Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Does innovation help smaller publishers?

These are exciting times in scholarly publishing, as ALPSP 2014 so amply demonstrated. But is technical innovation leaving the smaller publisher trailing behind better-resourced and larger competitors and the big technology companies? It ain’t necessarily so…

The early ‘electronic’ decades were characterized by high entry costs, modest technical skill levels, uncertainties and risk aversion. Only the larger publishers would venture to take the first cautious steps. Now the pace of technical change is almost dizzying, innovation is rampant, entry costs have fallen, skill levels are higher and, despite some apprehension, even small publishers are more comfortable with taking risks.

The fundamental elements of scholarly publishing haven’t changed that much. Authors still want to publish in the ‘best’ journals representing their community, with fast, reliable and responsive peer review. Libraries and readers still want affordability, timeliness, responsiveness to their needs. Price is important but quality and impact weigh heavily. None of these criteria are barriers to the smaller scholarly publisher.

Despite the rapidity of change, technical innovation has lowered the entry barriers, making it easier and less risky for smaller publishers and start-ups to provide new products and services: think of Peerage of Science for peer review, figshare for managing and sharing research output, DeepDyve for low-cost full-text preview, PACKT using Google to monitor technology trends and turning them into publishing opportunities, and many more initiatives reported at ALPSP 2014. Vast collaborative effort is going into standardization, data structuring, interoperability to level the playing field and make it easier for players to concentrate on their own USPs. A whole industry of service providers and outsourcers ensure that small scale is not an obstacle: intermediaries, hosts, discovery services, technology partners, CCC, CrossRef, COUNTER and more.

With all this help, small operators have the additional advantage that they can be more nimble and exploit opportunities more quickly than larger organizations. The proviso is that they understand their role, that they stay in close touch and work with their chosen academic communities, respond to their needs and constantly reinvent themselves (Coco Chanel: “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different”). Even the big beasts in the field can be helpful: Google does offer well-used, free discovery services and is responsive to complaints about the negative impact of search algorithm changes. There were calls for more lobbying of services like Google, but the question of their market dominance is perhaps best left to the competition authorities.

‘Bells and whistles’ was the somewhat pejorative term used for service characteristics that are nice to have but miss what is really important to authors. For example publishers and librarians care deeply about version control, but researchers don’t. There are a fair number of ‘predatory’ journals that offer little or no peer review even though the research community still values it highly. Impact factors are important for publishers but researchers, particularly younger ones, care more about the societal impact of their work, also reflected in the changing criteria of the Research Excellence Framework. Small publishers need to have these conversations with the research community and understand what matters to them.

It is to the credit of ALPSP that it has always been aware of the special concerns of niche publishers. It has done its best to foster skill building, provide networking opportunities, encourage standards and service provision and bring the different parts of the scholarly publishing universe together. No wonder its international conferences have been so successful!

Kurt Paulus

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