With so much current talk about new business models in publishing, and a series of announcements that may make it appear that we are headed toward a fulfillment of Open Access (OA) millenarianism, whether of the Gold or Platinum variety, it seems useful to describe how traditional publishing works, if only for reasons of nostalgia. I want to provide a high-level description, without any particular regard to practitioners or even of specific formats (i.e., books, journals). Most of the comments here apply as well to other media forms such as movies and music, as there are common elements to all businesses that invest in content.

Large cog wheels in the motor.

Which brings us to the matter of definitions: What is traditional publishing anyway? Publishing is the business of investing in and marketing content that is largely text-based. There are exceptions to this. A volume of photographs from Aperture can hardly be called text-based, and scientific articles found in journals may have video and animations embedded in them. But anchoring a discussion of publishing in text has the sanctions of history and common usage. There is a difference between what we expect from The Lancet and Steven Spielberg, even if both use video cameras at least part of the time.

The word “traditional” is problematic, though, as in current parlance it is linked to the leviathan of the established order, and who would want to say anything good about that? Nowadays, at least in the world of scholarly communications, traditional publishing is called “toll-access publishing,” a terrible, derogatory term, which defines traditional publishing along the single axis of access rather than, say, editorial strategy or performance. It is true, though, that traditional publishing is publishing that you pay for, as when you step into a bookstore and come out with a copy of Homo Deus or The Complete Essays of Montaigne or when a librarian purchases (some would say “leases”) a subscription to Nature. In the traditional model authors and publishers do a lot of work up front and then wait with trepidation to see that that effort will find a willing customer. In traditional publishing publishers take risks — they invest in content — and hope for a payoff.

Now let’s imagine that you are responsible for that publishing operation. Your job is to invest in content and get a return on that investment. You go to the office each day with an elevated pulse because, contrary to popular myth, there is no sure thing in publishing. An investment can result in a total loss, and the people supporting your organization, whether it is a not-for-profit or a commercial firm, will not be pleased. So you look for ways to make that investment work. You quickly realize that the marketplace does not have an infinite amount of money to spend on publications, so some publications will succeed while others fail. It is clear that in order to command the attention of the marketplace, you have to have superior products. This is the principal point of competition among publishers, editor vs. editor, and that competition is brutal. Yes, price is always a factor, but no two publications are identical (because of the monopoly nature of copyright), so customers will flock to those of higher quality, at least as a particular customer or market segment understands quality. For journals, for example, quality may be papers about groundbreaking studies. A K-12 publisher may measure quality by the appropriateness of content for a particular age level. A publisher of romance or mystery novels may measure quality by the clever adaptation of a tried-and-true narrative formula. Quality, in other words, is not an absolute value but a reflection of the interests of the customer base. Toni Morrison is not “better” than Harry Potter; only better targeted and more appropriate for a particular — and paying — audience.

Thus the defining property of traditional publishing is editorial selection. That is what publishing is about. Editorial selection is a tough game, however, and publishers seek ways to minimize their risks. The most important risk-management strategy is portfolio publishing, which all publishers use whether they acknowledge it or not. Since it’s hard to know ahead of time which books or articles will succeed — and if you wait until the signs are clear, the competition will have gotten to the author first — publishers have to make bets in the absence of complete information. They hedge these bets by making investments in a larger number of authors and properties than are likely to succeed, with the hope that enough will indeed succeed to more than pay for those that do not. It’s often said in trade publishing that only 20% of the books make money, but they pay for everything else. (This, by the way, is exactly how venture capital works: a dozen investments, two winners, and a write-off for the rest.)

Economically speaking, a journal is the portfolio strategy in practice. No one knows which article will be the breakout piece, but editors place a range of bets. Some articles go uncited, some are cited a few times, and some are superstars. The metric that captures this is the much maligned and profoundly misunderstood Journal Impact Factor, which measures the value of the portfolio. One consequence of the portfolio strategy is that some of the value associated with individual works migrates to the brand. Thus we look more kindly, for example, at a book from, say Oxford University Press or an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. It is no coincidence that the OA movement seeks to demolish publishing brands; that demolition will take the portfolio strategy along with it.

Another strategy, ineffective in books but crucial for journals, is downstream market dominance. Since book publishers sell their wares through a number of channels (EBSCO, ProQuest, Amazon, Ingram, etc.), they cannot dominate the point of sale as they would like to — and in any event, the Amazon monopsony is too powerful to withstand. In journals, however, downstream market dominance takes the form of the Big Deal, whose purpose is to deflect customers’ attention away from editorial decisions, enabling the largest publishers to stuff their packages with products of lesser merit. Whatever one’s view of the Big Deal (people tend to like it when they control one, dislike it when they don’t), it is best viewed as a hedge in the competition for editorial superiority.

These various hedges against open and hostile editorial competition bring inefficiencies to the market (to the benefit of successful publishers), but they don’t wipe out the basic market mechanism, which is that publishers seek editorial products that will attract finite market dollars. That market mechanism works in subtle ways. Each product is a series of negotiations — between publisher and publisher in the competitive scheme of things, between author and publisher, between publisher and distributor. Each party influences the other, which in turn influences the first party. The series of interactions is a winnowing process, where market demand makes the ultimate decision as to what is good and what is not. What is good is what gets sold. I fear that there is a lack of curiosity about this market mechanism, which results in simplistic and often wrongheaded views of what publishing is, often characterizing it as a vehicle to serve the greedy. Better to think of it as a complex process to navigate through finite resources in pursuit of editorial superiority.

Though publishers use platforms of various kinds, publishing is not itself a platform. In effect, publishing sits atop the high stack of infrastructure and services, which makes it susceptible to disruption when a seismic event occurs down below in the stack (e.g., the invention of PDF, the global reach of the Web). When software developers insist that publishing should look more like software, they don’t hit the center of the target, as publishers use software only insofar as it serves their primary business, which is to invest in and sell content and to hedge their bets by removing some of the risk from the content business.

The OA world is the inverse. While there is nothing to stop OA services from having high-quality editorial materials, editorial quality is not at the structural center of what OA sets out to do. For traditional publishers editorial quality is the means to effect a sale, whereas for an OA service, that quality is epiphenomenal. OA is built upon the assumption of abundance, not of finite resources; over time the form of the publications of OA and traditional publishing will pull further and further apart. When an individual or librarian, working with finite resources, notes that they can not acquire all desirable publications, that’s not a bug: it’s a feature.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


50 Thoughts on "How Traditional Publishing Works"

Dear Joe,
thank you very much for this contribution. Back to the basics! After a Summer with predatory journals (and tax money wrongly invested) and the announcement of Plan S, I am preparing the program for the next APE Conference in Berlin in January 2019. This is our motto:
‘Platforms or Pipelines: Where is the Value in Scholarly Communications?’
Ever since first discussions about Open Access started, my mission has been to communicate to all stakeholders what scientific and scholarly publishing is doing.
We plan a Session about Publishing Ethics and will champion peer reviewing.
Best wishes from Berlin

Joe, Thanks for this analysis. One of the things I love about the Scholarly Kitchen is that it includes voices from across the spectrum and who occupy many roles within the publishing ecosystem. As someone who is very interested in the flip to OA and the relief that it *may* bring to the challenges I face as someone working in a library and struggling to meet my researchers needs in the face of unaffordable annual increases in the rents charged by the likes of Wiley and Elsevier, I find your sobering, practical insights quite helpful. It is good to be reminded that not everyone is a fan of OA.

I do quibble a bit with your claim that “It is no coincidence that the OA movement seeks to demolish publishing brands; that demolition will take the portfolio strategy along with it.”

I am not convinced that all OA proponents want to undo the important work that brand does in terms of helping to signal quality. Instead, many hoping for an OA future would like to see the current brands, currently dominated by for-profit publishers, be replaced by community-owned and community-governed brands. I worry that by characterizing OA as not understanding the importance of brands, it contributes to the mis-understanding that OA is not concerned with quality.

What is your evidence? In most of the OA conversations that I’ve seen and/or been involved in, everyone understands that quality is the key nut that we need to crack. For example, in the Lever Press project that I am involved in, we are focused on ensuring that we build in rigorous peer review and a quality editorial board as a core competency, because we recognize that to convince authors to publish with us, we need to establish a brand that our authors will trust to conform with the values and norms of scholarly publishing.

Good luck with that. You won’t have the wind at your backs. But counter-entropic activity sometimes works, for a while.

Thanks for the good wishes! I take it then that you retract your comment about OA and quality? Wishing me well doesn’t actually answer the question, which suggests to me that perhaps you don’t have any evidence, or don’t want to have that particular conversation? I’m certain that there are many examples of OA efforts that want to question the notion of brand. My claim is simply that this is not true across the board.

I certainly agree that the wind is not yet at our backs. Much of that comes from a combination of being misunderstood and being perceived as potentially an existential threat by actors that are comfortable with the traditional publishing system.

You might recognise that quality is important, but it’s not something that’s built into the incentive structure of ‘traditional’ or ‘toll-access’ publishing. For toll access, the customer is the reader and readers are attracted to quality. For open access with APCs, the customer is the author. The publisher is rewarded for letting things through, not for rejection. See for example, the recent controversy over at MDPI where editors resigned over pressure to accept mediocre papers. That’s a basic part of the APC business model.


I am pro-OA and I try to publish in OA journals whenever I can. But the business model drives me nuts! Why are we trying to make scholarly publishing a giant vanity press?

Larry the reasoning behind OA is not as some suggest to make available a free lunch, but rather to make a company profitable and in OA to be profitable requires one publish that which comes across the transom.

Hi Larry, Thanks for sharing the article about MDPI. While it brings to the surface the very real challenge of balancing quality against the need for revenue in the APC model, it also at another level demonstrates how the values of the editors caused them to jump ship, or in other cases, to make clear that the editors and not the publisher get to define quality. In this light, this incident could be seen as an example of how the scholarly community pushes back against a publisher to insist on it remaining constant in its commitment to quality. If/when there is a vibrant system of many options for publishing OA (including ones not predicated on APCs), and as it becomes ever easier to take move your editorial board to another publisher, then publishers will need to either remain hands-off in terms of pushing back on judgements of quality, or be punished by editorial boards that decide to leave. I actually see this example as a promising example of how this transition will be worked out.

This incident is far from the first editorial revolt — we covered the phenomenon back in 2013, and revisited it here:

One thing worth noting is that while the editors often move on and start a new and successful journal, the old title tends to continue to thrive as well. The system is not quite so vibrant as to force a publisher’s hand.

If you pay for publishing with your rights, only readers who pay can see your work. If you pay via APC, everyone can. That’s the additional benefit you’re paying for, not the publishing.

I agree that the language is deliberate.

You haven’t heard the phrase “reader pays” because the reader doesn’t pay. The university library pays.

If you pay for publishing with your rights, only readers who pay can see your work. If you pay via APC, everyone can

Not according to this recent study:
The study notes that more articles are voluntarily made freely available by publishers than are available by Gold and Green OA combined.

And while we may at this point be arguing semantics, you are not paying for the open access, you’re still paying the publication costs. By paying those upfront, you get the benefit of open access, but removing the access restrictions on the article itself has no actual additional costs that need to be paid. You’re just paying off the publisher for what they spent on publication, rather than pushing those costs onto others.

You haven’t heard the phrase “reader pays” because the reader doesn’t pay. The university library pays.

Does the library purchase subscriptions solely for its own internal use by librarians, or is it acting as an agent on behalf of anyone?

Mike, you’re much more of an optimist than I am. Moving towards a model where publisher and academic editors values/incentives are in conflict isn’t progress. Just because editors can fight back doesn’t mean that it’s OK.

Personally, I don’t think MDPI is feeling very punished. They’ve already pocketed thousands of dollars per article. And funders are normalising the APC business model further by providing funding to pay for APCs – not OA publishing costs – APCs specifically.

We need to consider the advantages of the ‘traditional’ model and how to incorporate those into an OA environment. Leaving academic editors to fight it out with publishers isn’t an appealing prospect. I wouldn’t want that job – would you?

Larry, I am often accused of being an optimist! What I suspect and hope will happen as this transition picks up momentum is that a publisher’s reputation vis-a-vis the editorial process will in part be determined by how much they pressure editors and their journals to increase the number of articles that they publish via APCs in order to increase revenue. Publishers that are willing to sacrifice quality for quantity ideally would be punished by their editorial boards giving up on them, and publishers that do not give in to this admittedly tempting option will be rewarded with editors wanting to bring their journals to them. Part of this turns on the assumption that it is easy for editors and editorial boards to just move their journals from publisher to publisher with little effort. That’s a big assumption in this.

The way I like to explain it is as follows: If you need to publish 100 articles to cover the costs of the open access publication and you only get 120 submissions, how stringent can the review process be and still keep the journal in business? You will work very hard to find 100 adequate articles to publish or the journal goes out of business. In the end, whether the publisher is for profit or not-for-profit, all of the titles need to at least be self sustainable. The big exception is if a portfolio has one take everything technically sound title that make sufficient money to support the more selective titles in the portfolio. Even not-for-profit society publishers use the revenue generated to support their money-requiring mission-driven activities. So often breaking even is not sufficient for titles in the portfolio.

We should not forget that there is more than for-profit publishers. Think of the Societies (e.g. ACS) and Associations (e.g. AAAS), the university publishers etc.
The whole discussion is ill-footed by the look at profit margins of some publishers.
But they are making profits as they are well-organized and cost-controlled.

Joe: A great summary of what publishing is. I believe that editorial decisions are made in OA in that material is reviewed. The difference is that risk is decreased because costs are covered up front and not reliant on sales. I am not too sure OA is not traditional publishing. In order to bring OA to the market one has and had to manage risk capital.

Some good stuff here, but also some nonsense. If, as you claim, the author-publisher relationship is about negotiations, how come so many scholarly publishers say “assign us your copyright – we will not negotiate that”? Also, as has been pointed out, your view that OA’s intention as to destroy publishing brands is simplistic and superficial. You should know better than that – and if you don’t, then you don’t understand the publishing business as well as you think.

I have signed hundreds of contracts and have had some authors walk away because of various contractual terms. I have never put a revolver on the desk and said sign here!
I have said to authors: You can have the copyright but I want the exclusive right to sell in all forms and in all markets. Also, understand that if someone violates the copyright that I expect you to defend the copyright you hold and if you do not I will sue you! That tends to bring the realization that with holding a copyright comes responsibility!

Bully for you, but most publishers say “take it or leave it”. Incidentally, I, as an author, always refuse to assign copyright to any publisher and you are right, the publisher may well back down for a senior author, but probably not for an ECR. Finally, it is usual for the author, when they grant a publisher an exclusive licence, to allow that licensee the right to sue for infringement if the author declines to do so. No need to threaten the author!

I did say there was some good stuff in your piece, but that you made a couple of mistakes – one of which was about OA.

As previous comments have stated, this post demonstrates a misunderstanding of OA and the different types of OA. OA is not about destroying brands. Its about getting those brands to publish responsibly. “Toll access publishing” is not a derogatory term, it’s just a term used to differentiate one type of publishing access from another. As you say, in toll access publishing, publishers “hope for a payoff”. Open access publishing, on the other hand, hopes to serve the public. There should be no difference in editorial selection for open access and toll access. Scholars who serve as editors are looking for high quality content regardless of how that content will later be distributed.

There are certainly “sure things” in publishing. No university is canceling their subscriptions to the New England Journal of Medicine any time soon. It makes no difference how well any individual article is cited. Universities aren’t buying content article by article. They’re buying it journal by journal, and more often, journal package by journal package. Attributing the decision about which articles are added to a publishing portfolio to publishers is disingenuous. Scholarly editors make these decisions, not publishers. Publishers are merely in charge of what journal titles to invest in.

Citations on individual articles have nothing to do with profit for publishers. Libraries are not looking at impact factors when they make purchases. They are making decisions based on usage data from their patrons. An individual university has different journal needs than academia as a whole, because they have different disciplinary specialties and different individual scholars using literature. Librarians must purchase journals with low impact factors as well as high ones, because universities foster all kinds of disciplines, not just the ones that produce a high volume of citations in a short amount of time. The Big Deal isn’t about stuffing journals of lesser merit down universities’ throats. It’s about stuffing journals they don’t need down their throats. It’s about not allowing libraries to tailor their collections to their stakeholders. When we have to pay for scholarly content, it’s important to pay for the content that is most relevant to our patrons.

“Toll access publishing” is not a derogatory term, it’s just a term used to differentiate one type of publishing access from another.

Would you similarly consider “pay-to-play publishing” or “pay-to-publish” or “vanity publishing” to be derogatory terms, or just accurate descriptions for differentiating one type of publishing from another?

Toll free publishing or the alternative pay to publish which is synonymous with OA!
Indeed libraries have different customers. I am not sure how the library market works now a days but if you dislike the big deal why not just subscribe to those journals of interest to your community. Additionally, those lesser journals are fighting to become not lesser!
Although librarians may not look at the IF, I am sure your customers do!

OA is much bigger than just pay to publish, as you well know. This is reductive statement merely to place OA in a dim light.

Fields where research and publication take longer are never going to have impact factors as high as fields where publication is quicker. Impact factor is not identical with quality.

“Pay to play publishing” and “Pay to publish” are accurate descriptions of those models. “Vanity Publishing” has some judgement in it.

I suspect that if we started exclusively using the phrase “pay-to-play publishing” instead of “Gold OA”, we would get an enormous amount of grief for it, and be accused of being biased against the model.

I agree. However, “Pay to publish” is not really an accurate description of Gold OA, since you’re paying for more than publishing. You are really paying for open access, which is closer to the meaning of “Gold OA” (pay the gold, get the Open Access).

Not really. As an author, you engage with a publisher to get your paper published. You can choose to pay for that process by signing over some set of rights to that paper that the publisher can use to try to earn back what they’ve spent on it (plus some margin), or you can opt to pay directly for the publication costs yourself via an APC, rather than pushing those costs off on the reader. Either way, you’re still paying for publishing.

Regardless, the language used is often deliberate. I’ve often heard the phrase “author-pays” used, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard the phrase “reader-pays” used by Gold OA advocates — instead it’s “toll access” or “paywall”, or in the great stroke of marketing genius, that orange lock symbol. This is as much about marketing and subtly influencing opinions as it is about accurate descriptions.

Yes, obviously as an author you’re still paying the publisher with an APC, but the goal of your paying as an author is to let the public access your paper.

And yes, obviously the library purchases subscriptions for readers, but individual readers are not actually paying. A heavy user doesn’t pay more than a non-user with the same resources available to them.

“When an individual or librarian, working with finite resources, notes that they can not acquire all desirable publications, that’s not a bug: it’s a feature.” This conveniently overlooks how hard it is to unbundle these packages, as my institution has been trying to do for the last couple of years. Publishers have pushed the “big deal” hard, and they punish librarians who try to get out of it by jacking up the price of core titles beyond what is reasonable.

What strikes me about this post (called “How Traditional Publishing Works”) and the 35 comments that follow, is that 33 of the comments reference OA, while the author notes “For the record: the post was not about OA.”

David Crotty: “In brief, no, online publication is really expensive.” I initially read past your comma placement and thought you were saying the opposite – online publication wasn’t expensive.
Anyway, I was in a snit over hybrid OA fees at some mid-tier society journals with ~50% acceptance rate that I’m engaged with, and so made some estimates of what an article costs. My simple math ruined the clarity of my opinions. With some guesses on living wages for the paid editorial office staff, ranges of costs for outsourced or contracted services (copy editing, layout), plus a few other knowable costs (travel to society editorial board meetings) and divided it by the number of articles published per year. My math wrecked my arguments. It’s at least north of $3K USD per published article. And that ignores costs for services that aren’t free but I had no idea what they were worth: bennies for reviewers, editorial management software, plagiarism checking, and web hosting and archiving forever by the contract publisher. And that’s assuming that the university comps them free office space for the staff and that the EIC doesn’t draw a salary. So unless those sorts of services are dramatically cut back, costs are pretty high.

Thanks Chris. I was thinking about things that have come across my desk in the last week or two. We want to support preprints, so we’re working with biorxiv to integrate submission directly to journals where relevant and possible. This is not inexpensive when you start adding up a significant number of journals. Then we’re talking with a bunch of companies about integrating their services for annotation, data archiving, etc. Again, each one has a monthly/yearly charge, plus all the development costs of adding them to the platform and each individual journal, then maintaining and updating each one. We have journals that want to support ASAPBio’s call for publishing peer review reports. Again, this means a lot of expensive development, finding new ways to pull this information out of our submission/peer review systems, and revamping our article display to include this new information. And each of these things then needs new Instructions to Authors written, we need to brief all of our relevant internal employees and our editorial boards and train them on how to use these things, we need to provide customer service to all our readers/authors who may have questions about them, all of which have costs.

Phew! And that’s just in the last week or so. This stuff is constant in a digital world and it never stops. None of which was even available in the print world where costs were much more steady and limited.

None of these costs are really necessary. They are bells and whistles added to justify an industry with unheard of profit margins.

Okay, that’s quite a statement.

First, I work for a not-for-profit, a department of a university that does not have “unheard of profit margins”. So what’s our motivation for adding these “bells and whistles”?

Second, none of these activities directly drives drives revenue. If a for-profit publisher is solely concerned with profit margin, why invest in them?

Third, do you really feel that publishers and journals should ignore the needs of the research community? Two of the things I mentioned, preprints and open peer review, are both being championed by the NIH, the Wellcome Trust, HHMI and other major funding agencies. Are we to just ignore these bodies (and if so, should we also ignore Plan S and other OA mandates)?

Should we opt, as you seem to suggest, for minimizing spend, or should we continue to try to improve scholarly communications and experiment with new possibilities in a digital environment?

What you seem to be advocating for is a moribund, static, basic system that can never evolve or improve. Heck, let’s strip it all down. Can we get rid of DOIs? What about long term archiving? Both bells and whistles, right? We certainly don’t need to bother linking to references, or ORCID IDs, or helping to drive institutional compliance through the Open Funder Registry. Copyediting? All those things cost money.

I’m not saying that your department specifically is gouging universities, just that the scholarly publishing industry overall is. Investing in some innovation is good for their image, but its not honest to claim they have the interests of science and education at heart. Clearly, if you exaggerate what I’m saying, its going to sound ridiculous.

Okay, but you just said things like integrating preprints, opening up peer review, adding annotations and supporting data archiving are all “bells and whistles added to justify an industry with unheard of profit margins.”

Which is it? Or are these things worthwhile investments in innovation? Do they have any costs associated with them?

And as you note, scholarly publishing is not monolithic. As Phill Jones notes in the post referenced above, “This conflation of multiple types of businesses under the single term leads to enormous amounts of confusion in discussions surrounding scholarly publishing reform.” So yes, there are indeed many of us in this business who are doing our best to do what we think is best for science and education. And honestly, it’s vastly more expensive for those publishers outside of the big commercial houses, because the big guys get the benefits of scale.

So to go back to your original claim: “Except what are the actual costs of online publication? Very little.”

You are simply flat-out wrong here. Publishing online is expensive, and continuously more expensive every day.

“Expensive” is relative. For the big for profit publishers, online publication costs are nothing compared to their profits.

Again, not all publishers are big and profitable.

And I think you need to separate out the notion of profit from costs. Yes, there are big publishers that are very profitable. But to pretend that online publication costs “nothing” or is inexpensive in any way is absurd.

I’m told that PLOS (higher profit margins that most not-for-profits) spent more than $10M in their attempt to build a new submission/review system. Is this “nothing”? Wiley and Elsevier spent tens of millions of dollars on their platform and submission system efforts (respectively), and then both ended up spending even more millions to buy established companies when their efforts failed. So, a few hundred million dollars — nothing, right?

If we take the attitude that these sums are “nothing”, and that online publishing is expected to cost “nothing”, then the only publishers that will survive are those to whom $10M is indeed an affordable expense. You are essentially perpetuating the dominance of the big publishers by refusing to acknowledge the costs needed to compete with them.

I do not know who Sarah is, but I think her salary, pension, office, computer, network access, etc. is being paid for. This is a very comfortable position. If you have to earn your own money, or, as a company make enough turnover to pay for infrastructure, staff, computers, archives and some extra money for reinvestments and to keep the shareholders happy, it is different. I have not seen any mentioning of high contributions at societies, university presses and other non for-profits. Is a high contribution from sales and licensing to keep the membership costs low, much different from making turnover plus profit. I have worked in several science publishing companies. We were proud to be the first adopting new technologies, inventing or improving workflows, getting high recognition up to and including high impact factors. And to get a bonus for good work.
This whole discussion about OA against publishing is somewhere ill-footed. At the first APE Conference some delegates called OA ‘content communism’. The commercial publishers noticed that OA is just a different way of funding and they were early adopters. Publishing remains publishing, be it traditional or modern. Some body (mind my word play) has to do the work.
What makes me sick is the increasing number of unserious up to predatory publishers and it is good that DOAJ is keeping a list of reliable Open Access Journals.

Tenure track faculty positions are by no means comfortable. Publish or perish is a constant strain and faculty experience a lot of stress. I assure you, I earn my salary. I am sure people who work in publishing do as well. While I think publishers are taking advantage of universities, I am willing to believe that they are not passing those profits on to their front line employees.

Something is missing from your definition of scholarly publishing. How does scholarly publishing differ from publishing a scholarly web site, such as this one? I think what is missing from your definition is one of assumed longevity, sometimes specific to contracts known as perpetuity. Keep thinking about publishing–I think there is more to the story.

I don’t think anyone would call a Web site a traditional form of publishing, unless you have a very short-term view of tradition, but in any event, your question will be the subject of a subsequent post.

“When software developers insist that publishing should look more like software, they don’t hit the center of the target, as publishers use software only insofar as it serves their primary business”

I’m not sure what this means or what ‘software developers’ you have in mind. It seems loaded with unpacked assumptions which makes it difficult to follow the point.

There is much here I see as inaccurate.

e.g. “Economically speaking, a journal is the portfolio strategy in practice. No one knows which article will be the breakout piece, but editors place a range of bets. Some articles go uncited, some are cited a few times, and some are superstars. The metric that captures this is the much maligned and profoundly misunderstood Journal Impact Factor, which measures the value of the portfolio.”

This is not correct in my experience as regards 1. (current) journal economics and 2. editorial practice in many journals.

1. As a previous comment points out, in a subscription/toll-access model librarians do not look at citations/impact factor when deciding value of a subscription – they look solely at usage, specifically “cost per download”.
Of course, if/when we flip to an OA-dominated landscape, then journal impact factor will become an important measure of ‘economic’ value. However, in the current landscape, this is not true.

2. In my experience, most journal editors are not simply looking to publish articles that will be highly cited. At least in ‘traditional’ journals, editors primarily judge work on the basis of its rigour/novelty/significance and its general worth to the community. Obviously these criteria do correlate to some extent with citations, but most editors haven’t got potential citations in mind when deciding whether to publish an article.
On the other hand, the new breed of ‘Nature-style’ journals very much focus on the expected citations that an article will receive – to the extent that they have a formalised system for rejecting without review those articles that do not fit into currently highly cited topics.
However, I think that such new ‘Nature-style’ journals remain the minority; most journals still follow the ‘traditional’ editorial approach.

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