The Power of Community — Why Much of Scholarly Publishing Is Unlikely to Change Quickly

This is one of the best written assessments of the scholarly journal ecosystem I've read in a long time!

Posted by Kent Anderson ⋅ May 12, 2016


We often see discussions of scholarly publishing framed with familiar terminology — commercial vs. non-profit; subscription vs. open access; glamour vs. non-glamour; specialty vs. general; high-impact vs. low-impact.

Using these frameworks, it’s difficult to see why publishing wouldn’t change quickly and easily, with just a few adjustments, the proper financial incentives aimed at these simple distinctions, and a little elbow grease. Yet, while there have certainly been changes, the scholarly publishing world of today would be in many respects quite recognizable to someone waking up from a 20-year nap, especially when it comes to the major journals in most disciplines.

One explanation for this stability (some might call it persistence) may involve a factor that is less obvious because it is so prevalent and diffuse it is taken for granted — the power of the communities that define science in its myriad forms, and the durability of these communities’ journals.

Community journals, as I’ll call them, are like local newspapers in a way, but the community they bind can be worldwide. These journals sprang up within a community and serve a specific (real or imagined) set of academics or scientists. They represent some of the oldest and some of the newest journals, and they continue to be launched to serve community interests. They are not a dying breed by any means, but they are different, and they have interesting staying power.

Community journals keep their places because they are not just production outlets for research papers, but community creations that provide identity, context, and cultural integration. Communities have layers and points of unity beyond the production systems or digital outlets so often the target for technophilic change agents.

Examples of this stability? Despite years having passed now, these journals have not been displaced by pre-print servers. Some of these journals still have robust print and online advertising lines of business, based on community needs and norms. The subscription model’s more community-based demands remain appealing to the editors and publishers of these journals, as they feel normal and appropriate within the overall editorial and business model. Such entrenched cultural elements are not simply waved away with a dismissive hand.

While community journals continue to be launched, some newer journals are not directed by or at a particular community. They reveal this in their titles, which often use abstractions about the publishing process in the places we’d typically see community designations (e.g., words like “communications,” “reports,” or “advances” in the place of discipline or audience descriptions). Others make references to their business model (e.g., “open”). Still others simply elide the community or the business model with branding that avoids both issues entirely (e.g., PLOS ONE, ACS Omega, FACETS). These non-community journals seem to be easier to compete against — after all, competitive factors center around price, efficiency, speed to publication, and so forth. These are industrial qualities that can be beaten. Even though it’s too soon to tell, my initial impression is that these journals seem to be in a competitive space all their own.

Yet, look across the hype and controversies enveloping scholarly and academic publishing, and the strength of community journals barely gets a mention. You’re more likely to see Elsevier invoked as the totem for the entirety, a classic mistake of stereotyping which not only obscures the diversity around the entity, but within the entity. As a scholarly publisher, Elsevier is to a significant extent a confederation of contracts with community journals, and is influenced by these contracts to a large degree.

In many respects, the position of community journals is almost aggressively ignored. It’s not surprising that the sense of journals as community elements has been lost during the past 10-15 years. Search engines and social media flipped journals into the public sphere and article economy, disaggregating content in the eyes of many dominant commercial forces — Google, Facebook, Twitter, SEO firms, platform providers, and others.

But it’s three major business model shifts that have shaken community journals’ place in the world — because they make us think of journals as peddling commoditized content, not community assets.

One of the first business model shifts that led us down this road toward thinking of content as a commodity to be traded in bulk rather than a community asset was the shift away from individual subscriptions and toward institutional site licenses. The response of the larger commercial publishers to create the “Big Deal” (a term which apparently demands both scare-quotes and initial caps, it is so anxiety-provoking) put a pin in the commoditization of content. No longer were we trading solely in relevance to a community — we were now dealing in both relevance and quantity. This change eroded the ability of journals to create affinity among academics and others with their parent membership organizations. This has had effects on finances and the sense of identity for these organizations, which now have a harder time connecting with young, international, or loosely affiliated members. While it has taken years to unfold, the trends are clear and continuing. This genie is not going back into the bottle.

Open access has been another major shift away from the community model, enabling large, diffuse journals to spring into existence and proliferate. OA publishers have found community journals more difficult to sustain financially under the economic and business constraints of OA publishing, which currently demand lower prices per article, limited reuse and recommercialization opportunities, with a model that responds better to volume than quality. It seems worth noting that PLOS started with community journals (PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine), and continues to dabble in this realm, but their huge hit was and is PLOS ONE, which set a template others have used to further shift away from community journals. PeerJ started as a non-community journal, and has since branched into the community space with PeerJ Computer Science. Others are experimenting across the two forms.

The third shift was the introduction of community journal portfolios, with Nature leading the way (e.g., Nature Medicine, Nature Genetics, and so forth). With the notion of a journal portfolio now common, the traditional community journals are finding themselves knocked down a peg as these larger organizations bring their increased reach, tighter operations, and larger sales teams to bear. The commercial competition in this space is intense, and the bigger guys are setting the tone.

The business models for community journals are different and not easily changed. Community journals’ content and purposes differ from those found with non-community journals. Joe Esposito, in a recent LibLicense exchange, made a McLuhan-inspired observation about how business models work and what businesses offer are two sides of the same coin:

What troubles me about conversations about “flipping” the economic model for published scholarship is that it assumes that the basic units of content will remain unchanged. But the history of media tells a very different story, that media of all kinds changes when the business ecosystem changes. The business model, in other words, is not something that is wrapped around a piece of content but is a property of that content.

Because business models have implications for the content journals generate now and into the future, there are many well-founded concerns about changing either. Changing one means changing the other. This is a key point often lost on editors and publishers, and certainly it’s lost on crusaders. Modifying your business model is not just a matter of shifting revenue sources. It’s always more fundamental than that.

To draw on a favorite example, the music industry’s shifts from selling hard goods to selling digital wares to now licensing digital streams fundamentally shrank and changed the industry. ESPN is now $3 billion more valuable itself than the entire music industry, and singers are being forced to perform more, leading to an increase in vocal cord injuries. It is not a trivial matter to change variables in a business. Because business models are integral to the business itself, changes to them have ripple effects.

It’s easy for change agents to ignore the importance and strength of community journals because their value is niche and a little hard for outsiders to discern. At their best, community journals allow conversations to occur within and between disciplines. These conversations may be hard for non-specialists to detect or understand, but they occur, and they can influence the undocumented lives of practitioners and researchers for years. Important articles are contextualized and emphasized. These journals pack a punch. They can change informal or formal practices with their findings and expert insights. They can alter public opinion. Occasionally, they stimulate and change laws. They can inform and modify educational curricula. They can be cited for weeks, months, or years within a community. They connect people and unite communities. Community journals punch above their weight in ways that are often invisible to those outside the communities themselves.

And here we have the heart of the disparity — technology-based and non-community entities view journals as asynchronous collections of articles, while practitioners (editors, publishers, authors, and readers) within communities view journals as ongoing records of advancement and conversation, with layers of context only they might appreciate.

Neither is wrong. But these perspectives are deeply at odds, and must be reconciled somehow.

Because of such perceived limitations (or imperceptible community benefits), there are those who would like to see journals abandoned or undermined. Focusing on journals as industrial outputs, they only see them as containers with content — which makes it easier for them to propose throwing the baby out with the bath water. The New York Times’ notorious rant about Sci-Hub failed to see journals as community assets, so suffered from such a fundamental flaw, which started at its headline’s treatment of papers as commodities (“Should All Research Papers Be Free?”) and lasted to the end, where the author became annoyed with academia for behaving like a serious community.

Others mistake journals as production systems and not as forms of community interaction. In a recent essay about Sci-Hub in Slate, Justin Peters attacked a community journal in which the editor-in-chief defended the value journals provide. She was defending the value to her journal’s community, while Peters was attacking the journal’s ineffectiveness for people outside the community. In his tirade, which was largely based on arguing that journals are just article factories, the author threw out a red herring about communities I haven’t seen in years:

If a site like Sci-Hub really threatens to decimate a given organization’s membership, then that organization wasn’t providing enough value to its members in the first place.

Aside from being paradoxical, it’s apparent Peters was not seeing journals as the product of a community effort, so he could easily dismiss their community value. To him, journal articles are equivalent one to the other in manufacture and meaning — patience, judgment, and community responsibility be damned. The irony of this view is that he cannot see journals as “providing enough value” to a community. His invective depends on journals being valueless to communities. He is wrong.

For many good reasons, community journal editors and publishers find shifting away from the community model somewhat bewildering and worrisome. They also see little reason to do so — it seems like a superfluous question. Sheltered within their communities, all this turmoil seems akin to a spell of bad weather happening outside. Their community runs by its own rules and on its own clock. Proposed business model shifts would dictate editorial shifts they may not be comfortable with. These domain experts are used to working with peers while using shared jargon and knowledge gained within their communities. Working on a more industrial footing requires them to shift into a bland management style, with little of the intellectual engagement and peer feedback they’re accustomed to. If the experiment struggles or fails, we might not realize it’s because the two don’t mix.

Discussions about establishing or changing publishing policies also tend to get hung up on invisible community boundaries. The “scientific community” is really a few hundred distinct communities loosely affiliated by a common language (and not even that all the time — try asking a mathematician to read an article about microarchaeology sometime). What might work in computer science journals won’t work for medical journals, and what might work for medical journals won’t work for history journals, and so on. The production, business model, and editorial elements in each community are inextricably linked, and each is purpose-built for that community. There is really no uniform standard for peer review, article processing, rejection rates, and so forth. And why should anyone expect rapid adoption of imposed uniformity, which always means cultural uniformity? The industrialists will argue for it, but nearly every industry has learned that cultural differences trump industrial streamlining.

The biggest issue facing community journals is that publishing dissenters undervalue them and can’t see them for what they are — vital community assets. Subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the economics and attitudes around publishing are tipping the scales toward a more production-oriented industry, with less of an emphasis on community assets. This creates a deep and profound tension that few are comfortable with — the history of science leans toward tighter communities with more specialized knowledge. There are more sciences today than ever. We should expect to see emerging diversity, not more uniformity.

Science remains a social enterprise, a city of villages. Yet, we are moving toward figurative and actual federalization of research publishing, with weaker communities and more influential centralized players setting the terms as regards business models, funding options, and academic choices. Pursued without care, these players’ action will change what content looks like in science, and move us away from high-quality community-based publications to less stringently reviewed and contextualized outlets built around uniformity and efficiency.

While not necessarily unacceptable, this would represent a profound change. Communities stand to lose in this scenario. What the world might lose — cohesive groups of experts incentivized to move their fields forward together, deep discussions of topics of intense specialist interest that fail to attract larger audiences but matter profoundly to social policies, and the room and resources for small communities to articulate and distill important insights society needs — could be significant.