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64th IFLA General Conference
August 16 - August 21, 1998
Code Number: 013-118-E-
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Editors of Library Journals
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 118.
Simultaneous Interpretation: No
Critical issues facing lis journals: a publisher's view
Discusses the five critical issues (print versus online; subscribers; quality control; copyright and pricing) which face journal publishers at a time of rapid change in technology and user expectations. First, the print versus online dilemma: how to publish electronically and how long to continue with hard copy versions. Describes the benefits to authors of publishing in a journal of recognised quality and authority, as opposed to self-publication which may not reach the relevant audience, or be subject to the same quality control. Given a diminishing subscriber base publishers must identify existing customers and satisfy their needs. Electronic delivery systems may provide a means of identifying new customers and tracking use of journals. Quality control requires rigorous standards of selection, peer review and editing and statistics are provided to illustrate the importance of publishers in maintaining these standards. Outlines the concerns of authors in signing over rights to electronic formats and the benefits, such as increased prestige, from wider distribution of their work. Finally, discusses subscription pricing, the possibilities of pay-per-view and whether the latter will have an adverse impact on the existing subscriber base or generate a larger user base for individual journal articles.
This paper will look at the major issues that I foresee for the journal publisher, from my own perspective. Obviously this will reflect my own concerns but there will be a large number of my views that hold good for publishers more generally.
I am Commissioning Editor at Bowker-Saur, a leading publisher of library and information science titles. I am responsible for three primary journals, Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, Journal of Information Science and Information Development; one newsletter, Information Management Report; two secondary journals, Library and Information Science Abstracts and Current Research in Library and Information Science; our web community for information professionals, Bowker Information Professionals' Exchange; and 10-20 books a year, including our acclaimed annual review Librarianship and Information Work Worldwide.
As I see it, there are five main issues facing journal publishers at this time.
- The print versus online dilemma. How to publish electronically, how long to continue with the hard copy.
- The subscriber dimension. The diminishing subscriber base, how to keep existing subscribers, how to meet customer needs, how to track customers, etc.
- Quality maintenance. How to maintain quality, how to balance the demands of readership that is both national and
- Copyright. The demands of publishers in the new electronic environment.
- Pricing. Subscription pricing and the possibilities of pay-per-view.
1. THE PRINT VERSUS ONLINE DILEMMA
The migration from print only to electronic delivery has accelerated rapidly in the last few years. The journal, which had existed almost unchanged for over 300 years, has quickly come of age. In the last 20 years, things have probably changed more than at any other time. The electronic delivery of the journal has been heralded for decades, but it is only in the 1990s that the e-journal has flourished with the advent of universal platforms for the display of electronic titles. In fact, the availability of electronic versions of existing hard copy journals has grown to such a degree that it is the norm, rather than the exception, that an e-journal of a print product is available.
Clearly, no publisher can ignore the inevitable move to electronic delivery. Particularly in fields such as library and information science, where customer expectations are high, the electronic version is not only demanded, but expected. Despite the publisher's best efforts to keep ahead of readers' expectations, especially in the area of technology, with a knowledgeable and research-driven audience like ours, expectations are very high and often surpass what can be delivered in a commercial environment.
Many publishers are predicting a situation where the cost of producing a print journal and all the associated costs of print production can be dispensed with as we embrace the electronic journal fully. At the moment there are many electronic-only journals, but I know of no print journals that have ceased in favour of their electronic equivalents. As I see it, hard copy version of titles will not be dispensed with unless
- the electronic format for delivery is more widely accepted by the academic communities who support these titles;
- equipment is made more portable and universally available;
- the archiving of electronic titles is made easy with universal, cheaply upgradable formats;
- ways are found to arrive at a best version of an article, since the best version is to be retained for future posterity;
- web sites are seen to be more permanent.
One of the key issues raised for publishers by the prospect of moving to an electronic-only environment is that authors may feel that they no longer need publishers and self-publish materials on their own or on university sites. However, I do not think that this will happen, for several reasons. Firstly, publishers are able to give the published articles a level authority/quality that authors alone cannot give. If articles are self-published, there will either be no refereeing, or the quality/impartiality of the refereeing could be suspect, the consistency of citation will be lost and material will no longer be checked for accuracy. This will inevitably cause a lowering of standards as less rigorous vetting procedures are applied. Also, the filtering of material that publishers/editors perform will no longer happen if authors self-publish. If authors self-publish, then there is no filtering and the good and bad will appear on the web and will be given equal weight, so much time will be wasted in seeking out inappropriate or poor quality materials.
Another issue is finding the materials in the first place. Where publishers pull together the materials, a group of articles of guaranteed quality are put on a site or in a hard copy issue on a regular basis and interested readers will know where the materials are. If authors self-publish, it is very difficult for them to disseminate the material and difficult for researchers to know where to look for the material . One of the great strengths of publishers has traditionally been, and still lies, in finding channels to reach the market. Without the publisher, dissemination of articles will be limited. Also, a system that cuts out the publisher will lead to a group of specialists finding only certain narrow fields of specialist materials, not serendipitously coming across interesting articles by noticing them in a publication. With self-published material, you will need to know exactly what it is that you want and also will need to know that it exists at all.
2. THE SUBSCRIBER DIMENSION
There has been a trend in recent years for subscriber numbers to reduce year on year for established titles. This steady decline can, I suspect, be attributed to a number of factors, not least of which is diminishing library budgets. How to keep existing subscribers happy has been the linchpin of what the publisher does to keep its subscribers, though in the past getting subscribers to share their views has proved extremely difficult. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, working out who our customers are is not as easy as it sounds. Subscription agents have sometimes been reticent about providing end-subscriber details, so sometimes all the publisher knows is that they have 50 subscriptions through Subscription Agent X, not who those customers are, nor even broadly what types of organisations they come from. Where publishers do manage to identify subscribers, there comes the vexing question of how to get subscribers to share their own views. Titles like mine, which are in the main academic, have never had a formal way of allowing subscribers to communicate with the editor/publisher, in the way that popular titles with their 'Letters Page' have. Therefore, many publishers have used market research techniques, such as surveys, but response rates on such surveys are typically very low. It is for that reason that publishers have become very excited about the prospect of being able to track what their customers are using with the new electronic delivery of journals and the tracking software that this allows. Whether this new intelligence will have a marked impact on the content of journals remains to be seen.
3. QUALITY MAINTENANCE
In the fight to retain subscribers, the publisher is of course looking, as mentioned above, to retain and enhance the quality of what he/she publishes. Many publishers, like myself, understand that publisher's value lies in the stringent quality control measures that they make part of their processes. The selection of the best material and the rejection of those that do not reach the required standard are pre-requisites for a producing a high quality title. I have some sample statistics from our leading title Journal of Librarianship and Information Science (JOLIS), to give you some indication of the rigorous standards imposed on such titles. Of the total articles received in 1996 for JOLIS, for example, over 47% are rejected or referred elsewhere; only 53% are accepted. Of those that are accepted, 29% are published as received, 41% are subject to minor amendment before publication, 24% are substantially amended, and 6% are resubmitted following a rewrite. These figures speak for themselves: overall, just 29% of accepted articles (equivalent to just 16% of all articles submitted) are deemed to be of sufficient quality to appear unamended. As noted previously, this standard of quality is part of what makes the role of the publisher unique, and therefore maintenance of these standards is extremely important.
Another issue for publishers trying to provide what customers want lies in balancing the needs of conflicting audiences. For example, titles such as JOLIS attract an international audience, so the articles must offer a balance of UK-focused and international submissions. This is taken into account when the content of each issue is arrived at, to ensure that customer needs are met.
Since the number of formats a title is provided in is expanding, publishers are requiring authors to sign over rights to any electronic format to the publisher. This is so that a publisher may use the material as fully as possible and can disseminate it widely. Some authors are becoming concerned that this is giving publishers the right to exploit their materials, without the authors benefiting from this. There is some truth in that argument, but it does not take into account what the author gets out of such an arrangement, namely, wider and wider distribution of his materials, thus gaining more prestige for his work.
Now that more and more titles are being delivered electronically, there is the opportunity of offering customers individual articles on a pay-per-view basis. This presents the publisher with a dilemma - to continue with subscription-only pricing, or to use a combination of subscription and pay-per-view pricing. The publisher must consider the possibility that some subscriptions may be lost where a subscriber is using relatively few articles. However, many publishers believe that most pay-per-view article purchasers will be non-subscribers and therefore generate a larger user base, providing them with a new weapon in the fight against the diminishing subscriber base. There are a couple of other subsidiary issues here. The first is how to highlight the service to people who do not know the title and who may be outside the usual expected market for the title. Secondly, if the publisher is providing access directly to individual articles, what will become of the document delivery services? As the pay-per-view model develops, we will find out what happens in both these areas.
I have tried in this article to indicate what I believe to be the key issues of concern for publishers of academic titles. We have reached a critical moment in the evolution of academic journal publishing, and there are threats to the very existence of the journal publisher in this new electronic age. However, I feel confident that as long as publishers continue to maintain their high standards, then the future is still extremely bright for journal publishing. Those who prophesy the end of journal publishing in the next few decades are, I believe, very wide of the mark.