This Is Not Getting Cheaper

New overheads, regulations, and complexities diminish the hopes of savings

Watching this week’s ALPSP conference via Twitter, it occurred to me that it’s impossible that scholarly publishing will be getting cheaper any time soon. Complexity abounds — in contracts, analytics, business model overlaps, organizations, data and editorial workloads, processes, and more. Complexity means time and money. Complexity means cost.

As a wise colleague of mine said recently, we’re in “the HMO age” of scholarly publishing — more regulated, more monitored, and more administrative than ever. The administrative layer of scholarly publishing is growing in unexpected ways — through analytics, via contracts now spanning both OA and subscription models (“read and publish” and “subscribe to open”), and with the implicit but so far dormant temptations of auditing of usage, finances, and margins. (If you don’t think “subscribe to open” invites deep scrutiny of a publisher’s finances and margins, you might want to ponder it further.)

Transactions are becoming more expensive for both sellers and buyers, requiring more time because they have more moving parts. Time is money (travel, salary, benefits, opportunity costs), and that time will be reflected in a price at some point.

In addition to the cost implications of the complexity — with more complexity casually mentioned all the time — there’s the consolidation consequence. As I’ve written before, complexity favors the big and rich. They have the resources, scale, and diversification to manage and even benefit from complexity. Smaller and medium-sized players don’t, so the more complex you make the environment, the less diverse you make it from a business structure and size standpoint.

Add to this the complexity of technology, and you have another cost driver that is itself having more costly constraints placed upon it (GDPR, privacy in general, security requirements). In an episode of “The Pivot” podcast featuring Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, Galloway captured the issue in a nutshell:

The problems with GDPR when you look at Europe is that it’s actually cementing the position of the leaders because they have the money and lawyers. Complexity favors the wealthy and the incumbents.

As a proxy for complexity, simply think about your travel budget. Compared to 5-7 years ago, it’s probably up 2-3 meetings with all the new initiatives and groups overlaying scholarly publishing. Your organization is probably paying 1-3 more membership dues to support the emerging complexity. Your sales and site license professionals are getting salary increases, because you need their institutional knowledge and industry relationships more than ever. Legal fees are rising as contracts have to be rewritten and negotiated.

The long-vaunted “flip” to OA seems too riven with complexity now to occur in a way that would make it cheaper than its predecessor. The irresistible gravity of recurring revenues has led publishers to find solutions like “read and publish” and “subscribe to open” which retain recurring revenues while supporting OA goals. These clever solutions are themselves complex, and they will likely beget complexity we can’t yet fully describe because these haven’t gone to scale yet. But rest assured, things are not going to simplify.

If you think technology is becoming easier to purvey and therefore less costly, I would only need to mention that most journal sites still have browser compatibility issues to solve. Wait until you learn about HTTP/2, and its potential — your ad people are probably going to love it. Online contains a lot of hidden and long-term costs, and it’s always evolving and tempting us to add and modify things.

Scholarly publishing is becoming more complicated, complex, and therefore more costly. This is going to make information more expensive, speed consolidation, and invert the magical savings some have been chasing.

Will scholarly publishing get cheaper? I hope, if challenged, everyone can answer that question correctly, or the Gorge of Eternal Peril will soon be filled to the brim with a moldering pile of dashed hopes.