Tuesday, 11 September 2012

ALPSP International Conference: Day 1 - Forty Years in Scholarly Publishing


And we're off! The fifth annual ALPSP international conference is underway, brought to you in short, blog bursts, (almost) live, from The Belfry, near Birmingham.

Mary Waltham opened the conference this afternoon with an overview of 'Forty Years in Scholarly Publishing.' It was, she claimed, an eclectic view of what has gone on in the period that corresponds with ALPSP's own existence. 

Here are a few highlights to whet your appetite.

Tracking trends is what good publishers do to see what is going on. When looking at the growth of researchers between 1973-2008, the number of researchers in the US life sciences shows massive growth, yet computer sciences are at the bottom. A lack of interest in doctoral study? Or maybe they were being snapped up by tech start-ups... (Source: Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI) 2012) 

The culture of publishing has been transformed. Nature in 1966 were approached with courtesy, if not deference, and had a polite - sometimes savage - editing of articles. In 2012 journals are competing with service and brand. There has been a massive attitudinal change.

Authors are doing more… and they often don’t like it. Wrestling with the online submission of an article is traumatic. All publishers should go through their own submission process. It may prove to be a salutary experience.

When publishers behave badly: it can backfire. Suing authors is messy, horrible and no one wins.

Mergers and acquisitions began to be mentioned in 1981. The study by Munroe: The Academic Publishing Industry: A Story of Merger and Acquisition (2007)  provides a who’s who to who owns who.

Technology changes everything. In 1997, a survey of 51 UK based publishers of 1344 journals funded by the PA found that there was:


  • continued downward spiral declining subs & increased prices
  • average price full sub £240
  • average number of full rate subs/journal 466
  • Income from all online formats = 1% or less
  • many publishers had a web site ‘designed and developed in-house’
  • 25 publishers owned and maintained the hardware and software systems
  • customers: UK & EU = 50%, US & Can 29%;  Pacific Rim 10%
  • conflict between academic pressure to publish papers and capability.

Read the paper ‘Technology: what could online enable?’ (Source: Mackie-Mason & Jankovich 1996) and it sounds visionary. But is very different to the publisher world view. The authors enthuse about perfect price discrimination, distinguishing user type and quality, and extracting value from new services. Hyperlinks – some research working papers embed references to other papers… making it possible to simplify.  Marvellous!

Business models – where does the money come from? Open access is the completely logical next step from these...

  • subs
  • advertising
  • display/product
  • classified/job
  • rights and translations
  • member fees
  • page charges and reprints
  • sponsorship
  • 'freemium'. 


When Harold Vamus, Director of NIH, mooted the idea of E-Biomed in April 1999 (changed to PubMedCentral in August 1999), he was met with fierce opposition from publishers who were “apopletic”. He emerged again in 2003 and launched PLoS with funding. An illustration of poor communication on both sides in over 40 years.

The importance of a journal article: there are numerous measures now made possible by technology at article and journal levels. Includes citations such as Scopus, Cross Ref, PMC, ISI and Google Scholar. Also profile on social networks, in blogs and media coverage as well as Eigenfactor, Journal Usage Factor and H-index.

Access is key and there is an imperative for publishers to do more. The upload speed of a simple tropical health research agency home page varies enormously. Need to do more to support universal access for human development.

What are society and association publishers’ strengths?

  • Membership = direct link to unique resource
  • Size – nimbleness
  • Mission driven

And their weaknesses?

  • Slow
  • Short-sighted
  • Weak marketing and market research
  • Weak sales
  • Weak business development
  • Risk averse
  • ‘Political’

The features of scholarly publishing have not changed: the accuracy offered by peer review to avoid time cost of reading bad articles and help with information overload.What authors want:

  • prompt and professional communication
  • objective peer review
  • speed of publication
  • peer recognition, citations and impact leading to increased visibility
  • all their ideas to be published in full and widely disseminated.


What can we learn?

  1. Know your customers well – academics are slow to get upset with publishers, but once wound up, they are vocal and effective. 
  2. Avoid cases that invoke the law – you will lose in a number of ways.
  3. One-way communication between stakeholders is doomed to falter – develop dialogue to anticipate and resolve difference.
  4. Always consider alternative scenarios – change is constant and inevitable.
  5. Be open to new approaches – experiment in the margin and beware the echo effect.



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