The Subscriptionization of Everything

Issue 36 · July/August

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The Subscriptionization of Everything


Pearson joined the “Subscriptionization of Everything” trend and announced a new program, Pearson+, where students have (digital) access to all of Pearson’s textbooks for $14.99 a month. The move follows Cengage’s similar program (Cengage Unlimited) launched in 2018 and Safari Books (the real trendsetter here) launched in 2001. As an aside, Safari Books was launched as a joint venture between O’Reilly Media and Pearson – so this is not Pearson’s first foray into subscription book portfolios. 

Joe was quoted in this piece from Inside Higher Ed, noting that the delivery system for the textbooks (a mobile app) is an important aspect of the service, which features audio, note-taking, study cards, and other tools:

First, it’s a mobile platform,” he said, “not a web-based platform. Higher education publishers generally have been slow to move to mobile.

While the delivery system is notable (but not a differentiator as compared with Cengage Unlimited, which is also offered via a mobile application), it is the business model that takes center stage. Pearson is rolling out the new program with two price points. 

  • $9.99 per month for one Pearson ebook at a time
  • $14.99 per month for access to 1,500 Pearson ebooks simultaneously

At first blush, this seems extraordinary. For about the price of a single print Pearson textbook, a student can buy digital access to over 1,500 of them. The key to understanding the economics of this move by Pearson (and Cengage before them) is that it reduces the problems of used textbooks, imported textbooks, and pirated textbooks. Textbook publishers, in the traditional print model, only make money when they sell a new textbook. Given how much of the market has shifted to alternative (used, imported, pirated) editions, such sales are becoming harder to make every year. 

Pearson+ also potentially reduces the thorniest problem of all: going without the textbook entirely. While a student might skip using certain textbooks, if you have to buy access to any Pearson textbook, for an extra $5 a month you might as well buy access to all of them. So while Pearson may receive much less money per book from students who buy new textbooks, it aims to receive more money per student overall

Moreover, Pearson receives all of the subscription revenues whereas it only receives a portion of the revenues from new print books – it must split print revenue with college bookstores and other distributors.

An unanswered (and important) question is the extent to which models like Pearson+ and Cengage Unlimited will influence course adoption behavior. If a faculty member knows most students subscribe to Pearson+, and there are several options for textbooks to assign, do they pick Pearson’s book over others because they know students have access to it? When Cengage announced Cengage Unlimited back in 2017, both Joe and Rick Anderson (then at the University of Utah, now at Brigham Young University) noted in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that it was “clear that Cengage was looking to convince whole institutions, not just individual faculty members, to go all in on Cengage materials.” We are not aware that there is yet evidence that the textbook subscription model is influencing adoption choices but it is still early days. 

Pearson+ has another benefit for Pearson: it creates a direct relationship with students. In the print world, Pearson sells textbooks to campus bookstores (or Amazon) who sell copies to students. Pearson does not know who the students are that buy books from the bookstore. With the app model, now they have a direct relationship with their end user. While it is always better to have a direct relationship with your end user, this is especially true if you are trying to build a lifelong relationship with them, as Pearson CEO Andy Bird explains in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal:

It’s important that we start to create products designed for this new world and that we start to build consumer relationships, which are going to be very, very important. The data and the consumer insights that we are going to get from Pearson+ are going to help this company enormously.

It’s about this notion of a lifetime of learning. The need to reskill and upskill throughout our career is becoming more important. With Pearson+, we can understand a student’s life over a four-year college horizon, and then help that student migrate into a career, and then help that student as they need to be an employee – help them reskill and upskill. We start to create a more persistent relationship with learners at different key learning stages.

Pearson+ and Cengage Unlimited raise the question as to whether such a direct-to-consumer model is workable in scholarly publishing. Of course scholarly journals have been subscriptionized for so long that scholarly publishers are now working furiously to un-subscriptionize them via open access – and OA has reached the stage where it is itself becoming subscriptionized via transformative agreements and other related models. But all that to the side, would an individual researcher pay $15 a month for access to all of Elsevier’s scholarly content? Could such a model sit alongside, or bypass entirely, the institutional site license business that has reached a point of maturity? 

If such a model is viable, it will likely drive further consolidation among scholarly publishers as there can only be so many such bundles in the market. Perhaps there is even a rationale for combining scholarly and academic publishers, two branches of publishing that, despite close adjacencies, have long operated as ships passing in the night.

Source: Inside Higher Ed, The Wall Street Journal

Professional and Academic Publishing


Though UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was an early signatory of cOAlition S’s Plan S, many had hoped that UKRI’s OA review and consultative approach to policy would lead to the funding organization taking its own path and diverging somewhat from Plan S. Those hopes were largely dashed with the release of the new UKRI Open Access policy, which, other than a few exceptions, largely appears to be a delayed version of Plan S. The announcement was met with praise from the largest of scholarly publishers and trade associations, except for concerns over the inclusion of the Rights Retention Strategy (RRS) as a route to compliance.
The main difference between Plan S and the UKRI policy, other than timing (the UKRI policy will not go into effect until April 2022), appears to be related to the carve out in Plan S for Transformative Journals (TJs, individual journals that have been approved by cOAlition S for a commitment to an open access transition and a willingness to meet performance and reporting targets). UKRI has not come to a decision on whether it will fund publication in TJs (which includes the Nature portfolio). This will be decided by a consultation through Jisc to determine whether these journals “meet the sector’s requirements.” Given that Plan S funding supporting TJs is presently scheduled to end in 2024, we hope that this consultation will happen rapidly, as the question will quickly become moot.
The UKRI policy also requires scholarly monographs to be made open access within 12 months of publication, although models for OA books remain underdeveloped, and this part of the policy has been further delayed until 2024. “Trade” books are excluded from the requirements, and it remains unclear how these are to be delineated from “monographs.” The UKRI guidance differentiates trade books as having “a broad public audience,” and notes that “the decision of whether a book should be considered a trade book or an academic monograph, is at the discretion of the author and publisher.” This seems a significant loophole but a sensible one. Regardless, it remains unclear whether adequate funding will be available for book authors.
More details are due out in November, but overall, the UKRI policy adds momentum to Plan S given its close alignment with the latter. With its emphasis on APC payments and bias toward journals that are included in Transformative Agreements, we see this policy as a further accelerant to market consolidation around the largest publishers.

Source: UKRI, STM Association, NatureTimes Higher Education


While UKRI may not have made up its mind yet about supporting Transformative Journals, the program continues to advance – though some of the reporting requirements for publishers are more onerous than publishers anticipated. David wrote a piece last month for The Scholarly Kitchen about the challenges that (especially smaller, independent) publishers are having with the requirements for compliance. As described in the post, cOAlition S requires journals qualifying for “Transformative” status to provide a set of data reports that can be expensive and time consuming to develop.  
The rationale for the data requirements is also puzzling. The stated purpose is that they will “help determine whether open-access content has broader reach than subscription content.” The data being collected, however, will not provide that help – as so often (and frustratingly) seems to be the case when it comes to open access studies, experimental design and adequate controls are not put in place. Good experimental design eliminates or controls for confounding factors. In this case there are a lot of differences between the articles being compared beyond just their OA status. (For example, in hybrid journals, OA often comes at a significant cost which only well-funded labs can afford, so perhaps the difference in performance between the articles can be attributed to the authors’ funding levels, rather than the articles’ OA status.) These confounders can be controlled for, and if cOAlition S wants to better understand the actual impacts it is having (including on market consolidation), then it should sponsor carefully designed studies, rather than requiring the expensive and time-consuming collection of data that will likely prove inconclusive.
Meanwhile, the Rights Retention Strategy (RRS) continues to be a point of contention. As Shawn Khoo recently wrote, the RRS is not quite the “magic text” some believe it to be, and researchers need to take care not to sign conflicting contractual agreements, lest they put themselves in legal jeopardy.
Complicating the picture with regard to the RRS is the fact that publishers, understandably, do not view the scheme as a take-it-or-leave-it policy decision but rather (as we have discussed before in The Brief) an author request to be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, a publisher may accept a paper (for publication in a hybrid journal) with RRS language but only on condition of payment of an APC – which cannot be paid from cOAlition S funds but can be paid from other funding sources (in this sense, the RRS is a Plan S policy that has the result of shifting publication costs to other funding sources). In other cases, the publisher may decide to waive such an APC. In still other cases, the publisher may decide to suggest transferring the paper to a fully OA title. And of course the publisher might reject the paper entirely (and that rejection might or might not be based on inclusion of the RRS language – and if it is, the publisher might or might not state that in the rejection letter). In this regard, the RRS is similar to a (well-funded) author requesting an OA APC waiver for publication in a hybrid journal. Authors are free to ask for lots of things – waive all charges on my article, put my picture on the cover, promote my article to journalists so that I can impress my friends and family when it is covered on the evening news – but it is also within the rights of the publishing journal to decline those requests on a case-by-case basis.

Source: cOAlition S, The Scholarly Kitchen, Stephen J. Eglen (posted on Zenodo)


PeerJ, long a vocal proponent of “sound science” publication (e.g., publishing papers without consideration of novelty) is jettisoning the model and adopting a more traditional editorial approach, noting: “… certain articles should no longer be considered as valid candidates for peer review or formal publication: that whilst the science they present may be “sound,” it is not of enough value to either the scientific record, the scientific community, or society, to justify being peer-reviewed or be considered for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.”
PeerJ remains one of our favorite examples of a publisher setting off with a technology-first approach to “disrupting” scholarly publishing and becoming more and more like other publishers with each passing year. PeerJ’s initial vision of a “sound science” multidisciplinary megajournal with no editor in chief and a membership model has given way to the addition of discipline-specific journals, a more standard APC-based business model, and now the introduction of “novelty” as a factor in peer review. 
We do not mean this as a criticism of PeerJ. What PeerJ has done is to conduct a set of experiments, which is a good thing even when the results are negative. We can all learn something from their efforts and applaud their willingness to try different things, change direction in the face of a market reception at odds with their hypotheses, and most of all to take on the risk of the new. As Joe likes to say, risk is the form the future takes when it is still growing up.

Source: PeerJ



Speaking of experiments aimed at disrupting scholarly publishing, there is a new many-tentacled entrant in the form of Octopus. Octopus is not the first attempt at shifting academia away from post-hoc summaries of experiments to a series of ongoing “micro-publications” at each stage of workflow, but the official support it has received from UKRI and Jisc has brought it widespread attention. A 2018 Science interview with Octopus founder Alexandra Freeman gives an excellent overview of the proposed platform, and Rick Anderson’s conversation with Freeman last month offers further insight. Noted publishing pundits David Worlockand Kent Anderson have each offered their perhaps unsurprisingly diametrically opposed takes on Octopus’s prospects.
As with PeerJ, we at The Brief applaud experimentation as vital to the ongoing improvement of the way research results are communicated. Octopus faces some clear hurdles, including funding levels that seem a fraction of what they should be in order to gain any traction, a lack of business model beyond “build it and they will come,” and, as David pointed out in a recent Scholarly Kitchen post, the increased time and effort burden that the proposed cultural shift will place on researchers. Regardless of its eventual success or failure, paradigm-shifting efforts like Octopus are always worth watching to see whether they provide useful approaches, new technologies, or lessons learned.

Source: ScienceThe Scholarly Kitchen,, The Geyser


Artificial intelligence (AI) has been an area of increasing focus in scholarly communications, from its potential use in peer review to the improvements it can bring to discovery efforts, but a few recent articles highlight potential concerns. Writing for Times Higher Education, David Matthews points out a problem that’s been on our minds for a while: the network effects of the Internet tend to coalesce around one service for any given need. And so we have one search engine, one social network, one “everything store,” and so on. If research discovery follows the same path, then everyone will use the same search engine to find new papers to read, which will have the effect of homogenizing thinking around any given research topic. Algorithms are inherently biased, and as Facebook and YouTube have shown us, they can lead to self-reinforcing echo chambers. 
Even more worrisome is the current use of AI tools in hospitals. Several recent studies on their use for COVID diagnosis have shown them to be of little value, and of potential harm. In an article from MIT Technology Review, Will Douglas Heaven speaks with experts on how poor-quality data and a lack of medical expertise from those who develop the technology resulted in tools that were not fit for clinical use. Some AIs, for example, picked up on the fonts used in reports from hospitals with high COVID caseloads and identified those fonts as predictors of COVID risk. This aligns well with anecdotes we’ve heard from a leading medical school where AI tools found Sharpie ink to be the best predictor of cancer (diagnosticians often circle a questionable area on a tissue slide with a Sharpie in order to mark it for further review).
So it’s important, as with all things, to cut through the hype. While AI tools are proving valuable for some back-end editorial office tasks, they require scrutiny when deployed for substantive decision-making processes. Let’s not turn over peer review to our new AI overlords just yet.

Source: Times Higher EducationMIT Technology Review



Articulate, a corporate learning platform start-up, closes what may be the largest Series A funding raise in history: $1.5 billion. The corporate education market, once the province of snooze-worthy training videos and live events some employees would sacrifice a vacation day to avoid, is in the midst of a renaissance. Coursera announced that it too would venture further into the corporate market and announced the launch of its Leadership Academy, strengthening its Coursera for Business offering. Add to this Pearson’s stated ambition to follow students into their professional careers (see Item 1) and one could get the impression that corporate education is about to be an interesting area to watch (see also Emerald’s ongoing investment in Emerald Works below). 
BC Partners announces a new single asset acquisition fund. The asset? Their stake in Springer Nature. BC Partners was not able to sell their stake via an IPO (which Springer Nature has attempted twice) on the public markets so they are attempting to cash out their stake via this route. (It sounds like they are not exactly selling their stake but rather a securitized version of it but it amounts to the same thing). BC Partners receives cash. Investors receive a piece of BC Partners’ stake in Springer Nature. If you are an investor who has really been itching to buy stock in the publisher, now is your chance. 
Clarivate’s announced acquisition of ProQuest (which we covered in detail in the June issue of The Brief) has run into some regulatory turbulence. At this point, the parties remain confident the deal will close but are “extending the outside date for completion of the Acquisition from November 8, 2021 to December 31, 2021, subject to further extension.”
Is Informa (the parent company of Taylor & Francis) the target of an imminent takeover
Emerald secures a refinancing package of £37.5 million with Barclays and HSBC UK. Emerald intends to use the funds to “continue its investment in its technology infrastructure across Emerald Publishing and Emerald Works to remain abreast of the changing market demands and customer needs.”
More consolidation in trade books: Lagardère’s Hachette Book Group announced the acquisition of Workman Publishing for $240 million in a deal expected to close later this year.



Kevin Watkins has been appointed the first Chief Federation Officer at the American Institute of Physics. 
Sanjay Desai will join the American Medical Association as Chief Academic Officer and Group Vice President of Medical Education.


Keith Howard, founder and owner of Emerald, has died at 89. Our condolences to his family and colleagues.

Briefly Noted


Among the milestones signaling one’s brand has truly arrived is having an entry in the MLA Handbook describe how to properly cite you. TikTok (which should be italicized in citations, we learn, much like a publication) has reached this milestone. But where does TikTok go from here? 
The results of the Duke University Press union vote are not yet clear as 7 votes have been contested
Cambridge University Press is now Cambridge University Press and Assessment
Paul Ginsparg, founder of arXiv, reflects on 30 years of preprints and assesses the challenge posed by the recent surge in medical reseach posted to medRxiv and bioRxiv. 
Excel autocorrect does not mix well with genomic data.
Succession drama at Scholastic sounds like the plot of a television drama (or comedy depending on the take). 
Maybe those Nature and Cell APCs are not so expensive after all? A new study suggests that a highly cited paper can improve the annual salary of a university researcher by up to $13,500
“Haze figuring” sounds like a term of art for trying to calculate a split check at the end of a long night at the pub. It is also one of a number of “tortured phrases” that signals the possible use of (unsophisticated) automated translation software to fabricate research papers or disguise plagiarism. The more typical nomenclature for “haze figuring” is cloud computing – a term so ubiquitous it would take, well, a computer, to translate it so literally. Researchers at the University of Toulouse have uncovered such suspicious turns of phrase in hundreds of journals
Who knew corporate archives could be so interesting?

I always think this band is going to fold up all the time – I really do. I never thought it would last five minutes, but I figured I’d live that five minutes to the hilt because I love them. I don’t care if I retire now, but I don’t know what I’d do if I stopped doing this. I’d go mad. ― Charlie Watts in a 1981 interview with Rolling Stone