Monthly Archives: January 2012

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Radical Change in the Academic Publishing Ecosystem

Sniff, sniff.

A recent Forbes article, “Elsevier’s Publishing Model Might be About to Go Up in Smoke,” returns to the discussion  of the potential self-immolation of traditional academic publishers, as many fail to respond to rapidly shifting conditions, especially technology disintermediation and new platform business models.

“No,” the article states,  “there isn’t a monopoly on scientific journal publishing: but there is on the last 50 to 60 years’ worth of papers that have been published and are now copyright of said publisher. This is leveraged into the power to make college libraries pay eyewatering amounts for subscriptions. … There’s not much new about this analysis and investors in Reed Elsevier, the owners of Elsevier, either do or should know all of this. … However, there’s something happening that might change this, for Reed Elsevier shareholders, quite delightful position. That is, a revolt of the academics who provide both the papers and the readership.”


As new potential channels for publication and distribution occur, academics (who are tired of giving up value to commercial interests and who are generally not stupid people) are not surprisingly seizing the opportunity to “go direct” to “the market.”

As I noted in my recent post, prominent academic researcher/platform economist, David S. Evans, has risen to the occasion to eschew traditional publishing rigmarole and has decided to simply release a compendium of segments of his research directly into the public domain.  The quote from the preface of his publication ( “Platform Economics: Essays on Multi-sided Businesses” ), circulating as a PDF in the public domain, is quite remarkable:

Given the subject of this collection, there is some irony in how I’ve chosen to bring these essays to you. Publishing has traditionally been a two-sided model. Publishers get authors and readers together. They typically make their money by charging the reader and giving some fraction of the earnings to the author as royalties.
 This 20th century model of publishing doesn’t serve authors of academic books well. Often, publishers set the price of academic books relatively high, expecting to earn the greatest profits from libraries and a handful of aficionados. For most books that aren’t aimed towards a popular audience, including most academic books, royalties are quite small. Optimistically, I might have been able to buy a pretty good new bicycle if I had published these essays in the traditional fashion, but I’d rather have more people read my work than collect the chump change from royalties.
 Therefore, the two-sided publishing model fails in two ways: the author doesn’t make much money, and the author doesn’t get read by very many people. Moreover, most publishers in my experience are still using 20th century technology to produce and distribute books. It can take many months—if not years—from a book’s conception to its appearance in a reader’s hands.
And therein lies the paradox. In order to bring my work into the 21st century, I have decided to publish my collection of essays about two-sided markets in a one-sided way. I ditched the intermediary and chose to connect directly with likely readers. I’m sure some of you would prefer the feel of paper and leather but hopefully the price is right. It was easy for me to decide to make this volume free (a bit more on Amazon) because it cost almost nothing to produce and distribute it.
 An earlier version of this book appeared in 2010. It consisted of a series of urls (website addresses) that took readers to the original papers which they could then download. I promised a real e-book in the early part of 2011. At least I got the year right which for an economist is pretty good.

Change is evident here (sniff).

In some of my previous blog posts, I have discussed business and social issues related to ongoing transformation of the general domain of publishing/news and information/media industries, key sectors of our economy and our society.   These have included: (1)  “The Huffington Post: A short course in platform business economics?,” (2)  “Huffington Post (Redux): Not just business as usual…,”   (3) “In The News: Platform/Other Business Model Transformation Underway in News Publishing/Media,” (4)   “From Supply Chain to Publishing:  Changing the Way Publishing Works.”

Another of my posts (sniff), “The Business Model for Distributing “Scientific Publications” — A “Peer Review” Finds a “Canary in the Coal Mine,”” discusses the specific, unique domain of “academic and scientific publishing” and some of the implications of the changes we may need to address as the traditional model gives way to something new.  While such changes promise greater freedom of publication and distribution, the resulting openness may lead us to confront a different set of issues that will impact how science is done and what are the standards and measures of its validity. 

So while change is evident (sniff), it is clearly non-linear.