The Value of the Publisher in the Information World

The wonderful information revolution makes everything available globally in seconds. From events captured in realtime by street cameras, to things that people say and write.  All of this is having a profound effect on the publishing world. One of the big issues with this great avalanche of data, poorly termed the ‘big data problem,’ is the veracity or validity of any and all information on the Internet today. What is valid and what is not? When everything people say and write, fact or fiction, is available and there are very few filters, sorting useful information from bad information becomes a tremendous challenge.

As the amount of data grows exponentially, almost daily, the task of sorting good from bad data becomes harder and harder and it becomes a real commodity to be able to help someone identify what is valid and what is not. It turns out that there is real value in helping people sort the good from the bad. Journal publishers provide this service although they don’t realize it is becoming the most valuable thing they do.  The traditional publishing model is selling the distribution of information. It has traditionally been all about selling a product that distributes words and pictures around the globe. That is the model that has been built on since the invention of printing.  The problem is that the key component of that value proposition, the distribution of information, is becoming free.  The key capability or product provided by publishers, in their old value model, is dying because of technology.

However, publishers have been doing something else the last 400 years that is more valuable today than ever before. It hardly costs money to distribute anymore; the Internet has dramatically reduced the cost of distribution. But because it used to cost a lot of money publishers went to great lengths to vet what they published. So, when something actually got sent to the very expensive process of printing, it had been reviewed and edited closely.  When one went to the library and checked the card catalog, somebody had gone to great lengths to make sure that the books in that library had some validity behind them before they received an ISB number and went into the card catalog.

Peer reviewed journals go to great lengths to make sure the submitted article is valid through peer review. For example, out of the 14,000 submissions to Science, AAAS selects the best 800 for publication. Publishers put an awful lot of effort into that and it costs a lot of money. Publishers used to do that because it cost a lot of money to print and distribute and they could not afford mistakes. Guess what? It costs less today to put those 14,000 entries out there on the Internet, but it’s really valuable to know which are the 800 best. The distribution might be close to free, but the publishing staff put in much effort to sort out the best 800 articles.   It is worth every penny that it costs them to do that.

Today one can use Google, or others, to find any information but these services do not tell what is valid and what is crap. The vast amounts of information make it very difficult to find the most relevant, accurate, and real information without a filter. The filter is now the most valuable asset.  Science journal publishers rely on peer review and editors to filter the worthy or “publishable” science.  Publishers, particularly of scientific journals, help us sort and apply a level of validity to information today.

I would propose to you that the value proposition in the publishing world is no longer publishing. The value proposition in the printing world is no longer printing. The value proposition in the journal world is that they are now the judge, they are providing the filter. That is a very different way of looking at journals, but maybe that is the way that will better justify the cost.

This blog post was written by the Institute’s CEO, Michael Swetnam, after a seminar hosted by the Institute on the Economics of Open Access. Check back to the website for the full report from the seminar.

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