2021 has been a year of market consolidation. While the big mergers and acquisitions have garnered much attention (most recently Clarivate completing its deal for Proquest and Wiley’s ongoing spending spree), I wanted to bring to light a different area of rapid market consolidation, namely the demise of the independently publishing research society. 2021 has seen an acceleration of this trend which began in 2018 with the announcement of Plan S.
At the beginning of 2019 I declared that we had entered “The Great Acceleration“, meaning that we were embarking on a period of significant, rapid change, and in that blog post I said the following about Plan S:
Plan S is a great example of acceleration — the research world has been moving slowly toward open access, with different fields moving at different paces via different routes. This evolution has taken place at (not surprisingly) an evolutionary pace, and a small group of significant research funders have declared their impatience with this level of progress. Plan S is a deliberate attempt to accelerate change, throwing a comet into a complex ecosystem in hope that it will produce mammals, rather than mass extinction.
The comet has struck, and we’re now in a period of what one school of evolutionary biology calls a “punctuated equilibrium”, which is the idea that rather than evolution happening gradually and continually, it instead shows long periods of stability and stasis, and then sudden bursts of rapid change.
Evolution, however, is unpredictable, as one would expect for any process that is driven by random change. What we’re seeing so far is that rather than a mass extinction or the spurring of all sorts of new species of publishers, Plan S has instead resulted in an environment that has reinforced the dominance of the incumbent market players and created a drive toward increasing scale – in other words, it is evolving bigger dinosaurs.
As an aside, I want to be clear that I’m not referring to larger publishers as dinosaurs to imply that they’re obsolete or stodgy and stuck in their ways. If anything, the largest of publishers have achieved that success for a reason – they’re very good at what they do, and because publishing is a service industry, that means being able to change to meet the needs of their customers. And open access (OA) has been a great example of that willingness to adapt, as the largest publishers have all embraced OA and extended their already successful businesses around it.
But if the goal was to shake things up and displace the dominant players, then that has not happened, and the net result to date of Plan S has been a massive consolidation of the market. The biggest publishers are growing bigger, and the smaller, independent publishers are largely abandoning their independence and signing on with the biggest houses. I’ve been in kind of a unique position here as an observer over the last few years – I’ve been on both sides of the negotiating table for Publishing Service Agreements, first as a publisher looking to bring in new journals, and now as a consultant running the Request for Proposal (RFP) process on behalf of journals looking for a publisher.
I can tell you that since the announcement of Plan S, at my former employer, we saw an enormous spike in the number of formerly independent journals looking for a larger publishing partner, and that now as a consultant, there remains a continuing stream of independent journals who have realized that they can’t thrive in the new environment on their own.
I think there are three forces driving all this consolidation: Uncertainty, Transformative Agreements, and the required Technology and Reporting Burdens.
A major transition to a new business model, particularly where there’s no answer that’s obviously sustainable and equitable, is going to create a lot of market instability. The most developed and predominant model available for open access is having the author pay an article processing charge (APC). This is an imperfect solution that creates as many problems as it solves. We know it doesn’t eliminate the inequities in the system, it just moves them from readers to authors. But also, most research societies consider themselves as stewards of their fields – they exist to instill rigor and drive excellence in research. As part of this, they’ve built highly-selective journals to present the very best research results in their field. Unfortunately, these flagship journals don’t really work with an APC model. The more articles you reject, the more expenses you have that have no way of being covered.
For the moment, APCs at their current levels work for a lot of journals because they are heavily subsidized by subscription revenues. But as the subscription revenues begin to wane, the APCs alone are not going to be enough to replace them and still maintain current earnings.
You also have the major problem of the APC model concentrating costs on a small number of authors rather than the subscription model’s wide spread of readers covering costs. This means that productive institutions that publish a lot of papers are going to have to spend a lot more to replace the funds that now come in from institutions that read the literature but don’t produce a lot of it. And frankly, that money just isn’t there – the productive institutions don’t have some magical pile of money they can add to their library budgets, and many of the top research institutions I’ve spoken with are uninterested in greatly increasing their spending.
Add in the pandemic, and things are even more uncertain. For an independent not-for-profit society with limited scale, this is a frightening place in which to be. But if you’re part of a much bigger organization, there’s more buffer there to weather the short-term storm, and a Publishing Services Agreement (PSA) often offers guaranteed revenues which allow you to ensure your future existence.
Transformative Agreements (TAs) are probably the number one reason we hear from smaller societies as to why they want to partner up with a bigger publishing house. Just as the Big Deal became the dominant way that journals are sold, making it difficult to get into a library’s budget unless you were part of a larger package, so too has the ascendance of the “Bigger Deal”, including subscription access and APCs. Most existing journals and their author communities aren’t yet ready for a full flip to OA and being part of a TA offers a route to buy a few years’ time in order to plan and potentially make that transition. The problem is that TAs generally need to be individually negotiated with each institution and are so complex and time-consuming to put together that librarians only have time to negotiate a small number of them with the largest of publishers. There’s simply no way for a society with one or two journals to get a seat at the table.
Technology and Reporting Demands
Plan S asks a lot from a journal in order to qualify as compliant. Let’s start with the technology requirements, which include the use of persistent identifiers like DOIs, participation in a long-term digital preservation or archiving program like CLOCKSS or Portico, what’s described as “high quality article level metadata” that must be in a standard non-proprietary and interoperable format licensed under CC0 terms, and that metadata must include complete and reliable information on funding of the research, including the name of the funder and their grant number. Further, the article must have machine readable information on its OA status and license embedded in the article in a standard, non-proprietary format. That’s a lot to ask for from a small, low-budget journal owned and run on a shoestring by the community, and many would have to invest significantly to meet these demands. A 2019 study showed that the large majority of OA journals listed in the DOAJ were not compliant with Plan S’s technology demands.
Beyond the technological requirements, the Plan S reporting demands also make it impossible for the small players to be in compliance. First, there’s the price transparency details, which in my opinion are vague and meaningless enough that I’m not sure they create too much of a burden for most journals. However, if you’re a fully-OA journal or a hybrid journal in a transformative agreement, you need to have a detailed description of all of your editorial policies and decision-making processes publicly available on your journal website. You have to have a detailed description of your peer review process posted as well. It is required that at least once a year you publish statistics showing the journal’s number of submissions, numbers of reviews requested, numbers of reviews received, the acceptance rate, and the average times between submission and publication. Much of this is data that has largely been seen as proprietary and confidential, so I suspect many are not comfortable sharing it with their competitors.
If you want to take the “transformative journal” approach, things get even more demanding. On top of those previous things, you have to publish an annual report showing downloads, citations and Altmetric scores for all papers published, and you have to present that data sorted by OA papers versus non-OA papers. It remains unclear why Plan S needs this data, nor why they can’t source it themselves. If you’re a big publisher or you partner with one, this is no big deal – you ask your team of analysts to use your expensive Web of Science and Altmetrics subscriptions to generate automated reports. If you’re a small, independent journal, you probably don’t have a team of data analysts and probably can’t afford Web of Science or Altmetrics access.
So the only option that makes sense for you if you want to continue to exist in this rapidly shifting OA world is to sign on with a big publisher, further reinforcing the fact that scale is the most essential component to OA success.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The APC model and many of the other models in use today may turn out to be evolutionary dead ends, and the mammals that we’re looking for may still yet emerge. One of the biggest issues for societies in recent years has been lock-in – once you’re in a big publisher’s Big Deal package, it’s really hard to get out because libraries subscribe to the package, not to your journal, which means if you leave, you’re basically starting over from scratch. In a fully-OA world, this lock-in may go away, because subscribers will no longer matter.
So eventually, societies may have more mobility and freedom of choice. The big question is, by the time we reach that point, whether the market will have consolidated down so much that there aren’t any choices left.
14 Thoughts on "Market Consolidation and the Demise of the Independently Publishing Research Society"
Thank you for this post David. Very interesting read, although it does make me fee a bit anxious!
Thanks, David, an important trend many of us have been watching! One quibble I have is that the headline is pretty universal (“demise of the independently publishing research society”) but in the text of your piece you qualify the societies most impacted by the changes you catalogue with the word “small” (“number one reason we hear from smaller societies,” “that’s a lot to ask from a small, low-budget journal,” “makes it impossible for the small players to be in compliance,” “if you’re a small, independent journal, you probably don’t have a team…”).
Do you have a prediction on when/how much these trends will affect the independence of the midsize and large independent publishing research societies? Or for now is this impact you see mostly contained at the smaller end (who have been in a precarious position for many years, it seems)?
Finally I must add my two cents that these system changes are all quite experimental – we don’t really know what will happen when research societies, who as you note aspire to be “stewards of their fields” and “exist to instill rigor and drive excellence in research,” become less impactful participants in research communication. Some days I am excited and enthusiastic about these changes and some days my feelings are perfectly expressed by a recent Tweet – “I’m all for radical social experiments, but I need to be in the control group.” (sorry, I’ve lost track of the author of that pithy statement)
“Small” is a relative term — one society with three really important journals is “small” when compared with an Elsevier or a Wiley. And we have seen some of the real powerhouse societies who have been stubbornly independent over the years signing on with big publishers recently. I think the technology/reporting concerns are likely a bigger driver for the smaller societies, as the bigger ones have the financial wherewithal to be able to afford the technological support and staffing necessary. But the bigger societies are affected by the uncertainty and the transformative agreements factors as much as the really small societies. Many are reliant on their journal revenue to pay for the good things they do on behalf of their members (and the world at large), so seeing those funds jeopardized hits everyone at every level. Further, as Judy Luther points out in a comment below, TAs are not just a concern for revenue reasons, but also because they encourage authors to only submit to journals that are part of a TA (why pay for OA when you can get it for free?) so not being in a TA means a potential loss of authors from your journal.
David, Great post addressing how Plan S has accelerated consolidation. Many independent publishers may be unaware of the metadata expectations with Plan S. However, the impact of Transformative Agreements are a game changer that favors large publishers as they underwrite the cost of APCs for authors who submit to their journals thereby diminishing submissions to smaller publishers.
There are efficiencies to be had at many levels of the production process yet because large journals are adverse to change, they are unwilling to take on those cost cutting measures. The excuse usually comes down to how much savings each measure offers compared to the huge influx of revenue from institutions and subscriptions. It’s just not worth doing.
The total cost of production seems artificial in this regard but nonetheless an assumed barrier of entry for smaller journals.
Passing on the cost to the authors is justified by those who feel that they are acting in the authors best interest by asserted that authors would rather open up there wallets then have to submit their works in anything else but a word doc – a process that requires expensive typesetting operations in order to format the content for publishing as well as make it machine readable for downstream entities. This is especially bizarre for journals that don’t even offer a print version of their content.
What are the sources of revenue for a society publisher? Publishing, dues, and meeting seem to be the major sources and for a few educational offerings. If a society publisher nets 15% off their publishing program and if they get a 15% royalty they can eliminate personal overhead and be better off financially by signing with a major publishing house.
I don’t know how many societies/associations publish a journal(s) but it seems to me one unintended consequence of PlanS will be and to create a glut of unemployed folks who are engaged in the publishing world.
You are correct about the unemployed folks. Mostly it is production and sales positions eliminated as the societies still manage the editorial parts of the journal business. Neither group is in a good situation. Most of the production work in scholarly publishing is now done outside the US–predominantly in India. More and more English-language editing has moved offshore with success. Automation has also hit these jobs hard as well as changing standards in quality– some publishers are only doing an automated clean up of manuscripts instead of human editing.
Sales are also in a tough position. Adding more journals to a package–like adding a society journal to a large commercial package– does not require additional staff.
Your comment got me thinking about how best we can support these people.
I believe the total number of people employed in publishing around the world is shrinking. It’s not just a question of outsourcing to less costly economies. This is my speculation. It would be great if someone/some institution would fund research on publishing employment.
Perhaps one or more of the chefs could to take a look at Aries Systems’ UX/UI updates. Aries is moving swiftly to erase unique journal branding in favor of streamlined EM/PM forward branding. There is also a growing disconnect between the society staff of Elsevier-published journals and Aries in favor of Elsevier support, which is inefficient and time consuming. This might be where things go off the rails – unless everyone is just fine with the burning building and eventual replacement by automated chat bots. Am I overreacting? Probably – we likely have another 12 months before we are replaced by bots.
“You also have the major problem of the APC model concentrating costs on a small number of authors rather than the subscription model’s wide spread of readers covering costs. ” This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s exactly the intention, not an unintended consequence. And the idea of the sub cost being “wide spread of readers” is not reality – the cost is overwhelmingly borne not by ‘readers’ but by institutional library budgets. You can quibble about the libraries paying on behalf of their readers, I suppose, but that ignores the reality about how institutional subscriptions are priced (massive price discrimination as compared with personal subs) and how the decisions to subscribe (and cancel) are made.
Whether intentional or not has no bearing on whether the concentration of costs on a small number of institutions is also problematic, which it is. As noted in the post, the librarians at the major US research institutions I’ve spoken with have no way to address and want no part of the massive increases in costs an APC based model will burden them with.
I would also make the argument that there are far more “read” institutions than “publish” institutions, and if I recall correctly, analyses have shown that the average author writes one paper in their lifetime (and I’m willing to bet probably reads more than one). Libraries do indeed bear the costs for those widespread readers, though the source of those library funds varies a lot from institution to institution — when I’ve asked university librarians the source of their budgets, the most common answers are student tuitions, student fees, and some portion of grant overheads, meaning that the students on campus are indeed paying some portion, if only indirectly.
None of which argues against your points about pricing and subscription decisions, but in an all-APC OA world, those things no longer exist.
What surprises me is how some societies are still keeping their independence by running their own publishing platforms. I’m thinking of IOP Publishing and APS for example. Back twenty years ago the physics societies used to collaborate and manage their subscriptions to places like China as a block (i.e. You got APS and AIP journals as a single package). Then they all went their own way. It seems like this would be a good time for them to rediscover the effectiveness of collaboration, while they still can.
Great points, but I want to add a missing one which (in my view) is the worst consequence of TA: the amplification of Science inequalities. At the end, TA will separate scientists as knowledge producers (North) and consumers (South) since in many countries, where funding is limited, the APC costs are prohibitive. The waiver policies of Plan S for poor countries are vague and will severely punish scientists from upper-middle income economies who will be forbidden to ask for APC discounts from Jan 1st 2025. The evolutive solution will be the same for small journals: likewise them had to rush for big umbrella publishers to survive in the aftermath of Plan S-TA, Southern independent researchers will also had to seek regional/local research groups, who holds fundings, to cover their publishing costs. This will be the demise of independent research in many parts of the globe.
Agreed. Many years ago in a Kenyan workshop one delegate said to me “so whereas the existing system means anyone can publish, but only the rich can read, in the new (APC) system anyone can read but only the rich can publish.” This was clearly demonstrated when I was unable to find a publisher for an OA journal where most of the content came from countries who would receive APC waivers. (Resulting in a self-published journal which lacks many of the accepted technologies we require/expect from reputable journals – demonstrating yet more disparity between the rich and poor nations.)
More recently, I am increasingly encountering cases where a publisher does not want to renew a society journal (small profit, lack of APC potential) and no other traditional publisher is interested for the same reasons. So whilst societies may feel unable to self-publish, there are reducing opportunities for them to locate a suitable publisher.