Professional Publishing: The Britannica Method
February 9, 2013
I listened to the Harvard Business Review “ideacast” with Jorge Cruz. You can find this 16 minute “living case study” on iTunes and at this link. Harvard types love euphemisms, so we have audio program morphed into ideacast. You will need to perform a number of mental transformations to interpret what it means to Encyclopaedia Britannica to have killed the print product. Interior decorators will have to find older editions for the dens of the nouveau riche. Libraries with the 11th edition will have another asset to make their Boards salivate with the profit potential of musty old volumes.
The point of Mr. Cruz’s comments is that the CD ROM was a big problem for print publishers like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Broad Internet access is the next big thing. The “ideacast” omitted some detail. I assume that most “ideacast” listeners are too darned busy to hear a chipper interlocutor ask such questions as:
- What are the cost efficiency measures you have implemented and will be implementing?
- What changes in editorial processes have allowed your firm to produce accurate content without compromising quality?
- What is the technical infrastructure for your publishing operation?
- What are your plans for “pay to play” articles from scholars who need to toot horns now that peer reviewed publications are under attack?
- What are the new products and services you envision for 2013?
- What are your plans for acquisition of properties to accelerate growth?
- Where does your firm’s information fit in today’s content landscape?
Alas, these questions were not asked. What a happy coincidence that as I was listening to the ideacast, I read “The Elsevier Boycott One Year On.” The trigger for this write up was the birthday celebration for the Great Elsevier Boycott. Scholars have been grousing about having to pay to get their content into “real” journals. Once the money has been handed over, the Elsevier-type scholarly publications go slowly in the best tradition of the good old days of clubby publishing. I think of soft lighting in London clubs where careers are made and shattered amidst chuckles, cigars, and conversation.
The write up asserts:
In one respect the boycott has been an unqualified success: it has helped to raise awareness of the concerns we have about academic publishing. This, we believe, will make it easier for new publishing initiatives to succeed, and we strongly encourage further experimentation. We believe that commercial publishers could in principle play a valuable role in the future of mathematical publishing, but we would prefer to see publishers as “service providers”: that is, mathematicians would control journals, publishers would provide services that mathematicians deemed necessary, and prices would be kept competitive since mathematicians would have the option of obtaining these services elsewhere.
Elsevier and I assume other professional publishers have figured out that the Young Guns of academia are capable of pumping out tweets, blog posts, and talks at conferences suggesting that:
- Professional publishers charge a lot for scholars’ work which scholars’ had to pony up some dough to create
- Subscription prices are too high. Libraries cannot afford the gems of wisdom contained in a traditional scholarly journal.
- The time delays in traditional publishing, even when equipped with fancy technology from XML centric publishing systems, are unacceptable in today’s world. Hey, grant money may be available for a short time, and scholars want that citation in Twitter time, not hot metal type time.
The write up adds this point:
We acknowledge that there are differing opinions about what an ideal publishing system would be like. In particular, the issue of article processing charges is a divisive one: some mathematicians are strongly opposed to them, while others think that there is no realistic alternative. We do not take a collective position on this, but we would point out that the debate is by no means confined to mathematicians: it has been going on in the Open Access community for many years. We note also that the advantages and disadvantages of article processing charges depend very much on the policies that journals have towards fee waivers: we strongly believe that editorial decisions should be independent of an author’s access to appropriate funds, and that fee-waiver policies should be designed to ensure this. To summarize, we believe that the boycott has been a success and should be continued. Further success will take time and effort, but there are simple steps that we can all take: making our papers freely available, and supporting new and better publication models when they are set up.
My question, “Will Encyclopaedia Britannica’s new business model emerge as a beacon for professional publishing?” My hunch. Nah. The Harvard Business Review will, however, explain how management did the buggy whip thing. That old chestnut should be tossed in la poubelle. The hip scholars either look information up via Google or follow in the footsteps of Emilio Delgado Lopez Cozar et al.
Stephen E Arnold, February 9, 2013