in many fields, which further accelerated the trend toward personal subscriptions. The goal became reaching individual subscribers, especially as other forms of advertising (jobs, in particular) joined the party.
Until the late-1990s, these trends — affordable personal subscriptions, heavily subsidized by advertising revenues — dominated many journal business models. The industry became so accustomed to the benefits of this approach — costs that are widely dispersed so that each person pays relatively little, subsidized costs due to advertising and other secondary revenue sources (e.g., page and image charges) — that some assumed these assumptions would carry over to any information business model.
Then, relatively quickly, the pendulum swung away from print and its inherent business model assumptions (scarcity, personal delivery, valuable but hard-to-measure advertising, time-tested subsidies). The countervailing force was electronic delivery, which had other assumptions built into it — shared infrastructure, abundance, impersonal delivery, and measurable advertising. Most of these have not turned out to be the financial panaceas once imagined — managing the shared infrastructure is costly, measurable advertising is less lucrative — but the personal subscription for information was relegated to a secondary role, if not dismissed altogether. The swing from personal subscriptions to group subscriptions gained momentum.
This framework provides some hints that the pendulum may still be swinging. While we generally think of the article processing charge (APC) as a way of having authors pay, it also can be viewed as a way for individuals to pay — or, if a grant or other funding source is involved, as a mix of personal and institutional sources of revenues. Either way, the pendulum is not at rest, and individuals as payers still exert a pull on its trajectory and speed. Submission fees are either being implemented or contemplated, another source of individual revenues. Page and color charges are still with us here and there, or are morphing into other author charges (e.g., for data or longer versions). And charges for continuing education provide another source of revenue from individuals.
These are not the only trends tugging at the pendulum. Sci-Hub has raised the issue of individual accountability for subscription access, both at the institutional and the personal level. The scales have fallen from our eyes as far as accountability for contracts and security among the individuals running and working in libraries, while the messier issues around personal utilization of Sci-Hub percolate. But it’s clear that the image of pristine and reliably safe institutional access guarded by highly aligned subscription/license guardians has been shattered, exposing us all to the reality that this is all made up of people with their hands on a relatively vulnerable set of authorization and authentication technologies.
Because of Sci-Hub, mobile access, remote access, and a general business instinct to make a paradigm shift as growth curves flatten, many people have been advocating for a new and better authentication system, one that would be simple for researchers to navigate while ensuring licenses aren’t violated. (Other links here and here.) Such a paradigm shift would move the pendulum farther back toward the individual.
A shift in this direction won’t be easy. Privacy laws and other factors make it harder to commercialize individual users in the way marketers and advertisers would prefer, and users are no longer passive and powerless recipients of information. Ad blockers, private/incognito browsing, and various plug-ins and apps allow end-users to fight back against the cookies and scripts technology providers typically deploy to execute their business models.
But such problems are not insoluble, and with “survival” being a perceived benefit of solving them, the weight of options is pushing the pendulum to find a new equilibrium.
There is also a new factor in the individual/personal business model — data. In the print era, the value of subscriber data was real, but marginal. List sales, when permitted, contributed an uneven trickle of dollars to the overall revenue stream. In transactions (mergers and acquisitions), the value of a customer list could be far greater. But it was thin data, consisting mainly of names and addresses.
With more and deeper data that can be utilized on-the-fly, the potential value of a publisher’s well-constructed list goes up. And with a uniform, remixed access world, with 2-3 standardized approaches to ensuring uniform access with personal accountability, these lists become easier to slice, dice, and commercialize in ways that don’t violate privacy. Add this to the pile of incentives moving the pendulum back to the individual.
We often focus on specific issues — open access, APCs, library growth, Sci-Hub, and other particulars of our rapidly changing system of access to scholarly content. But it’s worth stepping back to contemplate the possibility that we are just finding new ways to move between two familiar business model poles — the individual and the institutional. Reconciling these in a new way may be exactly the recalibration of forces that allows us to have a long period of fruitful equilibrium around who pays and how.