How Elsevier can save itself, part 3: Hard
May 2, 2012
These are worrying days for barrier-based publishers. In the few days since I posted part 2 of this series, we have yet another major development in the Open Access world: UK Science Minister David Willetts’ announcement that “we will make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers”. Exactly what form this will take is not yet clear, but the signs seem to point to an FRPAA-like universal Green-OA mandate for all research funded by the government.
What does this mean for Elsevier and their competitors? It looks to me like a swift and sudden pulling of the rug from under their feet. When Green OA becomes ubiqitous enough that researchers start looking at repositories as a first line of attack rather than the if-all-else-fails option, the need for journal subscriptions will fall away precipitously — and with it, publishers’ revenue streams.
In the face of that prospect, we now come to the third and final part of the How Elsevier Can Save Itself series. (Final, that is, apart form the forthcoming coda on how other publishers should react.) Previously we talked about easy measures and medium measures. These ones are hard. They require vision, courage, and determination.
1. Convert to Gold open access
It sounds radical; it sounds like a Won’t Ever Happen. But, really, what is the alternative? Subscription revenue is on the way out. The signs are everywhere — not just in blogs and on Twitter, but in legislation in the US, in the UK and elsewhere. Publishers reliant on subscription revenue must find another source of income or they will crash.
This may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. Unfortunately for Elsevier, a there’s a steady stream of no-we’re-not-sinking denialism issuing from venues such as the Scholarly Kitchen, and because that’s what publishers want to hear, they might fall into the trap of believing it because they want to. (I have a vision of a world ten years hence when open access is all but universal; somewhere in the mid-west, Kent Anderson and David Crotty(*) have locked themselves into a underground bunker with a supply of tinned food and bottled water, and spend their days writing blog-posts to each other about how awesome the subscription-and-gatekeeper model is, and how there’s no need for change and how naive all these OA zealots are.)
Let’s assume for the moment that someone at Elsevier can see the oncoming revenue evaporation, and is making plans that go beyond “sell all my stock and get a job in another business”. What revenue streams could be brought online to replace the lost subscriptions?
Well, what are publishers good at? Managing the editorial process; proof-reading and copy-editing; page layout; consistent formatting across a brand; reliable large-scale web-hosting. Those remain valuable services which publishers could charge for.
Guess what? Charging authors for those services is Gold Open Access. It’s the only business model that might still work when Green is pervasive. (Only “might”? Yes; see below.)
2. Support the FRPAA
Wait, what? Didn’t I just say that Green-OA mandates like the FRPAA are going to Eat Elsevier’s Lunch? Yes I did; and yes they are. The thing is, there is nothing Elsevier can do to stop that. The RWA debacle should have taught them that, if they doubted it before.
So what do you do when an unstoppable enemy is charging at you? The judo move is to use that momentum to your own advantage. Or, to switch metaphors, if a train is heading down the track towards you, it’s better to hop on board than to try to stop it.
I can see that this is going to be a hard lesson for a company that’s been used to having its own way since forever. There’s a good chance that it believes in its own invincibility — its manifest destiny, if you will. You know, like Blockbuster, Borders and the News of the World.
But if Elsevier has the agility, there’s an opportunity right now to radically reposition itself as the progressive, author-friendly publisher that listens to what academics want. Given the appalling behaviour that’s got Elsevier into the current situation, it’ll take something dramatic to do that: supporting the FRPAA is the best chance they have, maybe the only chance.
3. Do it now
Here’s why I said that Gold OA is the only business model that might still work when Green is pervasive. Once Green really takes hold, there’s a danger that scholars will lose interest in journals. We’ve already seen this start to happen in maths and physics, where pre-prints on arXiv are ubiquitous. In those fields, it’s still considered valuable to get a paper into a “good journal”; but what counts most is getting your work on the pre-print server where people can see and cite it.
This danger is all the more real because of the rise of Altmetrics. A few years back when arXiv was establishing itself, journal impact factor was about the only way of getting a quick-and-dirty measurement of how “good” a paper was. That’s changing; and as it changes, it’s destroying one of the main reasons for the continuing dominance of the journal system as the primary way to share science. I don’t know how quickly Altmetrics are going to grow in influence, how well they can be designed to avoid gaming, or indeed whether the whole initiative will crash and burn. But I do know that I’m more likely to tell people that our neck-posture paper has been cited 37 times than that it was in a journal with impact factor 1.949. Because what a paper actually does is more important than where it hangs out.
So the spectre hanging over Elsevier isn’t just the destruction of their subscription model, but the possibility that by the time they get into gear and switch to Gold OA, it’ll all be over and the world will have lost interest in journals. Certainly if university libraries start redirecting their saved subscription money towards in-house publishing efforts, the chances of that will increase dramatically.
This might not happen. Inertia surrounding the journal system, and bean-counters’ ingrained love for impact factors, might be enough to keep journals alive and important, with Green OA and in-house publishing remaining second-tier. But it might. If I was Mister Elsevier, I wouldn’t be betting the farm on it.
What won’t help
A quick word on two things Elsevier could do that I have not mentioned in this series — because I don’t think they will make any difference in the long term:
- Reducing subscription prices.
- Unbundling subscriptions from their “Big Deals”.
Yes, I know that these moves would address two of the three complaints of the Cost of Knowledge boycott. But in the end I think they’re red herrings. All they do is make the current system of barriers marginally less unpalatable. And that’s like patching holes in the Titanic, because the ship is going down.
The challenge is to re-tool for a world where barriers won’t make money. Because that is not a strategy that can keep working. It just isn’t.
Can they do it?
I said at the start that, while the changes outlined in earlier posts are no-brainers, or at least only moderately difficult, these ones will require vision, courage, and determination. I think Elsevier has people with those qualities. Unfortunately, it also has a massive amount of institutional inertia. It’s hard to steer a supertanker. Even when it’s heading straight for the rocks, there are going to be plenty of people whose attitude is: heck, we’re a supertanker — we don’t need to be worried about a bunch of stinkin’ rocks.
So I’d like to think they can do it. But my head says probably not. And as Clay Shirky points out, “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” is not much of a business model.
(*) My mistake: I was thinking of David Wojick here — not David Crotty, who is much more reasonable. I’m not fixing this now because it would change the interpretation of some of the comments below.