Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

Publishers may soon compete with libraries. The business case for enticing users away from library-managed portals is simple, compelling, and growing. As funding agencies and universities enact Open Access (OA) mandates and publishers transition their journals from the site-license model to the Gold OA model, libraries will cease to be the spigots through which money streams from universities to publishers. In the Gold-OA world, the publishers' core business is developing relationships with scholars, not librarians. For publishers, it makes perfect sense to cater to scholars both as authors and readers.

Current direct-to-scholar portals provided by publishers do not live up to their potential. Each portal is limited to content from just one publisher. Without interoperability, each publisher portal is an island. Only scholars covered by a site license can afford to use them, and those scholars have access to a gateway for all site-licensed content irrespective of publisher: their library web site. In spite of these near-fatal flaws, publishers invest heavily in their direct-to-scholar portals.

These portals are opportunities for future growth. The model is well established: Thomson Reuters' Westlaw is the de-facto standard for legal research in the US, and it is able to command premium pricing for structured public-domain information. It may take a long time for scholarly publishers to duplicate Westlaw's success. Yet, even without access fees, publishers might be able to unlock significant marketing and business-intelligence value from their systems. Knowledge from managing the publishing process combined with usage data from their portals will give publishers unprecedented insight into every aspect of scholars' professional lives in education, research, and development.

For publishers, the transition to Gold OA is rather tricky. They hope to maintain their current level of revenue while replacing the income stream from site licenses with an equivalent income stream from author page charges. This goal, implausible just a few years ago, now seems realistically within their grasp. The outcome remains far from certain, and publishers are hedging their bets by fighting Green OA and lobbying hard for embargo periods. As long as site-license revenue is their main source of revenue, publishers cannot afford to compete with libraries and journal aggregators, their current customers and partners. This calculation will change when Gold OA reaches a certain critical point. This is the context of proposals like CHORUS, an attempt to take over Green OA, and Elsevier's acquisition of Mendeley, a brilliant social-network interface for scholarly content.

Publishers, indexing services, journal aggregators, startups, some nonprofit organizations, and library-system vendors all have expertise to produce compelling post-OA services. However, publishers only need to protect their Gold OA income, and any new revenue streams are just icing on the cake. All others need a reasonable expectation of new revenue to develop new services. This sets the stage for a significant consolidation of the scholarly-communication industry into the hands of publishers.

As soon as the Gold OA shock hits, academic libraries must be ready to engage publishers as competitors. When site licenses disappear, there is no more journal-collection development, and digital lending of journals disappears as a core service. This is a time that requires major strategic decisions from leaders in academia. With its recently released new mission statement, the Harvard Library seems to pave the way: “The Harvard Library advances scholarship and teaching by committing itself to the creation, application, preservation and dissemination of knowledge.” The future of the academic library will be implemented on these pillars. While the revised mission statement necessarily lacks specifics, it is crystal-clear in what it omits: collection development.