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This paper was refereed by the Journal of Electronic Publishing's peer reviewers.

Abstract

The landscape of the scholarly publishing market has been largely defined by subscription-based publishing models that have existed since the earliest days of scholarly journal publishing. If there is a widespread shift from these subscription-based models to an open-access model based on publication charges, the fundamental nature of the scholarly publishing industry will transform from that of a content-providing industry to a service-providing industry. The benefits that this transformation will bring to the research community are in many ways as important as the benefits that an open access model will have in terms of increasing online access to scholarly literature.

The benefits that open-access publishing can provide in terms of increasing access to scholarly literature have been the core message of the open-access movement until now. However, the impact that a shift away from subscription-based publishing models, and towards a model based on publication charges, will have on the market for scholarly journals may prove to be just as important. This paper will examine several features of the scholarly publishing market that are likely to change if there is a widespread transition to business models based on publication charges. These changes will pose significant challenges for many well-established publishers in the short run, but in the long run they will lead to a more competitive market that can provide substantially greater value to the scholarly community.

At its core, a change in business models has the potential to fundamentally redefine the scholarly publishing industry by replacing the content-provider model that has traditionally defined scholarly publishers with a new service-provider model. As similar transitions in other industries have demonstrated, a shift towards service-oriented business models can provide consumers with better services and lower prices. When the Internet enabled travelers to book all of their airline tickets and hotel rooms online, travel agents had to find new ways to provide value to their customers, since they could no longer rely on simply being middlemen between travelers and airlines. In the same way, if there is a shift in scholarly publishing towards business models based on publication charges, publishers will need to provide researchers with increased value, since they will no longer be able to rely on their position as middlemen between authors and readers. While existing publishers may be forced to undergo many painful changes during this transition, those who provide the best value to the research community will thrive. In contrast, publishers who continue to view themselves as nothing more than content providers will eventually become obsolete, since the rise of the Internet has so drastically weakened their monopoly over global distribution channels.

While several different publication models have been put forward under the banner of open access, for the purposes of this paper I will discuss only the model in which authors directly pay the publication costs of their articles with funds from their research budget. Alternative open access models, such as the SCOAP3 proposal, the Wellcome Trust model, and a system based on open access institutional memberships, undoubtedly provide the same benefits in terms of access as an “author pays” model. However, the market implications of each of these models vary a great deal, and therefore they are not included in this discussion.[1]

In order to understand scholarly publishing within the context of a service industry, we must first have a clear understanding of what sort of services scholarly publishers provide. Perhaps the most fundamental service that scholarly journals provide is to organize and facilitate the peer-review process, which enables a journal to validate and endorse an author’s work. Many journals also provide extensive production services, such as copy editing, typesetting, reference validation, and XML mark-up. Publishers also carry out a number of activities that serve to increase the visibility of an author’s work, such as working with the major abstracting and indexing databases, search engines, archives, and repositories to ensure proper and timely coverage of their journals. Moreover, investments in a publisher’s electronic submission and review system, as well as their digital publishing platform, provide value to the research community by improving the experience of authors, readers, editors, and reviewers. Finally, some publishers offer additional technical enhancements to an author’s work by linking published articles to related databases, enabling authors to add multimedia files that are displayed along with the electronic version of their articles, and facilitating various commenting and discussion forums. It is by providing these services, along with any others that I failed to mention, that publishers provide value to the research community. A shift towards service-oriented business models, and away from business models based on selling content to readers, will not only improve access to scholarly journals, but it will also force publishers to compete by providing the best services to the research community at the lowest price.

The subscription model

The modern landscape of the scholarly publishing industry has largely been shaped by subscription-based publishing models, which have been an integral part of scholarly journals throughout their history. More recently, “Big Deal” pricing models and consortium-level subscriptions have had a substantial impact on the scholarly publishing landscape, leading to vastly increased market consolidation.[2] While there are countless ways in which the subscription model has shaped the scholarly publishing system, there are four main characteristics of the current publishing system that are likely to change if there is a widespread shift to service-based business models.

First, subscription-based publishing models have made it nearly impossible to determine how much the research community as a whole is paying for any particular journal. In order to know the total price that is paid for the publication of an article in a given journal, one must know both the subscription price of the journal and the number of subscribers. Given that most publishers do not reveal how many subscribers a journal has, it is nearly impossible for the research community to determine the total cost associated with a journal. Negotiated pricing systems have made it even more difficult to determine how much revenue a publisher generates from a journal — in some cases even for the publishers themselves.

A second consequence of subscription-based publishing models has been a disconnect between the beneficiaries of the scholarly publishing system (researchers) and those who pay the costs of that system (libraries). As Fytton Rowland eloquently explained in a post to the American Scientist Open Access Forum, “the existence of a healthy free market has the prerequisite that 'he who pays the piper calls the tune.' In scholarly publishing this has never been the case. Authors control the journals (by their choice of where to submit their work) and it is there for their benefit; but libraries pay the bills.”[3] The result of this has been that journals do not compete for authors on a price basis, since the price of a journal has no direct impact on authors. Rather, authors typically publish in the journals that offer them the greatest prestige, and libraries are then responsible for picking up the bill. In theory, libraries can refuse to subscribe to journals that provide poor value. However, since subscription-based journals have a monopoly over their content, libraries generally must subscribe to the journals that their patrons need, even if there are more competitively priced alternatives.

Building upon these first two features, a third characteristic of the subscription model is that the amount of revenue a publisher can generate from a journal varies a great deal, and depends only indirectly on the level of service that the journal provides. As I have already discussed, the revenue of a subscription-based journal is mainly determined by the number of subscribers that the journal has. However, the size of a journal's subscription base is the result of many factors other than the level of service that it provides. While quality of service will eventually have an impact on a journal's submissions, which may eventually increase the journal's subscription revenue, there is only an indirect link between the service provided by a journal and the journal's revenue. Other factors, including a journal's impact factor and the size of a publisher's sales force, often have a more direct impact on a journal's revenue than the level of service it provides. As a result, publishers have less incentive to invest resources in improving their services, since these investments may not have any noticeable impact on subscription revenues for many years. In contrast, investments in a publisher's sales force can often have an immediate impact on a journal's revenue, despite the fact that these investments provide little value to the research community. By the same token, publishers who are forced to cut costs have an incentive to cut service-related costs, rather than sales-related costs, since lower production standards and reduced author services may have less impact on revenue over the short term than reductions in sales activities.

The final characteristic of the scholarly publishing landscape that is largely the result of the subscription model is the importance that the size of a publisher plays in determining its ability to compete. Larger publishers have always had a significant advantage in the subscription market, since the cost of their sales activities can be spread over a large number of titles. For publishers with only one journal in their collection, there is a significant cost in attracting and retaining subscribers, since they must build and maintain relationships with hundreds of subscribing institutes from around the world. However, once this sales infrastructure is in place, the marginal cost of promoting one additional title to the same group of subscribers is significantly less. Large publishers promoting collections of hundreds, or even thousands, of journals at the same time can afford more aggressive sales activities than smaller publishers, since the cost is spread over a larger collection of titles. Given that a journal's revenue is so closely linked to the size of its subscription base, this gives larger publishers a significant competitive advantage within the subscription model.

While larger publishers have always had an advantage in the subscription world, this advantage has grown even further as a result of Big Deal subscription bundles and consortium-level pricing. These negotiated pricing systems replace the traditional subscription system that is based on a set subscription price for each individual journal, with a pricing structure that is based on contractually negotiated prices for large collections of journals. The rise of these negotiated pricing systems was the result of many of the same motivations that led to the open-access movement. Libraries that found it increasingly difficult to afford access to the content they needed saw that negotiated pricing structures would enable them to access substantially more content for only a small additional cost. Large publishers also benefited from negotiated pricing, since it enabled them to attract increased levels of revenue and protect themselves against cancellations without incurring significant costs.

Despite these benefits for both libraries and publishers, negotiated pricing has had a detrimental impact on the scholarly publishing market. Since libraries are committed to subscribing to large collections of journals from specific publishers, the value and service that an individual journal provides became less important in the context of negotiated pricing. Moreover, journals from smaller publishers have become less competitive, since libraries can secure access to far more content by focusing their budgets on discounted subscription bundles, and canceling their subscriptions to stand-alone journals. Finally, at a fundamental level these negotiated pricing structures further weakened the relationship between the value a journal provides and its revenue. In the context of Big Deals and consortium-level subscriptions, publishers have even less incentive to invest in author services, since their short term revenue, which is determined by multi-year contracts for a large collections of titles, is not likely to change as a result of these investments. In contrast, investing in acquisitions has become increasingly important, since the size of a publisher's collection is a key factor in determining their ability to compete within a negotiated pricing system.

“Author-pays” open access publishing

In addition to providing dramatically improved access to scholarly literature, a widespread shift towards a system of publication charges will force publishers to redefine their role within the scholarly publishing system. In the subscription model, a journal functions as a collection of articles that a publisher sells to libraries. In a system based on publication charges, a journal becomes a line of service that a publisher provides to authors. This transformation will have an incredible impact on the scholarly publishing system, and in particular on the four features of the subscription market that were discussed above.

In contrast to the subscription model, a journal's price is clearly visible to the research community in a model based on publication charges. Moreover, if authors are responsible for paying the publication costs of their work, they will have a much greater incentive to publish in competitively priced journals. This does not mean that authors will chose where to publish their work based on price alone, but rather that they will take a journal's price into account along with its prestige, publication speed, and the overall quality of its services. In an “author pays” model, authors will be better able to judge the value that each journal provides, and, more importantly, they will have a strong incentive to publish in journals that provide the best value for their money.

One of the most noticeable changes that an “author pays” model will bring to the scholarly publishing market is that there will be less variation in cost between competing journals, and the variations that do exist will be closely linked to the value that each journal provides. In the subscription world, journals that have a broad subscription base can generate many times more revenue than competing journals with fewer subscribers, without providing substantially better services. Moreover, larger publishers can increase their subscription base dramatically by investing in aggressive sales activities that smaller publishers cannot afford. In contrast, a publisher's revenue in an “author pays” model will be directly tied to the quality of service that they provide to the research community. By the same token, publishers will have far more incentive to invest in innovative new services that can attract authors, since an increase in submissions will have an impact on a journal's revenue in a matter of months rather than years. As a result, the shift to an “author pays” model will not only provide greater value for the research community, but it will also provide greater incentive for publishers to invest in innovative new services.

Another substantial change that will come as a result of business models based on publication charges is the decreased importance that the size of publisher will have in determining their ability to compete. In the subscription world, even the smallest publishers must have a global sales network to attract and maintain subscribers. In an “author pays” model, smaller publishers can create financially successful journals simply by proving authors with the services that they need. While the number of journals in a publisher's collection plays an important role in the subscription world, especially within the context of negotiated pricing, authors generally do not care about the size of a publisher's collection when deciding where to submit their work. Because of this, smaller publishers will have an easier time competing in an “author pays” model.

Having considered the impact that an “author pays” model will have on the scholarly publishing market, I would now like to discuss what effect this will have on publishers themselves. Some of the changes that we have examined will have a similar impact on all publishers, regardless of their particular characteristics. For example, the declining importance of sales will encourage all publishers to invest more heavily in their service-related activities. Moreover, since publishers will not have to wait years in order to recoup investments in new journals, all publishers will have an incentive to invest in new journals and innovative services.

In other areas, the impact that a shift towards an “author pays” model will have on publishers depends a great deal on the characteristics of each individual publisher. For example, publishers whose journals are focused in a particular community, including many society publishers, will benefit from the increasing importance of their bond with the scholarly community, and the decreasing importance of their global sales presence. Publishers that have lower costs will be able to attract authors by offering more competitive prices, or by providing additional services that their competitors cannot afford. In contrast, publishers that have traditionally depended on having a large base of subscribers to generate hefty subscription revenues may be forced to substantially reduce their costs in order to stay competitive in an “author pays” model.

While the idea of cost-cutting may be unpleasant for many well-established publishers, there will continue to be demand for highly-skilled publishers to provide a level of service that lower-cost competitors do not provide. Looking back to the example of travel agents in an Internet era, the brick-and-mortar travel agents that were able to succeed were those that provided travelers with personalized services that the online agents could not match.[4][5] Many authors will be willing to pay a premium for journals that provide high quality peer review, fast review speeds, extensive production services, and high impact. However, if a journal cannot provide its authors with a level of service that justifies its price, authors will quickly turn to competing titles that provide better value.

Conclusion

Apart from the substantial benefits that an open access model will have on improving access to scholarly literature, a shift towards business models based on publication charges can provide vastly increased value to the scholarly community. This is not to say that the shift to an “author pays” model will be easy, since this transition is likely to cause a fair bit of turmoil in the short run. Fields in which authors do not have research budgets that can support publication charges will have a difficult time converting to an “author pays” model until sufficient funding sources can be redirected to support these charges. Both commercial and not-for-profit publishers that have become dependent on large per-article revenues will face serious challenges if the quality of their service does not justify these revenues. Nevertheless, in the long run, a shift towards a system based on publication charges will enable greater competition between publishers, more innovative services, and greater overall value for researchers. Publishers who can provide the greatest value to the research community will see their journals flourish without the need for costly sales teams, and those who cannot will soon find that they have become obsolete in the context of a service-oriented publishing system.


Paul Peters is the Head of Business Development for the Hindawi Publishing Corporation. Since joining the company in 2004, Paul has been responsible for the development of Hindawi's growing open access journal collection, which currently contains more than 90 titles covering a wide range of subjects in Science, Technology, and Medicine. In addition, Paul was responsible for overseeing the conversion of Hindawi's entire subscription based journal collection to an open access model, which was completed in early 2007.

NOTES

    1. For a discussion of these alternative open access publishing models, see “Beyond Access: the business models behind open access” by Paul Peters, published in the Proceedings of the 28th Annual Conference of the International Association of Technological University Libraries. return to text

    2. For more information about “Big Deal” pricing models and consortium-level subscriptions, please see http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlissues/scholarlycomm/scholarlycommunicationtoolkit/librarians/librarianaggregation.cfm and http://www.library.ucsb.edu/istl/01-spring/article3.html.return to text

    3. Fytton Rowland. “Re: Failing Business Models,” a post to the American Scientist Open Access forum. February 22nd, 2007.return to text

    4. Abby Ellin. “Happy Returns for Travel Agents.” New York Times, July 3rd 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/03/business/03agents.htmlreturn to text

    5. Adrian Lim. “Travel Agents are Still Relevant Despite Online Competition.” AsiaOne, March 2nd 2007. http://travel.asiaone.com/Travel/News/Story/A1Story20070523-8460.htmlreturn to text