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?

John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

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?

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


9 Thoughts on "Workflow Strategy for Those Left Behind: Strategic Options"

It is good to see a more open and underdetermined set of futures in this second part of your post and your analysis. In the interest of still further broadening the outlook, two points. (1) let us consider how open access and mass participation is changing the environment for educational publishers (k-12 and college publishers alike). The big players in these fields might have felt as cosy as Elsevier and Nature 15 years ago. No longer. And they have rather quickly found out that investing in and controlling the infrastructure is not going to work for them. (2) even the “sciences” are becoming less monolithic and less uniform in their publishing requirements and expectations (re your ‘Focus beyond the sciences’) so new ways of delivering research and collaboration are bound to arise in some of the new sciences — eg machine learning climate change and cognitive science. Fields where the model and the computational structure is already more important than the multi-authored published paper. All of this suggests to me that publishing innovation rather than third choice “Hulu” strategies are what publishers should be thinking about.

This is a tangent to Roger’s post but this caught my eye: “they have rather quickly found out that investing in and controlling the infrastructure is not going to work for them” … yet they seem to be attempting to double-down on that by strategy and moving to enclose OER content inside platforms. You see it differently?

I think the point is that the bigger players will control the infrastructure (they already do), but the smaller players will be squeezed out. Networked tech leads to consolidation.

Reading a recent blog by Audrey Watters I have the strong impression that educational publishers notably Pearson have given up on their attempt to control the learning platform. Even pure educational platform-plays are finding it tough Blackboard Moodle et al. And it’s not clear what the real s/w platforms are trying to do in Ed-tech. Apple Google Amazon. But they are doing something

Strategy is one thing, execution is another.

Whatever the organizational structure (society/library collaboration) or business model (open source, commercial), building a better workflow mousetrap carries significant implementation risk and the expenditure of scarce resources. And, whatever is “best-of-breed” technology today may not be tomorrow – so it’s never a one-time project.

That’s why long-term strategy relating to publishing workflow has less to do with organizational structure and systems, and more to do with portability and standards, enabling the “decentralize” approach you mention. With open standards in place, optimal systems can come and go without lock-in and minimizing execution risk, allowing publishers/societies to remain focused on their core value-add.

Technology is changing very quickly and the cost of maintaining a competitive advantage is really too high for a small publisher. Thus, the question emerges as to should a small publisher like a society or association continue to engage in the back room process. Book publishers abandoned producing their books back in the 50s. In short, they farmed out production to printers.

Since the big houses like Elsevier, Springer and Willy, etc. leave editorial decisions up to the folks they co publish in exchange for providing production, marketing, sales, and distribution why is it not wise for the small publishers to just co publish?
In short, hand over the back room operations to those who can afford to invest in them!

This is a highly vexed issue, Harvey. A small publisher both gains and loses when working with a larger publisher. The biggest loss is in data. This is not trivial, and it is becoming more important every day. Unfortunately, few small publishers are in a position to assess this situation. There is an asymmetry of information in the negotiations between the small publishers and the large.

I believe there are two key questions underlying the assumptions of these two articles. First, will the integrated workflows lock researchers into a path of a single publisher? Second, will integrated workflows engender brand loyalty?

The basis of these two questions is choice. Researchers, and ultimately authors, have a choice of where to submit articles. If the integrated workflow takes away that choice, then how would most react? There is already a sense among researchers as being “brains for hire.” Forcing publication in a limited number of journals would be yet another edict from universities and institutes along those lines. There have been many an article addressing this issue.

If researchers retain the choice of where to publish, would the convenience of the integrated workflow sufficiently raise the cost of switching to the other publishers? Would it create sufficient goodwill to dissuade researchers from seeking other alternatives?

Using the cell-phone industry as the model, the early entrants into the field attempted to lock down users by contracts (edict). The cost of switching was high. But competitors found ways to lower that barrier by offering no-contract phones and contract buy-outs. The big guys then offered convenience – a new phone every year or two “for free” – and increased service. The result? There are still many profitable major and minor players.

While I agree that all publishers need to be engaged in the entire research process, I don’t buy into the dire warnings that work-flow integration will leave us with only two publishing houses. Workflows cannot write manuscripts and cannot replace the decision-making of the researcher.

I’m afraid that there will be only two providers–at most. Choice is irrelevant if network effects lock a user in. I recommend that anyone who disagrees with this survey users of the contact management platform, which is a mainstay in corporate America. You can choose to leave Salesforce, but just try to do it. It’s a non-contractual form of lock-in. While you are at it, if you are an Amazon ebook user, try to switch to another service, leaving your Amazon library behind.

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