Failing business models

From: Velterop, Jan, Springer UK <Jan.Velterop_at_SPRINGER.COM>
Date: Thu, 22 Feb 2007 11:34:31 +0100

Dana Roth writes that "The primary problem with the current system is the
failing business model followed by many commercial publishers."

I presume she means the subscription model. Which, incidentally, is not
just used by commercial publishers but also by not-for-profit ones.

I agree with her. But it's not the use of the subscription model by
commercial publishers that is the 'primary problem'. It is the fact that
the subscription system cannot cope with the unrelenting growth of
scientific articles that is being produced worldwide.

Before the internet, the subscription model had increasing problems, but
it was probably the least worst solution, by no means ideal. Now, with
the internet working and pretty mature, we can have better systems. There
definitely are publishers, for-profit as well as not-for-profit (just
look at the recent press release of the DC Principles Coalition), who
seem to be wedded to the subscription model, but not only publishers.
Libraries, too, do not seem to be too keen on replacing the dysfunctional
system with a better one. And even a school of thought in the OA advocate
camp, the self-archiving champions, argue that the subscription system
will continue to sustain journals.

Of course there are difficulties to overcome if one wants to make the
transition from one system to the next, and let's concentrate on
overcoming those difficulties.

The subscription system has the following problems (and quite possibly

-The price to readers/libraries bears no relation to quality. This needs
no further explanation, I guess.

-The price to readers/libraries bears no relation to the amount per
article that's taken out of the academic market. A 'cheap' journal can,
on a per-article basis, take more money out of Academia than an
'expensive' journal. This is more common than is perhaps realised. A
substantial number of not-for-profits have seemingly low subscription
prices, but take more money per article out of the academic market than
even the most expensive commercial publishers (where it hovers in the
$5000 range). I know of several cases where it is twice or even three
times as much, and if someone would care to analyse this information (it
often is available, for not-for-profits), one might find even higher

-The price to readers/libraries bears no relation to the cost of
publishing, but rather, to the numbers of subscribers. This is the origin
of the price spiral. Journals were cancelled, and for some reason
commercial journals suffered more than not-for-profit journals, on the
whole (with exceptions), as a result of which subscription prices went
up. This caused further cancellations and thus the vicious cycle was
created. One of the reasons why some not-for-profits have been able to
maintain lower prices is the existence of cancellation-resistant
compulsory member subscriptions.

-The cost to libraries of subscriptions that are needed bears little
relation to the size of the actual research or teaching efforts at the
institute in question, but instead, reflects the width of the range of
disciplines researched or taught. A specialised institute (take CERN as
an example) needs no more than a handful of journals. On the other hand,
a university where the name 'university' still relates to 'universal'
knowledge, and where a wide range of subjects are taught and researched,
needs vastly larger numbers of journals to satisfy the needs of its

-Subscription price stability can only exist in an environment of
stability of the number of subscriptions, and of articles published. But
that environment doesn't exist. Library budgets have been under pressure
for the longest time, which is especially apparent if they are expressed
as a percentage of the research budgets. And the number of articles keep
on growing.

Most of these problems are solved in a system in which the 'publish or
perish' culture (which is definitely not of the publishers' making) is
reflected more transparently. A system in which research articles are
seen for what they are: a kind of 'advertisement' in which the author
'advertises' his scientific prowess, in order to get acknowledgment,
citations, leading to tenure, future funding, for a few the Nobel Prize,
et cetera. That doesn't mean that articles aren't full of information
useful to readers. But so are conventional advertisements.

The advertising analogy is not perfect, but I'm using it to illustrate
the point that there is logic in the system that levies charges for the
processing and formal publication of research articles and subsequently
makes them universally available with open access. Open access

Jan Velterop

-----Original Message-----
From: American Scientist Open Access Forum on behalf of Dana Roth
Sent: Wed 2/21/2007 11:28 PM
Subject: Re: Some initial thoughts on the Brussels Declaration on STM

The fact that something is possible doesn't mean it is advisable.

There is a distinct advantage in having an organizational structure that
one can depend on to maintain stability.  Sure, the 'research community'
can create their own journals, but who among them is going to give up
their research and/or teaching to manage the process? 

The evolution of distributing research results, from circulating letters
among peers to the formal journals we know today, occurred because of
the obvious benefits in an organizational structure. 

The primary problem with the current system is the failing business
model followed by many commercial publishers. 

Dana Roth
Received on Thu Feb 22 2007 - 12:10:37 GMT

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