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Magazines > Information Today > March 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 3 — March 2003
PSP 2003 Annual Conference
The Future of Journals
By Dick Kaser

It had been a long day for Pieter Bolman, Elsevier executive andformer CEO of such prestigious names in scholarly publishing as Pergamon and Academic Press. In the morning, he had, in his role as chair of the PSP Executive Council, introduced the keynote speaker at the PSP 2003 Annual Conference. He had served over the past several months as chair of the program planning committee.

Bolman had just spent an hour on the firing line, debating the merits of alternative scholarly communications models that are, by definition, seeking directly to impinge on the business of his company and other journal publishers. The panel in which he was participating had just talked about "open-access" journals, such as those already (or soon to be) produced by HighWire Press, SPARC, and Public Library of Science (PLoS). It had also discussed the growing number of initiatives in the area of colleges developing institutional repositories to house scholars' works, such as MIT's DSpace program. This initiative is providing open digital access to out-of-print MIT books, data sets from researchers, and professors' lecture notes.

Now the sun was setting on Washington, D.C., and Pieter Bolman had had a long day.

No wonder he suggested we should go get a beer. The resulting tape of our little chat in the bar is replete with the background noise of clanking glasses, boisterous voices, a pianist tickling the ivories, and an occasional fit of laughter—not of course in direct response to anything we just said.

Dick Kaser: I'm really interested in hearing you talk about this conference. I sense that there's a little something different going on here than I've seen in previous meetings of this group. I've described the meeting to others as "actually progressive." What were you trying to accomplish with the program?

Pieter Bolman: We need to address issues that occupy people's minds. If we don't talk about issues like open access, then we're not doing our jobs. I think we should address the issues head-on, and invite people of opposite views and get the dialectic process going.

Q: I don't recall ever hearing this group talk so actively about things digital, but maybe it's as you say, that it reflects what they're actually doing. Which leads me to the next question. Elsevier has been a leader in digital publishing. Do you think that some of the other presses are now coming along?

A: Definitely. Elsevier was one of the first, though not the first. The learned societies like ACS, AIP, and APS [American Chemical Society, American Institute ofPhysics, and American Physical Society] have always been pioneers as well. Now that all of those, say four or five including Wiley, have established their digital platforms, that main task has been fulfilled, and it's a relatively stable sort of thing. The next thing they did—these five or six—was retrospective files, and that is already done or progressing very well. And then the third thing is to have some liaisons, or partnerships, with libraries about archiving. So that has, I think, become the example. And others are following it. But I have to say also there are lots of publishers who haven't done that yet. But it needs to be done. And I think we have convinced the community that that is something that is absolutely necessary, not so much explicitly by asking them to do it, but by just doing it ourselves.

Q: Let's talk a little about these open-access initiatives and the institutional repositories and all the other publishing experiments that have emergedin the last few years. I was somewhat taken by a report that the PLoS was going to publish two open-access journals and had received a grant of $9 million to do it, which seems like a substantial amount of money to publish two journals. I immediately free-associated to the dot-com companies and the venture capital that sustained them, but only for a while.Do you think these publishing experiments, though certainly very interesting, will ever be able to sustain themselves once the grant money dries up?

A: It's difficult to say. They [PLoS] charge $1,500 an article [in a page fee charged to the author], and I think that's $1,500 per accepted article. So say it costs the same as BioMed Central thinks it does. BioMed Central charges $500, and they base that on a rejection rate of 50 percent, which means every article costs $250 to put through the refereeing process and produce. If you apply that same number to the PLoS, then their rejection rate is going to be 83 percent. That strikes me as, first of all, pretty elitist and sort of a drop on a hot plate. That will never become a large journal.

What I hear from those who really have "author-pays" journals—I mentioned at today's panel Optics Express [published by Optical Society of America] and the New Journal of Physics, published by the German Physical Society and the Institute of Physics (IOP)—is this: They have both been going for about 5 years, they are in an environment that is actually synergistic with publishing because they manage vast publishing operations themselves, and they also charge on the order of $500 an article, and neither of these journals breaks even.

So it seems then that economies of scale are still far away. The Optics Express journal publishes something like 200 articles a year ... and the IOP journal publishes about 100. And for a journal, that's a fair size. So it seems that when economies of scale are being looked for, they are not found at least in those numbers. You have to have more articles in order to cover the high fixed costs that need to be spread out over more articles. I don't know how they will do in the long run.

Q: There's something I never hear come up in these discussions, and I want to ask you about it. Every time one of these panels speaks, it seems like the scholarly community and the library community are always talking about all of this as being inherently wrapped up with the mission of a university and academic research, which of course it is. But I never, ever hear anyone say, "Well yeah, and also remember there's a pharmaceutical industry out there, and a petroleum industry, and a chemical industry, and there are all sorts of other uses for this material other than academic research." So if we were to turn publishing around and bring it all back to the academy, do you really think that society as a whole would really be better off? Is the academy really ready to serve the needs of the industrial research community as well as the needs of its own constituents?

A: I totally agree. First of all, [the debate] is very university-centric. It's always assumed that government pays everything for research and development, which it doesn't, especially for biomedical research. I think in the U.S., 50 to 55 percent is paid for privately, either by companies or by foundations or whatever it is, but certainly not all by the government. So the argument that the government pays and therefore it should be free to taxpayers seems a bit odd to me.

Q: The point you made today is that there's actually more access today to the literature than 5 or 10 years ago as a result of the licensing arrangements and the technology we now enjoy. And yet, I still hear people complaining. Scientists are unhappy. And librarians are unhappy. I also see that among the AAP/PSP initiatives, the publishers are launching a PR campaign. Do you really think it is just a PR problem going on here?

A: Publishers and publishing, as I mentioned today, are all lumped into one barracks, so to speak. It's as if they all almost always have to be made to feel guilty about the serials crisis. And I think one ofthe reasons is that we have not been able to get our side out to the library world and the scholarly community. People forget that's what we're doing—and how we've been doing it over the years—and how we need to do it, and are planning to do it, in the future. Everybody now thinks that once you have a PC, you can be a publisher. Well, unfortunately, that ain't the case.And we feel it's more an educational campaign about what we're doing.

By the way, we are deliberately not going to go into the pricing issue and the [downward subscription] spiral and so on, because that's a thing of the past. We say, let's just concentrate on the [more constructive] things.

Now when we hear some libraries say, "They don't talk about pricing and that's their fault," perhaps we have to say, "Well, whatever actually happened, let's detach the analysis a bit." Rather than having a discussion about "you put up your prices by 5 percent or 10 percent, more than the CPI (consumer price index)" ... well, the CPI just doesn't apply here. Research has been growing by more than 5 percent per year, and the number of pages by 7 or 8 percent. And this has been going on for a long time.

Because the libraries did not have the funding they needed to keep up with the expansion of materials, the fixed costs [of producing the literature] are going to have to be paid by fewer and fewer libraries buying fewer subscriptions. This downward spiral in subscriptions is what caused (or at least contributed to) the upward spiral in prices. Fortunately, in fact in 1998, Elsevier put a stop to it. You see, because what happens is that as a publisher you start to anticipate that you will, for next year, have this [certain level of subscription] erosion, so you put your prices up in anticipation of this and ...

Q: ... you get a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A: That's right. And, in that situation, you run the risk of being a laggard—i.e., you follow the lagging indicator to become a leading indicator. That is what happened. That is when, indeed, large publishers like Elsevier changed and—I think this was one of Derk Haank's insights—we said, if we don't stop it, it cannot be stopped. And so that's when Elsevier came up with a maximum [increase] of 7 1/2 percent and now, this year, I think it's less than 5 percent. It's the same effect as with the unions and inflation [cost of living increases drove inflation].

Q: Was the figure quoted today $10 billion for the cost of scholarly research publishing? Does that sound right to you? There must be a lot of stuff in that number.

A: Well, that's true. But, anyway, there are two estimates: One is $7 billion and one is $9 [billion]. My estimate is anywhere between $7 and $8 [billion].

Q: What are we talking about when we say that? Journal publishing? It just seems like a very large number. I guess you'd really have to compare it to what the research budget is. But publishing is probably a very small percentage of the total cost of R&D.

A: It is. For the U.S., it is $25 billion, not counting NSF and DOE, and so on. And then double that because of what the private industry is doing as well. And you really get quite close to $80 or $90 billion for the United States only. And if we say that the United States represents, let's say 35 percent—a third or so—we already get to $300 billion.

Q: So, when we talk about $8 to $9 billion to publish the results, we actually aren't talking about a lot of money, relatively speaking, at the end of the day.

A: No.And we're talking about [12,000]to 20,000 journals and 1 to 2 million articles, depending on what you count.

Q: I guess the difficulty is—and I've seen it in other arenas too—that the arguments that you're being presented with are so pure and simple, really, that they are hard to counteract. So the scientific community says, well, "We just want to share our results, we just want to share our ideas." How do you react to something like this? You said today what clearly is a good response, that we have more distribution than we had a few years ago. But that's a complex argument in comparison to the neat sound bite, "We just want to share our ideas."

A: I used to say, when there were only paper journals, that a physicist who gets his first information from a journal on a particular subject in his particular area of interest either is not a very good physicist (because he has not been to conferences), or he lives in Antarctica. And I really believe that. The sharing of ideas goes on all the time. The issue is not about sharing ideas—it is basically about having access to the official record. And now with the electronic possibilities to go through cyberspace ... So, "sharing ideas" to me implies new information, and let's get excited about it. That has to happen all the time. And that's not copyrightable. That's not what copyright and our argument is all about at all. But, as I said also today, if they don't publish it in a peer-reviewed journal, then their ideas are not taken up.

Q: Going back to where we started the interview, I think this is the first meeting of journal publishers I've attended where I haven't heard the publishers patting themselves on the back by reciting all of the reasons why journal publishing is going to go on. Like, it's relatively impervious because of social conditions, the need for peer review, and the academic rewards system. For so many years, I've heard publishers in denial mode, expressing no reason to be concerned. Am I detecting a difference in outlook this year?

A: I think people are somewhat, well, they are concerned, and so should they be. I'm not sure it's plausible, but it's possible at least, that other models will take over or make inroads. I think we should be flexible enough mentally to say, well, OK, if that is the case, we'll accommodate it and adopt a new business model.

Q: Are you scared? Is Elsevier scared by any of this stuff?

A: No. No, no. It may sometimes be scary. But, no. Those people who make it their business to think through these issues are not scared. But they know they have their work cut out for them. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing.


Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is
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