As many smart people have predicted, consolidation within scholarly publishing will continue to make big news well into 2019.

Clarivate acquires Kopernio. Elsevier acquires bepress, Plum Analytics, and SSRN. Wiley acquires Atypon, etc., etc. We have also discussed with great interest the desire of the big publishers to offer start-to-finish workflow solutions. Roger Schonfeld warned of “lock in” while others argued business diversification.

Stealer’s Wheel on TopPop, 1973, performing their hit, “Stuck In The Middle With You”. Image via Beeld en Geluidwiki, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

The workflow tools have been particularly interesting to watch. Elsevier has made their intentions clear with acquisitions such as SSRN, bePress, and now Aries Systems, developer of the Editorial Manager suite of submission, peer review, and production tracking tools.

Wiley has also made moves in this direction, albeit in a different way. Wiley acquired platform provider Atypon to build out their workflow tools. As a Wiley corporation, Atypon has purchased Authorea, Manuscripts.app, and a small company that became the basis of Scitrus (an electronic Table Of Contents [eTOC] personalization tool). These services are in addition to the Literatum platform that hosts more than 40% of English-language journals; a preprint server currently operated for the American Geophysical Union; and a forthcoming eReader.

Whew. Atypon laid out this start-to-finish platform solution at their US User Group meeting this summer, which was attended by current customers and Wiley executives. It would be easy to say that Atypon is developing a world-class platform that cuts across the publishing continuum, but it would be more accurate to say that Wiley is developing a researcher-to-reader workflow solution. I am sure some of this development was on Atypon’s roadmap prior to the Wiley acquisition and may in fact been one of the reasons Atypon was attractive to Wiley.

There is one piece missing from the Atypon/Wiley flow and that is a peer-review submission and tracking system. Currently, most of Wiley’s journals are using Scholar One, owned by Clarivate Analytics. I don’t see how leasing a third-party system will fit these perceived workflow goals so I will predict here that Atypon builds a submission system sometime in the not so far off future.

Many of us on the Atypon platform were varying degrees of concerned about the sale to Wiley. The concerns were entirely about a publisher owning the platform that housed the content of many other publishers. We are faced with the same situation now that Elsevier has bought Aries Systems. A publisher that competes with many of Aries Systems’ customers, now owns the submission and production system used by these publishers.

For some of us, like my organization (American Society of Civil Engineers), it’s a double-whammy. Our platform with all of it’s content and user data is owned by Wiley. Our submission system with all of our author and editorial data is owned by Elsevier.

Now would be a good time to talk about the “firewall.” Both companies have promised, and I have no reason to doubt this, that they are taking great care to ensure that our data does not leak to our competitors (who now call the shots). I also personally know many people at both Aries Systems and Atypon and I believe that they understand the importance of safeguarding customer data.

There are other ramifications, however.

The Roadmap

As a medium-large self-published society, we have felt that we have some influence over the future plans, or roadmap, of our technology partners. This may have been totally in our own heads, but we believed that we had input, even in a small way, on future developments. This is no longer the case.

It will take some time for us to adjust to our new insignificance in this respect, but there may be an upside. Maybe, just maybe, Elsevier’s vision for Editorial Manager is bigger and better. Maybe development on Atypon’s Literatum platform will be better and faster with Wiley pushing the changes. In other words, maybe our business will benefit from the big publishers making the tools we use better.

The Squeeze

Revisiting the situation my organization is facing, with Elsevier owning our submission and production system and Wiley owning our platform, there is significant concern that we can be priced out of services or see a measurable loss of service.

Let’s start with pricing, I don’t think either service will just announce higher pricing overnight; however, it seems entirely plausible that upgrades will cost a whole lot more. One component of service may be replaced with a newer version that now carries with it a higher cost. Self-published societies and smaller publishers will have difficulty absorbing additional costs, making them even more vulnerable to partnership offers from big commercial publishers.

Loss of services is also a concern. We were an early adopter of Aries Systems’ Production Manager. What if Elsevier doesn’t need a production management database? Will they continue to upgrade and develop this product?

What Are They Buying?

Wiley needed a platform. Elsevier needed a submission system. The decision is to build or buy. I always say “buy” because these systems are way harder to build than most of us think. Just consider the recent updates needed for GDPR. Systems like Editorial Manager and Literatum are hit pretty hard with having to make system changes they weren’t anticipating. These technology acquisitions make sense.

That said, there is another purchase being made. As Joe Esposito quipped on Twitter, they are also buying customers. Wiley owns Atypon customers. For the Wiley partnered journals, this is just billed as “synergy”. For those not already in the Wiley family, it’s a bargaining chip.

Elsevier owns Aries’ Systems customers. As one of my colleagues at Elsevier tweeted at me, “We finally get to work together.”

Others speculated that Elsevier, no longer a publishing company but rather a data analytics company, is buying data. This would only be true if there is no real firewall built to protect those of us not “synergizing.”

Lining the Pockets

Publications staff are often asked to identify the threats to our publishing programs, particularly as societies see challenges ahead for membership revenue. I always tell people that competing with the big publishers will continue to be a threat. They can offer more bells and whistles to our users and authors.

The paradigm shift today, is that societies on publisher-owned platforms or now publisher-owned submission systems are paying lots of money to those competing publishers. That is a particularly hard pill to swallow.

Now What?

I do not intend to be critical of technology companies selling to big publishers. In the case of both Atypon and Aries Systems, these were excellent long-standing companies each with a single owner. I understand the need for an exit strategy and I wish all involved much success.

I am concerned about what I will call “lock out.” As some librarians are concerned about their faculty, students, and institutions being “locked in” to one particular publisher’s services, I am concerned about society and small publishers being “locked out” of critical technology services.

There are alternative partners if it looks like things are going south, but these platforms and systems require the jaws of life to extricate yourself. There are inexpensive open source options if you happen to work for a society or small publisher that has the internal expertise and resources laying around to fiddle with customizing a new platform or workflow tool. Many do not.

Business is business. It’s not personal. We all need to make a living. I do wonder if there is a line in the sand anywhere. Which acquisition will be one too many?

Discussion

35 Thoughts on "Clowns to the Left of Me… Jokers to the Right: The Independent Publisher in an Age of Mergers and Acquisitions"

I’ve submitted most of my papers through the ‘normal’ submission systems owned by Aries and Clarivate, but I recently also submitted to a journal using the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems (which I believe is alluded to at the end as an “inexpensive open source option”).

The commercial offerings are better, but to be honest – not by much (at least for me as an author). OJS is a bit more fiddly, but actually not that bad. I have spent an hour or two trying to submit on commercial platforms as files refused to upload and pages of data that I had finished went and undid themselves. So if you were to ask me whether I would rather an independent publisher to charge me more (e.g. page charges or APCs) or to spend a few minutes learning how to navigate OJS, I would go with OJS.

And over time, if PKP got a bit of extra support, I’m sure OJS would get better faster. Its platform at the moment is a bit underwhelming, but if you do some customization on it then it can actually look quite nice. There are many OJS journals out there that are run part time out of individual university departments or with minimal support from their library, so I assume the production side is not that demanding, at least for smaller publishers.

Escaping the ecosystem may not be practical for independent publishers just yet, depending on their size, but I think within the next few years independent publishers will have more options.

Angela, thank you for this compelling post! Yes, the trend is certain. Does it not, therefore, fall at the feet of nonprofits themselves to envision a mechanism for investing in resources and infrastructure to sustain an independent future? We have worked with nonprofit platforms or service providers in the past. Is there a reason that we would not develop/support independent (nonprofit or hybrid) services to help secure our future economic leverage and independence? We (societies and nonprofits) each engage in strategic planning and should be able to read the tea leaves. It is incumbent on us, collectively, to propose an infrastructural vision that supports independence AND scale. Individually we may not be able to pull the needed levers, but there is yet value to collaboration and collective scale. [Of course, any such service would need not only to be collaborative but to be agile, commercially viable, and competitive.] Are we able to think and behave differently in order to establish what we need for the future? Is the task too daunting? Who has the impetus and ability to do it? Has the horse has left the barn already? [As an aside, Ann Michael is moderating a panel on the topic of scale, survival, and the possibility of a commercial future at the Silverchair Platform Strategies meeting in September.]

Alix, I don’t disagree with anything you have said here. I think the issue is the lack of organization. Someone needs to take the lead and there is not, in my opinion, any organization that represents society/non-profit organizations. Sure, we are included in the membership of many organizations; but, the big publishers are still their bread and butter. Either way, there is not a history of these kinds of organizations collaborating. I think this has to change.

There are other “community-based” systems that exist, but the ones I have seen do not come close to providing the level of tracking or reporting needed. Admittedly, there are newer ones I haven’t seen so it may be a good time to review those again.

The key factor in my mind is less organization/leadership than it is money. How much did Elsevier invest in Evise? How much did PLOS spend on Aperta? How much did Wiley spend trying to build their own platform before giving up and buying Atypon? Where we have shared infrastructure (CrossRef, ORCID, CHORUS), success has largely been dependent on significant financial support from the big publishers.

David — I tend to think that partnering under a hybrid (NP-comm) model may be more effective than building from scratch. I am not in favor of building from the ground up when there are partnerships that can be created and leveraged in new ways. I would also advise against polarizing based on business or governance models.

Fundamental differences (NP versus comm) are the drivers and inherent priorities that those structures support. What we should be changing are the ways we join together to engage the levers at our disposal in order to influence outcomes and support long-term mission resilience.

We are all in favor of financial resilience. What are the non-traditionally-commercial values we seek to protect and invest in for the long term? Which commercial values should we adopt or emulate — or avail ourselves via new kinds of hybrids and partnerships?

Agree with Alison re: the Coko example and timing/urgency in general.

I’ve been wondering how this fits with Elsevier moving away from their Elsevier Editorial System (which was basically Aries’ Editorial Manager) and building their own system, Evise. From what I understand, the move to Evise took much longer (and cost much more) than originally intended. I am not even sure if all Elsevier journals have made the move by now.

Alix/Angela: I think you both make great points.

Some societies are trying to work together on the marketing front https://byscientistsforscience.org/ but what about infrastructure? Can societies/associations work together on something that requires that deeper level of commitment? Can they look to a common good without getting bogged down in their own unique processes or requirements?

Someone does need to take the lead. Is that a society? An independent not for profit? There have been several times in my experience that different societies or associations have attempted to pull together some kind of collaborative (I can’t mention names).
It always seems to fall apart when the core group has to agree on aims, objectives, and execution approach.

Maybe the answer is that they need to agree on vision and strategy (and funding) and then create an organization that is in charge of translating strategy into execution within an established budget?

As Joe, and others, would highlight – there are significant obstacles and a long history where this has not happened. Will current market conditions and trends be enough to overcome obstacles and move past that history???

Alix, Angela, Ann – I think the three of you have hit at the heart of the matter here. Angela is right that the current open/non-profit alternatives aren’t yet robust enough for many of us (though it’s still early days for some of them, like CoKo). And Alix rightly notes the challenge of a fragmented non-profit landscape where everyone is doing their own thing. There have been efforts to pull together a more coordinated plan – it’s been discussed within the Force 11 community and some initial work in developing a plan was done, and then there’s the Joint Roadmap for Open Science Tools (jrost.org). But there’s clearly more work to be done, and it feels as if now is the time given the latest spate of acquisitions and the growing maturation of important parts of the infrastructure. It’s a discussion some of us are starting quite seriously…

I completely agree with the comments in this thread. There is the capacity and hunger for an open, enterprise solution. I believe that the contributing communities are at the inflection point for converging on a coordinated effort.

We at GeoScienceWorld are actively exploring this line of thinking including discussions with prospective vendor/partners and societies outside the geosciences, working in OA and subscription models. The GSW model and history are described in my plenary ALPSP last year (https://bit.ly/2KsiN2h). A resilient and scalable solution must reach beyond what we have accomplished in this one domain, but our results hint at the potential. As you note, “someone must lead”. It looks like much of the leadership/action is commercially generated. How do societies and institutions wish to counter? I am happy to engage in further conversations.

There is a reason that many small to medium sized publishers as well as large publishers pay for fulfillment, online platforms, and manuscript tracking systems. All of these tools are complex and require a certain level of programming skills as well as project management that quite frankly does not exist in most publishing houses including the largest. Even when a publisher lands a good software engineer, that individual can often find a better paying job in other industries. On the other hand, many of the fulfillment and online platform companies have the right talent but often lack the much needed capital to build the future system. Under-capitalization drives many tech companies into the arms of a well funded highly profitable publisher. Just look at what tools Elsevier or Clarivate now own and I can show you which of the acquired companies were trying to raise working capital when they were acquired. Publishers for the most part are not development shops. They seldom build new systems but are quick at buying systems to support their workflow. Small, medium and even the largest publishers make the smart move and buy services. In a growing number of cases it is in fact just as easy to buy the company so that you can guarantee that you will be serviced.

Though well-intended, the idea that small publishers and non-profits will band together in a technology solution to rival the established service providers is a non-starter and worth no more than an interesting bar conversation. Non-profit publishers do not control their net income — does anyone really think a membership organization will sacrifice its shiny objects to invest or provide resources for a long term cross-publisher cross-disciplinary technology that they do not understand?

It’s best at the moment to focus on the firewalls, insure that they are maintained, constantly monitored and audited by trusted-third parties. Also we should insist contractually on severe financial penalties should there be a breach. This is essential because at some point our data will become valuable to the commercials since it will allow them to peddle a more inclusive product.

We have to expect that in the next several years, we will be asked to pay greater amounts for those essential services owned by the commercial publishers simply because “it’s business.” And our non-profits will just have to learn how to function with less positive income. It’s been a good ride while it lasted.

Bruce –

I completely see your point. History tells us that independent societies banding together is unlikely.

Any predictions on whether not for profits might start to merge (with more flexible / “business” focused governance structures)?

Seriously, it seems like it becomes harder to be an independent society/association every day – unless you are very big or have well diversified income sources – which many societies do not. What is the solution? In many, many cases it’s predominantly publishing that funds these organizations. With the loss of significant amounts of advertising revenue, the rise of open access, the consolidation of service providers, etc… what does the future hold?

Could we be getting to the point where there are enough trends negatively impacting societies that change becomes inevitable?

Great discussion. Between the aquisitions noted here and the Bepress sale to Elsevier, I think we can all agree that we are at a critical junction in determining who will own the scholarly communication infrastructure and accompanying data. We owe it to the scholars who entrust their work to our industry to think this through very carefully.

It appears that many publishers don’t think that the open source solutions are robust or “ready” yet. Our journal submission system will be in use by several organizations this Fall. Now is the perfect time to jump in and help drive solutions that are fully open source, community-owned and transparently governed.

I hear you, Kristen – and just to be clear about my first comment above, I’m excited to see what CoKo can do in this space. But the reality is that many of us in the middle need scalable, hosted, enterprise level solutions – that to me feels like the real gap after these acquisitions. But absolutely agree with your first point.

” But the reality is that many of us in the middle need scalable, hosted, enterprise level solutions – that to me feels like the real gap after these acquisitions.” That is the essence. We too easily get distracted by the charms of open source, but the points that Allison makes are the key ones.

Agreed. There is nothing inherently not-scalable or not-enterpise about Open Source. Open Source is a license, not a category of software.

In addition, the world has plenty of examples of very good enterprise, scalable open source solutions and they are beating closed source applications. Most of the web (30%+), for example, runs off WordPress :
https://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_management/all/

And WordPress ins’t just used by you and your neighbor for posting cat pics, it is used by Tech Crunch, Bloomberg, Sony Music, BBC, Playstation, Variety and a lot more:
https://www.wpbeginner.com/showcase/40-most-notable-big-name-brands-that-are-using-wordpress/

In addition, it is open source that makes the applications you use in the cloud today scalable. Take a look at Kubernetes (an open source cluster management software) and who uses it – https://kubernetes.io/case-studies/
Used by Google, Pearson, ING, Comcast, ebay, Samsung etc etc

There is a lot of myth and rumors perpetuated by the Scholarly Kitchen to discredit Open Source, and those doing the discrediting make big claims that are not substantiated by fact. One might wonder why?

Open Source runs the internet today, it runs your phone, your laptop, is part of every secure transaction you make, hosts most of the web content you visit, makes your software scalable, secure and enterprise ready. Labeling Open Source inherently lesser than proprietary software is like saying red cars go faster that white cars. It is a myth, and further it is an assertion that runs contrary to fact.

The large commercial firms have nothing to fear if this is your analysis. Open source is a great thing, but it is an insupportable burden for a scholarly organization that may have one person to handle all aspects of the publishing program. The whole point about publishing is that it almost never scales. It is particular.

There is a lot of myth and rumors perpetuated by the Scholarly Kitchen to discredit Open Source, and those doing the discrediting make big claims that are not substantiated by fact. One might wonder why?

Care to elaborate further on your accusations/conspiracy theory? It’s not like anyone who writes here has a stake in any particular publishing platform or submission system.

Regardless, as the conversation here has made clear, focusing on the software (and whether it is open source or proprietary) is largely a red herring. Very few publishers are interested in supporting their own submission systems or platforms. There’s a reason why so many choose to outsource these things. Smaller publishers in particular have no need for code — they need a full-fledged service, one that is constantly managed and updated, one that can be plugged in to other enterprise systems and one with 24/7 customer service. No one wants to deal with the constant need for updates, integrations, workflow changes, new technical standards, etc. It makes no sense for all but the largest of commercial publishers to manage this in-house.

Once you’re purchasing this type of service from a third party, the code base becomes fairly irrelevant, other than whether it can meet your needs. A third party providing excellent services around open source code is just as available for purchase by a competitor as one that is using proprietary code. All things being equal, sure, most would prefer non-proprietary code, but even still, switching costs from one vendor handling one fork of that code to another are still likely to be considerable.

I completely agree, Alison, that we need reliable and scalable hosted solutions. There are many examples of those services being successfully built on open source technology (WordPress, OpenStack, etc) and a mix of commercial and nonprofit service providers in a healthy and competitive ecosystem.

We’re working on this part (announcements coming).

The advantage of OS tech and multiple service offerings is that switching costs and hassles are a lot lower. Less vendor lock in. And open source means that many builders can contribute to the suite of technologies so also no developer lock in.

to Joe – it seems you are mistakenly conflating many issues. There are, for example, many ways to realise the particular with software and they have nothing to do with the software license.

Modularity is one way software systems can achieve this. With Coko we have chosen this path and are using the same system (PubSweet) to build micropublication platforms, at least 4 journal platforms, book production systems, post-publication peer review systems and more. Infact, I would argue the architecture we have chosen is *better* at realizing the particular than many of the monolithic offerings currently in play. If you would like to learn more about this kind of modularity we have a free book for you – https://coko.foundation/books/

To David – Many thanks for your insightful comments on licenses and how that differs from software and hosting/publishing services. I entirely agree, these should be addressed as separate issues and not conflated. I also agree with you that hosting and services can be done with Open Source just as well (or better) as with proprietary software and I am very thankful to you for pointing this out.

As for conflicts of interest – I do not intend to imply a conspiracy, but I have no idea why SK continues to beat down on Open Source. It seems strange to me and I cannot make sense of some of the counter factual claims made. I do however propose a potential solution – why not invite regular articles on SK about what is happening in Open Source in publishing from people that know about Open Source? I would have thought this would be a natural step already for SK since Open Source is such a big part of the publishing story. I could name a few dozen people that would make good contributors if you would like any recommendations.

You are simply mistaken. I know very well how these licenses work, and where they don’t work. No one to my knowledge who is affiliated with the Kitchen has a view of open source. It’s just not an important topic for publishers. Your examples of WordPress make my point. Why not compare this tiny little world of publishing to the sun, moon, and stars? Publishing does NOT scale. That is its beauty. One voice connected with a small number of parties in the audience.

I think there’s a reasonable amount of skepticism here toward any claims to have solved what has been, for decades, an intractable set of problems. We’ve watched Wiley pour (estimated) tens of millions of dollars into building a platform, only to give up and purchase Atypon. We’ve watched Elsevier pour similar (estimated) amounts of money into building Evise, only to give up and purchase Aries. We’ve watched PLOS pour similar (estimated) amounts of money into building Aperta, only to give up and sign on with Aries.

If these systems were easy to build, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion, and they would already be in place. Open source developers may have hit on the magic bullet that solves everything, but until we see those systems in place and functioning in complex real world publishing environments, I think it’s reasonable to take a “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude. Maybe the skepticism isn’t justified, but we’ve been promised a lot in the past (I sat through many glowing presentations on Aperta over the years for example, or see the promises made for Evise in this comment https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/12/20/end-aperta-journal-submission-systems-remain-challenging/#comment-72830).

As for guest posts, we don’t actively commission them, but welcome submissions (although I’ve personally asked Kristin to write posts for us a few times). We’d certainly be happy to have posts on open source developments, and you can read more about the process and our requirements here:
https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/06/07/be-our-guest-author/

First of all, congratulations to Aries and Elsevier. Elsevier is a very professional organization and I know will ensure the proper firewalls both on data and conversations inside the organization.

There are three kinds of publishing technology companies. The ones that were acquired by publishers, the ones that will be, and the ones that will fail. Sadly, there have been many more of the latter as a result of the realities of our market.

The lack of capital and the fact that there are very few big publishers, ensures that no independent company could ever be a winner-take-all. And there is not enough growth for multiple companies to go public. It is simply too niche of a space. So the next best exit strategy is to be acquired. And the question is then, who is the best acquirer publishers should wish for?

The best outcome is to have stable parents, that know and respect the industry, and that can compete. Competition ensures innovation and benefits all publishers. Larger companies are professionally run, often public, which demands transparency, and are able to spend to meet their commitments. At least, this has been my experience in Wiley.

Wiley’s acquisition has made Atypon more transparent and given more voice to our customers. We have independent outside reviews of the firewall between our organizations, a Chief Security Officer, a publisher board comprised of customer representatives that oversees our the adherence to our commitments, and finally, we’re opening up our future roadmap for broader consultation and direction since many of our new initiatives benefit the industry, not just Atypon clients.

It’d be remiss to not say that Wiley’s acquisition has made us a better company, while enabling us to continue with our own technology plans. And why wouldn’t they? They benefit from our innovation just as all of our customers do.

However other publishers feel like, the fact is: this is a golden time for publishing technology startups and innovators. Process innovation traditionally has been a debate about whether “to make of by”, but in publishing, we have two kinds of process environments: 1. internal process management, and 2. customer-facing process management. While the innovations for the first environment are largely developed in-house (“to make”), the second environment is dependent on innovations coming from outside (“to buy”). This is a healthy ecosystem and leads to the best innovator in winning the market. Ultimately, it all ends with having a leading market share in Books, Journals, and now Data. All innovation is for market share at the end of the day and thus, independent publishers are dependent on it too for survival. They should begin scouting for these startups.

Hello everyone,
I find this article and the subsequent discussion extremely valuable and would like to thank the author for starting this conversation.
Maybe because English is my native language, but I would like to ask for a little help with a term being used (I’ve also found it in other article here on SK), Angela says “with Elsevier owning our submission and production system and Wiley owning our platform” – would someone please explain what this “platform” represents?
Thank you in advance.

Gordon, thank you for your comments and my apologies for not being clear on the lingo. By “platform” what I mean are the content management websites where users access the content online.

I’d also like to thank all participants for this interesting discussion!

David: You say “We’ve watched Elsevier pour similar (estimated) amounts of money into building Evise, only to give up and purchase Aries.” So does this in fact mean that Elsevier have “given up” on Evise? Does anyone here know what the status (and future) is of the Evise roll-out?

I’m not privy to Elsevier’s specific plans for Evise, but given that it was never rolled out across their portfolio and that they have now purchased a different submission system, one would assume that it’s unlikely that Evise has much of an independent future.

Thanks David and Joe! I would tend to go with David’s assumption though – it seems too unlikely that they will buy Aries and then shut down the only product (OK, two) that they offer?

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