Riding the Tectonic Plates 1: The Changing User

Photo: The Grand Canyon, USA
Image: Tobias Alt

Report from the Third Semantico Online Publishing Symposium

Technology is driving disruptive change in scholarly publishing – as well as altered expectations and behaviours among scholars, researchers, students, librarians and those who set institutional and governmental policy.

This symposium was held recently in London to discuss how publishers can survive and thrive within this fast-changing landscape.

An invited audience of publishing industry leaders debated the issues under Chatham House rules. Delegates were from organisations including Beilstein-Institut, BioScientifica, CABI, Cross Ref, eLife, Mendeley, Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Sage, SIPX and Springer.

The discussion was in three parts, covering the following themes:

  1. The changing user
  2. Changing business models
  3. Future tech trends

This post covers the changing user.

Part 1. The changing user

2012 was a big year for Open Access journals, with governments and funding bodies on both sides of the Atlantic giving decisive impetus to major change in scholarly publishing. ‘Gold’ OA in particular involves a fundamentally different model where the author pays for publication.

Much of our discussion centered on the doubt and uncertainty caused by the introduction of this new model into the world of academic publishing.

Two key drivers can be seen in funders’ support for OA. The first, and most easily grasped for the non-academic audience, is a desire to disseminate the results of scientific enquiry to a wider world outside narrow academic confines and make publicly funded research available to the public that (ultimately) pays for it.

The second is a perception of ‘market failure’ in journals. Funders feel they end up paying twice; once when they sponsor research, and a second time when they fund access to the published results of that research, the latter being a cost over which they have little or no control. Since the copyright owner in a particular prestigious journal (typically a publisher) has a monopoly in that title, and a particular university library may have no choice but to provide access to it, publishers can charge as much as the market will bear. This can be seen as a government subsidy to the private sector. Given the rising cost of college education, and enduring global economic malaise in the West, this situation is viewed as unsustainable.

The OA tide now seems unstoppable, and alongside their traditional, subscription-based businesses, many publishers are introducing versions of the new author-pays model.

It is a model in an emergent, evolutionary phase. Many things are not clear about how it will function, including what role librarians will play. And though publishers might appear more sanguine about the changes in their public statements, and even in research studies such as that recently published by Ebsco, ‘The Future of the Academic Information Supply Chain’ (requires registration), it was clear from our discussion that some quite fundamental questions are posed for them too by this shifting of the tectonic plates, not all of which have readily discernible answers as yet.

Carp fishing

Critics of OA often question the value of opening up to a wider public content that is highly technical, expressed in arcane, academic language (or mathematical formulae), and of niche concern at best.

In one sense, it is a very old argument: is anyone outside the academic community actually interested in scholarly content?

Food for thought was given on this subject by one delegate whose company, a publisher of earth sciences information, had recently opened up its information to Google searching. Unleashing its content in this way certainly had revealed a huge amount of interest in its data; interest that the company hadn’t previously suspected was there. But where did it come from?

Analysis showed that although use was expanded by the move, 90% of the resulting expanded usage was not from the organisation’s core audience, but from a ‘long tail’ of countless interest groups, many of them following what would normally be classified as leisure pursuits. Carp fishermen, for instance, were interested in the effect of climate change on the fish, which apparently become more aggressive with temperature change.

All of this was first-time access, and an indication of latent need that perhaps raises the question for publishers of whether they need to have a wider view of who their users are. However, is it really significant usage? In particular, is it significant enough to justify the considerable turmoil and uncertainty introduced into the publishing ecosystem by new OA models?

Publishing schizophrenia

The difficulties caused by the introduction of OA should not be underestimated.

In universities there is widespread confusion about how OA will function. As yet, nobody seems quite clear about how article processing charges (APCs) should be administered (although librarians apparently feel this will become their responsibility). In some areas of the academy – particularly outside the sciences – there can be found almost complete ignorance about what OA actually is. A delegate described the bemused reaction of one academic on hearing that an author might pay for publication in a journal: ‘Is that something out of The Onion?’

Another delegate, from a large, well established STM publisher that runs both subscription-based and OA journals spoke of the ‘schizophrenia’ involved in operating two such dissimilar models alongside each other within a single organisation.

For example, the ‘OA division’ might use exactly the same types of resources in their work – e.g. software developers, databases, search engines, hosting, etc. – but their focus when it comes to what they want to develop; to what is important to their community and their audience, is completely different from what the subscription side works on. This causes a lot of tension internally. It is hard to get synergies, economies of scale and replication of production where two sets of teams are each working on a completely separate set of problems.

The big difference is that the OA group is trying to please a different customer – the individual writing the article – where the subscription-based team focuses as it always has on the needs of the institutional user; the librarian. One side seeks to serve the producer of intellectual property, the other the consumer of it.

This dichotomy seemed to express fairly neatly the big shift for publishers involved in moving to OA – a shift from being focused on librarians as their key stakeholder, to being focused on authors.

Probably the most noticeable thing about this observation to an industry outsider would be the fact that neither group is focused on the end-user.

This is an important, one could almost defining, feature of the scholarly publishing landscape, and one that tends to pass unremarked on by all but neophytes. The fact is that publishers in general have rarely had much direct, unmediated market contact with their end-users – tending to work through intermediaries such as retailers, wholesalers and institutions instead. In the scholarly publishing ecosystem, library budgets are king. Or have been up to now.

However, OA itself will not put publishers in direct contact with end-users. You could say it merely substitutes one sub-group of users (authors) for another (librarians). But it is a major factor, alongside the growth of online as a delivery medium, that is highlighting and putting pressure on the traditional market structures of scholarly communication.

The problem with librarians

None of the above means to say that the status ante bellum was seen as perfect by our delegates.

Having ‘these interstitial entities called librarians’ – a class of privileged stakeholders who are not the end-user – has caused many problems for subscription-based digital publishing projects in the past; problems which, speaking under Chatham House rules, they were happy to air in a quite unbuttoned way.

With no disrespect to the professional skills and knowledge of librarians in the round, it was felt that they too often present as a special class of user who ‘like stuff that nobody else uses, including the people that they actually serve’. The problem is that they’re the ones with the money.

This money does not come in small, regular lumps either, as it does in consumer industries – a fact that puts academic publishers at a relative disadvantage when it comes to creating vibrant and effective interfaces.

If you are Amazon, for instance, you will be using metrics in a short timeframe to drive a design approach that is completely responsive. If a particular page is not ‘shovelling money to the bottom line’, you will know about it within hours or at the very latest, days. Page design can be tweaked and evaluated iteratively to ensure optimal revenue generation.

In traditional academic publishing, by contrast, buyers are signed up to long-term contracts, so the lag between a problem being identified and any sort of change being made can be measured in years or multiple of years.

This makes it very hard to be responsive, and also provides a brake on innovation. The question is always, what difference will this change make to the bottom line? For the publisher, and equally for the technology provider, the answer to that question is very often ‘none’ – even though improving things for the end-user might well have a beneficial effect for the institution concerned. But often if a new product – or a change to an existing product – cannot be sold to libraries, no-one is going to be interested in funding it.

Both publishers and developers desperately want to do more for the end-user. Librarians no doubt feel that they are providing the best for their users in the choices they make. But the fact remains that academic platforms do not always exhibit best practice by the standards of the general market.

The expectations of users for responsive, high-performance digital interfaces is real, it was agreed. But are those expectations really relevant? Here we saw evidence of a different species of schizophrenia from our publisher delegates who, while lamenting the structural factors in their market that prevent them fully serving the end-user, also complained of the ‘inflated’ expectations visited upon them by the tech giants – ‘Every time I do user testing people say “why isn’t it like Google?” …


What kind of tune does the author-pays piper call?

So if librarians do their jobs imperfectly as main stakeholders, how do authors fare at the same job? How different will the author-pays model prove in practice?

At this point, since nobody can be quite sure about how APCs will be administrated, this is largely a matter of speculation, however reflecting on what it is that academic authors really care about (and what they don’t) will surely give some indications.

They might be less bothered about Counter reporting than librarians, for instance, and though they will be just as interested in discoverability and usage, wanting their research to find the right kind of audience, they will look at both in a different way. They will clearly be more interested in article-level metrics, although the prestige of the journal they are published in, as currently measured by impact factor, can be expected to remain of intimate concern as long as credit and tenure are tied to that particular means of assessment – as they currently still are within most universities.

What authors ultimately care most about is building sustainable reputations over time. In the immediate term this is all about such things as being promoted to professor, getting tenure, etc. And as the measures by which universities judge and quantify repute change, so we can expect authors’ requirements to change. Impact factor might be an imperfect measure but it is seen to correlate with other things, and will have to be replaced by other hard measures for the system to continue to function.

However there is a wider dimension to the OA change – and perhaps a more interesting one, long term.

Quite apart from the high-priority matter of how institutions measure and reward authors, technology now provides them with far more chances for building a personal brand, and being seen as an authoritative player within their field of expertise (the rush by leading Ivy League professors to get involved in MOOCs being a case in point).

It is always at question, in the case of high-profile academics, whether the lustre conferred to authors by the prestigious universities they work out of is outshone by the gleam that accrues to individuals through their own successes in publication and the media. As measurement criteria change will this balance change with it?

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