What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger: Sally Morris on change in journal publishing

Anthony Haynes writes: Sally Morris is a highly experienced journal publisher. She is co-author of Handbook of Journal Publishing (CUP, 2013), a review of which will be posted on Monographer shortly. Previously she was CEO of ALPSP (1998-2006) and then (2007-09) Editor-in-Chief of their journal, Learned PublishingI feel honoured to be hosting a guest post from Sally here.

Sally Morris writes: The very existence of publishers was enabled by one disruptive revolution – the invention of print in 1450 (though journals themselves didn’t come along until two centuries later). 

Subsequent disruptive revolutions – mechanised production, the railways – helped to advance the development of our industry.   But many predicted that the online revolution would spell the death not only of print, but also of publishers. Yet, in fact, journal publishers welcomed this revolution and in some cases actually adopted it even before the market was ready (book publishers only joined us later). 

While the days of print journals (and indeed books) may possibly be numbered, e-journals have flourished – perhaps because what authors and readers want to achieve remains largely unchanged.  Authors want to put down a marker for their work, to have it disseminated, externally validated, and preserved.  Readers want to be able easily to find, access, read and cite the  quality-controlled research that is most relevant to their own work.  And e-journals actually facilitate all of this.

And so, although the medium has changed, many of the processes of journal publication also remain largely unchanged:  selection of articles, improvement, gathering together in convenient ‘packages’.  Even such apparent anachronisms as the journal issue are still surprisingly widespread.  So journal publishers – whether they are ‘traditional’ publishers, or completely new players – still need to learn many of the skills of creating, editing, managing and publishing a journal.

But much has been changed by the advent of e-journals:  how they are supported (24/7 customer support), how they are preserved (a challenge being met jointly by libraries and publishers), and of course how they are sold (bundles, big deals, consortia, single articles…).  So journal publishers need a whole armoury of new skills too.

Some might say that the latest revolution to hit journals and their publishers is Open Access;  and certainly there are those among OA’s advocates whose explicit intent was, in part, to damage or even destroy traditional publishers.   Yet this doesn’t seem to have worked.  Although many traditional publishers were initially alarmed by its potential to undermine their business, OA shows no signs of killing journal publishers and most have now come to terms with it. 

In fact, the arrival of OA seems to have given rise to a growth spurt among new journal publishers (though some in the library community suspect certain OA publishers of profiteering – which is just what they said in the past about traditional publishers).

A growing majority of publishers are now willing to allow authors to self-archive some version of their article on or shortly after publication (‘Green OA’);  some make the whole journal free after a period;  and an ever-increasing number are embracing the ‘Gold’ model whereby, in return for a fee, individual articles or indeed whole journals are made freely available on publication (funders are increasingly supporting this model by covering the publication fees).  So publishers now also need to add an understanding of the various aspects and models of OA to their range of skills.

E-journals, and the OA model which (among many other things) they enabled, have certainly not spelled the end of journals and journal publishers.  Yes, you can ‘do it yourself’, but in the long run most academics have more important things to do.  In any case, authors and readers still seem to want the signals of quality and relevance which inclusion in a respected journal conveys.

In our recently published Handbook of Journal Publishing four experienced journal publishers – Sally Morris, Ed Barnas, Douglas LaFrenier and Margaret Reich – have therefore tried to provide a toolkit for both today’s and tomorrow’s journals publishers, of all kinds and persuasions.  We aim to help them not only to do their job better, but also to weather the uncertainties that surround our industry. 

Most important of all, in our view, are an open mind, and an awareness of how vital it is to understand what our real customers – authors and readers – as well as our fellow intermediaries – librarians – think, want and need.

E-journals and OA certainly won’t be the last revolution – and it is the nature of disruptive revolutions that we can’t predict the next one.   But it’s hard to imagine that researchers won’t continue to want to communicate their work, and to discover the work of others – and our job will remain that of helping them to do so.

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3 Responses to “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger: Sally Morris on change in journal publishing”

  1. I’m interested in the “Green OA” idea. I think of academia.edu, where many scholars have their works downloadable for free. In that case, the authors are also self-curating, assigning searchable keywords.

  2. I am rather more curious about how purchasing models will change for subscription-based journals and funding/purchasing models will change for hybrid OA journals. The lessons … and constant evolution … of DDA in ebooks should not be lost on the journal world.

  3. Personally, I’ve long thought that we should look at purchasing models in other businesses – music downloads, for example, and telephone services (where you have the option of different models, and can switch from one to another – mostly permutations on a flat charge plus usage-based charges). I take it as a given that the article will become the unit of acquisition; it’s often said that libraries would hate this as users would quickly max out their budgets – but this doesn’t seem to be the case for other utilities such as electricity?

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