The Knowledge Futures Group’s Gabe Stein, in a sharp analysis of the peculiar market dynamics of scholarly publishing:
Because of this complexity, the academic publishing market imposes enormous social switching costs on its customers. For an individual researcher to change their behavior, they need to know that the university or lab which pays their salary, the funder which pays their research costs, and the library which pays for access to their field’s top journals won’t penalize them for it — or, in the best case, that they’ll be rewarded for it.
It’s true that there’s enormous inertia—resistance to experimentation—that props up the current publishing system. But Stein’s framing in terms of “social switching costs” hitched to a researcher’s three constituents (the university, funder, and library), while insightful, risks obscuring two facets of the problem. The first is that it’s really one of those constituents, the university, that imposes the switching cost, by way of the tenure, promotion, and hiring systems. The second missing piece here is the role of researchers’ own beliefs: Many scholars have internalized the journal prestige economy. It’s not merely a complex opportunity structure or the friction of too many moving parts. The bigger issue is that (1) scholars want to get published in Nature, which (2) universities reward in formal and informal ways, often (3) drawing on other scholars who serve every step of the tenure, promotion, and hiring processes. The problem of journal prestige lock-in, in other words, has a lot to do with belief and culture. We’ve met the enemy, and it’s us. One implication is that culture change, and efforts to overhaul tenure-and-promotion and hiring criteria, are where a lot of our attention should be.
Echoing some of the other feedback on Stein’s piece, I found the initial framing around for-profit startups and private research labs a bit jarring. In my view, profit-seeking and the university system are fundamentally misaligned. A more practical issue is incumbent acquisition. Many of the would-be disrupters that Stein mentions met their maker as new members of the Elsevier or Wiley families—one of a handful of desired “exits” for the VC firms that backed them. The main task (admittedly a long reach) is to restore the scholarly publishing infrastructure to the mission-aligned, nonprofit sector—which is one reason Stein’s Knowledge Futures Group is so indispensable. Stein agrees, I think, and the main thrust of the piece is that the next round of starry-eyed entrepreneurs will probably join their forebears in the startup graveyard. I look forward to the day when we find concepts like “total addressable market” (TAM) unseemly when applied to spheres, like education and medicine, oriented to the public good rather than private gain.