The role of publishers – past, present and future

In my recent post I  tried to summarize where we are coming from when talking about academic publishing today. However, the far more exciting question will be the following: where we are going and which challenges we will have to encounter in the next few years.

How are academic publishers affected by the requirements of electronic publishing?

In the past, publishers used to be the only link between authors and readers. They managed the selection of content and did the technical editing and typesetting. Journal editors in publishing houses together with the Editor-in-Chief also organized the peer review, which has been the standard of quality assurance for scientific publishing for many decades. Ultimately, publishers were responsible for the distribution and marketing of their journals in order to make the content accessible worldwide. In the era of printed journals the duties of a publishing house were finished at that point – until the next volume of a journal appeared. Beginning in the late 1990’s, however, a new, wide-ranging task of publishing began: making the journal content available in electronic form and thus making all journal data accessible and usable – always and everywhere. Not only at the present moment but also in the following years and decades.

Moreover the software to run the databases had to be continuously updated and migrated to the most recent server technology to efficiently communicate with libraries and other outlets. This became the most important new responsibility publishers had to face. With these changes, publishers began to spend a large amount of their annual budget for electronic services and requirements – costs which were of course translated into rising subscription prices. In order to balance these changes, traditional publishing services, such as copy-editing and language polishing, were increasingly cut or outsourced. Although the publishing houses were investing in systems for electronic distribution, the internet environment more and more opened up the door for direct communication between authors and readers. Meanwhile, readers can leave comments on nearly every website, contact authors for a pdf in case they hit a paywall, give ratings on Amazon, or even share their articles via Twitter. As publishing services are more and more reduced and the electronic communication is increasingly in the hands of researchers, will the publisher as link between author and reader become obsolete?

“As publishing services are more and more reduced and the electronic communication is increasingly in the hands of researchers, will the publisher as link between author and reader become obsolete?”

How has technology changed publishers’ offer to authors over the last 10 to 15 years?

The availability of technical resources, IT know-how and storage space has drastically increased over the last fifteen years. Anyone can now host a database with gigabytes of storage space and make it available to the public – a challenge even for IT specialists and data storage centers some 10 years ago. The same is true, merely earlier, for the technical preparation of manuscripts, whether for the printed or the electronic version of an article. In the 1980’s only a handful of TeX enthusiasts were able to prepare their manuscripts camera-ready for printing. Meanwhile, this has become a daily routine for many researchers. The same holds true for the linking and tagging of articles, which once had to be left to highly specialized professionals in the publishing houses. Now, this can be done with standard word processing software. On the one hand, publishers rely on these same technological advances to save time and money in their workflows, but on the other hand can no longer offer it as a unique service. Since traditional publishing services such as copy-editing are more intensive in terms of human capital and cannot be further automatized and rationalized, publishers have not made them the central offer to their authors. Thus, the scope and range of professional publishing services has essentially remained the same or has even been reduced. On top of that, technology has put many of these tool in authors own hands. That is the key change that publishers have had to face in the last ten years. And this may be also the reason why fewer and fewer scientists regard publishing houses as their partners today. However, all of this does not seem to have arrived with all its consequences at management levels yet, especially in terms of new business models.

“… fewer and fewer scientists regard publishing houses as their partners today.”

What will the role of publishers be in the future?

Certainly publishers will impact these developments. Simply by means of their great resources of personnel, technology – and content. I believe, however, that they’ll have to embrace this process more actively and put themselves at the forefront of research and development. Especially, if they want to maintain their former relevance as the major link between author and reader.

Over many decades, if not centuries, the publishers have had a monopoly on the acquisition of manuscripts, on typesetting and editing, and finally on the dissemination of scientific literature. This monopoly, however, is rapidly disappearing and the structural change in publishing which started in the late nineties has contributed significantly to its decline. Today, every only moderately talented computer science student can build a web platform within a few hours, on which content can be made publicly accessible. Hosting and long-term preservation of scientific articles, figures, source data, and supplementary material can be easily done on repositories. Publishing services can now be performed and organized by scientists themselves. Finally there remain less and less reasons why authors should ultimately publish their work in traditional publishers’ journals.

Those publishers who recognize this restructuring process or even are actively advancing that process themselves, will have a fair chance to survive in the long term. This is true in particular in the area of scientific publishing, where authors are technically adept and demanding customers under extreme time pressure and often involved in high-stakes fields. It is therefore not surprising that some major academic publishers have taken steps in this direction, as for example Elsevier which purchased the start-up venture Mendeley a few months ago. Springer had already invested in the area of Open Access when BioMed Central was acquired several years ago. The Nature Publishing Group acquired a share of Frontiers and De Gruyter bought the Open Access publisher Versita. Despite the high investments in these acquisitions, those activities only remain small steps in limited segments of publishing. Nevertheless, they are important in order to stay in touch with developments whose scope and reach are only now beginning to become apparent.

“Those publishers who recognize this restructuring process (…), will have a fair chance to survive in the long term.”

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