The development of an entirely new class of products, those that support research workflow for the sciences, has the potential to disrupt many publishers’ relationships with their authors, as I described in yesterday’s piece. Today, I want to examine the vital question facing all scholarly publishers other than Elsevier to one degree or another: As workflow providers build deeper relationships with scientists earlier in the research lifecycle, how are publishers to maintain sufficiently strong relationships with authors?
If you are not Elsevier, or perhaps Springer Nature in an eventual combination with Digital Science that is vigorously denied, you do not control very much of the researcher workflow. Some publishers, such as Wiley, have been experimenting with preprint servers recently, but even these do not reach back beyond the article authoring stage of research. What can you do to compete for authors against a strong publisher integrated with the research workflow? How do you align with, or against, one of these workflows?
In my piece yesterday, I offered the analogy of Google seeing a mortal threat to its advertising business in the iPhone, investing in Android as a counterweight. Android is trumpeted as “open source” even while Google locks it down through services only provided for phones sold by its certified partners. Notwithstanding its weaknesses, Android has grown to be far more than “not-iPhone,” a platform that has been adopted successfully by a variety of hardware manufacturers such as Samsung and Motorola.
There certainly is a range of options before others publishers, from Wiley and T&F to IEEE and ACS. To frame the discussion, here are a number of fundamental strategies:
Pay Tribute. First, a smaller commercial publisher — by which I mean smaller than Elsevier or Springer Nature — has the option to “sue for peace.” This means, as it implies, seeking terms of the victor’s choosing and, in all likelihood, paying tribute to a workflow provider. This might look like retaining an independent publishing operation — or joining that of a major publisher.
White Label Workflow. For society publishers, there is a somewhat different set of implications to joining up with a workflow provider. Since workflow providers are likely to continue trying to sell to institutions or funders, having disciplinary alliances may prove to be extremely valuable to them. There might be a win here for society publishers, which would apply their branding on the systems of a given workflow, for example a branded instance of Mendeley and its ilk focused on their own discipline or field. It is unclear how this would impact the era of society publishing profitability but at least the society and its brand and membership endure under this strategy.
Build Hulu. Alternatively, several publishers could join up together in pursuit of scale. Together, they might have opportunities to build or buy some or all of the workflow tools and services in the market. It is certainly possible to imagine several of the larger society publishers doing so — a group of the engineering societies, for example, or a group of biomedical societies. Is it possible to imagine several of the commercial publishers, such as T&F and Wiley, coming together not in an outright merger but in a joint venture to build out a workflow counterweight that they collectively control? This is the original “Hulu” model where the television networks built a digital distribution platform together in an effort to prevent, or at least delay, the disruption they foresaw. For publishers, the fundamental concept would be to scale up to build a third strong competitor — or perhaps in an unlikely scenario, to acquire Digital Science. But, just as Hulu will change now that it will be majority owned by the merged Disney-Fox entity, so shared ownership of a workflow provider will not prove to be a completely lasting solution for all involved.
Not-for-Profit Alliance. Some publishers, especially society publishers and other not-for-profits, might try to build an alliance with the Center for Open Science, which needs to grapple with whether it seeks to complement other models or be an alternative to them. Such an alliance would not be simple to develop, both given current COS governance and its interest in introducing OA repositories with a vision to disrupt traditional publishing models. But perhaps society publishers could bring funding sources that would allow them together with COS to move to a long-term sustainable model.
Decentralize. All the previous approaches envision a centralized provider of workflow. But, perhaps a third party might see the opportunity to build a lighter-weight set of workflow tools that would operate on a decentralized basis. These might be connected together through a common authentication system or in some other fashion. Just as RedLink is developing Remarq as a decentralized scholarly collaboration network, so it would be possible to imagine some aspects of a similar approach for other types of scientific workflow.
Focus beyond the Sciences. Publishers that are less focused on laboratory and empirical science may find a different set of partners. For example, those publishers that are more focused on the social sciences or humanities might find that ProQuest, Ebsco, Humanities Commons, or even the Center for History and New Media, could offer different models of alignment.
Embedded in all these possibly strategic responses to the burgeoning workflow businesses and the extent to which they support or threaten publishers are antitrust questions, for example with respect to tying. All publishers that do not control workflow services themselves will wish to monitor the landscape vigilantly to ensure that their competitors are not exceeding legal boundaries. This is a case where trade associations unduly influenced by Elsevier and Springer Nature cannot be relied upon for community guidance, as interests may no longer align.
The right answer will depend on each publisher individually and also how they might act collectively. But the question before all is straightforward: What is your strategy to avoid being left behind as a content provider in a workflow world?