An emerging duopoly for an entirely new class of products, those that support research workflow for the sciences, could marginalize other publishers large and small and lead to the Big Two moving ahead of their increasingly distant rivals. Elsevier and Digital Science are in a race to build out a complete set of these research workflow tools, crafting portfolios that can be integrated in a variety of ways to suit the strategic interests of their owners, positioning them far earlier in the research process than traditional publishers. This leaves publishers not in the workflow game at risk of being left behind.
For every publisher without a complete set of workflow offerings, the marketplace is shifting under your feet. Even for a large scientific publisher — Wiley, ACS, IEEE — the competitive dynamics are shifting in real time. Competition is no longer just a matter of working against the greater scale that the largest publishers can bring to bear — and this is hard enough given the dramatic economies of scale in digital publishing. No. This competitive environment is qualitatively different.
Workflow market dynamics
Elsevier and Digital Science are building their portfolios through majority investments, outright acquisitions, and internal development. This does not necessarily mean that they are pursuing an identical strategy to one another.
As I have written previously, a publisher seeking to bolster its existing operations with a workflow that reaches back earlier in the research process, well before publication, has particular strategic interests and inclinations. For example, in the article processing charge (APC)-driven open access environment that has emerged, the supply of articles and therefore the ability to influence authors and/or their institutions is of increasing value strategically. The ability to reach back earlier in the research workflow has clear value to Elsevier in sourcing articles and building author relationships. (There may be other aspects to its business strategy as well, given that it describes itself as an “information analytics” company, which may evolve depending on the marketplace and its strategic needs.) The need to ensure a steady source of high-quality article content in a shifting open access environment alone helps to explain why Elsevier has been willing to pay the purchase prices necessary to acquire key components of its workflow.
But Elsevier is not the only party playing at this business. Digital Science is a curious case, because some observers may see reasons to view Digital Science as strategically indistinguishable from Springer Nature, in which case it might over time be expected to pursue a similar strategy to Elsevier. But since Digital Science itself denies that there will be any merger into Springer Nature, we must also allow for the possibility that it will continue to try to build an independent business.
Here I am not trying to forecast the future but rather propose planning parameters for other stakeholders. It is not unreasonable to suggest that other publishers should examine their prospects in the context of a kind of duopoly, Elsevier and a merged Springer Nature / Digital Science. Each already has or may soon emerge with major presence in both traditional publishing and gold open access, each with strong “apex” journals in their field and a “cascade” underneath it to catch a full sweep of publications, and each with a strong array of research workflow tools.
It is also possible that Digital Science will continue in its attempt to build a standalone strategy, albeit with a very different path towards monetization. In that case, there would be two major scientific research workflow providers, only one of which is tied directly to a publisher’s interests.
Of course in either scenario, they will face competition from others, such as the Center for Open Science and Clarivate. But given the amount of consolidation we have seen among workflow providers over the past several years, it is incumbent upon other publishers to examine what it means for them.
Losing access to authors
Let me offer an analogy. Think back to Google’s strong position in search when the desktop browser was the dominant interface to the internet. Yes, there were the so-called “browser wars,” with different companies seeking quantitative advantage (measured by the number of users), but these were in retrospect border skirmishes at most. Then along came the iPhone — and the competitive environment for search and advertising was at once qualitatively different. In this environment, the connection between individual and information became orders of magnitude more intimate. As the foremost consumer advertising platform, Google feared it would lose direct access to individuals. Google saw this as a mortal threat.
The dynamics faced by publishers are in some ways analogous. Workflow tools position their platform owners far earlier in the research process than traditional publishers, with attendant risks to article supply and author relationships.
With the SSRN and Digital Commons preprint services that Elsevier has been purchasing, there is ample potential for connections with article submission and review. Here, we have seen some responses from smaller publishers, such as AGU in partnership with Wiley and a group of chemistry societies in partnership with Digital Science’s figshare. There are major advantages to those that can gain control over this stage of the workflow. Preprints are definitely an earlier stage in the dissemination workflow than final publication, but they are comparatively late in the research workflow.
Workflow tools position their platform owners far earlier in the research process than traditional publishers, with attendant risks to article supply and author relationships.
Earlier workflow tools are at the heart of the scientific research, funding, and research management processes. Workflow tools help researchers and their universities seek funding, provide assistance with data gathering and analysis, support laboratory management and collaboration, and so forth. These workflow tools are positioned far closer to researchers and authors than are journals or even preprints.
And this lays out at least one set of stakes for other publishers rather clearly. The prospect of losing direct access to researchers — and perhaps for many publishers even more pointedly, authors — is not trivial.
By pointing this out, I do not mean to suggest that any workflow providers intend to cut off content sourcing to publishers. I simply mean to suggest that it is a risk over time that others should bear in mind. This is the new competitive dynamic you face if you are a publisher not in the workflow game. And it is at this point that, regardless of what Digital Science may wish for itself, I am obligated to remind readers that Springer Nature’s outgoing CEO has very much wanted to recombine with Digital Science, perhaps exactly for this reason.
To stay competitive in the advertising business in the transition to mobile, Google had to ensure it retained direct reach to consumers. Its solution was to enter the smartphone market, acquiring and developing Android as a counterweight to the iPhone. While the iPhone remains significant in the US, in all major global markets Android has been an enormous success in its own right. But more importantly, from a strategic standpoint, is that Android has provided competition to the iPhone that prevents Apple from locking down its own platform quite as much as it might otherwise have been able to do.
While iPhone and Android may offer an appealing analogy, we cannot develop strategy by analogy. In my next post, I will examine some of the strategic options for those publishers large and small that are at risk of being left behind in this emerging environment.
This piece is adapted from a talk I gave this fall to IEEE and its Advisory Library Council. I am grateful to Michael Spada for inviting me to speak. I thank Angela Cochran, David Crotty, Joseph Esposito, Lisa Hinchliffe, and Bill Park, for discussions and suggestions that helped me develop and improve my line of reasoning here.