An Economic Model for Web Enhancements to a Print Journal
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In my work with the publishing operations of several scientific societies over the past ten years, a recent example stands out as providing a fairly typical case study of the choices print-journal publishers must make as they begin the transition to Web-based publishing. This society was a membership organization representing approximately 10,000 M.D.s and Ph.D.s engaged in active research, and it has published a respected, peer-reviewed journal for more than a decade. The journal has been online since 1997 with a circulation of nearly 11,000 individual and institutional subscribers, and a subscription price of $525US/$575 Outside US. The journal publishes about 5,000 pages a year in print. The online version has, in addition, a large amount of peer-reviewed multimedia content, including data sets, animations, and videos.
The goal — and philosophy — of this particular journal was explicitly designed to present the kind of science the community finds most useful in the format that is most useful. The intent was always for the journal to be as much a tool as a publication, so adding the additional material online was a logical progression.
Five years ago, when the initial decision to go online was made, the market appeared ripe for rich online publications. With new sites as diverse as BioMedNet and Slate cropping up, online publications were capturing readers' imaginations and proving that an online publication was more than just an electronic version of print pages. In addition, more and more researchers in the field were working with material created at the intersection of two disciplines, traditional laboratory science and computer science. The tools that they were using to conduct their research were becoming more and more dependent on computer technology, and the subsequent output was, naturally, more and more digitized and dependent on computerized platforms for optimal display. The journal was receiving regular requests to publish large-scale datasets and three-dimensional or animated images. The society could not publish them in the print journal; even if they could devote tens or hundreds of pages to large datasets, those datasets would need to be re-keyed to be useful. Online publication was the only tractable solution.
In a situation familiar to so many publishers, the society found itself in the position of needing to provide these new services while continuing to provide all of the traditional print services readers continued to demand. The list below illustrates the services the society considered essential in order to be able to provide the kind of publishing outlet the user community was clearly asking for:
Full electronic submission of all manuscript elements. Authors should be able to submit their manuscript text, figures, datasets, videos, and any other materials directly to the journal via the Web.
Electronic peer review of both text and multimedia elements. The journal remained committed to the concept of peer review, and wanted to make sure that the current quality standards for review text were preserved and that the same standards were extended to review of new, non-textual elements such as videos.
SGML tagging of the final accepted manuscript to ensure that the journal and all elements within it could be linked robustly to other journals and databases in the field. The use of an industry-accepted standard would help to ensure that as publishing technologies continued to evolve, upward conversion of the journal's content could be conducted in a relatively straightforward way.
Online display format(s) and print produced as derivative products from a core SGML database. With the aim of reducing and eventually eliminating production of the print journal altogether, the society wanted a production process that centered on producing SGML rather than typesetting files first.
Online journal to appear prior to print and shifts to become the journal of record. As the online version of the journal expanded to include more and more content that the print version simply could not support, the society felt that it should be treated as the primary version of the publication.
Multimedia elements to be added and "incubated" in the journal. For example, rather than create a whole new video based product, the videos can be included within journal articles first, to provide an opportunity to monitor usage.
Multimedia elements could be spun off into independent, potentially revenue-producing products. If these elements proved to be useful and popular, there would be potential for identifying new markets for products centered on these elements.
Barrier-free, toll-free access to the online journal. With the Web, authors now have the most effective distribution channel in the world at their fingertips. With such ready access to distribution channels, researchers are questioning both the practice of ceding permanent ownership of their material to publishers, as well as the need for access fees, especially in the case of access to archival material. The journal was committed to finding ways maximize access and recover costs without levying access/subscription fees.
Usage statistics monitored, stored and mined. As use of the online journal increased, it became possible to begin to analyze what parts of the journal were being accessed the most frequently, and to begin to try and assign value to these elements.
Of course, the big question was, how much would all this cost, and how would the society pay for it? The journal budget of $1.1 million USD did not cover costs for the print version, although the deficit had fallen every year. The society wanted to bring the journal into a break-even economic mode — and do it while expanding its online offerings. The society had to decide which of these services to implement first (doing it all at once was a financial impossibility) and also make up the additional costs.
"Much of this would have been a lot easier to implement if the journal had been a startup"
In analyzing the move to focus on online development, the society realized that the highest potential cost was not increased expenses. The technology costs identified were generally capital expenses that could be amortized relatively painlessly over three to five years, and training costs could be folded into what was already being spent on staff development. For the society, the highest potential cost was the risk of losing its print institutional-subscription revenue, which at the time represented nearly two-thirds of its income. The society decided that expanding, diversifying, and balancing revenue streams among institutional subscribers, individual subscribers, and authors was an approach that merited exploration.
While institutional subscriptions were the society's major revenue stream, the journal had two others that were fairly significant: page charges and reprint income. It appeared that if both could be expanded, and several additional (albeit smaller) streams added, the society could afford to reduce its dependency on institutional income.
As in any print-based publication, the more pages published, the higher the costs. While the society was happy that the journal was healthy and growing, this fast growth was primarily responsible for keeping the journal in the red. In an attempt to both expand the revenue received from page charges that authors pay to defray the costs of publication and help to control costs associated with page growth, the journal introduced a two-tiered structure of charges ($65 USD for the first twelve pages, and a premium charge of $120 for each additional page). The formula for the charge to publish color images in the journal was also adjusted from a per-page charge to a charge per figure. The combined effect of these changes was to increase the percentage of revenue the journal received from authors from approximately 10 to 20 percent.
At the same time, the society decided to allocate a small portion ($15) of each member's dues payment to the journal. In exchange for this allocation, every member of the society received free access to the electronic version of the journal. They could also opt to receive a print copy of the journal for a fee of $25. This move added a new source of revenue support to the journal, representing about 15 percent of the total revenue pie.
The journal also increased its attempts to secure advertising, increasing ad revenue from 2.5 percent of the revenue total to 5.5 percent through combined print and online ad packages, and promotions. It also added a program to sell commercial reprints, in addition to the current program of reprint sales to authors. The one move the society did not make was to significantly increase the subscription price of the journal to institutional subscribers.
The sum total of these changes to was decrease the amount of revenue that institutional subscriptions represented from 65 percent to 27 percent in just over a two-year period.
Much of this would have been a lot easier to implement if the journal had been a startup with the option of designing an economic and technical model from the beginning. But the society had to work within an ongoing publication, moving piecemeal and picking changes carefully. The journal was put on line in December 1997 without major enhancements, using the standard model of the day: the electronic formats HTML and PDF represented existing print pages.
At the same time, the journal began to actively solicit videos for peer-reviewed publication. The journal created a new article type called a video essay, in which authors use video technology to tell their scientific story, to showcase it. Journal staff also worked closely with authors to ensure that they could deliver multimedia files that could be used easily, and that could deliver multimedia that readers could use. The solution was to stick to the standard format that the researchers were using to produce their videos, which turned out to be QuickTime, available free on the Apple Computer, Inc. Web site. This also gave the journal the added (and unexpected) benefit of being able to work with free, publicly available tools to review and present the videos as well.
The first video essays, published online in July 1998, opened a floodgate. Researchers had been making videos for years, and had not had an avenue for sharing them widely, or the ability get credit for them within peer-reviewed publications. As a result, the number of video submissions quickly escalated. Soon after the introduction of videos, the journal also began soliciting datasets and published the first peer-reviewed large-scale datasets in December 1998. Once again, scientists were quick to respond.
But were those new kinds of publications being used? It was important for the journal to find out to know whether it made sense to continue down this innovative — and potentially expensive — route. The society made use of the extensive log file data available from the online journal's servers to analyze the situation.
The data spoke loudly. When videos debuted, the overall hits more than doubled, an increase that could be attributed directly to the videos. Files identified by log file program as MOV files consistently ranked as the most downloaded of all file types. Datasets were also a big success. Papers that contained datasets were among the top ten most frequently accessed papers every month — no matter how old they were (a real surprise, as "text-only" papers showed a decay curve of about sixty days).
"The immediacy of the articles was a strong draw for approximately sixty days, and then dropped off precipitously"
It became evident that videos were of great value to the society's users, and the society looked for ways to capitalize on their popularity. Subsequently, the society developed "Video Toolkits" for classroom use. For the development of the initial toolkit, the journal staff enlisted the volunteer help of a society member who had expressed an interest in using some of the videos in the journal in his university classroom. He in turn identified a graduate student who indexed all (approximately 250) videos that had appeared in the journal to that date. The professor and his student selected a number of videos that they felt would help illustrate basic scientific concepts, constructed a curriculum and problem sets, and called this tool kit "Studying Cell Biology."
The journal staff then began identifying companies who manufactured the technology that researchers used to create these videos, and offered them the opportunity to sponsor the creation of additional video tool kits on a variety of subjects. At the same time, the journal began to build on the popularity of the datasets by publishing articles that had not only datasets, but also molecular-modeling programs and visualization programs that allowed users to create "drawings" of molecular structures and then visualize them in 2- and 3-D.
The society also analyzed the usage data it collected to promote commercial reprints. All articles in the journal have a "Materials and Methods" section where specific products from specific companies are listed. These sections were cross-referenced with our most popular articles, and a list of contacts was developed to use as a tool promoting the purchase of relevant reprints. The society felt a strong selling point was that these articles had proven to be popular, based on their use, and that the companies would not be guessing when deciding what was most important to their audience.
A New System
As the journal began working more and more extensively with non-textual material, it became apparent that the existing paper-based submission and peer-review system was not sufficient, and the society decided to move to a full-blown electronic manuscript-submission and review system. The society examined the peer-review systems that were then available on the market. Many proved to be priced beyond the society's means. The journal staff decided that they had more time than money to invest in the development of such a system, and identified a programmer who had a proven track record in building large databases and user interfaces for the community of users that the journal served, and asked him to create a submission and review system. In essence, the journal agreed to act as a beta tester for a new manuscript submission and review system, which would be built to the society's specifications at an extremely low cost. (The programmer, Joel Plotkin, turned his project into a commercial product, eJournal Press, and subsequently sold it to a number of other scientific publishers.)
The society insisted that the system be built in a modular fashion, so that each portion of the system could be fully tested before the next segment was implemented. They began with the submission and review modules, and planned to move on to implementation of the copyediting, tagging, and distribution modules within a year. That schedule is currently on track.
The final item on the society's "wish list" for the journal was to widen access to the journal, and to experiment with toll-free access. By July 1999, the journal found that by increasing its income from other sources and reducing the dependency on institutional subscriptions, it was indeed possible to consider offering the electronic journal free electronically. The society decided to make the journal free after a reasonably short waiting period, in part because analysis of the journal usage data showed that the immediacy of the articles was a strong draw for approximately sixty days, and then dropped off precipitously. With this data in hand, the society felt that the risk of immediate attrition was minimal. When the option to participate in the National Institutes of Health's PubMedCentral initiative became available, the society decided it provided a unique opportunity to conduct an experiment with free access. Additionally, it provided another advantage for the society, because PubMedCentral provided long-term archiving. Having the National Institutes of Health assume that burden was a very attractive option from a financial standpoint. The society ultimately voted to commit its journal content to the project, placing all back issues (which were already free on the society's site after twelve months) on PubMedCentral, and also to give PubMedCentral current content with a two-month delay. The society board is monitoring the effects of that delay, and may move to make the journal available free concurrent with publication.
While no move to from print-based to electronic publishing is without risk, difficult decisions, additional work, and some degree of turmoil, this society's example illustrates that these challenges can be successfully met in a relatively condensed timeframe, and that in the process of making the change, unexpected opportunities for new services, products, and revenue streams may be brought to light.
In her work for both non-profit and commercial publishers over the past twelve years, Heather Joseph has concentrated on bringing together scholarly traditions and emerging technologies. While at the American Astronomical Society, she helped create one of the first fully electronic journals (The Electronic Astrophysical Journal Letters, 1995). More recently, she developed a system to peer review and publish multimedia content in the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell. She currently serves as the President and Chief Operating Officer for BioOne, a collaborative online publishing venture in the biological sciences that has focused on creating a new business model to challenge the traditional boundaries between scholars, publishers, and the library community. You may reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links from this article:
eJournal Press, http://www.ejournalpress.com
National Institutes of Health, http://www.nih.gov
"Studying Cell Biology," http://www.middlebury.edu/~okomboli/watters/scb