Academic Publishers, Marketing Myopia, and the Next Phase of Scientific Publication

Several years ago at a DLESE (an NSF-sponsored earth science digital library organization) meeting at Cornell University, a breakout meeting was held on the topic of “relations with academic publishers” (or something similar). The organizer, from a major university press, asked the assembled group of academic participants, “What was your best experience with an academic publisher?” The idea was to reveal best-practices that would inform how the digital library could work in concert with publishers.

What happened next was instructive. The first respondent noted that he could recall no “best experience,” and then told a story of editorial neglect bordering on malfeasance by a noted journal (which will not be herein mentioned). The second respondent, perhaps primed by this story, also confessed that her research had been poorly served by the reviewers and the editors of more than one academic journal. The next five respondents listed still more occasions where their work, or that of their students, had been mishandled, delayed, derailed, and purloined during publication. The organizer struggled to redirect the conversation, but by the end of the hour virtually every person in the room had confessed their frustration, their anger (tinged with rage at moments), and their doubts about the entire enterprise of academic publication.

Publishers might respond that academics always feel that their work is under-valued and resent the changes reviewers suggest and editors demand. This response, while accurate, avoids the larger issues now at play in the “ecology” of academic publication. Publishers might want to frame the problem as simply one of the difficulty of vetting and polishing high-quality work. However, for the people (the content providers) in the breakout meeting the problem was that the process of academic publication is failing to support the goals of science in general, and the needs of their research (and the process for their careers) specifically. At the end of the break-out meeting, the mood of the room was something like a kinship of people who had been taken hostage by a dysfunctional service they could neither influence nor avoid.

With new opportunities currently unfolding for rapid digital dissemination of academic content, the tensions between academic publishers and the people who are, simultaneously, their content providers and main customers may find resolution in a combination of technology and culture. Academics are positioned to move ahead into emerging digital distribution channels. Commercial and non-profit publishers that cling to the logic of their historic, paper distribution channels (the constraint of a scarcity of space in the printed form, peer-review by a few anonymous individuals, access by subscription, research libraries have deep-pockets), will fall into the trap of marketing myopia (Theodore Levitt’s term [Harvard Business Review 1960]). Levitt asked the question, “What business are you in?” Each university press, academic organization press, and for-profit publisher needs to find a new answer to this question.

This new answer will need to embrace some new/old ideas about how the academy works in the digital era, and where value-added services might support a new business model. Clearly, the current model has aged beyond a simple death, and into some zombie state. Curiously, the original (350 year-old) model for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society may closely resemble what the next phase of academic publishing will look like. Henry Oldenburg, the first Secretary of the Royal Society, took on the task of gathering and publishing all of the letters sent to the Society. Publication was designed to be as rapid as possible and the value of each letter was to be determined by the readers.

The living-dead publisher perspective (propelled by marketing myopia) is evident in the response that various publishers’ associations made to a study sponsored by JISC on the economics of various alternative forms of scientific publication. One of these forms, as modeled on the ArXiv project ( would reduce overall cost of publication by about eighty percent (including peer review and copy-editing), while making new findings available almost immediately. Here is a link to the report, the publisher’s response, and JISC’s response to the response (pdf): .

Conversations are occurring at government agencies that want to increase the impacts of the research they fund, at universities that want to extend access to the knowledge they produce, and at conclaves where the digital future of academic publishing is being informed by Web 2.0 capabilities and a host of supporting technologies. These conversations will lead to new directions in federal and foundation funding, new digital objects that link science back to its data, new, community-based standards for sharing data and research, and new academic communities (virtual organizations) where socially networked colleagues will not simply review research archives (and data), but also add value to these objects, build their reputations, support academic career paths, encourage innovation, and attract new students into the academy.

To avoid becoming the “buggy-whip manufacturers” of the 21st Century, academic publishers need to be a part of these conversations; and not simply to defend their zombie business models. Cost savings are opportunities for profit growth. But the future will no longer be hostage to the print model, and the bargain between the academy and publishers will no longer capture research behind subscription pay walls.

Photo Credit: Stathis Stavrianos on Flickr (cc licensed)

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