Publishers utilize consultants to help them evaluate strategic, technical, financial, management, marketing, or editorial options. Many times, an engagement combines some or all of these factors, requiring consultants to possess facility across a number of disciplines.

As a field, we’re blessed with some exceptional consultants, many of whom become extensions of companies for a period of time, engagements that can last for many mutually beneficial years.

Consultants have a privileged perspective, which adds to their value. They are often invited to attend high-level or sensitive meetings and given a bird’s eye view of interactions and strategies. Doing so repeatedly allows them to level-set and benchmark. Firms often want a fresh update of where the industry is moving and what’s going on, insights about market and strategic possibilities they can’t get without asking for help from outside.


Connected consultants synthesize a lot of information from disparate sources, and think about larger common issues that naturally become evident. So, when I was thinking about how to evaluate where we are now generally as an industry, I thought it made sense to ask some consultants to answer five questions:

  1. What is the most common challenge you’re seeing in the industry currently? What’s the fundamental driver of this in your opinion? Are we responding well?
  2. Organizational behavior is a major factor in execution. Which organizational behaviors seem to lead to better execution? Which seem to consistently hold organizations back or make them stumble or fumble?
  3. If the organizations you work with were forced to allocate time between two activities — rearranging the deck chairs vs. moving the ship forward — how do you think the allocations would come out?
  4. Are the organizations you work with investing enough in change and adaptation? Why or why not?
  5. Who seems to have the most power in the organizations you work with? The change agents, or the VP of “No”?

The questions were formulated to provoke a response — and they did. More than a dozen consultants responded to my request for their views of the market. Most are what you might call “management consultants,” while some are specialist consultants in some technical or focused business areas who also make management recommendations as a consequence of their technical or specialist work. For the sake of everyone’s comfort, the names of the respondent firms won’t be disclosed. Suffice to say, if you’re a publisher, you’ve probably used one or more of these consultants.

Which gets to an inherent bias in this exercise — consultants are invited in to manage or guide changes or to answer questions that are typically related to change. Therefore, consultants see publishers who are wishing to change something, biasing their worldview toward organizations attempting to change or comfortable with change at some level. Of course, organizations that aren’t changing are probably either unicorns or have little to teach.

A number of themes that emerged from this exercise — the Internet as a driver of change and competition, the benefits of scale and diversification, the importance of execution, and the role of defenders of the status quo. Within these four themes, sub-topics like revenue challenges, governance challenges, and the difficulty of aligning teams were also flagged.

Change is being imposed on the industry from a number of angles, with every consultant noting that the Internet has forced and continues to force adaptation.

Change and Competition — Change is being imposed on the scholarly publishing industry from a number of angles. Every consultant noted that the Internet has forced and continues to force adaptation. Judging from the responses, some organizations are responding well, but even the best struggle because the Internet has caused so much change so quickly at so many levels. It’s almost too much for even the largest companies to absorb. As one replied:

The proximate driver [of change] is the web and how it has changed forever how people consume and exchange scientific information. The web is an enabler. The root driver exploiting the web as an enabler to push STM publishing to change is the process of refinement in how scientific endeavors should work.

A number of consultants noted the push to make everything “open” — open science, open access, open data, and so forth. Some recent controversies around this, and vague definitions of what these constitute, continue to pose problems, especially because the goals aren’t actually clear, especially for business entities that exist to sort, validate, and refine information. Yet, external exhortations to move in these directions are forcing organizations to engage in analysis and consider adaptation, while also diluting the perceived value of editorial and certification functions.

The Internet has also increased competition, erasing or minimizing regional advantages and flattening the information landscape. As one consultant described this aspect:

The fundamental driver is increased competition. The competition is hitting organizations from several sources both traditional and non-traditional. Major commercial players are working to hold on to their advantages, new business models (like the Open Access APC model) are challenging traditional revenue and profit structures, readers/authors/members/researchers exhibit splintered attention as they are bombarded by information from a multitude of sources. The organizations we work with are trying to define and deliver on what are their unique competitive advantages, but it’s hard.

Another consultant captured it slightly differently:

While some publishers responded early and tested new business and delivery models, others were slow to adoption and, as a result, are now at a competitive disadvantage. Small organizations are also at a disadvantage now because they lack the resources and scale to compete with larger rivals.

Of course, the Internet’s effects on business models is also a major concern:

The most common challenge I see organizations face is pursuing new revenue streams to offset those that are flat or declining.

Another consultant underscored this concern:

Investing in change is easy. . . . Too many organizations are focused on “efficiency” rather than growing their top-line revenues. . . . . R&D spending is where there is far more deficiency than change management exercises.

In summary, the Internet has triggered challenges around revenues, self-definition, competition, and adaptability, mostly without providing realistic short-term alternatives. At the same time, investment is both necessary and, in many situations, either lacking or non-specific.

Change itself is tough under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances. As one noted:

Executing change requires that leaders have the authority, responsibility, and accountability for their decisions. Unfortunately, these three elements are often allocated to different organizational groups. For example, the publisher may have the authority and responsibility for their journal division, yet the authority to make any change is held in a separate publications committee. If these two groups have different ultimate interests, they may not agree on what is the best direction for the organization. At best, this division leads to prolonged decision-making; at worst, it leads to internal conflict and dysfunction.

Judging from the responses generally, such dysfunctions seem to affect smaller, non-profit organizations more than others, reinforcing some of the advantages larger commercial firms have.

Scale and Diversification — Another advantage larger firms have during this long, deep period of change is scale, and the benefits scale brings — diversification, the ability to achieve and leverage economies of scale, and so forth. With the Internet’s global reach, scale become all the more important. As one respondent stated it:

The most common challenge is navigating economies of scale. The market is becoming more favorable to horizontal players — large publishers that sell aggregations of content to libraries. While there are still opportunities for those vertical organizations — such as professional societies and independent mid-sized publishers oriented around a single domain — developing a strong vertical strategy is harder than it used to be.

This theme was one of the most consistent:

We do not believe that the industry is responding particularly well in the sense that the “riches” are increasingly going to the largest publishers.

Another consultant articulated the pace and levels of change and how they relate to scale in this way:

One fundamental challenge is the great complexity of continuous shifts and changes in the competitive ecosystem and of platforms/technologies adopted by end users of scholarly information. Most scholarly publishers are too small and underfunded to invest sufficiently on an ongoing basis to keep up with this, much less get ahead of the curve. Even larger organizations tend to underinvest, or invest too conservatively, in initiatives that keep them “behind the times.”

Scale as an editorial challenge was also noted by one consultant, putting a fine point on the issue:

Among the many common challenges our industry is facing, there is one that we see becoming increasingly pervasive and problematic for peer-reviewed journals; that is, attracting a sufficient number of quality manuscripts. Several factors are responsible, including, most significantly, increasing competition. Top-branded journals like Nature and Lancet have been developing subspecialty journals and expanding their topical coverage for years. Large society journals with large numbers of quality manuscript submissions and high rejection rates are launching new OA journals, reducing the manuscript pool available to other societies’ journals.

Execution — the ability to get things done — came through discussions of strategic and goal clarity, personnel, and governance and leadership.

Execution — In many responses, execution — the ability to get things done — came through discussions of strategic and goal clarity, personnel, and governance and leadership. Clearly, without the right strategies orienting effort toward measurable goals, without the right people with the right skills responsible for carrying out the jobs, and without supportive governance and leadership that stays in the proper lanes, execution is impossible. As one consultant wrote:

I have observed time and time again that good execution comes down to having the right people in the organization. There is not a magical management process (if only we adopt Six Sigma or the Balanced Score Card!) or set of organizational behaviors (because organizations do not have behaviors — they have policies and practices — individuals have behaviors) that lead to better results. Hiring the right people, and getting rid of the poor performers, is 90% of the game.

Another consultant noted two governance and leadership elements that can lead to “stumbling execution”:

Ego-driven, single loud voice.

While solid execution requires:

Better governance structure and policies, division of responsibilities more critical than ever.

This theme came up repeatedly, with smaller non-profit organizations viewed as particularly at risk:

In my consulting experience, publishing units that are inside larger non-profit organizations are at a great disadvantage [when it comes to execution]. The governance structure and executive leadership of the larger organization are typically ill-equipped to deal with complex and fast-changing publishing issues. There can often be a fundamental disconnect in both mission and practical day-to-day requirements between the non-profit membership and the commercially-oriented publishing unit, even though the publishing unit is often the main source of cash flow that feeds the mothership.

As another noted, the recipe for success requires all the ingredients:

Organizations that do not have the capability to change or leadership without the correct focus and discipline are likely not to succeed. Capability to change may be quite distinct from lack of the right leadership. I have seen many organizations with excellent leaders not succeed due to lack of resource (staff talent, the cost of change was too great, and so on).

The Moderating Effect of the Status Quo — The tension between change agents and those in an organization who buffer change generated some of the more interesting answers, especially related to the provocative term, “The VP of ‘No'”:

Over the years I have learned to respect the resistance (VP of No), because most of them are simply and dutifully responding to their top-down incentives and directives and stuff on their plate. . . . They only respond to problems that have already occurred. That makes them focused on the here and now.

Another said:

I always want to spend time not just with the VP of “No” but also the editorial or production person with arms crossed who scowls but doesn’t speak in meetings; I want to know why they are so skeptical. Either they don’t understand what’s being worked on or they know something we’ve missed. You ignore these people at your peril.

Even so, change is afoot generally, which places more pressure on the status quo and its guardians, leading another to note:

Most organizations . . . have the greatest power resting with the change agents. In cases where we have faced “VPs of No,” we have seen the change agents win out (most especially in commercial organizations), typically resulting in some restructuring within our customer’s organization.

And another:

[M]ore than ever organizations are realizing that they need to evolve as the environmental changes related to globalization, discoverability and access, and technology (not to mention the constant need to find efficiencies and savings) are omnipresent in all aspects of our lives that it is nearly impossible not to notice.

Summary — We are trying to adapt within an environment where change is occurring broadly and at such a pace that it borders on the volatile; where the goals of the change are vague and ill-defined; where commercial options have become scarcer, less stable, and less enticing; and where smaller organizations’ historic strengths are now vulnerabilities.

Unless we steer a different course, as one consultant put it:

. . . whether you rearrange the deck chairs or move the ship forward, you still hit the iceberg.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "A View from the Outside — Trends and Challenges Consultants See in Scholarly Publishing"

I read the observations with amazement. The web is now almost 30 years old and just a part of doing business. In my mind it ceased being an interrupter about 25 years ago.

What is not mentioned by the sages is the need for creativity and with it the creation of new products that fulfill the needs of the audience. I guess my observation is made in the light of many being dazzled by technology.

As a mentor once said to me: Keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole.

Minor pedantry — the WYSIWYG Web (enabled by Mosaic and then Netscape with the visual browser) is about 22-23 years old, the Internet far older. The Web actually began being an interruptor about 25 years ago.

Thanks Kent, excellent thought provoking post, the question from SSP’s perspective too is what programming/training/sessions for the annual meeting etc should we be thinking about to help try and address this challenge and findings. Another perspective to consider that I’ve come across is the concept of ‘old school’ v ‘new school’ one a little more traditional, wants to have processes in place for all new innovations/potential change before they try/test them, the other willing to try new ideas with a view that they are learning, being a little bolder, and accept not everything will work, it’s ok to fail.

Final comment, and for those attending the STM London meeting this week, I know there’s a presentation from Isabel Thompson (SSP Fellow) on ‘the resilience framework and adaptive cycle’ which may offer organizations and consultants a different way to understand the challenges they and the industry see and are facing, in it’s simplest of terms this diagram shows more of this concept, albeit there are many other ways to show the bell curve and idea*OXcxvcPTlAXaImCf9m8NuQ.jpeg

I read the observations with amazement. The web is now almost 30 years old and just a part of doing business. In my mind it ceased being an interrupter about 25 years ago.

I think this is a bit glib. We didn’t have Snapchat or Blockchain or Sci-Hub 25 years ago. The web continues to evolve, and continues to interrupt in new ways.

What is not mentioned by the sages is the need for creativity and with it the creation of new products that fulfill the needs of the audience. I guess my observation is made in the light of many being dazzled by technology.

This I agree with 100%. We are inundated with technology for the sake of technology.

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