Pangaea

Issue 39 · January 2022

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Off to the Races

It’s been a prolific first month of the year for the C&E team:

Journal Benchmarking: Good Intentions Not Reflected in Reality?

C&E’s editorial benchmarking service is in full swing, and the first two cohorts – covering 268 journals in physical sciences and 83 in biomedicine – have already surfaced some fascinating information about the disparity between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies and the demographics of Editors in Chief. All but two participants stated they had formal DEI policies in place. But when it comes to the editorial leadership of journals, across the cohorts more than 80% of Editors in Chief in 2020/2021 were male, white, and based in North America and Europe. Participants reported being actively engaged in efforts to address the imbalance, through initiatives like benchmarking of editorial team diversity, setting demographic targets for the makeup of editorial boards, use of diverse search committees when recruiting new Editors in Chief, term limits for editorial roles, and diversity and anti-racism training for editors. Change takes time, especially where there are multi-year terms in place. We look forward to seeing how the DEI balance changes in different disciplinary cohorts (we are studying Life Sciences next) and as current initiatives show their impact over time.

Pangaea

1

Once upon a time, back in the Early Jurassic Internet period of the late 1990s, Elsevier contemplated the creation of a supercontinent. The publisher invited other publishers to host their journals on the newfangled ScienceDirect platform, free of charge. There were few takers. While the full commercial potential of the Web as a delivery system for journals was still emerging from the virtual mists and ferns forests of the era, publishers sensed that it was likely prudent to retain control of the online editions of their titles, at least until the vantage became more clear. Consequently, over the following decades, Elsevier focused ScienceDirect on hosting its own titles, along with those of its society partners. Other publishers developed their own platforms, or contracted with HighWire or Ingenta (or later Atypon and Silverchair). The supercontinent—a place where all the journals of the world reside on one platform—was ever so briefly glimpsed, before receding like a dream upon waking, as smaller land masses and archipelagos formed. 

The tectonics of the market, however, have shifted and what is that we glimpse over the waters? Could that be the distant contours of the fabled supercontinent (a term coined by friend of The Brief, Roger Schonfeld—it is well worth going back and reading Roger’s original supercontinent piece)? 

Elsevier has again invited other publishers to place their full text content on ScienceDirect: this time some notable publishers have said yes, at least on a pilot-basis. According to Elsevier’s announcement, over 70,000 papers published in 35 journals from the American Chemical Society (ACS), Wiley, Taylor & Francis, and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) will be included (provisionally) on ScienceDirect. The journals are focused in two subject areas: organic chemistry and transportation. 

Lisa Hinchliffe describes how full-text articles will be provisioned in her excellent overview of the pilot:

Abstracts of the pilot content will be viewable on ScienceDirect. When the pilot content is open access, the text will be available on ScienceDirect; however, the user will be linked to the original publisher’s website for the formatted PDF. If the content is only available by subscription, users will be linked to the original publisher’s website with no display of full text on ScienceDirect. Users who are entitled to the subscription content, as determined on ScienceDirect through GetFTR functionality, will be linked directly to the full text on the original publisher’s website. Other users, who either lack entitlement or for whom entitlement status cannot be determined, will be directed to the landing page for the article on the original publisher website.

This pilot raises many questions. First and foremost are the eventual business arrangements. Even if money is not changing hands during the pilot, we suspect that, Elsevier being Elsevier, there is a business model lurking in the background (this is a compliment to Elsevier by the way). If Elsevier can deliver traffic to other publishers’ websites, there is a good reason for those publishers to participate. But what is in it for Elsevier? And doesn’t Elsevier already have a discovery service in the form of Scopus that sends traffic to publisher’s websites? (Speaking of Scopus, Elsevier announced some notable improvements to full-text linking from Scopus as well this month). 

We live in a very different Internet age than the one in which Elsevier last mooted the “ScienceDirect as supercontinent” concept two decades ago. By far the most consequential change is the prevalence of OA licenses. Elsevier can, if it wished, go ahead and hoover up all the papers with CC BY licenses. The entire point of a CC BY license is to allow others (including Elsevier) to reuse work—including for commercial purposes. Elsevier has not (yet) done this, presumably as it would ruffle a lot of feathers and Elsevier is in a bit of a reputational burnishing phase. But eventually, another publisher is going to systematically hoover up all the papers with CC BY licenses (including Elsevier’s). Developing the capability of hoovering up CC BY papers, and starting to actually do so, even if on a limited basis, seems a reasonable defensive posture. It is a bit like conducting naval exercises in open waters: you both want the practice and you want everyone else to see you practicing. 

Another thing that has changed is the appearance of Sci-Hub. Publishers are frustrated with Sci-Hub—and no one more than Elsevier. The high-profile cancellations of Elsevier licenses in recent years are only possible because of Sci-Hub, which has enabled researchers to obtain Elsevier content without a license (and hence has provided universities and consortia with negotiating leverage; they can hold out much longer without facing faculty pushback). Sci-Hub is the world’s only research paper supercontinent—an illegal supercontinent that is possibly a Russian intelligence honeypot scheme to infiltrate university systems—but a supercontinent all the same. If researchers can just as easily find all the content they are looking for in one place (and access it readily via improved seamless access technologies and hosting of OA content), it could reduce reliance on Sci-Hub much as Apple’s original iTunes reduced use of illegal music sharing. It could also give rise to other business models, services, and integrations that further diminish use of Sci-Hub

A third, albeit more oblique, consideration is Google Scholar. Talk to any researcher or student (or look at referral logs from any scholarly publisher’s website) and it is clear that Google Scholar is the go-to search engine for nearly everyone. This is problematic for scholarly publishers because Google Scholar is a black box and Google is hard to deal with, known for changing indexing requirements on publishers with little advance warning and no real room to negotiate. If there were a supercontinent that combined search and discovery with the content itself, it would likely erode some of Google Scholar’s market share. If you are a scholarly publisher, you probably would rather deal with Elsevier than Google. At least you know where to find them and they speak the same language (by this we mean the language of publishing, not Dutch!). 

We don’t know to what extent any of these factors were on the minds of Elsevier management in conceiving this pilot—they may be pursuing a more subtle Elsevierian strategy involving their data analytics business—but we watch the horizon with interest to see if a new Pangaea is starting to form.


Source: The Scholarly Kitchen, Elsevier Connect, Elsevier

Professional and Academic Publishing

2

As we briefly noted last month, Wiley announced the purchase of EJournal Press (EJP), the last widely adopted independent manuscript submission and review system. EJP joins J&J Editorial, Atypon, Knowledge Unlatched, and other acquisitions in Wiley’s growing services portfolio (aspects of Hindawi cross over into services as well). Why, you might ask, is Wiley interested in growing a services portfolio? The answer, we imagine, is in part to benefit from economies of scale, in part risk mitigation, and in part more flexible society customer management. 
 
Wiley believes that the world is shifting to an OA paradigm where revenue per article is sharply reduced relative to the subscription model. The result is downward pressure on the costs associated with producing an article. Wiley is therefore investing in infrastructure to reduce that cost structure and is taking a page from Amazon’s playbook and turning their investment in infrastructure into a revenue stream (Amazon, for example, developed low-cost server capacity for its own needs, which it then offered to other companies by launching AWS). Jay Flynn, Wiley’s Executive Vice President of Wiley Research, recently stated that over 50% of peer reviewed research flows through Wiley’s systems—that provides Wiley with substantial economies of scale. The great advantage of turning infrastructure into revenue is that not only does it produce revenue, but it lowers the infrastructure costs for Wiley. In other words, Wiley’s clients subsidize Wiley’s infrastructure development and lower Wiley’s costs on a unit basis. 
 
The services model also provides an element of risk reduction for Wiley. If another publisher or a society contracts with Wiley for services (journal hosting, editorial services, peer review hosting), Wiley gets paid the same amount regardless of what revenue the journal brings in. If revenue per article for the journal drops because the publisher shifts to OA models, Wiley’s revenue remains stable. What’s more, services like journal hosting, editorial services, and peer review hosting typically charge more for greater volumes of articles. In a shift to high-throughput, low cost journal publishing, Wiley’s services division will likely do quite well — revenues are likely to go up for Wiley even as revenue per article is going down for Wiley’s services clients (and for Wiley’s own publications). 
 
And finally, it is worth remembering that Wiley is the largest publisher of society journals. Having offerings like Atypon, J&J Editorial, Knowledge Unlatched, and EJP in their portfolio gives them greater flexibility and more levers to pull to win (or retain) society business. Want a customized website for your journals? No problem. Need help with managing the peer review process? Got you covered. Need a highly customized peer review workflow? We’ll take care of it. Wiley can offer flexibility and customized services and make money doing it. 
 
Wiley’s services model has much to commend, especially if you are Wiley! Societies and other publishers that contract for services with Wiley will have to bring their own calculus to the table. Does helping to build Wiley’s economies of scale simply help a competitor compete more effectively against us? Is another publisher offering a publishing services agreement with a lower risk profile? Does Wiley’s services ecosystem offer one-stop-shopping or lead to vendor lock-in? These and many other questions will be top of mind for many societies and other publishers as Wiley’s service offerings grow.


Source: Wiley, EdScoop

3

The classicists among us will recall that Ovid in his Metamorphoses provides a caution that transformations do not always lead to an improvement in circumstances for those transformed. It is with the Roman poet in mind that we read of the consternation in recent months around just what is meant by the word “transformative” in the phrase “Transformative Agreement” (TA).
 
In November, Wilhelm Widmark, Library Director at Stockholm University and Vice Chair of the Bibsam consortium wrote an article for UKSG discussing their long-term strategy toward, or rather against, TAs. The group has executed 21 such agreements and has found them to lead to a “high increase of costs.” This should be entirely unsurprising—increased costs for productive research institutions is a feature of the author-pays model for OA, not a bug. Article processing charges (APCs) and TAs concentrate costs on a small number of authors (and their affiliated institutions) instead of spreading them among a large number of subscribers, and those authors must shoulder more of the financial burden of publication in order to make up for the “read” institutions who will see net cost decreases.
 
Widmark states that Bibsam won’t be supporting TAs after 2024 and are looking for alternatives. Plan S has the same timeline, stating that they will cease to fund publication fees through TAs after 2024. The idea is that TAs are meant to be short-term arrangements to help journals “transform” to OA, and while the verb “transform” is used correctly here, the object of the verb is perhaps not accurate.
 
That said, it’s not clear that any Plan S funders are actually paying for TAs. As friend of The Brief Lisa Hinchliffe often reminds us, 1) Plan S states that members “can” financially support TAs, not that they must, so it may not matter whether groups like cOAlition S stop funding TAs after 2024, as it does not appear that they’re doing so anyway and 2) what TAs transform is not the journals they cover, but rather library expenditure. Libraries pay for TAs, then authors publish OA and are compliant, with the costs of OA effectively shifted away from the funders and onto the libraries. We would also add that TAs are transformational for the output of an institution or a consortium that has signed on to a TA. If your university’s research is now being released OA, then that output is what has been transformed, not the journals in which the articles appear.
 
TAs are not designed to transform journals, except maybe over the long term. Libraries outside of the EU and the UK, particularly those at productive research institutions, seem to have very limited interest in TAs, largely due to budgetary constraints. This will ultimately put a limit on the number of articles “transformed.” Springer Nature, for example, hopes to be at a level of 50% open access by 2024, which means that libraries are going to have to figure out how to deal with hybrid journals for a significant amount of time after that supposed end date.


Source: UKSG, The Scholarly Kitchen

4

cOAlition S recently announced their intention to build a “Journal Comparison Service,” which is meant to help researchers examine the costs incurred by publishers to produce an article in a given journal. This is intended to drive their choice of journal to the title that offers the best service value for the APC price. 
 
The initiative strikes us as akin to a tool that diners would use in selecting a restaurant that would tell them how much the restaurant spends on electricity, fire and flood insurance, building maintenance, marketing, kitchen equipment, delivery, decor, and so on. “Yeah, I guess we’ll dine at Chez Michel tonight because they appear to have the best menu-price-to-roof-repair ratio in town.”

As we have noted before (and before), authors do not select journals based on a granular analysis of journal costs but rather the value to them of publishing in a given journal. Study after study shows that researchers are remarkably consistent in how they choose a journal: some combination of perceived reputation and the journal’s ability to reach the right audience for their work. Further, because publishing is an essential part of career advancement and securing funding, authors optimize their choices, selecting a journal for each paper that will provide the most return toward both goals. 
 
cOAlition S’s interest in developing infrastructure related to journal publishing is nonetheless commendable. We hope some of their efforts and funding go toward helping smaller, independent journals and societies build infrastructure to meet the Plan S technological and reporting requirements.


Source: cOAlition S

The Book Business

5

Maryland has passed a law, which is being watched closely by other states, that requires book publishers sell ebooks to libraries at “reasonable prices.” This little bit of legislation seems quiet enough, but in fact it is very much like a Lee Child thriller, where a peaceful landscape hides a bomb that is waiting to go off. Sit down in front of the fireplace, and we’ll explain.
 
Some background. From a business point of view, books and journals are different things. Whereas most journals are sold directly by publishers to libraries and individuals, books are (or were—more on this in a moment) almost always sold through channels: a network of distributors and wholesalers that stand between the publisher and the ultimate reader. In the U.S., the most important of these is the Ingram company, which services physical bookstores, online bookstores, libraries, and anyone else that wants to retail books. No book publisher can fail to make books available through these channels; to do so would greatly crimp the market for a book.
 
All that is true for print books, where the “first sale” principle of copyright applies. But with ebooks comes a license, created by the publisher, that enables a publisher to sell directly to individuals and libraries. While not all publishers choose to bypass channel sales for ebooks, many of them do, thereby developing a direct relationship with end users for the first time.
 
The question is, what are the terms of that license? Publishers may seek any number of terms that optimize their business situation. For example, noting that print books wear out (and hence additional orders are placed) but ebooks do not, the price of an ebook may be higher. Publishers may also be concerned that libraries undermine sales to bookstores (they probably do, but this is a hard thing to prove one way or the other); for that reason they may impose an embargo on new books, when sales are potentially strongest. And there is also the special, limited case where a publisher wants to be a direct marketer of ebooks to consumers and chooses not to distribute books to libraries at all.
 
The Maryland law says, no way. Publishers under the law no longer have full control of their businesses; rather they now have a state regulator sitting in on the marketing meeting. Paranoid publishers also may wonder when the regulator also decides to sit in on the editorial meeting. In an age when Critical Race Theory has become a shibboleth, this is not an idle concern. Which reminds us of Delmore Schwartz’s witticism: Even paranoids have enemies. 
 
As we have noted before, the Maryland law also remains fuzzy on the term “public.” The law applies to “public libraries”—but a public library is not (to our knowledge) a clearly defined category in the law. For example, is the library of the University of Maryland a public library? The University of Maryland is a public university, with a library open to the public, so it seems like a case could be made, in the absence of an explicit exclusion for academic libraries, that the University of Maryland has a public library. Which in turn raises the question of what is a reasonable price for an institutional license for a textbook? We note there are 29 public universities or colleges in the State of Maryland.
 
The Maryland law, which passed unanimously (more on that in a minute), is being challenged by the Association of American Publishers. The terms of the litigation are technical and we won’t go into them here, but we are watching closely for the outcome. Meanwhile, in New York State the new governor has vetoed similar legislation. It is perhaps not a coincidence that New York City is the center of book publishing in the U.S.
 
So what’s the basic conflict? On one side we have the view that libraries are the center of America’s communal experience and must be supported, even at the expense of the commercial designs of publishers. We note that another way to gain that support is to get the public to pay taxes for the books that go into libraries, but no one really takes that option seriously: it’s far better to have publishers underwrite the public good. On the other side we have book publishers, which now find themselves having to make decisions under a new regulatory regime instead of by striving to satisfy actual demand in the marketplace. It occurs to us that one way libraries could assert themselves is simply not to buy books they deem to be too expensive. But this tactic, too, is not taken seriously: we must have Lee Child.
 
So about that unanimous vote in the Maryland legislature. We would hope for such agreement for, say, paid maternity leave or subsidizing early child care for impecunious parents, but, no, it is only library ebooks that command such comprehensive support. We are afraid that the dial on our cynicism detection is now set to 11, as a unanimous declaration in the current political atmosphere speaks not to consensus but to the political ease of ganging up on one industry, which now will have to underwrite the inevitable court challenges. A unanimous vote is a terrible thing. There are books in the library that will tell you why.


Source: Bloomberg Law, Publishers Weekly, Association of American Publishers

Dealmaking

6

Inside Higher Ed has announced it has been acquired by UK-based Times Higher Education (which is owned by Inflexion Private Equity) for an undisclosed price. Inside Higher Ed will continue to operate as an independent brand. 
 
UK-based Bloomsbury Publishing has acquired the U.S. academic publisher ABC-CLIO for $22.9 million. The acquisition expands Bloomsbury’s footprint in academic publishing and brings 23,000 titles and 32 databases into Bloomsbury’s portfolio. 
 
IBM has announced the sale of Watson Health to Francisco Partners for over $1 billion. For IBM this is an ignominious end to what the company once touted as the future of health care. IBM spent many billions of dollars and nearly a decade developing Watson Health, which never delivered on its promise of improving diagnostics. While a bitter defeat for IBM, Francisco Partners is picking up a trove of medical data that fits well with its portfolio. 

People

7

Kamran Abbasi has been appointed as the new Editor in Chief of The BMJ, succeeding Fiona Godlee, who has held the position for over 16 years.
 
Philipa Benson joined JMIR Publications as Editorial Director
 
Lorcan Dempsey has announced his retirement as OCLC’s Vice President for Research and Membership, and Chief Strategist
 
Laura Hassink was appointed as Managing Director of STM Journals at Elsevier.
 
Tasha Mellins-Cohen is the new Project Director at COUNTER. She succeeds Lorraine Estelle, who will be retiring from the position in April. 
 
Ann Michael has joined the American Institute of Physics Publishing (AIPP) as Chief Transformation Officer. 

Briefly Noted

8

It is not every day that the New England Journal of Medicine launches a new journal. And so it was a rare treat this month to see the appearance of NEJM Evidence. While NEJM Evidence is only the third such journal launch in the last 210 years, the second (NEJM Catalyst) was launched in 2020, suggesting the pace may be quickening. 
 
Through their operational arm, STM (The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers) has announced a new collaboration platform meant to support publishers in safeguarding research integrity. This fits well with STM’s work on building new standards and tools for image manipulation detection.
 
Bloomberg offers an interesting analysis of podcasts, noting that despite significant investment that has resulted in an expanded audience, there aren’t any new hit podcasts. Of the top 10 most popular podcasts, none have debuted in the last few years, and on average, they are more than 7 years old. Only a few podcasts in the top 50 are less than two years old. This reminds us of the journals business where the best prognostic indicator of success may be to have launched in the 20th century (or better yet, even earlier!). 
 
A notorious and mysterious manuscript thief has been apprehended by the FBI.  
 
Have you been sitting on a great idea for a new Winnie the Pooh tale? Plotting the sequel to Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (where will Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley go on holiday next year)? Now is your chance, as Pooh and friends, along with the Lost Generation crew, and many other works, are now in the public domain
 
What is your publishing memoir going to be called? (Greg Britton for the win).

***
Time is money, but also money is money. —William Gibson