Back to Business

Issue 23 · May 2020

Join the conversation on Twitter @Briefer Yet.

Did a colleague forward the The Brief to you? Sign up via the button below to get your very own copy.

What we are working on

We are delighted to be working with the Book Industry Study Group, Curtin University, Educopia Institute, University of Michigan, University of North Texas, and others on mapping the supply chain for OA books. This effort is in support of the broader initiative, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to develop a pilot data trust for open access ebook usage.

Back to Business

1

Whether it is a good idea or not, whether the timing is right or fraught with risk, much of the world is intent on getting back to business. In some instances people are being very creative about this in order to ensure safety, in other instances there is an element of foolhardiness and wishful thinking. The situation is complicated by the unpleasant fact that what should be a matter of health and medicine has become politicized in as ugly a manner imaginable. More people will get sick than have to, more will die unnecessarily. But the pressure to restart the engines is strong and will be hard to resist even by the most cautious civic authorities. A tide like this will lift all boats, even those that are not seaworthy.
 
Which raises the question of what business will look like when we get back to it. There have been some lofty predictions that the pandemic will usher in a new age (enlightened social policies, greater respect — and investment — for the research community that saved us from taking a much worse course in this pandemic), offset by forecasts of a grimmer nature that point to how suffering always falls unevenly across a society. And this is before we examine what has happened to public finances, as $3 trillion has been added to the national debt in the US (15% of pre-pandemic GDP) and many states may face bankruptcy. Where will the money for higher education come from?
 
For our part, we are concentrating on issues and trends that were already in existence pre-pandemic that could be widened or heightened because of the recent — and ongoing — disruption. The first is the persistent attempt by organizations that are not growing rapidly to reduce costs, and the first place a CFO looks is the cost of people. The shift to outsource aspects of scholarly communications to lower-cost locals has been going on for decades. The days of large teams of production staff and copy editors sitting in expensive offices in places like New York, Washington, London, and Amsterdam ended many years ago. So too has the march of automation in our industry been a long and steady one. From conversion and markup software to peer review coordination and tracking systems, automation has been incrementally absorbing more and more tasks once assigned to staff. The pandemic is likely to strengthen the pressure for smaller staffs, more automation, and more efficient workflows. 
 
More fundamental is the reengineering of processes (“Do we really have to do that?”) to reduce virus-spreading human contact, which can drive down costs. One obvious candidate for reconsideration is the in-person conference. The sheer number of conferences, symposia, roundtables, and other meetings attended by many scientists and scholars is astounding. While there will always be a need for physical meetings, conference attendance may face additional scrutiny in the future and the number of such events, and their size, may be reduced, with implications for conference organizers.  
 
Of great consequence is the forced experimentation with online learning. Here again this is not in itself a new thing; it is believed that about one-third of college students already take courses online. (That is not the same thing as one-third of courses being taught online.) In the past 3 months that figure has skyrocketed. College administrators are now wrestling with whether to hold classes on campus this fall or to move to an all-virtual teaching environment for the time being, but that begs the bigger question: What role will online courses play when the pandemic is behind us? Will we reach a point where half or even more of all courses are taught online? What will the institutions that offer these courses look like? And what will students be willing to pay for them?
 
It’s worth recalling the implications of that $3 trillion in emergency government debt, and let’s add to that the $1.4 trillion in students’ college loans. To put the student loans figure in perspective, it is just shy of the entire GDP of Russia ($1.7 trillion). Pressure among public officials to reduce these costs will be enormous — whether or not it is the right thing to do. Thus we expect to see a push for more and more online education, driven by convenience, the availability of new technology, the emergence of online credentialing systems, the goal of accessing particularly distinguished instructors (who now could reach 10,000 students instead of 100), and reductions in cost. A free college education may be on its way, but it may not look like higher education today.
 
As these changes ripple through higher education, the reshaping of institutions over time is inevitable. Among the true heroes in scholarly communications during the pandemic have been academic libraries, which have rapidly deployed their digital platforms to support virtual classroom instruction. The genie will not step back into the bottle; librarians will play an increasing role in provisioning classroom texts. And that in turn could have an impact on the strategies of research publishers, a matter we have written about before, which may now seek to move into classroom materials through mergers and acquisitions. The failed merger of Cengage and McGraw-Hill (see Item 12 below) may be a spur for Elsevier to buy one or both of these companies.
 
While people and organizations that are being disrupted by all these changes will naturally focus on the disruptions themselves and all that they have lost, it may be more useful, if requiring greater discipline, to think about how to position oneself and one’s organization in the coming years. Virtual learning may be inferior to in-class instruction for a dozen reasons, but if it is coming on a large scale, how do I get into it? Libraries have redeployed their digital platforms to help with classroom instruction, which was not the reason these platforms were built in the first place. The moral of this story is that infrastructure trumps intent every time. Look to what you have built and how it can be redirected as you skate to where the puck is going.


Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Investopedia, The World Bank, The Scholarly Kitchen

2

COVID-19 has challenged the systems of scientific communications, as a rush of research has resulted in an outpouring of papers, many of which appeared first, and perhaps only (but time will tell), on preprint servers such as medRxiv and bioRxiv. This raises a number of questions. First is whether this is a good or a bad thing: Does the speed of preprints count for more than the peer review process of established journals with well-honed editorial procedures? Another question is whether the sheer scope of the outpouring of papers makes it impossible for researchers to read them all; in the words of Science, “scientists are drowning.” What good is there in posting papers if there are too many to digest and no way to know which matter? Yet another question is whether the mechanism of disseminating scientific information during an emergency should be a model for non-emergency times and situations. Not surprisingly, some, such as Milton Packer over at MedPageToday, predict End Times: “For many and perhaps for most journals, this will be The End of Journals. As will be so often the case, COVID-19 just brought the future into the present.” 
 
The reason these questions even exist is that many observers (such as Packer), simply don’t believe that established journals do a good job: “An author’s ability to have his/her work published in any given journal often represented the luck of the draw, being highly dependent on the preferences of the handling editor and the choice of reviewers.” That is a feature, not a bug; it’s called editorial work, and that is what ensures the quality of scholarship. Perhaps a more balanced appraisal from Justin Fox over at Bloomberg Opinion goes like this: “Many of the coronavirus-related papers being posted on medRxiv are rushed and flawed, and some are terrible. But a lot report serious research findings, some of which will eventually find their way into prestigious journals, which have been softening their stance on previously released research.” If nothing else changes with regard to scholarly communication after COVID-19, it is likely that the role of preprints in the life sciences will be both more prominent and permanent.


Source: Science, MedPageToday, Bloomberg Opinion

3

While there may be a deluge of papers (see Item 2 above), it is deluge of papers in which authors who are women — especially early-career authors who are women — are underrepresented.


Source: Nature Index

4

cOAlition S has announced “price transparency rules” for publishers. Publishers who accept funding from coalition members after July 2022 will need to provide a breakdown of their prices — what proportion of an article processing charge (APC) is allocated to different stages and aspects of publication. The coalition has come up with pricing categories such as “journal and community development,” “submission to desk reject or accept,” “peer review management,” “services from acceptance to publication,” “services after publication,” and so on. 

While well-intentioned, this initiative is puzzling in both principle and practice. While framed as “price transparency,” this is ultimately an exercise in allocation. To produce numbers that align with the categories, publishers either need to allocate costs (a significant undertaking as accounting systems are not designed to allocate costs in this way) and then retrofit a cost-based pricing veneer on a value-based pricing model, or to just make up pricing for à la carte services that they will never actually offer à la carte.

A journal is not a discrete set of severable services. The value of a journal lies in conferring the brand of the journal on a given paper (and reciprocally, the journal value is built over time by the papers it publishes). This is true for both top-tier journals as well as community journals, where inclusion in a journal is an important signifier for a given community of research, practice, or scholarship. That value is not measured by various aspects of the publication process. Thus attempting to develop pricing for “submission to first decision” and “peer review management” (and so on) is nonsensical because those steps in the publication process are not what is being purchased. Doing every single thing that Nature does, in exactly the same way that Nature does it, is not the same as being published in Nature. The value is not in the process but in the brand

The aim of this pricing transparency policy is to keep costs down; it is not clear, however, how it will do so. Pricing transparency is just as likely to lead to higher prices as it is to lead to lower ones (journals are just as likely to benchmark up as to benchmark down). And all the extra work required to produce reports for funders adds to publisher costs (there should be a pricing transparency category for “Plan S reporting”). The costs will fall, as they always do, disproportionately on smaller independent publishers. Whereas the large publishers like Springer Nature can build “price transparency reporting” into their enterprise accounting and journal systems and spread the costs over all the titles in their portfolio, smaller publishers will end up doing essentially the same work but can only spread the costs of reporting out over a small number of titles.


Source: Science, Information Power (via Figshare)

5

The May 6 deadline for public comments pertaining to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) review of journal embargo periods for federally funded research has come and gone. In addition to soliciting public comments, OSTP held a series of closed-door stakeholder meetings, including publishers, universities, libraries, funding institutions, and scholarly communication researchers (though who exactly participated has not been disclosed), which concluded as recently as April 30. OSTP has indicated that submitted comments will be made public in due course. In the meantime, we wait
 
Some organizations have made their thoughts known, perhaps most notably the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation comes out opposed to elimination of the embargo as it would, in its view, “eviscerate the key constitutional and economic function of copyright law by forcing U.S. intellectual property owners to give away their copyrighted works for free to China and the rest of the world.” 
 
The perspective of the Heritage Foundation is notable because they are, as Publishing Perspectives puts it: “an enormously respected conservative think tank with more than half a million paying members. Its condemnation of a Republican administration’s effort to adjust copyright protection policy therefore arrives with tremendous gravity.”
 
It is hard to see a Republican administration in the midst of a trade war with China and a go-it-alone posture with regard to the rest of the world embracing a zero-embargo public access policy that makes federally funded research free for all. But much stranger things have happened.


Source: AIP’s FYI, Science, The Heritage Foundation, Publishing Perspectives

6

Oxford University Press launched a new series of proprietary flagship journals. OUP’s new Oxford Open series launched with the debut of two titles: Oxford Open Immunology and Oxford Open Materials Science. OUP has lacked such a series to compete with those of Springer Nature (Nature), Elsevier (Cell, Lancet), and Wiley (Advanced). The new series positions the publisher to better compete in the arena of transformative agreements.


Source: Oxford University Press

7

In a blistering editorial, The Lancet has weighed in on the role and effectiveness of the CDC during the pandemic crisis. “The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flagship agency for the nation’s public health, has seen its role minimised and become an ineffective and nominal adviser in the response to contain the spread of the virus.” The reason for this, the editorial argues, is politics, largely that of the current administration but also of previous administrations that have sought to curb the agency in more aggressively countering the HIV/AIDS epidemic internationally. The Lancet calls for a wholesale change of administration: “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.” 

It is unusual for an international journal (The Lancet is based in the UK and published by Elsevier, a Dutch company) to wade into US politics, and reflects the esteem in which the CDC has been held internationally and a vacuum that is left without the agency at the forefront of the international response to the pandemic.


Source: The Lancet

8

Some of the world’s largest scientific publishers have convened a working group to tackle the problem of image manipulation in research articles. The working group, held under the auspices of STM, aims to create something similar to plagiarism-checking software, but for images.


Source: Nature, International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers

9

The rollout of the new PubMed interface has not gone well.


Source: Science

Dealmaking

10

Elsevier and VSNU (the Association of Universities in the Netherlands), along with the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU) and the Dutch Research Council (NWO), have reached a notable agreement. It is being touted as the first “open science” deal, to distinguish it from a plain vanilla open access deal, whether of the Read and Publish or Publish and Read variety. We would call this deal “RAP-plus” — a Read and Publish arrangement with some services added in. An examination of the contract suggests that neither side seems to have held much if anything back. For example, scholars in the Netherlands will have full (read) access to the entire Elsevier Freedom Collection, and Dutch scholars will be able to publish in OA form in Elsevier journals (it is estimated that about 95% of Dutch scholarship published with Elsevier will be OA from this moment forward). Among the services contemplated is the linking of various Dutch data sources (research data, clinical data) in a network that includes Elsevier publications. The announcement includes a table listing these services and others; we note that the tone is tentative and prospective. 
 
Elsevier, in other words, is being called on to help build the infrastructure for open science. VSNU et al. are aware of the risks in this and is at pains to make it clear that the arrangement is nonexclusive, that the infrastructure will be open to all publishers, that all modules will be interoperable, and that there will be no lock-in. Maybe. Lock-in can be achieved not only through technical restrictions, as Apple would do it, but also through network effects (you are on Facebook because your friends are on Facebook). Elsevier may have cleverly and surreptitiously scored a win here. It is notable that this arrangement goes against the grain of the “take back scholarly infrastructure” movement, espoused by SPARC and promulgated recently in a widely circulated article by Claudio Aspesi (a consultant to SPARC) and Amy Brand.
 
So perhaps here we see Elsevier’s strategy emerging: RAP-Plus agreements; increase prices modestly, but provide much more for the money; and get involved with the behind-the-scenes work of research. For those with a long memory, this will appear to be an innovative instance of the Big Deal, which lowered the cost to libraries per article but increased the number of articles geometrically.


Source: VSNU, Science

11

IEEE has inked a read and publish agreement with the University of Illinois. “This marks the first Read and Publish agreement for the University of Illinois with a major publisher and also the first agreement of this type for IEEE in North America.”


Source: IEEE

12

One year after Cengage and McGraw-Hill announced plans to merge, the deal is now off. The reason for this is that the US Department of Justice mandated that the companies sell off many assets in order to get approval without triggering an antitrust action. The deal was also being viewed unfavorably by antitrust regulators in other countries. The argument against the merger was that it would increase prices, but precisely the opposite would have happened, as the McGraw-Hill catalog would have been moved into the Cengage Unlimited program, the first attempt to build a “Spotify for textbooks,” sold directly to students for a fixed cost. Without a Spotify-like solution, the textbook industry remains anchored to the old print supply chain, where middlemen exact high markups. In the right instance, bigger (Netflix, Spotify, Disney Plus) can be not only bigger but cheaper as well.


Source: McGraw-Hill, Inside Higher Ed

Publishing Services

13

A number of publishing services agreements (PSAs) were signed this month: 

All three of these agreements shift society publications that were previously independent to the portfolios of large commercial publishers. It is notable that two of these agreements involve open access publications. The open access model has proven to be one that, even more so than subscriptions, benefits from scale effects. Transformative deals are acting as an accelerant to industry consolidation, with even large societies finding they cannot compete independently.

Higher Education

14

In notable digital humanity news, the records of the famed Paris bookstore and publisher Shakespeare and Company have been digitized by Princeton University. The Shakespeare and Company Project includes the records of Shakespeare and Company’s lending library, among whose members were Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, and many others. Princeton has built a wonderful interface, allowing users to peruse the lending cards of library members. Here is Hemingway’s card from the fall of 1929 where one can see he checked out Lady Chatterley’s Lover from September 19 to 27. While we are supportive of modern privacy safeguards at libraries, the English major in us is glad that Shakespeare and Company missed that particular memo.


Source: Princeton Alumni Weekly, Shakespeare and Company Project

The Book Business

15

Independent bookstores, lacking the ecommerce infrastructure and endless inventories of Amazon, have struggled in the pandemic. Such bookstores are beloved both for the physical experience of being inside a bookstore and for their curation, which is why they have experienced something of a renaissance (up until the last few months anyway) in the age of Amazon — they provide something that the ecommerce juggernaut cannot (except for the Amazon bookstores but that is another topic…). 
 
Bookshop.org has stepped into the breach with a scheme to bring web-scale inventory and ecommerce to indies. The online bookstore, which shares revenue with independent stores, launched in January of this year. The new initiative has provided stores with some revenues from online sales, even as stores retool to manage curbside pickup and plan cautious reopenings. 
 
But even with the help of Bookshop.org and government stimulus support, bookstores, which even in the best of times operate with thin margins and high overheads, have been put under enormous pressure. This includes even the mighty Powell’s in Portland and the irreplaceable Seminary Co-op in Chicago, among a great many others. And now disaster has struck close to home, with news that Kramerbooks, a Washington, D.C. institution located just a few blocks from C&E’s offices, will be closing its doors after 44 years. It will fortunately not be going out of business, but will be relocating out of the Dupont Circle neighborhood to an as-yet-undetermined location.


Source: Bookshop.org, Wired, Los Angeles Times, Book Riot, PBS, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post

Technology

16

Marshall Breeding’s annual report on library automation has just come out. Breeding notes that 2019 was a remarkable year for mergers, including the one that will be of greatest significance to academic libraries — the acquisition of Innovative Interfaces by ProQuest, whose Ex Libris unit is already the market leader in higher education. As Breeding notes, “Consolidation has led to an industry dominated by a handful of large companies, each of which has different product focuses and business strategies.” The Innovative acquisition also strengthens ProQuest’s position in the public library market, where ProQuest’s content offerings are already very strong. While there are other players in the library automation market, it is clear that ProQuest will be difficult to displace. Observers of this space will be looking to see if FOLIO, a community-based open source project sponsored by EBSCO, will be able to make any headway against ProQuest, its principal rival on so many fronts. We note that we participated in the development of a white paper by Gwen Evans (then of OhioLINK) and Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R on a new approach to library platforms, the user-centric system, which seems increasingly appropriate at a time that open access content is growing. The current crop of vendors, even those that have grown through mergers, do not meet the challenge posed by that white paper.


Source: American Libraries, OhioLINK

17

A bunch of tech companies have proclaimed that WFH (“work from home”) will be a permanent option for staff. These include SquareTwitterFacebook, and many (many) others. Others like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Slack (Wait, what? Why does the ultimate WFH toolmaker even have an office?) are allowing staff to WFH well into the fall. Here is a thoughtful thread from Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Kobo, on their shifting thinking on WFH. 
 
For those organizations adjusting their policies permanently, it is all about tech extending its advantages to recruit talent more effectively. Software companies, by the nature of what they produce, are able to readily let staff WFH. It so happens that many of the companies are located in the San Francisco Bay area, which is one of the most expensive places in the world to live and also one with the fiercest competition for talent. These tech companies are laying the groundwork to compete for talent everywhere and at the same time lower some of their costs by not having to pay Bay Area salaries. How far this will go is a question, but it could result in many industries (those in knowledge work) following suit to remain attractive to talent who can now go work in Silicon Valley without leaving Ohio.


Source: The Verge, Forbes, The New York Times, @mtamblyn on Twitter, The Washington Post

People

18

  • Laure Haak, Founding Executive Director of ORCID, will be departing the organization to start her own company.
  • Lauren Kane has departed Delta Think, where she served as CEO, to become Chief Strategy Officer for Morressier. 
  • Lori Carlin has been appointed Chief Commercial Officer at Delta Think.
  • Sarah Tegan was promoted to Senior Vice President of the Journal Publishing Group at the American Chemical Society. 
  • Will Schweitzer was promoted to Chief Product Officer at Silverchair.

People Passing

19

  • Madeline Kripke, known as the “doyenne of dictionaries,” dies at 76 of coronavirus. She leaves behind over 20,000 books on lexicography, most of them crammed into her small Greenwich Village apartment. Follow the link to see the photo of her sitting amidst her books.
  • Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, dies at 71 of a heart attack.
  • Little Richard — Richard Wayne Penniman — dies at 87. He influenced everybody. As he put it, a wop bob alu bob a wop bam boom.

Briefly Noted

20

Bill Kasdorf on tech: It just works.

McSweeney’s letter from a university president to faculty and staff: “…if you think about this whole thing less as a school with an endowment and more as an endowment with educational benefits, our budget adjustments start to appear quite reasonable.”

The Internet Archive continues its assault on copyright with the purchase of the entire record collection of Seattle’s Bop Street Records. 

Where will future students come from as US birth rates fall to record low

Cambridge University to move all courses online until 2021.

The problem with enhanced ebooks.

Overdrive launches Overdrive Professional, “a new division that supplements corporate, academic and law libraries.”

We are living through an unprecedented use of the term “unprecedented.”

The Onion: trapped in an infinite Zoom loop. 

Terry Clague on the value of contributing chapters to edited volumes.

The UK scraps its 20% VAT on digital books.

The lifecycle of a megajournal.

Mark Cummings, editor and publisher of Choice magazine, has created an audio version of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

How to ruin a journal with one letter (a laugh-out-loud Twitter thread). Our favorite: “Gnome Biology.”

***
In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different. — Coco Chanel