The Publishing World Is Open, Not Flat

In an excellent post last December, Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s SVP of Product Management, provided his company’s definition of “open” which entailed “open technologies”, specifically those technologies that supported open source and open standards; and “open information” where any information about the user is transparent in how it is captured and used, and furthermore where the user has control over what they choose to share or not.

In looking at the history scientific research, it started out as a relatively “closed” industry not by virtue of any organizational practices but by the norms of the scientists themselves. As many of you are familiar, well-known scientists such as Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton routinely kept their discoveries secret, drip releasing them in cryptic anagrams to preserve their priority, or keeping them locked in drawers until they could announce their full discovery years later.

Scientific and scholarly publishing in many respects emerged as the “platform”, or open technology as Google might call it, that enabled scientific discoveries to accelerate at unprecedented levels. Scientific publishing established the standards and requirements that experiments be repeatable, references cited, and research peer-reviewed. Scientific publishing also created the means by which this information could be disseminated and incorporated  seals of approval, namely the publishing brands, to convey the quality and credibility of the research. This open platform worked extremely well as publishers could “broadly” distribute printed journals to the population of scholars and researchers (I say “broadly” because this market was predominantly Western Europe and the U.S., i.e. those who were trained to read and produce this research, and who also could afford to read and produce this research).

And for many centuries, all was good in the land. And then came the Internet. But wait – before the Web, there was in fact another key trend that laid the foundation for the Internet’s disruptive force: education. In 1930, 25% of the 122M Americans lived on farms. And it’s estimated that only 3.9% of that population had a college degree. Fast forward to 2006 where just 2% of Americans lived on farms, the U.S. population has nearly tripled, and 17% of Americans held a bachelor’s degree and nearly 10% held a graduate degree. This emphasis on advanced education is now happening outside the U.S. as well – for example, China is now the world’s largest producer of engineering graduates with over 600,000 newly trained professionals every year, and India is not far behind. In comparison, the U.S. produces just 70,000 graduates per year, and all of Europe accounts for just 100,000.

What these trends suggest is that there is a huge, well-educated, new audience for scholarly research, particularly STM, that is growing at unprecedented levels. And this global trend happens to coincide with the emergence of the Web. In other words, this centuries-old,  stable industry known as scholarly research is experiencing two major, inter-related shifts where information can suddenly be distributed at  near zero marginal cost, and where there is a sudden, massive audience for this information that could not have been easily (and affordably) reached just a few decades ago with mere ink on paper. And because this audience is not passive, they are taking the bull by the horns and actively searching  for this heretofore inaccessible information such that they now often comprise over half of the traffic to any publisher’s site.

The question for scholarly publishers therefore is what to do with these new potential users who are knocking on your doors?  In the 21st century, will scholarly publishing respond to this changing landscape in a manner that reflects its early, “open” roots?  Will it examine all possible alternatives for making this information accessible and affordable for the advancement of society?  Or will it become more “closed” and  try to lock-in its customers with high switching costs, thereby limiting choice and competition?  Will it only explore those options that protect its current business models  Depending on the answers to these questions, I believe this generation - our generation - will determine the future of scholarly and scientific publishing for many years to come.

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