Scholarly Communication in Turmoil
By Miriam A. Drake
Scholarly communication is in turmoil. It is not clear how scholarly publishers will cope with change or if journals will even survive. That’s why we turned to two leading experts to provide some insight into scholarly publishing now and in the future. Sally Morris—former chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP)—and Michael Mabe—chief executive of the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM)—both take a broad look at scholarly communications. They are keenly aware of the trends affecting scholarly publishing and the changing ways scholars communicate with their readers and each other.
The key issues confronting scholarly publishing include open access (OA), peer review, institutional repositories, multiple versions of articles, increasing author awareness of copyright issues, archiving and preserving, and faster communication tools such as blogs, Web sites, RSS feeds, and podcasts. The newer communication tools speed up communication and bypass journals. In this environment, scholars may communicate in new ways and journals may have a different role from the past, but documents of record are still essential to the business.
Monitoring the Current Situation
The current state of scholarly publishing is marked by confusion, uncertainty, and the lack of a clear path for the future. “I think there is a lot of turmoil,” said Morris. “People are focusing very much on open access and self-archiving in institutional repositories in parallel to publication in journals.” However, she said she suspects that people are looking in the wrong place. “A potentially far more significant development is that scientists are beginning to work and to communicate in completely different ways made possible by the Web,” she said. What this means is that if publishers continue to focus entirely on what’s happening to the article as we know it, the danger is that other people will make copies available for free, and therefore publishers won’t make money selling articles. “We may be worrying about the wrong thing,” she said.
Mabe also focused on the turbulence in publishing. “I think there are a number of competing trends interfering with each other like wave patterns interfere when you drop two stones in the water,” he said. “What you are seeing is the first phase of the digital transition as far as publishers are concerned. Add in the political and economic trends, and the end result is, I think, a very unpredictable mix.”
A List of Subscriptions
Librarians, the primary buyers of scholarly journals, have been faced with extraordinary inflation in journal prices for years, along with level or dwindling budgets that don’t keep pace with increasing costs. At the same time, academic disciplines are also growing and changing. For the last few years, publishers have offered bundles of journals (called big deals) to consortia or to groups of libraries. These bundles reduce unit prices, mandate a certain level of expenditures, and preclude librarians from choosing titles. As a result, librarians may acquire access to titles they don’t need and not to titles they actually do need to support research and academic programs.
A few years ago, Morris would have said that people would not buy single-journal subscriptions and that librarians would buy bundles of journals grouped by publishers or in other ways. Librarians now want latitude in selecting what is in their bundles. “The short- to medium-term scenario is where the models for selling content to libraries will change and become both more flexible and much more complicated,” she said. “People want to pick and mix.” And as librarians “pick and mix,” the administrative costs increase, causing price increases that make it more difficult for librarians to buy what they want with limited budgets.
Mabe mentioned a study conducted by the Scholarly Information Strategies for the Publishing Research Consortium that dealt with factors related to library subscription cancellations. The study (www.publishingresearch.org.uk), which was published after our conversation, indicated that the length of embargo periods and peer review are key elements in a librarian’s decision to cancel journal subscriptions. It also suggested that some librarians will also cancel subscriptions if the material is available on OA institutional repositories.
The Importance of Peer Review
Peer review is clearly an issue for scholars, librarians, and readers. Referees who review articles give editors a way to distinguish between relevant, quality articles and those that may not meet specific standards. Readers and librarians rely on this vetting process to decide on value and whether to invest their time and money. Since peer review is far from a perfect process, it does not guarantee the absence of errors, plagiarism, or the falsification of research results. But despite its shortcomings, the current peer-review process works.
Morris pointed to questions posed about the methods of peer review. These questions relate to the context of the journal: Who are the readers? Are the articles submitted at the right level for the readership and within the scope of the journal? And is the article relevant and interesting? Most people are aware that peer review is not perfect. “Things can slip through, but there is still a huge amount of importance attached to it,” she said.
Investment in New Journals
Investing in new journals usually requires capital generated from reinvesting profits from publishing operations. As disciplines are fragmented, new interdisciplinary fields emerge, major discoveries are made, and the number of new journals increases. Mabe said the fragmentation and branching of knowledge as well as the increase in scientific specializations are inevitable. One reason is that “the number of scientists in the world is growing about 3 percent per year and has done so—as far as we can tell—for the last 300 years.” The result is 3.5-percent annual growth in the number of journals, which now totals 23,000. So there are more new journals being created than the number of journals being phased out.
Twenty or 30 years ago, it took 7 years for new journals to realize a return on investment (ROI). Today, however, it can take as little as 2 or 3 years. As with other businesses, there are still upfront costs to contend with. According to Mabe, first you have to let people know the journal exists, then you have to persuade people to publish in the inaugural issue.
“If the first papers are really good and the idea is one that is relevant to the academic community, then authors will submit papers,” he said. “In my experience, almost all journal ideas come from scholars. You either have to be doing something better or something different.” If a journal doesn’t produce revenue, publishers have to cut their losses.
Morris corroborated Mabe’s estimates for ROI. “Ultimately, journals not only have to cover costs, but they also need to make an adequate surplus,” she said. This surplus is needed for investment capital. Morris explained that scholarly societies use the surplus generated by publishing for several purposes. “Apart from keeping the journal operation running and keeping the society itself running, societies use the surplus to support meetings, which otherwise might not happen or would be much more expensive. A significant number are also using it to fund research.”
At one time, members paid dues to receive a society journal. Now that journals are available online, the membership benefit for receiving a personal copy of the journal is less valuable. Morris indicated that societies now face a serious dilemma. “Putting up membership dues to compensate for falling membership is likely to lead to a vicious spiral unless you can offer a lot of extra membership benefits,” she said, adding that unless it is a professional association where you have to belong to practice, society membership is entirely optional. “If you price above the perceived benefits, you lose members,” she said.
Mabe saw little difference between commercial and not-for-profit publishers and how they operate their publishing companies. But there might be differences in what they do with their surpluses. Differences exist in editorial functions, for example. In a for-profit organization, such as Elsevier (Mabe’s
employer prior to STM), staff specialists oversee a particular area. These specialists are expected to be experts in that subject area, and they conduct a creative dialog with academic editors (the experts in very narrow areas of
particular journals). Publication niches evolve over time. Likewise, commercial publishers want to make sure that editorial teams continue to change and to meet the needs of scientists. Many times, these needs cross the line of science disciplines or interdisciplinary scholars. Some of the learned societies also have academic committees to do the job. “At the end of the day, most journals [have no future] if they do not attract authors,” said Mabe. “The author, in that sense, is the primary customer.”
Institutional Repositories and Author Archiving
More libraries and other organizations are creating institutional repositories to preserve, archive, and provide access to the works of faculty, researchers, and scholarly communities. Both Mabe and Morris expressed concerns about the effect of institutional repositories and author self-archiving, which they view as a threat to scholarly publishers.
Morris said: “I think that this is actually much scarier for publishers than the open access publishing model. While self-archiving may coexist with the subscription model, it has the potential to parasitize it to the point that it actually kills it.” Institutional repositories may influence librarians to cancel subscriptions and “could bring about the demise of a lot of journals very quickly.”
Mabe said that institutional repositories pose no threat when they are used as a store for gray literature and access to them is confined to intranets. “The more they are public Web sites rather than closed intranets, the more risk they run of essentially duplicating the scholarly literature in a no-pay environment.” Without pay models, publishers cannot recoup their investments.
“I think the increasing use, in some quarters, of repositories as an alternative to scholarly dissemination will potentially create great damage in terms of the ability for journals to remain viable,” he said, adding that a publisher’s embargo periods of 6 to 12 months may not be economically safe for journals.
Since peer review and multiple versions of articles are related to institutional repositories, Mabe talked about the sociological function of journals, which he sees as more than an information vehicle. “I think this community function of the journal might be quite difficult without re-establishing something that looks exactly like a journal with all the costs and implications that flow from that,” he said. “It would be quite difficult to replicate that in free form with roving peer-review panels looking after materials in a repository.”
Multiple versions of journals from self-archiving and those deposited in institutional repositories pose problems for journals, librarians, and readers. When a paper or an article is cited, which version is being cited? Many publishers permit authors to deposit preprints that have not been peer reviewed. Others permit an article to be deposited after peer review and prior to copy editing. Most publishers prohibit the published version from being deposited from 6 to 24 months to forever. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requires deposit of the published version in 12 months.
“Multiple versions are a big problem,” said Morris. “As far as I can see, librarians are quite concerned that the preprint version that has not gone through peer review is not an adequate substitute for journals. On the other hand, if you look at areas like physics and mathematics, all or most of a journal’s content is deposited in some form by authors in the arXiv [http://arxiv.org] repository.” She added that those in the physics and mathematics disciplines are happy to get preprints from arXiv rather than the final published version. “If that’s good enough for readers, then I ask myself if publishers are kidding themselves about the value they add.”
The Changing Face of OA
OA, institutional repositories, and Internet opportunities are making publishers look at new business models. OA is still a hot-button issue for authors, funding authorities, librarians, and publishers. The Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org) lists 2,514 journals with 124,046 articles as of Dec. 30, 2006.
The major costs of scholarly publishing, including salaries paid to authors by their universities or research institutions for writing articles and peer review (as well as library acquisition, processing, and storage costs), are not borne by publishers. This investment is often overlooked when journal costs are discussed.
The OA question is complex. Assuming journals survive, the real issue is who should pay to publish scholarly articles. More and more publishers are adopting a hybrid model where subscribers pay or the authors pay. “If open access repositories become the norm, then many journals would disappear—there is growing evidence pointing that way,” according to Morris. Access to older journal material has become a big concern for publishers. Converting predigital articles is a significant investment for publishers. How will they recoup the investment, and are people willing to pay for the value added by publishers?
“I think the turbulence going on means that people have always been inventive,” said Mabe. There are no barriers to entry into the publishing business. “At the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, there was the recognition that the pay-for-subscription model was not going anywhere. It was delivering less material to [fewer] people. The reality is that people are always trying to see if there are new ways of doing things. Experimentation is always the name of the game in business. If you don’t do it, somebody else may.” Mabe said the industry had reinvented itself as an Internet business using profits and surpluses for investment.
Author Rights and Contract Addenda
The Internet and OA are influencing authors’ and institutions’ views concerning copyright and author rights. Many publishers let authors deposit preprints in repositories and reproduce authored materials for classroom use, but then they insist on having copyrights to publish the work. Authors and the institutions that employ them are beginning to resist the transfer of copyrights to publishers.
While Morris said that publishing associations are working on a mutually acceptable agreement, Mabe commented on author amendments, such as the SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) addendum (www.arl.org/sparc/author), noting the confusion about granting author rights and copyright issues. “People always assume that copyright transfer is about taking away,” he said. “It actually is about giving back as well.” He wanted to know what rights are legitimate for the publisher to hold and what rights are legitimate for the author to retain. In general, publishers need the exclusive right to publish; publishers may settle for licenses rather than copyright transfer.
Trends and Challenges for the Future
The future of the scholarly publishing field is murky. Uncertainty is a key trend, along with its accompanying anxiety, experimentation, tension, and change. The industry has transformed itself with success in the past, Mabe said, noting that he is clearly uneasy and cautious about the future of scholarly publishing and the path the industry will eventually follow. “The challenge is to not throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said. “We run a very grave risk at the moment.” His advice is to look before you leap. “In times of turbulence, you have to be very careful how you navigate,” he said.
Morris shares Mabe’s cautiousness and uneasiness. “Publishers depending on subscriptions for their livelihood may have a tough time of it unless the journal has an astronomically high reputation. Some publishers will see this coming and will start to create completely new kinds of products and services to help researchers and others to do their jobs more easily.” But new players may emerge.
“I can imagine that the scene will be very different in time,” she said. “Some of the players we know today will either retrench or disappear, while completely new ones will come into play. If it goes as well as it could go, there could be a very rich environment for scholars in the future.”
What Lies Ahead?
With the industry dating from the 17th century when The Royal Society of London began publishing its Philosophical Transactions, some publishers perceive clear threats—from institutional and disciplinary repositories, OA, Google, Microsoft, and communication facilitated by the Internet—while others see opportunities. The crystal ball is cloudy; the turmoil and the turbulence are likely to increase before the storm abates.
But the key questions remain: Will journals survive, or will they be replaced by new forms of communication? Who should pay to publish scholarly work? How should peer review be conducted? Who will pay start-up costs for new titles if the journals survive? And will people find value in copy editing, formatting, and other services supplied by publishers and editors? Chances are that we won’t have clear answers for some years to come.