Won’t get fooled again? Why is there no iTunes for scholarly and scientific publishing?

In the inaugural BBC John Peel Lecture, The Who‘s Pete Townshend described the music publishing business as being historically like “a form of banking in many ways”:

In cooperation with record labels – active artists have always received from the music industry banking system more than banking. They’ve gotten…

1. editorial guidance

2. financial support

3. creative nurture

4. manufacturing

5. publishing

6. marketing

7. distribution

8. payment of royalties (the banking)

(A full transcript can be found here; video here (full) and here (excerpt))

Mutatis mutandis, much the same can be said for other forms of publishing as well: scientific/scholarly and commercial book publication, even film development and distribution. In each case, historically, the distributors of the content also generally have been responsible to a greater or lesser extent for nurturing and supporting its development. Individual segments of the market have dropped or added to Townshend’s list of functions (adding peer review, for example, in addition to editorial functions, or focus-group testing final product before distribution). But on the whole, Townshend’s list is pretty complete. In the pre-Internet era, publishing was generally the province of highly vertically integrated organisations: the same group tended to oversee the production process from the submission of the original manuscript, idea, or prospectus to the final distribution of sales income.

Industry disruption

Townshend goes on to contrast his description of the prelapsarian, vertically integrated music industry with the current situation, in which horizontally-organised distribution channels like Apple’s iTunes or, even more corrosively perhaps, YouTube and Piratesbay focus on the final few stages in the production process:

Today, if we look solely at iTunes, we see a publishing model that offers only the last two items as a guarantee, distribution and banking, with some marketing thrown in sometimes at the whim of the folks at Apple.

The earlier stages, and for smaller acts, the final stage as well, is increasingly the province of separate entities: aggregators who collect royalties for artists whose turnover is too small to be accounted for separately by the major channels, and other kinds of agents who on a fee-for-service basis help acts list their work with the major distributors, develop websites and marketing materials, register copyright, and so on. In this new business model, artists are expected to do the initial development work themselves before seeking partners to help them commercialise their work. Instead of doing their own A&R (Artists and Repertoire) development work, the new “labels” concentrate instead on market-making: connecting music buyers to sellers and making their money off the efficiency and completeness of the market they create–becoming in effect an Exchange or Bourse.

Parallels in commercial publishing

The music industry is farther down this path of vertical disarticulation than other forms of content delivery, with industry-shattering results. But the others are following quickly. As self-publication becomes an ever more popular option for new authors, for example, we are beginning to see the same industry striation in commercial publishing, with publishers concentrating on distribution, artists on development, and a secondary industry coming up to service the intermediate stages of the publication process. The Canadian e-reader developer Kobo last week announced the development of a new portal to assist self-publishing authors develop and market their work. And at the other end of the production process, a recent article on Book Expo America in the New York Times identified “discoverability” as one of the major trends for traditional publishers in the year.

David Shanks, chief executive of Penguin Group USA, said marketing was the biggest change on people’s minds this year, with the “discoverability” of books from traditional print media becoming “fewer and fewer.”

“It feels like there is a momentum building online,” said Shanks. “More than ever, if you can get a digital buzz going, starting with this show, then we think we can replace some of the exposure that we are losing.”

In addition, he said, any “momentum” of self-published books was viewed as “an opportunity” for major publishers looking for authors who had already built their own buzz, as did James with “Fifty Shades.”

Scholarly/scientific publishing facing similar disruptions

A similar transition from vertical to horizontal engagement with content production and dissemination is still by-and-large yet to come in the world of scholarly and scientific publishing. In most disciplines, publishers and journals still engage with content quite far down the publication chain: from editorial guidance and creative nurturing (i.e. peer review and copy-editing) through publication, distribution, and, to the extent there’s money to be made, payment of royalties. There are many exceptions and experiments, but, perhaps because the market for scholarly and scientific content is so institutionalised, until very recently there has been less real pressure from consumers and producers on this vertical integration: libraries may complain about journal prices, but, in contrast to pop music fans, they do not pirate; and while authors may lament the conservatism, slowness, and lack of remuneration they receive from publishers in exchange for their content, they have at the same time depended on these publishers to supply them with prestige, the primary currency of academic life. In terms of how their work is developed and distributed, academic authors still tend to resemble J.K. Rowling more than they do E.L. James.

This is beginning to change. Announcements like the Harvard University Faculty Advisory Council’s memorandum on journal pricing or the recent mathematician-led boycott of Elsevier, are indicative of a growing consumer and producer pressure on the historical publishing model similar (in a very small and civilised way) to that which led to the changes in the music and commercial publishing industries. And the rise in new and often quite informally published humanities journals can be understood as a parallel to the self-publication trend which led in commercial publishing to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. There is as yet no clear model for how scholarly and scientific publishing will emerge from this period of transformation. But it does seem clear that it is underway.

Increasing striation

If the responses of the record and commercial publishing industries to similar pressures are any guide, however, we can probably predict that the result will be a similar movement towards dividing the development and distribution process horizontally rather than vertically. Although currently peer review is generally closely associated with publishers, experiments with novel forms show that the two can be separated. If the example of the music and commercial record publishing industries holds true, moreover, we should as a result expect to see the development of a distinct set of agencies and organisations focussed on the nurturing and certification part of the publishing process: it is relatively easy to see how programmes like the Modern Language Association’s CSE Approved Edition certification, for example, might develop into a pre-publication referring process, as indeed, on a relatively small scale, nines.org, eighteenth-century connect, and, in the near future, the Medieval Electronic Scholarly Alliance already have for Nineteenth-century, eighteenth-century, and medieval-period studies respectively.

So why no iTunes?

The interesting question, then, becomes what happens to the final stage of the process. If the example of the record and book industries hold true, we would expect to see publishers become increasingly (and exclusively) focussed on marketing, distribution, and payment–to becoming the Bourse for independently vetted and produced scientific and scholarly research. There already exists a robust industry in scientific and scholarly aggregation, with major, horizontally-focussed players (from JStor and the Open Archives Initiative to commercial entities like Gale and Ebsco) well-established in the field. But as important as these are, they have yet to function as completely as market makers as have the equivalent services in commercial publishing and the record industry. They are the main purveyors of digital content to libraries; but they are not more important than, say Google, for resource discovery and distribution by individuals. Although they probably acquire their digital music, movies, and books from distributors like YouTube, Amazon, or iTunes, individual researchers still for the most part acquire their research content by typing key terms into a search engine.

Perhaps the economics of scholarly and scientific publishing are such that we never will develop an iTunes for research dissemination. In contrast to the music and commercial publishing industries, most of the labour that goes into scientific and scholarly research is not paid on a piece-work basis. Lennon and McCartney are said to have written “Eight Days a Week” so that Lennon could get the money for a new swimming pool. Few scientists and scholars, however, have their compensation tied so directly to their research output. And in contrast to the music and commercial publishing industries, the main cash market for scholarly and scientific publishing remains institutional: (largely) publicly-funded research libraries that, unlike most consumers of detective novels and mp3s, have specific budget lines for their acquisitions. Indeed, it may even make economic sense to avoid the establishment of a Bourse for research content aimed at individuals: when you sell music to teenagers, you are selling to a group that for the most part have to pay from their own pocket–if you set the price too high, you lose the sale and encourage them to find alternate ways of acquiring the content; researchers, on the other hand, traditionally have seen the acquisition of research content to be the responsibility of their institutions and, historically at least, have been willing to lobby their libraries to find the money to pay the subscription fees for them.

Exceptions that prove the rule?

Two interesting counter examples exist to this lack of a central distribution service for research to individuals: arXiv and Google Books (and to a lesser extent Google Scholar). In both cases, however, the exception seems to me to prove the rule.

ArXiv, for its part, is a self-archiving distribution system for “pre-prints” in Physics and a number of other (generally computationally focussed) disciplines. Although it is very influential, it differs in some important respects from the model we have been wondering about here: it intervenes much earlier in the publication process, before peer review, and it (for the most part) does not conclude the publication process: most submissions to arXiv are subsequently submitted to journals and redistributed later in their final form through the usual channels. In other words, it does act as a Bourse and is aimed at individuals, but it acts as a market maker at an unusual stage in the content development cycle and provides a model that, perhaps for that reason, has not caught on outside a relatively small number of disciplines.

Google Books is another partial counter example, but primarily because of the relative uniqueness of its content and acquisition model. Because it is digitizes and distributes existing books, it is in one sense completely horizontal in its focus on distribution, marketing, and (infamously) payment. But it owes its ability to serve as a market maker not to the novelty of its approach to distribution but to the relative uniqueness, expense, and difficulty of its content acquisition process: by focussing on books (and most importantly in this respect those acquired through scanning), it has access to a unique and centralised library of content that is difficult to access digitally in any other way. There’s no Napster for scanned books.

I don’t know how the disarticulation of the scholarly publishing industry is going to play out, though it seems clear that it is happening. Because the editorial vetting and certification process is so important to the academic economy, it seems to me relatively clear that we are going to end up with stronger “creative nurturing” in the academic world than Pete Townshend sees happening in the modern music publishing industry: since we already have (prestigious) scholarly and scientific societies that have access to potential referees, it would not be surprising to see more of this happening through those agencies or through new groups designed for that purpose like nines.org.

The end game

At the end of the process, however, it is not clear what is going to happen. Perhaps we will see a division between for-profit aggregators, on the one hand, who will specialise in the acquisition and presentation of high-value content to industry and the more well-funded branches of the natural sciences, and low-profit/not-for-profit aggregators, on the other, who will help distribute less commercially transferable research to libraries and individuals. Or perhaps, given the increasing pressure on library budgets, we will see aggregators compete for the institutional on the basis of the completeness of their collections, offering libraries the equivalent of iTunes 99 cent per song price, and hoping to make up the difference on sales volume. Or perhaps there will be some other model.

So we don’t know what the change will look like in the end. What we do know is that the change it had to come, we knew it all along.


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