Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Jon Treadway and Sarah Greaves. Jon Treadway is the Director of Great North Wood Consulting, working with organizations across the research sector and creative industries. He has worked previously as Chief Operating Officer for Digital Science, as a Senior Analyst at Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, and ran the UK’s largest funding program for the cultural sector at Arts Council England. Dr. Sarah Greaves is an independent consultant working across STEM publishing. Sarah has over 20 years of experience in the industry. She was originally an academic researcher before joining the editorial team at Nature Cell Biology after which she became the Publisher for Nature. She launched Nature Communications and Scientific Reports and was recently the Chief Publishing Officer at Hindawi.
The story of mergers and acquisitions in scholarly communications is one dominated in the last 10 to 15 years by a series of eye-catching vertical acquisitions by publishers, content aggregators, and database providers which have expanded their services. These mergers have blurred traditional roles and reflect a strategy of traditional players moving to become broader providers of analytics and workflow.
The successful integration of early stage companies and managed transition by established commercial entities is one of the major reasons scholarly communications has not seen the level of disruption anticipated and desired by many who seek to change the status quo.
The most significant acquisitions by publishers over the last 18 months are interesting when viewed through this lens. On the surface, the Wiley acquisition of Hindawi and Taylor & Francis’s purchase of F1000Research look like horizontal integrations — the acquisition of content providers by content providers, albeit driven by the success of the younger entities’ open access (OA) offerings. Both purchasers were able to rapidly increase their OA output more than would have been possible through organic growth in the same timeframe, closing the gap with the largest OA publishers in the market, Elsevier and Springer Nature.
But these are also acquisitions in line with the broader trends of the last 15 years — Hindawi and F1000Research offer platforms and tools that reduce the dependence of their acquirers on larger data and workflow providers. Whether these integrations are fully leveraged within Wiley or Taylor & Francis or continue to be used by external societies, publishers, and funders remains to be seen. The perception of such partners may change the narrative on how they ultimately build value for both Wiley and Taylor & Francis.
Either way, we continue to see pressure for horizontal acquisitions as most if not all key market trends push in that direction:
- Most of the obvious, attractive targets offering vertical integration have already been acquired.
- There is heavier competition, at higher valuations, for early stage vertical investments than there was a decade ago. Many more stakeholders are seeking opportunities to invest and VC interest in the space has grown (as recent Moressier & Code Ocean deals indicate).
- Plan S favors scale. Larger entities are better placed to handle the regulation and administrative compliance required, and library consortia seek to reduce complexity in negotiations.
- Clarivate / ProQuest is another example of a horizontal merger, and will also have implications for content providers that favor scale and mergers.
We expect to see further acquisition of mid-sized commercial publishers by the very largest players in the market; it could also be likely that the Big 4 publishers will become the Big 3 or the Big 2 in the mid-term. Consolidation beyond this point remains unlikely because of the regulatory pressures from competition authorities in various jurisdictions. Yet this pressure could have major implications for long-standing academic publishers such as De Gruyter, Karger, OUP, and CUP. None offer the scale wanted by the Big 4, nor do they offer new tools and services which might make them attractive targets.
Greater horizontal integration could have complex implications and the distinctions between ‘Exit, Voice & Loyalty’ developed by AO Hirschmann in his influential book and subsequent work may be of use.
Hirschmann formalizes conditions under which agents have more impact by expressing their dissatisfaction while continuing to remain with or make purchases from an organization — the ‘Voice’ of the title. This contrasts with the withdrawal of services, or ‘Exit’, anticipated by traditional analysis of market power and consumer behavior. The loyalty agents sometimes feel, and the existence of powerful ‘Voice’ options in quasi-monopoly circumstances, can lead to counter-intuitive and more subtle results than anticipated.
The distinction has been further developed in the context of scholarly publishing and open access by Joshua Gans and Lagoze, et al. Their work offers suggestions as to how the market may develop further.
Access to bigger archives will become a key determinant in preserving subscription pricing models as the volume of new publications available via open access increases. As such, we can expect this to drive further mergers and monetization of valuable backlists.
Publishing open access now offers a less plausible ‘Exit’ strategy for researchers wishing to express dissatisfaction with the market status quo. It is harder to move away from larger, commercial publishers when they are also the largest open access publishers.
This suggests that ‘Voice’ options are more likely to gain greater traction with greater numbers of researchers. This might be in the form of boycotts, withheld editorial and peer review labor, and more successful pushes for reform of pricing, access, and greater share of rewards.
Alternatively, researchers may look for alternative ways to ‘Exit’ the current market dynamic. Publishing with non-commercial entities may become a more significant action in line with the prioritization of not-for-profit (NFP) models by various funders and advocates. Although Boards of NFP entities often jealously guard their independence, we might reasonably expect greater collaboration and potentially mergers between NFP publishers to arise in response to this.
However, after speaking to a number of learned societies, we have heard no evidence that this is happening yet. And in fact, initiatives like Plan S are having the reverse effect, magnifying the importance of the scale and expertise offered by large commercial publishers. For smaller publishers, they provide reassurance, scale, and tools to comply with Plan S and other funding initiatives that they alone will find hard to implement after years of reducing internal editorial and publishing offices.
Authors may also seek to publish in journals, or disruptors, that are yet to appear on the market. With the rapid expansion of journals published from within China on the horizon, if these offer the best author service and fulfill the needs of academics, it could be that many academics switch from their traditional journal home to new publishing venues created by the upcoming Chinese publishing review.
Most radically, perhaps, we could expect disruption to come from above. It would be relatively simple for Google (and others) to severely disrupt the whole scholarly communications industry through greater investment and integration in some of their core products. Stitching together existing offerings and facilitating self-publishing by researchers would be a viable, ‘good enough’ option on a scale unavailable through other routes. This would represent an ‘Exit’ route at scale for researchers who wanted to escape from a dominant competitive landscape and who found their ‘Voice’ options too limited. Yet the often conservative nature of academics and their sometimes slow adoption of new publishing venues might mean this high-level disruption, even if it arrived, would not be rapidly adopted en masse.
Overall, the industry remains very much in a growth phase with high potential for further acquisitions and mergers, played out against a backdrop of Plan S and COVID-19 with an ongoing battle for researchers’ loyalty. There is a widespread belief that eventually researchers’ desire for robust, fast, rigorous publishing with rapid dissemination and access for all will become more important than prestige of the publishing vehicle. When and if this happens, it remains to be seen whether this race will be won by organic growth, mergers, acquisitions or large scale disruption from outside the industry.
19 Thoughts on "Guest Post — One Publisher to Rule Them All? Consolidation Trends in the Scholarly Communications and Research Sectors"
Nice analysis. quick note from the ‘publish or perish’ dominated biological sciences: I am not sure the customers (read here: authors) are subject to classical market forces along an ‘Exit, Voice & Loyalty’ paradigm. Rather, they are dominated by an ultra competitive selective funding and career progression market (while some certainly also make their voice heard in parallel). This is why all attempts to disrupt the system top down have shown little impact on the dominance of select brands and distorting metrics such as the JIF. Competition is so engrained in research assessment that it has indeed led to the noted conservatism in academia, where even if funding competition were to be mitigated and hiring reformed according to DORA principles, the publishing hierarchy would be retained for some time to come.
re. ‘we might reasonably expect greater collaboration of NFPs’: our (EMBO Press) collaboration with RUP and CSHLP on ‘Life Science Alliance’ (https://www.life-science-alliance.org) is a good such example.
‘initiatives like Plan S are having the reverse effect’ > I agree and while PlanS, ProjektDEAL and other TAs have nominally taken note as this goes counter their intention, they have not yet taken sufficient action to mitigate this drive towards more consolidation.
As an aside, Open Access appears to be a limited driver of journal choice for authors in my domain (funder mandates dictate OA choice).
I think this is a really good point Bernd. Researchers are in a very different position than typical consumers and subject to a different set of influences and motivations.
I would also add in that the central argument here requires an active customer putting great thought and effort into their purchasing decisions, and while librarians certainly fit that bill in a subscription world, I’m not so sure that most researchers want to spend any time or effort caring much about the publishing business. The publishing industry tends to see itself as at the center of the researcher’s world, whereas when you spend time with researchers, you realize that their attention is largely consumed with funding and jobs, and little thought is given to the business of publishing.
entirely agree David: publishing is a means to an end for a researchers. Journal submission choice (which effectively equates to ‘purchasing choice, esp. for OA) is motivated by research assessment first and foremost, which does not mean that they do not often have strong opinions on publishing policies and services.
Self-archiving is a viable option. If academic institutions place more value on qualitative measures, and authors retain copyright of their research output and self-archive in their institutional or open repositories, academic libraries will index and catalogue the research output deposited/linked to the institutional repository making the research openly discoverable full text e.g. via Google, Google Scholar, CORE to researchers and the tax paying public.
Does anyone still think that Google (or Amazon) is going to sweep in and take over scholarly publishing? If they were going to, wouldn’t they have already done this by now? I would suggest they haven’t because our industry is extremely small potatoes in terms of revenue and not really worth their time. One might think that there would be motivation in gathering all that scholarly data for AI training and such, but that only makes sense in a non-OA world. Once things are OA, they can do all of that for free, so why invest anything at this point?
A prediction: Amazon and Google are going to start caring about scholarly publishing once research data are widely available – their AI tools can munch on article text right now, but the gold is to be found by automated combination of *compatible* datasets at massive scale. That’s just not possible right now, but may be in 4-5 years.
You’re probably right, but since it will (hopefully) be open data and freely available, there’s no need for either company to swoop in from above as some sort of savior.
If it’s going to be freely available, and free to deposit, who’s going to pay for all the curation necessary to get all the metadata up to scratch and ensure that the datasets all meet a common formatting standard?
I still believe there is a real difference between the softer social sciences/A&H and the STM disciplines in how publishing venues are viewed by authors. For the former subjects, targeted audience and prestige of a particular journal will still be given preference over the ‘need for speed’. This also has implications for more homogenous ‘platform publishing’ whereby the journal ‘brand’ starts to disappear.
There is an old joke in college publishing which applies to journals.
Cocktail party someone asks which book do you use for freshmen chem?
1. Student the big orange one
2. Prof the Jones book
3. Publisher the PH book
Cocktail party someone asks which journal do you use/ publish in
1. Prof the one with the highest JIF
2. Consumer I have no idea
3. Library the ones that are in the package
In short the publisher has no relevance.
The STEM publishing market is really very small and of no interest to those outside of it.
Global $10B Scientific & Technical Publishing Industryhttps://www.globenewswire.com › 2020/01/29
I would beg to differ on this analogy of cocktail jokes and resulting conclusion that the Publisher has no relevance. In particular to the book product. Publishers all have the common ground, shared goal of attracting, publishing the best quality, high valued content and maximizing revenue from whatever business model mix they offer. However, how each Publisher manages the operation is in my humble opinion uniquely different for many of the big named Publishers and is driven by equally different business strategies and big picture missions. And this all has a direct on authors, the starting point and origin of this process. David Green is right here on.his earlier comment about SSH vs STEM publishing in the book market. I put my case forward on the table here, that the Publisher is relevant to authors in Journal article publishing in whatever discipline SSH or STEM because whilst the JIF may be the sole criterion for selection by authors of a paper they wish to publish and receive maximum exposure, visibility, readership and referencing; its actually the Publisher who is in the cockpit or helm and designing and utilizing the controls driving this in a direction they desire to go, which may not be obvious to the authors. In conclusion, publishing is a joined up operation and in my opinion a closed loop system that integrates all involved from authors, publishers to readers and consumers and is not fragmented as this implicates…
Many big mergers & acquisitions in publishing industry over last couple of years have happened as part of long-term strategy of top scholarly publishers to:
• Offer publishing services (editorial, platforms, peer-review processes)
• Solutions to researchers (databases, software)
• Expand Open Access
Some of the examples are:
• Elsevier: Academic Press, Aries Systems, Butterworth-Heinemann, North Holland and Pergamon
• Wiley: Atypon, Blackwell, Interscience and VCH
• Wolters Kluwer: eOriginal, Vanguard
• Taylor & Francis: F1000
• Springer Nature: iversity
• Sage: Global Village Publishing (GVPi), Talis
• Karger: Health Press
• Emerald: Pier Professional, Open House International
Thanks for this post.
A question on this statement “There is a widespread belief that eventually researchers’ desire for robust, fast, rigorous publishing with rapid dissemination and access for all will become more important than prestige of the publishing vehicle.”
This seems to be a reasonable assumption but I’m interested in any research you can point to that supports this. It is one of those things that always seems just around the corner!
I seriously doubt that the statement is true, especially the “widespread belief” part.
I don’t think that assumption is reasonable. We can’t have robust, fast, rigorous with rapid dissemination and universal access.
At some point there’s going to be a trade-off, eg between rigour and speed.
“Fast, cheap and good. You can pick any two.”
To Bernie’s question – wouldn’t the most radical disruption be that the researchers choose not to publish at all (as we know it today) but instead to stream/make media/post directly to wikipedia, etc. Could we imagine that “robust, fast, rigorous publishing with rapid dissemination and access for all” will actually happen entirely outside of the Academic Publishing structures we all know and (don’t necessarily) love?
Is there not a exit path for this industry where the content producers stop making 7” records and cassette tapes and start making multi-media concert experiences?
I don’t think so. Trends in the music industry are ultimately driven by customers doing the listening, trends in academia are ultimately driven by retiring professors who hand-pick their successor. They are going to pick somebody who follows the same research model as the professor themselves followed in the previous three decades.
Having just received a rejection from Wiley to be an online distributor for our journal (Lacunae – The journal for the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland) as they:
“are currently looking to grow our portfolio via open access journals with established cascade networks” it feels like small journals are now all destined to be Open Access and to be increasingly general in their material so that articles that are rejected for one journal can be siphoned off into other channels. This removes a vital revenue stream from the societies and associations that work so hard to keep delivering the highest standards of published papers.