The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) has historically had a somewhat combative relationship over the years with publishers. Because there is so much polarization in our community, it is tempting to take sides with a clear picture of right and wrong, good and bad informing sweeping generalizations about everyone in the publishing industry. While SPARC has often staked out positions in opposition to many publishers, especially commercial publishers, the reality is that SPARC has been an incredibly successful lobbying organization. They have contributed greatly to shifting the needle on open access (OA) publishing models, and continue to be force for change in academic publishing.


The latest report from SPARC is a departure from advocacy and is very well done. In this article I summarize some of the key findings from Claudio Aspesi et al., for SPARC – A Landscape Analysis: The Changing Academic Publishing Industry – Implications for Academic Institutions. Aspesi comes from a background as a market analyst for international investors, as well as serving as Global Senior Vice President of Strategy at EMI Music. I encourage you to go and read the full report.

The report was conceived in recognition that larger commercial publishers such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley, have been active in acquiring businesses that serve the infrastructure needs of academic research. These publishers appear to be moving away from a primary role as content providers. A core competency here is data analytics. The general thesis that Aspesi and his colleagues espouse is that:

Through the seamless provision of these services, these companies can invisibly and strategically influence, and perhaps exert control, over key university decisions – ranging from student assessment to research integrity to financial planning. Data about students, faculty, research outputs, institutional productivity, and more has potentially enormous competitive value.

The report recognizes that this is still early days, but remains concerned about possible implications for academic institutions.

Aspesi and coauthors look at some of the similarities and differences in publisher strategy. Overall, Elsevier appears to have four main threads to their strategy. There is no question they want to protect the journal business, and have run into some problems over pricing as they try to engage with institutions on Read and Publish/Publish and Read models. Having said that, Norway has in the end agreed to a new national license with Elsevier, a deal that excludes their large society journal portfolio, and the amount of money involved is significant – around €9 million (according to the Financial Times – you can read the article if you have a subscription). It appears that Norway will pay for access to 2,000 OA articles each year. Michael Clarke and Joe Esposito in their excellent monthly round-up of publishing news called The Brief, point out that this sounds like a Publish and Read deal, rather than a Read and Publish deal, with a tidy sum of around €4,500 per paper.

Of course, Elsevier possesses Scopus, Science Direct, BePress, Mendeley, and SSRN, consequently placing them in a position of holding vast quantities of data that could be used to identify research trends, even to the level of projecting future leaders in academic disciplines. The data they hold could also be used to create a business around selling data analysis of this type to funding bodies and governments, or to industry and the investment community. Having said all this, organizations like Clarivate Analytics are ahead, at least for now.

Springer Nature publishes the most scholarly journals – around 3000 titles. They have not embraced the data analytics strategy approach, and it appears doubtful they could. While a significant treasure trove of data analytics sits within Digital Science, the fact remains that Digital Science is not a part of Springer Nature, rather being kept separate, though a part of the Holtzbrinck empire. The financial picture since the failed IPO is unclear, but Springer Nature does seem to be behind the Elsevier curve.

Wiley is smaller, but on the other hand is showing some acquisitive chops and is interested in data, but Aspesi suggests that they are still rooted in content delivery, choosing a path of not taking any big risks.

Another key section in the report looks at the state of the textbook market, with the main players formerly being McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Wiley, and Cengage. What the authors did not know at the time of their writing was that McGraw-Hill and Cengage would merge under the McGraw-Hill name. The report delves into some detail of these companies strategies. The challenges are clear. There is a decline in sales of print books, and the path is towards digital textbooks. Textbook publishing companies are realizing the power of data. Data can be collected and analyzed to inform them about a student’s profile, where and when they are accessing content, or completing their homework etc.

Aspesi wants the reader to understand that there are significant implications for institutions in the move to data collection and analysis. The report does not cast judgement, nor propose solutions, merely identifying risks inherent to the new focus on data analysis. There are risks that such data can be hacked and sold or even given up to governments. Is it in an institution’s best interest to share data with commercial publishers? Large institutions are going to be in a different position than smaller ones in their ability to evaluate research and teaching effectiveness, or the progress of individual researchers. Will this mean that smaller institutions will need to rely on the products from commercial operations for these tasks? Does this raise conflict of interest issues, as well as licensing issues?

The data analytics business requires scale, and as Kent Anderson recently wrote, this is another driver in the ongoing consolidation of the academic publishing market. If scholarly content is devalued to the point where it is merely raw material for feeding a large commercial surveillance business, where does that leave the smaller academic publisher, particularly those whose world revolves around the production of high quality content? For the library, the risks (beyond protecting patron privacy) should be obvious – if scholarly content becomes an afterthought, a relatively small part of a larger package of workflow and analytics tools sold to the university’s administration, what role, if any, will the library play?

Aspesi et al., have certainly piqued my interest with this report. I have provided a summary here, but do please read the full report.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Associate Executive Director, Publishing at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.

View All Posts by Robert Harington


2 Thoughts on "Landscape Analysis: A SPARC Report on the Changing Nature of the Academic Publishing Industry and the Implications for Institutions"

Dear Robert, This is an excellent review of important trends in the industry as publishers move from content delivery to data analytics. Many publishers, such as smaller societies that publishing independently, probably don’t have the skills to do this (or even larger societies). This will require an educational and resource commitment.


A bit late to the party, but similar themes in the latest issue of HBR “The Age of Continuous Connection” where Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch say: “McGraw Hill Education now offers customized learning experiences. As students use the company’s electronic texts to read and do assignments, digital technologies track their progress and feed data to their teachers and to the company. If someone is struggling with an assignment, her teacher will find out right away, and McGraw-Hill will direct the student to a chapter or video offering helpful explanations … McGraw Hill might find out that a customer wants not just to understand financial accounting but also have a career on Wall Street. … That knowledge offers opportunities for companies to create an even wider range of services and to develop trusted relationships with customers that become very hard for competitors to disrupt.” I thought it was interesting that in a general business article about how organizations need to embrace gathering and using customer data to create new / better / different offerings for their customers, that after Disney’s magic bands, this was the next example they used.

Comments are closed.