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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The Changing Economic Model of Scholarly Publishing:
Uncertainty, Complexity and Multi-media Serials

John Cox,
Managing Director,
Carfax Publishing Ltd,
United Kingdom


Technology, economics and human factors are combining to force publishers and librarians to establish new ways of managing the information flow. Librarians, driven by the financial constraints that affect the university and research community world-wide, can no longer maintain complete and coherent collections of all the literature required by their patrons. Publishers are faced with the twin challenges of increased investment in and management of publishing in several media simultaneously. Scholars and researchers face great difficulty in keeping abreast of the literature in their fields.

The traditional cost structure of journal publishing will be described, with its breakdown between fixed and variable costs. Changes in circulation affects profitability and the longer term return on investment. That cost structure, and the subscription pricing mechanisms publishers have established since the 1950s, have failed to respond to the inability of library budgets to keep pace with the growth in research literature. The historical reasons for this will be addressed.

The paper will then describe and analyse the impact both on publishers’ businesses and on the community they serve of a number of factors driving fundamental change:

  1. The continuing decline in journal circulations in the ‘traditional’ Western economies, the growth in acquisitions in Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe, and the changing patterns of acquisition in different segments of the library market;

  2. The costs incurred in investing in new computer and telecommunications technologies, and in the new skills needed to develop the multi-media, interactive and interlinking facilities that make electronic publishing useful and attractive;

  3. The costs of ‘parallel’ publishing, coupled with the marked ambivalence of academics about changing the present system of research publishing based on the printed journal;

  4. The increasing pressure on publishing costs from editors and their universities, and from learned societies;

  5. The growth of document delivery services, and demand to ‘pay by the drink’ rather than by the subscription ‘bundle’;

  6. The changing role of intermediaries like subscription agents and Reproductive Rights Organisations, and their potential impact as a new breed of ‘information retailer’ to libraries; and

  7. The threat to publishers from new players in the market: pre-print services, and secondary services assuming a primary publishing role.

The principal issue facing publishers is how to maintain the viability of their activities, and the role they play in scholarly publishing. That role is especially important in relation to managing and certifying the quality of published output through the peer review process.

The environment is ready for new business models, and some tentative steps have already been taken to develop new pricing and purchasing models, including consortia or regional licensing. What changes in library purchasing management will be required to match some publishers’ readiness to experiment with new strategies? What is the role of the aggregator of information? Will the journal evolve as a ‘brand’?

The need for, and financing of, new journals will be discussed. New titles are launched in response to the emergence of new areas of academic research. Publishers are nothing if they are not part of a dynamic academic community. Strategic partnerships are likely to develop. Traditional adversarial publishing and business relationships embodied in the editor/author, publisher, subscription agent, library, reader information chain are likely to be replaced by more collegial patterns of working together.

The role of the paper based journal, and the unique features of the printed medium, will be contrasted with the benefits of on-line dissemination of scholarly information, reaching the conclusion that the foreseeable future is one of multiple media, and that the business model will be complex, as both producer and consumer behaviour changes.

28 April 1997