I recently received a phone call from a consultant who wanted to chat with me about consolidation in the scientific publishing marketplace. The conversation proceeded similarly to many others, until they got to this question, which I paraphrase: “Will Elsevier integrate Mendeley and SSRN fully — or is it going to lose interest in the pivot to workflow?” This echoed conversations I’ve had with equity analysts, who evaluate the business prospects of Elsevier and its publicly traded peers as publishers — when Elsevier, prominently, claims to have become an analytics and technology business. This raises the interesting question: How should investors and their representatives assess the strategy and prospects of these new workflow and analytics businesses?
In this piece, I focus on one of the key strategic pivot points for the emerging breed of workflow providers: To what extent does their strategy indicate that they will integrate individual scholarly tools into a more coherent end-to-end researcher workflow? And, what does success in executing such a strategy look like?
To assess the nature of a workflow provider, we should begin by examining their objectives. It is essential to underscore that objectives vary. Here are several types of objectives, ranging from not-for-profit open science to commercially successful scientific publishers:
- The not-for-profit open science community has as its starting point a series of important concerns about the integrity and reproducibility of science. The tools and services coming out of this community are less likely to see themselves in direct competition with others. While they may nevertheless find themselves competing with other providers, as some may wish to see, it is important to recognize that they will not necessarily define success by revenue, profitability, or market share.
In contrast, commercial providers of course will necessarily have these as ultimate objectives. Still, their strategies and business models differ.
- A startup in this area is looking to maximize usage or market share, typically before worrying about a monetization strategy, to ensure that its valuation will be high enough to provide a successful exit.
- A financial investor will wish to see the individual companies in which it invests, and the value they provide, develop steadily. The most sector-sophisticated such investors may build a more or less coherent portfolio expecting that synergies will develop over time.
- A strategic investor in such tools will have a vision for the value of integrating them together in support of one or more coherent research workflows. It will recognize the prospects for providing greater integration on the front-end interface, to make it easier for researchers to more fully utilize all the features that they offer. And it will recognize the prospects for providing greater integration on the back-end, where some monetization strategies grow as a factors of the amount of user and usage data that can be connected together and analyzed. This work of integration can proceed with various degrees of urgency depending on the maturity of the portfolio’s tools, the investor’s technical abilities for managing strategic integration, and competitive dynamics in the marketplace.
- A commercially successful scholarly publisher establishing itself in the scientific workflow business is a specific case of the strategic investor. A publisher will have more immediate strategic issues driving it towards rapid integration, as it moves to defend its revenue and profitability in the face of open, social, and pirate forms of free access to scholarship. Future competition will be less on readership and library revenues as it will be a competition for authors and articles. Workflow tools can provide a mechanism for moving into earlier stages of the research lifecycle, adding value and ensuring an ongoing pipeline of outstanding scholarship. The publishing business will change steadily over time, but by moving into the earlier phases of research, a publisher has a greater ability to control its destiny or at least shape its environment. As a result, integrations across individual components of the workflow are at a very high premium for such a publisher — integrations that will reach up to and including editorial, peer review, and other traditional publishing activities.
Depending on the objectives of the provider, there are several ways that tools and products can be integrated to support an overall workflow:
- Bundled sales. This requires some amount of integration in sales, marketing, pricing, and business terms.
- User accounts. Authentication is required for any research workflow tool, and enabling a single log-in to support all tools in a given workflow can reduce the burden on researchers. We should all be watching the RA21 space carefully, since authentication mechanisms must be understood strategically as being not just for providers of comparatively static content but also for richly personalized and individualized workflow tools and collaborations.
- User profiles. Some of the tools offer a researcher the opportunity to display professional information about themselves. By enabling a single set of data to power all profile instances across a workflow, the burden on the user is reduced and the quality and reliability of the information is increased.
- Seamless workflow. Researchers move from one stage of their workflow to the next, and potentially inhabit multiple stages concurrently across the different projects in which they are involved. They should not have to guess which tool to use for which project, but rather might wish to enter the workflow for all their current and completed projects through a single dashboard providing them with updates and an opportunity to take actions appropriately.
- Data layer. Over time, we may expect to see individual tools and services cease being platforms of their own but simply brands that signal certain features on a common platform or data layer. This will permit different windows on the same data to be richly re-used for a variety of purposes and can enable substantial monetization opportunities that go well beyond the researchers and their universities.
The relevant workflow providers are addressing these types of integrations variously, depending in part on the strategy they are pursuing.
For Elsevier, “integration” is key. It is building scientific workflow services on individual products and platforms like Mendeley, hivebench, SSRN, Digital Commons, Scopus, and SciVal. While Elsevier has accumulated the principalities of this empire in part through a number of acquisitions, it is pursuing a strategy of treating them not as separate platforms but as an increasingly integrated set of products and features.
Its vision of integration is reflected in how product and engineering teams are organized; in its work to integrate the user accounts of individual tools with a master “Elsevier account”; and in some of the plans its leaders shared with me when SSRN and then bepress were acquired. It is therefore important to examine the extent to which researchers, their universities, and/or their disciplinary communities may become “locked In” to an integrated research workflow.
At its heart, Elsevier’s strategy is not just to provide the workflow from research to authorship but also to control an increasing amount of the underlying data and analytics. If it is successful, we can expect to see Elsevier pursue, with increasing ease, evolution in product, branding, authentication, and monetization. Its ability to deepen the integrations across its workflow tools and its ability to monetize them are among the factors deserving scrutiny from those analyzing its strategy.
Digital Science is another strong competitor. Starting out as a sector-sophisticated financial investor, it has provided funding for, and taken substantial ownership stakes in, a variety of startups, such as Symplectic, figshare, ReadCube, Altmetric, and labguru. It bought some of them outright, and others as a partial shareholder. Following the merger that created Springer Nature, I am among those observers waiting to see if Digital Science will remain independent or join the merged entity following its forthcoming IPO. For now, under current management, Digital Science is clear about its position and plans, as its CEO Daniel Hook shared with me yesterday:
Digital Science’s history is as a portfolio of companies brought together with a great deal of freedom and autonomy. Each company retains its brand, its founding team, their distinct technical approach and dedicated teams. Where it makes sense to collaborate across the portfolio, we do — for example in sales and support we have been able to work together to make a client’s experience more streamlined.
These are important initiatives and not to be readily dismissed. For example, Digital Science has begun selling its “suite” of tools in bundles, starting with Carnegie Mellon. But Hook went on to emphasize:
We are not and will not create an end-to-end solution here: we continue to believe that distinct products with good APIs and sensible integrations that clients want to see is the best way forward. Digital Science will also always integrate with any third-party systems (including those of competitors) that clients ask us to work with, or that deliver better functionality to researchers and the wider community.
Again, any change in ownership including a recombination into Springer Nature following its IPO might lead to reasonable questions about whether these policies will be maintained, but for now Digital Science’s position is clear.
Center for Open Science
While Elsevier is building a single integrated workflow, and Digital Science is not interested in an end-to-end solution, the Center for Open Science is approaching the task in yet a third way. While the commercial firms have started largely from an acquisitions mindset, COS has built its workflow framework from scratch. Depending on the specifics of how this framework has been designed, this could provide a powerful head start over its formidable competitors.
Of equal significance is that COS has not attempted to build every element of the research workflow. Instead, its vision has been for a framework into which other strong tools can be “plugged in,” while it can emphasize those that are either missing or that are seen to play an especially strategic role. This has perhaps been a good way to focus limited resources but the resulting emphasis on developing partnerships with existing tools may have impeded its ability to compete with Elsevier and Digital Science.
As a not for profit COS can more credibly present itself as being “inside” the academic community and more of a friend to its values and an ally to its libraries. This may come with tradeoffs in terms of limited access to capital and investment required to compete in a fast-changing marketplace.
Given how dynamic this part of the sector is today, the strategic directions of each of these providers will presumably be assessed regularly and updated accordingly. Others that may be interested in the space broadly defined, including Clarivate and Meta, also have a role to play. In assessing the position and value of workflow providers, strategy for integrating their services, as well as their actual success in driving integrations, are among the most important considerations.