In the late 1990s, there was a tsunami of utopianism as content moved into the browser. Many were swept up by a belief that digital purveyance would be so cheap as to be virtually free; that content could be liberated from containers to become ubiquitous; and that previously hidden knowledge would be unlocked to the benefit of all. The subscription model and its walls of pay were certainly doomed.

The utopia hasn’t materialized, despite major efforts and significant change. The subscription model is still prevalent, and open access (OA) continues to be a relatively minor part of the scholarly publishing economy even 20 years hence. At the recent Researcher-to-Reader (R2R) conference, the difficulty of making OA business models work in isolation was a consistent theme. Gold OA has created conformity rather than disruption, both in the pricing of services via the model but also by further entrenching the largest publishers, who are better positioned to execute on its underlying economies of scale. Author-pays has also enabled a new type of publishing scam, the so-called “predatory publishers.”

Surf girl looking into distance

Now there may be another storm of change gathering on the horizon.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about the calm before the storm, which has been portrayed by some as the stagnation before the storm.

In our industry, the last decade does seem to have been one of relative stagnation when it comes to business models and their downstream effects (business models are governance, I remain convinced). Much of our thinking has ossified, so much so that politicians in the EU and elsewhere are now dictating how far we can innovate and how we conduct business. (When governments appropriate your innovation, you know you’re moving too slowly.) Publishers now behave as if there are two business models possible — site licenses and Gold OA APCs. These have been generally successful in combination, but everywhere you look, it seems we’re running out of rope. Nevertheless, the success of these may have kept us from pushing the boundaries or looking for other options.

Stagnation is occurring at the macro level in the information industry, with the narrowing of options in Silicon Valley perhaps the most surprising sign, especially given the dominance a few companies have achieved.

Once the hotbed of innovation around content distribution, Silicon Valley has been captured by an advertising-based business model that has turned out to be a flytrap, its billions of dollars too hard to resist even as the jaws close around the companies lured into it. As Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor in the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina, said during a recent podcast interview:

Here’s the ironic thing. Because it’s so easy to make money this way, Facebook and most of Silicon Valley is stuck in a non-innovative space. They’re not disrupting anything. They’re very non-innovative. They’re just sort of making a lot of money doing one thing, which is they’re ad brokers. There are all these other ways in which our social media could work. There are all these new technologies that they could harness to do things better. None of it is happening, really, as far as I can tell, because this is very profitable this way.

Stagnation means you’re a sitting duck, and sitting ducks are vulnerable. Facebook’s time-on-site is falling as users move to other platforms, many with subscription options and better revenue-sharing for content creators. Social media magnates are being castigated as “useful idiots” in the geopolitical turmoil that is roiling western Europe, the US, and Asia. Unreliable narrators — from partisans to bot armies — are everywhere. Silicon Valley executives are becoming aware of it, with Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, tweeting last week the following as part of a longer thread:

Russian hackers, propagandists of all stripes, and demagogues are dominating our media outlets by using the advertising-driven social platforms exactly as they were designed to be used — by targeting, building social validity by whatever means available, and making money all the while.

It doesn’t even take malfeasance to put a thumb on the scale, it turns out. Facebook’s advertising-responsive algorithm — which sells access for less if it deems the content more likely to be clicked (more “click-baity”) — itself seems to have intervened in our election. A story in WIRED outlines how adds run by Donald Trump cost 1-2 orders of magnitude less on Facebook than ads run by Hillary Clinton because the Trump ads were more inflammatory and extreme, making them far more likely to be clicked by the algorithm’s calculations:

If Facebook’s model thinks your ad is 10 times more likely to engage a user than another company’s ad, then your effective bid at auction is considered 10 times higher than a company willing to pay the same dollar amount.

This and other factors have led some to note that “Facebook isn’t safe at any speed.” The concern is about basic product design and commercial incentives, which are purveyed without the requisite responsibility, with all the risk externalized to society.

Within this stagnant and corrupted information space, another tsunami is generating a tide that may sweep away the detritus. This tsunami is more serious, less glib, arriving not with thunder and lightning but with steadily increasing winds. This stormfront views quantity skeptically and promotes quality; avoids zero-sum business models and pursues win-win business models; shuns producer-pays economics and promotes recipient-pays economics; and overturns amateur work in preference for professional outputs.

An article in the Atlantic puts the solution to what it terms a “media apocalypse” succinctly:

Pivot to readers.

In short, the tide is shifting toward the subscription model.

This larger storm has the potential to transform Silicon Valley’s business model. If so, it will also shift the tide our industry rides.

An early Facebook advisor has suggested that Facebook itself must fundamentally change, with Roger McNamee recently writing in the Washington Post:

Facebook could adopt a business model that does not depend on surveillance, addiction and manipulation: subscriptions. . . . Facebook might allow customers to choose between its current model and subscriptions. Customers who remained on the advertising-supported service would still be subject to filter bubbles, addiction and manipulation, but growth in subscriptions would reduce the population of affected people. Subscription services could be implemented not only in the United States but also in most of the developed world. This wouldn’t just be good for Facebook. It would be good for America and for democracy globally.

As Tufekci states in the interview with her referenced above:

I would like to change the business model [of Facebook] to be the customer.

YouTube has pivoted to the subscription model, and has consequently become a much better curator, as this tweet from fellow-Chef Todd Carpenter from this week’s ER&L meeting in Austin reflects:

The subscription model inherently raises the right guardrails for content because content purveyors have to please the reader. By pivoting to the subscription model, YouTube has pivoted to the reader.

When major voices in Silicon Valley begin praising a shift in business models in compelling terms, change is afoot on a grand scale. And there are compelling social and business reasons to make the shift. Subscription models are more lucrative, less prone to exploitation, and more stable. From a purely business standpoint, the potential to make more money with less volatility and fewer headaches certainly must appeal to the beleaguered leaders at Twitter and Facebook. Add to this the fact that peer companies — Netflix, Amazon, Apple — are succeeding with the subscription model and largely keeping themselves out of hot water, and you can see a confluence of incentives.

In our industry, the Gold OA model is now relatively long in the tooth, while possessing many of the characteristics the broader information economy is suddenly finding problematic — producer-pays economics, volume prized over quality, and risk externalized to the user and society via non-professionalized content in repositories and preprint servers, as well as lower editorial standards.

Innovation has arrived with subscription businesses, from metered paywalls generating millions for newspapers to the Wall Street Journal’s new predictive paywall.

Another harbinger of change is WIRED’s move to the subscription model, with the likes of the Atlantic, Business Insider, and CNN all either launching or announcing digital subscription products in the past year.

Like a refreshing breeze, innovation has arrived with the subscription model, from metered paywalls generating billions for newspapers to the Wall Street Journal’s new predictive paywall, which uses various data signals to predict a user’s likelihood to subscribe:

Non-subscribed visitors to now each receive a propensity score based on more than 60 signals, such as whether the reader is visiting for the first time, the operating system they’re using, the device they’re reading on, what they chose to click on, and their location (plus a whole host of other demographic info it infers from that location). Using machine learning to inform a more flexible paywall takes away guesswork around how many stories, or what kinds of stories, to let readers read for free, and whether readers will respond to hitting paywall by paying for access or simply leaving. . . . The Journal has found that these non-subscribed visitors fall into groups that can be roughly defined as hot, warm, or cold.

It’s noted in the article that using “propensity modeling” isn’t new — the technique is widely used by app developers for in-app purchases. As a form of targeting, it’s reminiscent of traditional marketing with differential prices or offers to core or non-core markets, different professional statuses, or various educational standings. In its immediacy and complexity, it’s a leap in sophistication.

There’s a tangent here I wish to pursue. It involves Baumol’s disease, an eponymous economic theory in which work that requires more human effort rises in cost at a pace that far exceeds the average. Given the falling prices for manufactured and automatable products and services, the net to the overall economy is manageable. For example, while costs for healthcare and education have risen at levels far above inflation, these costs have been offset largely by cost savings elsewhere — in cheaper clothing, food, electronics, and transportation.

The twist in Baumol’s disease is that the threat doesn’t come from the problems associated with rising costs, but from the problems associated with cheap, widely available, and disposable goods. These problems include pollution, global warming (more factories, more people driving affordable cars), and over-consumption of natural resources. The problems with expensive things are money problems, while the problems caused by cheaper goods are difficult if not impossible to rectify because they affect the natural environment.

To turn this to analogy, the price we’re paying for cheaper information is akin to pollution, with confusion and polarization giving our version its own bitter flavor. Will there be long-term effects? Are they harder to undo? I believe the answer is yes. Anti-vaccination lies have been with us for 20 years. The effects of Russian election meddling (Brexit, Trump) will be with us for decades. The erosion of the scientific foundations of Western republics and democracies will be hard to undo. The social fissures caused by social media will be hard to close. All of this was due to cheap information, not because of expensive information.

The price we pay later is not always the price we pay at the start. Perhaps as the subscription model returns, we can pay the price up front in the form of money, instead of paying a steeper set of prices years or decades later due to an unforeseen undertow.

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.

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50 Thoughts on "Catching the Wave — The Tide Turns Toward the Subscription Model"

Kent, Thanks for continuing to track the subscription model and evidence of its possible return in the consumer sector. I wonder if you also see evidence of its return for the scholarly publishing sector?

Hi Roger. I wouldn’t portray the subscription model to the consumer space as a “possible return” but rather an “expanding success story.” People are paying for more subscriptions now than ever, from streaming music, streaming video, news, cable, cell phone, Amazon Prime, Netflix, anti-virus software, tax preparation software, and more. Automobile companies are rolling out subscriptions to cars. The New York Times and Washington Post have earned hundreds of millions of dollars via their revamped subscription paypoints. Consumers seem to be very comfortable with the subscription model.

One point of this post was to show how our industry might be missing a huge trend in business models that is proving successful in many other places. We seem beholden to two business model options — site licenses and APCs — especially for valuable content, which is still king (note that ResearchGate and Sci-Hub validate this in a perverse way).

That said, things are emerging. Mendeley has storage subscriptions that I’ve heard are pretty successful ( Some journals are experimenting with metered paywalls ( Some journals still have robust membership and subscription businesses, although they need to be revisited to be resuscitated — things have changed. There are innovations they can bring to the model to modernize it, and make it more effective.

I think they should invest in the subscription model. There’s a lot at stake, both financially and socially.

Hi Kent, The subscription model is healthy, I agree, notwithstanding the extreme pressure on it for text bundles in the consumer sector. I think we’ll continue to see subscription models in the scholarly and scientific research platform spaces, without doubt, but I guess I’m wondering about text bundles in that sector. Science is an interesting example, and I’d welcome more of them, but my impression is one of pressure and uncertainty (see Germany and Elsevier) rather than expanding success.

There will always be lag in change. Look at how long it took Wal-Mart to embrace e-commerce while Amazon was eating its lunch. Look at how long it took YouTube to embrace subscriptions while Netflix and Hulu thrived with them. What I think unites both the German libraries and Elsevier should be a focus on the user/reader, whom they both serve. The fact that anyone in the negotiations has lost track of that seems to be a symptom of not pivoting to the reader.

Devaluing business models that are reader-centric leaves you with options that are producer-centric, and those options lead to abuses we’ve seen destabilize large swaths of society via unreliable information and exploitation of the follow-on surveillance society these usher in.

Thanks for this post, Kent. Good to see more examples of innovation from outside scholarly publishing presented on TSK. I think the subscription model and its different flavors may represent an “expanding success story” opportunity for maybe the top “1 percent journals.” However, the WaPos and NYTs of the world have fundamentally different pressures and competitors than scholarly journals. Potential readership of millions versus hundreds or thousands allow for relatively low subscription rates (sub $100 a year) that are palatable for enough customers to represent significant revenue, in ADDITION to advertising. I’m not seeing a big move to ad-free subscriptions. Yet to see a Sci-Hub and Unpaywall analogs for journalism. I don’t think the NYT and WaPo are dependent on content funded by a growing number of government, private, and corporate (yes, corporate) funders mandating open access publishing. Nor are they being pressured by open science advocates. I assume that most of their readership hasn’t become dependent on access to journals via their institution or society membership which has resulted in the cratering of non-member paid subs. I wholeheartedly agree that publishers need to innovate beyond site licenses and APCs. And yes, we should look for cues from outside our scholarly bubble. But perhaps in another direction. What we are really publishing now are less and less journals and more and more data. Those who publish the best data and know how to market and sell its value will succeed.

Google and Facebook have been the Unpaywall and Sci-Hub analogs for journalism. They decimated small to mid-size newspapers. However, those that are surviving built online subscription offerings early, and are doing better thanks to those. There are other innovations possible, as well.

Wellcome Trust just announced they are reviewing their OA policy given the costs they are incurring ( All these mandates, and OA generally as a business model, centralize costs, so it’s no surprise that Wellcome is starting to see a problem. The subscription model spreads costs, as you note. The larger the audience, the lower the price to each person. There is no way OA scales like this.

I remember when a publisher I worked for doubled the subscription price of the publications I worked on, from $99 to $198 per year. We all thought the sky would fall. We lost maybe 5% of the subscribers, and response rates actually went up in our marketing appeals. People perceived the extra expense as extra value, and paid accordingly. I think we’ve also talked ourselves into a pricing conundrum, and need to test some higher prices to see how they work.

All these mandates, and OA generally as a business model, centralize costs, so it’s no surprise that Wellcome is starting to see a problem. The subscription model spreads costs, as you note. The larger the audience, the lower the price to each person. There is no way OA scales like this.

Something that stuck with me right after the Finch Report (and I believe it was in an Elsevier response to the Report) was a look at the numbers. The UK produces around 5-6% of the world’s published research. Yet, the UK pays between 3% and 4% of the world’s subscription revenue. So moving to any system where the producer pays was going to be way more expensive for them. Hard to believe anyone is surprised by this.

Thanks for the reply, Kent. Google, Facebook, Craigslist, and Monster killed local newspapers because they offered advertisers a better solution. Not because they were offering readers access to free content, which is what Sci-Hub and Unpaywall facilitate. Google and Facebook drive content usage.

Another advantage journalism currently has over scholarly publishing is the current sociopolitical climate. I don’t have data to support this assertion, but I think a significant contributor to paid subscription growth for WaPo and NYT is the public’s defense and support of quality journalism. It is a big motivator for me in paying for content. The public and academic sentiment for paywalled journals is quite the opposite.

I predict that Wellcome will double down on OA. Maybe mandating their funded researchers to publish on Wellcome Open Research instead of supporting APCs?

Lastly, I agree that publishers can be better at pricing. However, for many society journals that are a high value member benefit, a doubling of rates will drive individuals to membership or alternative access, which could be a positive if it is a new institutional subscription or a negative if it is Sci-hub or lower-cost rental/PPV, another option not commonly seen for papers and magazine.

I predict that Wellcome will double down on OA. Maybe mandating their funded researchers to publish on Wellcome Open Research instead of supporting APCs?

That’s going to be a really hard sell for any Wellcome funded researchers with graduate students or postdocs on their papers, not to mention non-Wellcome collaborators. It’s one thing to limit the career advancement of someone that you’re promising continuing funds to, but if I’m a postdoc about to hit the job market, I want to pick the right venue for my paper that’s going to help me get a position, not one that makes my soon-to-be-former boss’ funders happy. And if I happen to collaborate with a Wellcome researcher, I’m not going to let that person’s funder hurt my career or the career prospects of my students.

Would a researcher really not apply for a grant because the funder has a requirement to publish on their platform? I’ve never been a researcher like you but if the potential funding has a publishing requirement I think I would have to give it serious consideration. There are 177 articles on Wellcome Open Research since December 2016. Yes, a tiny fraction of the 1200-1500 annual grants awarded. Gates Open Research has 31 articles since November 2017. Will be interesting to see if publishing on these funder platforms accelerates.

I’m willing to bet that most researchers wouldn’t think about this much until it came back to bite them. No one is going to turn down funding, but a requirement like this would lead to a lot of complications. Not sure folks would consider them in advance though (but hopefully Wellcome is smart enough to do so). What if you collaborated with someone with Gates funding, and they were required to publish in Gates F1000? How would you reconcile the two? How would you explain to your student that no, you can’t publish your paper in Nature, so you aren’t going to be able to get that good job?

Some data on the Wellcome journal so far — one oddity seems to be that they have a 98% acceptance rate (which makes one question the thoroughness of their peer review process)

Two unconnected ponderings …

Yet society memberships are falling rapidly. One of the historically valued benefits was that it was a subscription to publications. Should we expect an uptick then?

Many of the consumer examples have either essentially made it impossible for libraries to be subscribers any longer or never offered that model at all. Is that a trend to expect in the scholarly publishing space?

Thanks for this thought provoking piece.

Society memberships aren’t falling across the board. Some are growing rapidly. It depends on the field. It depends on the society.

Libraries may not be part of upcoming subscription models. Why would a library subscribe to Netflix or Spotify? Personal subscriptions may do to the library site license what the library site license did to personal subscriptions. This is what I meant by using “the tide is turning” imagery. I think if libraries and their institutional parents continue to be unable to support the growth in scientific and scholarly outputs in an economically viable way, publishers and other providers will start going around and over them, and make deals with the actual end-users again.

I’m sitting on Amtrak waiting for us to be allowed to pass by freight trains did my connectivity isn’t great for finding citations 🙂 … however the last data I saw is that societal membership is falling rapidly overall with few exceptions. Very interested in any contrary reports.

As to scholarly publishers selling directly to ends users … not unless publishes are going to sue end users for using SciHub, ResearchGate, etc. Otherwise. Free and easy is beating free and inconvenient so it certainly will beat any price.

News remains relatively freely available, yet when it was clear that journalism needed support to counter social damage being wrought by advertising-driven and producer-pays media outlets, subscriptions came roaring back.

Publishers don’t need to sue end-users — they need to mitigate the effectiveness of Sci-Hub and ResearchGate, which they are doing. Sci-Hub is struggling to remain up, and chasing hosting services and indexing while facing more suits and fines if they ever move out of their hidey-hole. ResearchGate may well pivot to a subscription model itself, with revenue-sharing back to the publishers.

Free and easy extracts prices that we’re beginning to feel are too high and unacceptable at a visceral level, I believe. The risk to brands that purvey free content while spying on users, allowing their platforms to be exploited by propagandists, and so forth, is too high. I think the days of “free and easy” are being seen for what they are — exploitative and damaging.

Academic librarian with a journalism degree here. I read with interest the comments re: individual subscriptions vs. site licenses. I’m an advocate for subscriptions, but if I look at the things I subscribe to in my personal, they are things I read cover to cover, like a local or national newspaper, or magazine focusing on a specific interest. I don’t think that analogy carries over to academic research, which is increasingly interdisciplinary and, even if it’s not, there are a gazillion journals for every subdiscipline. And in fact, publishers seem to love coming up with ever more niche titles, and then justifying their price increases to libraries on the basis that they’ve added all these extra titles, as though the world were crying out for another microbiology journal. Nobody can subscribe to them all; at most people will be willing to shell out for top-tier or general-interest journals, but when they need an article from a niche publication, they will still have the same problem they have now. This is why I like models like the current generation of music services, where you pay a monthly fee, and can access anything you want. I can download What Does the Fox Say for the two months my kids will drive me crazy with it on repeat, without having to pay for it specifically. I’m not sure how we translate this model to academia; the library has historically fulfilled this function, but increasingly we can’t stretch our budget dollars to match the growth of the industry.

You note, “if libraries and their institutional parents continue to be unable to support the growth in scientific and scholarly outputs in an economically viable way, publishers and other providers will start going around and over them, and make deals with the actual end-users again.” I actually completely support this for certain types of content; I don’t see why the library should be paying for InCites when it’s used to support teaching and research, but by institutional analysts for a highly specific purpose (though a model where the library lends its expertise to licensing these products on behalf of those with the dollars makes a lot of sense).

I’m also seeing a lot of publishers starting to market instructional content like lectures and videos to academic libraries. I refuse to even consider this stuff, given collections budget cuts. If instructors want to outsource their teaching, that money needs to come from somewhere else. For niche products like this, I think individual subscriptions make a lot of sense.

Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that the specific market and readership for a specific article in a journal like JACS is rather small. Thus, people do not read a journal but read a specific article. I think that is why the mega journals tout number of articles and not number of readers.
As publishers we know what the costs are to bring an article to light. That is why the major publishers quickly became the leaders in OA publishing. They had deep pockets, an established ms processing system, and most importantly an appreciation of the market size.
In STEM we are not talking about millions of casual NYT readers who a given percentage of are willing to pay $1 to continue reading a story. Thus, we are not willing to invest in what it would take to get say 300 readers to continue reading or have access to a data set. That would just be too expensive backroom wise and the cost to the reader would be way to high.
In short, I think the size of the markets limit at this time what is feasible regarding innovation in STEM publishing. On the other hand, the selling of data is not the same as the selling of journals. The first question is who is going to buy the data, do we have enough data, and how does the customer want it packaged? A new can of worms!

I think you’re wrong. Readers have affinity with brands and what they represent. JACS represents something of value as a brand, and done correctly, the experience with that brand can have value, even if every article isn’t exactly relevant. I know readers who like how certain brands attract the right kinds of ads, for crying out loud. I just experienced this myself reading a trade magazine. People are interested in all aspects of a field of study, the commercial and non-commercial both. The editorial selection and brand attributes of a JACS or an NEJM or a Neurology are worth managing carefully, and the value of the article is often secondary to the value of the brand. One could argue the brand makes the article more valuable.

Mega-journals tout number of articles because they brand themselves as “mega.” Also, their business model depends on volume.

The entire STEM journals fields was built on subscriptions. Site licenses came later. Why we think it’s not feasible when the vast majority of information services are sold on a subscription model now suggests a lack of imagination, not a hard wall of reality.

It’s interesting to hear that change is underway, as seen in the WSJ’s predictive paywall model. In taking a step back from this specific topic and looking at this posting overall, I see something that relates to questions posed in the recent reader survey for The Scholarly Kitchen. There are time when, as an academic librarian, I am sometimes put off by the overwhelmingly publisher-centric voice of this blog. Although I read it regularly, I have encountered other academic librarians who no longer read it for this reason. When a writer uses a phrase such as, “In our industry,” in a blog that I believe is supposed to be for publishing professionals, as well as academics and beyond, it speaks to those former blog readers’ comments. More inclusive language would be helpful when trying to obtain and retain a broad audience. I realize that the SSP is mostly comprised of publishing professionals, but since the 10th anniversary reader survey asked for this type of feedback, I thought providing a specific example would be beneficial.

Thanks Abbie, your thoughts are appreciated (hope you voiced them in the survey as well). It’s something I’ve been thinking about too, both in presentations to society journal publishing partners (are the scholarly societies part of the “industry”, or at least, is that how they see themselves?). I think it’s largely going to vary depending on the individual writing the post. One of our ongoing goals is to increase the diversity of those voices, so hopefully you’ll hear more from different angles in the future.

I was very aware of the library stakeholder when using the phrase “in our industry.” Forgive me, but what industry do you imagine academic librarians belong to if not the scholarly communication and information industry?

In any event, the attempt was to be inclusive of all the stakeholders who seek to serve students, researchers, and practitioners in STEM (STEAM) fields. I also think, as much of the commentary has shown here, that these changes may be of particular interest to librarians and academic administrators.

It’s the term “industry” itself. I don’t work for a corporate, for-profit enterprise. So, I think of myself as a member of a profession, not an industry. (Having worked for a for-profit enterprise in the past, there is absolutely a distinct difference.) Academic librarians at non-profit institutions interact regularly with members of the information industry, such as publishers and database vendors, but we are separate from them. It may seem to some to be a squabble over semantics to suggest that “In our profession” would be a better phrase. However, since TSK seeks to be more inclusive, and we know that language matters, I thought I’d voice this opinion.
And, yes, these changes are of interest to librarians and that was the impetus behind my comment. I thought it would help to hear feedback on something that may be preventing TSK from reaching more of us. Thanks.

Professionals work in industries. As someone who worked in non-profits for 20+ years, I never thought I wasn’t working in an industry, no matter my professional role. As for the difference between for-profit and non-profit, I think it’s not as significant as you might think (see: I’ve known non-profits that have failed, been liquidated, and so forth. In the 2008 financial crisis, universities with their investment funds hit hard were quick to layoff people.

I think librarians, publishers, editors, and other professionals in this industry serve students, researchers, practitioners, and others. To think that there are professions in this industry that somehow stand outside of it is a bit of a strange concept to me.

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I do think if I am put off by the language, then it’s likely that others are as well. I’m going to conclude my comments with this post.

I don’t know — I doubt many academic researchers and professors would refer to themselves as part of the education “industry”. I’m not sure there’s a good all-encompassing word to substitute instead. Sometimes we use “scholarly communications landscape” or “ecosystem”, or just “scholarly communications”, awkward as those can be.

Sorry Kent, but no, professionals do not by definition work in industries. Some do, but it’s by no means a requirement. Would most doctors say they work in the medical “industry” or the medical “profession”? My money’s on the latter. And I agree entirely with Abbie – in 30 years as an academic librarian I in no way consider myself to be a member of the education or library “industry”, and never have. I DO, however, consider myself to be a professional and a member of a profession. And just to see if I was wrong about my interpretation of “professional”, I went to, my favorite dictionary site, and looked at over a half-dozen different definitions of “professionals”. Not one mentions the word “industry”, but almost all mention “profession”, which is exactly the distinction that Abbie was making in her initial reply.

I’m with you on the point that not everything that people do for a living should be called an “industry”. But it doesn’t solve the initial problem pointed out — what’s a good collective noun for those involved in scholarly communication?

From an economic point of view, doctors work in the healthcare industry. That does nothing to diminish their professional credentials or abilities. This post was about the business of publishing, so it seems perfectly appropriate to refer to it as an industry. Diving into the dictionary, “industry” can be defined as “any general business activity; commercial enterprise.”

As individuals, we are professionals. As a collective, we appear in the economy as members of an industry, an economic collective of related enterprises. It seems perfectly clear to me, and I can’t see why anyone would take umbrage at any of this.

We also shouldn’t let these details detract from the main point of this post, which is that our industry may be in for a fundamental shift of business models, with implications for many of the professionals involved.

Point taken about the collective noun issue, David. In my initial reply I was trying primarily to emphasize Abbie’s point that not all professionals would agree with Kent’s declaration that professionals work in industries.

Back to the collective noun issue – I don’t really have what I consider to be a particularly good answer. I did some poking around on synonym sites just now looking at options for “industry”, “profession”, “vocation”, “occupation”, “line of work” and a couple others. The only thing that showed up in almost every case and that wasn’t an obvious business term was “field”. While I don’t work in the scholarly communication “industry”, I’d be fine with telling someone I worked in the scholarly communication “field” or the “field” of scholarly communication, imperfect (and fuzzy) though that descriptor may be. Anybody else out there have any suggestions?

I hate the industry language. I am in a community as an academic and editor. And we publish our own journals. The idea is that they are free so that knowledge is available not just to those with $. All in a community.

I’m late to this discussion but just wanted to thank you for raising the language issue both here and in your survey responses. I’m not a big fan of industry as “our” collective noun either but I do use it – partly because it’s in common usage and partly out of laziness. Neither of which are good reasons to do so! Your comments have prompted me to check myself more often (including updating some slides I’ve just written for an upcoming presentation). So thanks again!

I found it helpful as well. I think of “industry” as Google’s first definition does: “economic activity concerned with the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods in factories.” I recognize that this is not the only definition, but professionals generally do not work in factories. I also have some concerns with the focus on professionals, which I sometimes find to be exclusionary as well, dividing employees into two categories, since all our organizations also employ “non-professionals” in this way of thinking. I’d like to suggest the term “sector,” as in the scholarly communications (or information, or publishing) sector. That’s generally been my preferred term, but I think “field” works well also.

I think “sector” and “field” are both helpful. They’re just generic enough to include educational institutions as well as profit and non-profit publishers. As for “professionals,” you make a good point that I should have come to on my own. For years, library staff who were not librarians were called “paraprofessionals” much to the dismay of many. This professional/non-professional dichotomy caused a good deal of pain in staff relations for some time.

I appreciate you, Abbie, raising awareness around “industry” and how that led to a very interesting discussion. I’ll admit, I say about myself (a librarian) quite regularly that I work in the “higher education industry” so I’m not particularly put off by the word industry and I don’t at feel it tracks to profit/non-profit per se. In the context of SK, though, I think the challenging word for me is “our” in “our industry” – and if the “our” isn’t understood by the reader in the way that the author intended. Speaking for myself, as an author – if I’m not communicating clearly with my readers, I’d like to improve. In my case, if I said “in our industry” – I’d mean “higher education” not “scholarly publishing/communication” … so I’m making a mental note to read my drafts with an eye to multiple perspectives to make certain that I don’t create any impressions of exclusion of publishers, etc. – which I wouldn’t intend but I’d still want to guard against.

Thanks, Lisa. Yes, it was all about “our” — I don’t think librarians see themselves in the same “industry” as publishers, regardless of whether the publisher is a for- or non-profit entity. We may exist in the same ecosystem as say, Elsevier or ProQuest, but they are “other” to us. And, I believe there’s too much bad blood, price hikes, and slashed budgets to change that in anything other than a geological time frame. It’s been such adversarial relationship for so long. And I think that’s one reason why so many librarians welcome and are spending energy on OA. There are other reasons, but breaking the negative bond is pretty dang attractive. (bad chemistry pun.)

Thanks to all for this discussion. One of the tricky things about unconscious biases is that you don’t see them until someone points them out. I would argue that many in academia have an unfair bias against “business”, an assumption that it can’t be anywhere near as hard as what they do (which is why so many professors who have never run a business in their lives are so happy to offer advice to publishers).

But people deserve to be called by the terms that they wish to have used. This is, for example, an area of increasing awareness in terms of gender identity. And for the record, like Alice, I just went through the talk I’m giving tomorrow and deleted the word “industry” from it, mostly substitution “scholarly communication” in its place.

Thanks Kent – this is a very interesting piece. One annoying thing about subscriptions to individual journals is that not all the papers you want to read are in that (small) subset of journals.

Can you therefore foresee individuals being able to buy subscriptions to much larger collections of articles? How much would it cost for an individual subscription to the entire Elsevier corpus? Perhaps there’s room for third party subscription brokers that assemble cross-publisher subscription packages for a particular field?

The aggregated subscription approach is certainly one to consider. Spotify, Hulu, and others are reflective of this, as are cable television providers. I can imagine a subscription aggregation that would have 1-2 premium channels, a bunch of mid-tier channels, and some startup channels for a low price.

What’s interesting is that the trend seems to be pushing in the other direction, at least at this point in the pendulum swing, at least in the television industry. That is, as cord-cutters assert themselves, they are buying more individual subscriptions and leaving the bundled, aggregated cable model. Maybe one benefit of the subscription model will be selectivity. Maybe the cord-cutters of that industry are a prelude to the Big Deal cutters making noise in ours? Definitely something to watch.

One additional enticement for subscription packages would be bundling other publication-related services (data hosting, authoring platforms, private statistics review, etc etc).

This is not an Elsevier project, but encompasses a wide array of publishers (for the record, Elsevier publishes way less than 10K journals, even if it seems like it).

I’m late to the discussion, but I’ve just come across an article which calls to be cited in here, to reply to one of the Kent’s comments:
“Sci-Hub is struggling to remain up, and chasing hosting services and indexing while facing more suits and fines if they ever move out of their hidey-hole.”
Ekhm. No, it is not. Sci-Hub is alive, in good shape, and unlikely to go away:
(to quote from the conclusions of this study: “In essence, scholarly publishers may have already lost the access battle.”, see also in the response to the reviewers at the bottom of the article)
In a bit of tongue-in-cheek tone, there exists already an individual subscription to all (well, 96,9%) Elsevier articles: it costs 0$ per year and is called Sci-Hub.
Sci-Hub is illegal, but this mere fact won’t make the site go away (cf. marijuana). And the scale of it makes it something to take into account in the publishing strategy. Or so I guess, being not a publisher, but a reader.

When domain providers are terminating service ( and users aren’t able to reliably find a service due to legal injunctions ( and the service has to publish lists of working domains because it’s so unpredictable (, I’d say Sci-Hub is struggling to remain up.

Enjoyed reading this article and thinking through the posts.
One remark, subscription models should be introduced for enhanced customer experiences, heavy-users, commercial/corporate-oriented users, etc.
Subscription models should NOT be seen as the solution to product intrinsic failures like some quotes in the article try to suggest or justify.
On this line, Todd Carpenter’s tweet is spot-on while Roger McNamee is approaching the problem from the wrong angle (or the right commercial angle as I am not against of a commercial product trying to be more profitable )

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