Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 10 — November 2002
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• Poynder on Point •
Reinventing MCB University Press
Can this journal publisher distance itself from its once-controversial reputation?
by Richard Poynder

Last year U.K.-based journal publisher MCB University Press changed its name to Emerald—an attempt, some claim, to shed its bad reputation. Certainly the company's record is not unblemished, but has it now reinvented itself? And how does its future look? 

Founded in 1967, MCB University Press was the brainchild of a group of senior academic authors who were frustrated with the scholarly publishing environment. "Our dissatisfaction stemmed from the lack of niche journals within the management field and of the reluctance by publishers to launch journals in these areas [so] we decided to do it ourselves," says Kathryn Toledano, MCB's business development director. 

The initial focus was on management disciplines like strategy, change management, and international marketing. More recently, MCB has diversified into information science too. Today it publishes more than 150 journals, including Management Decision, The European Journal of Marketing, and Library Management. 

MCB's top-100 journals are also available electronically via the Emerald Fulltext product. In addition, the company sells a number of other database offerings, including Emerald Management Reviews, which contains reviews of articles from the world's leading management publications, and Emerald Abstracts, which provides abstracts of key journals in the fields of civil engineering, computer science, and computer and communications security. 

While MCB has continued to launch new journals, its growth has been heavily driven by acquisitions, particularly of information science journals. In recent years, for instance, it has acquired titles from publishers like Learned Information and from LIS organizations such as Aslib. 

As with many commercial journal publishers, MCB's growth has been controversial. In fact, given its size compared to behemoths like Elsevier Science, it could be argued that MCB has attracted a disproportionate amount of criticism. Last year's decision to change its trading name to Emerald has been widely interpreted as an attempt to distance the company from past controversy. 

"Emerald knows that they created a lot of bad will and are moving to erase the memory of themselves as MCB University Press," said John McDonald, the acquisitions librarian at the California Institute of Technology. "I don't think their sales reps even mention the word 'MCB' anymore." 

Unbelievably Priced Journals
Why did the company attract such antipathy? Because, says McDonald, its success was based on the undue exploitation of its customers. "They accomplished what they did by taking advantage of raising prices systematically, over a course of years, until libraries noticed and moved to action," he explains. "Emerald hid behind the overall picture of the 'serials crisis' instead of being identified as one of the causes." 

"MCB journals were notorious for their price rises, and the cost of their journals was much higher than the average in the sector," agrees Jo Webb, an academic librarian at De Montfort University in the U.K. "You might see annual increases of 50 to 100 percent on a journal which was already expensive. In 1994, I canceled six MCB journals and bought over 20 others with the money saved." 

For librarians the most controversial moment came in 1990, when MCB acquired New Library World and immediately doubled the cost of the subscription, leading the editor to resign in protest. 

By 1997 the complaints were deafening. In the December issue of the Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues, for example, one disgruntled customer grumbled: "MCB has continually been a problem because of unbelievably priced journals and incredible price increases each year. For example, The Journal of Management Development went up $1,230 this year to $4,949—a 33-percent price increase over last year. We used to use EBSCO Subscription Services, and they reported a 223-percent increase in this title from 1990 to 1994. Since 1995, we've had about a 90-percent increase, if I figure correctly. Total: a 313-percent increase since 1990." 

Reinventing Itself
Emerald does not dispute that it alienated its customers. "We are very aware of our historic image," concedes Toledano. However, she adds, the company has changed. Following a period of "taking stock, reflecting, and listening to our critics [we] used what we learned, and we turned a corner as an organization." 

Specifically, MCB concluded that it could reinvent itself by exploiting electronic media. "We saw the opportunity to take advantage of new technology and toconsider the potential for new business/access/purchase models, which would help address [user] concerns," says Toledano. 

The main vehicle for doing this was Emerald Fulltext. Launched in 1996, it enabled the company to introduce new subscription models and, according to Toledano, drive down prices. "We have negotiated multiple-year deals, consortia deals, individual as well as corporate subscriptions to the database [and today] the maximum cost per article for database subscribers is less than 70 cents, and the average journal cost via the database is less than $250." 

The Emerald Fulltext solution has certainly pleased some. "We canceled all of our print subscriptions and swapped over to the electronic version, and found it is reliable, has good full-text coverage, has remote access, is easy to use, has a choice of delivery options, and comes with unlimited concurrent usage," says Webb. "While the price increases and sales-driven culture of the organization alienated many clients, it has, in my opinion, used its electronic publishing to reinvent itself." 

Chris Beckett, a U.K.-based independent consultant in scholarly publishing, agrees. "The scale of the turnaround in perception, especially in the U.S. marketplace, should not be underestimated. Emerald has [also] put a lot of effort into conference attendance, regular meetings with librarians, and listening to the marketplace—and broadly speaking has left behind its reputation of old." 

A final recognition of its efforts, perhaps, was the recent announcement that Emerald had been given The Charleston Advisor's 2002 Readers Choice Award for Best Customer Support. 

But Wait a Minute ... 
Not everyone however has been wowed by Emerald Fulltext. "I can sum it all up in the following adjectives: expensive, confusing, frustrating," comments a U.K.-based university librarian, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We have a selection of MCB journals online, and I find the user interface most un-user-friendly." 

Moreover, when Chuck Hamaker, head of technical services at the University of North Carolina's Atkins Library, reviewed the product for The Charleston Advisor earlier this year, he concluded that the price reductions claimed by Emerald were probably only available to those libraries that are already purchasing a certain quantity of print journals. "For libraries below the 'subscription' set point for a particular license negotiation, good deals may be harder to come by." 

It was also apparent that old wounds have yet to heal. "The outrage over what ... MCB did with New Library World still has not subsided," wrote Hamaker, adding that the current subscription price for the journal (which had been $80 when Emerald acquired it) is $5,799 for 12 "issues" and 7 "dispatches." 

"It should be embarrassing to librarians writing for journals priced this way," Hamaker continued. "How can we say to the rest of the scholarly world, 'Pay attention to the pricing of journals you are writing for' if we ignore the issue in our own literature?" 

For many this was a point well-made. Moreover, it's a point on which the library community had further cause to reflect when it was startled by news last year that Aslib, the U.K. association for information management, had chosen to sell its own journals to Emerald, including its flagship title, the Journal of Documentation (JDoc). Not surprisingly, the entire editorial board of JDoc soon resigned. The issue this time was not subscription rates, but cost-cutting measures that the editors believed would cause a significant reduction in quality. Complaining that editing had been cut to the bone and that proofs were no longer returned to authors, one of the departing editors commented: "Toledano's 'vision' was not ours. Emerald have changed the whole structure of the journal and the decision-making process. We declined to be part of it." 

An Uncomfortable Irony
The fact is that many today still believe Emerald journals are significantly and unjustifiably overpriced, and that the company is therefore making unacceptable profits. Is this justified? 

MCB's post-tax profits for the year ending December 2001 were $7.3 million, compared to $4.3 million the previous year. Clearly these figures are small potatoes when compared with Reed Elsevier's $995 million, but are they evidence that Emerald continues to exploit its customer base, or are they an acceptable year-on-year increase? 

Users tend toward the former interpretation. "It seems reasonable to assume that the increased profits are as a direct result of charging more for what's essentially the same product," comments a serials librarian at a U.K. charity who asked not to be identified. "There's no real product development other than electronic access/archiving, which was set up a few years ago and hasn't changed significantly.That's what we're paying through the nose for." 

"We aren't subsidized, state-run, or institution-run," counters Toledano. "We need to make profits to reinvest into the business and we aren't ashamed of that." 

However, reasoned debate is no longer the issue. What the Emerald story underscores is the unbridgeable ideological gulf that now exists between commercial publishers and many in the research and library communities. 

Moreover, for a company created by frustrated authors seeking to "do it themselves," there is an uncomfortable irony in the knowledge that Emerald is now viewed as part of the problem, rather than a solution. It turns out, argue critics, that the answer to author frustration lies not in emulating publishers, but in marginalizing them. This is a strategy made possible today by placing academic papers on the Web. "The Emerald case illustrates clearly that researchers' dissatisfaction is not remedied by their becoming publishers, but by [their institutions'] self-archiving all their own [peer-reviewed] research output," argues Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at Southampton University in the U.K. 

Toledano is keen to stress that Emerald permits contributing authors to also self-archive their articles. "This is a realistic need for many authors, and we would rather allow this than miss out on the potential of high-quality articles that may be published elsewhere." 

But since the endgame of self-archiving assumes that the publisher's role is downsized to peer review alone—or even disappears completely—it's hard to see how Emerald's current revenues could be maintained if self-archiving were to become the norm. 

Toledano however remains upbeat. "More librarians than ever now purchase Emerald products using our new business models. Usage is rising and copy flow is also increasing. These are all good indicators that suggest to us that we must be on the right track." 

The truth is though that there are no certainties today, says Beckett. "The industry is in a period of transition and will stay [that way] for the next 5 to 10 years." 

Clearly this means that publishers will need to continually adapt. As such, it might not be long before MCB/Emerald has to reinvent itself again. 

Is there an issue of relevance to the information industry that you would like examined, a story you feel should be told, or an industry player you would like to see interviewed? Please send your suggestions to Richard Poynder at the e-mail address below.

Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who specializes in intellectual property and the information industry. He writes for a number of information publications, and contributes regularly to the London Financial Times. His e-mail address is

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