Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Publishers should monetize web traffic rather than sell subscriptions

Timo Hannay, Foo and beyond, Nascent, June 29, 2007.  Hannay is the Director of Web Publishing at the Nature Publishing Group.  Excerpt:

I have an article in this month's STM News (a periodical for science, technology and medical publishers). The full publication is members only, so my draft is reproduced below for anyone who's interested. Appropriately enough, it's basically a summary of the ways in which the O'Reilly alpha-geek crowd has influenced our activities at Nature....

There is another more subtle reason for journal publishers to be interested in databases: the dividing line between the two realms is getting ever fuzzier, and may eventually disappear altogether. As journals have moved online, they have taken on some of the characteristics of databases (searchable, structured, constantly updated). Meanwhile, some databases are starting to mimic certain aspects of journals (peer-reviewed, archival, citable). This has led to the appearance of 'hybrid' publication that are both databases and journals depending on how you look at them. For example, the Molecule Pages, a collaboration between Nature and the University of California at San Diego, is a review journal covering several thousand proteins involved in intracellular signalling. But the information is held in a relational database [PS: and appears to be OA], making it easy to query the data and represent it in numerous different ways; while being archival and citable, it is also continually update[d]....

The idea that everyone can now do their own publishing, making publishers superfluous, is misguided. But publishers do need to adapt....Publishers need to become adept at mitigating gaming and spamming of their systems, and at monetizing web traffic rather than selling subscriptions....

Above all, publishers need to be leading the online charge, not following the scientists we serve. We are the information dissemination experts, so if we aren't pushing the boundaries and testing what's possible in this new world then we're not merely missing out, we're also not doing our jobs. Cynics will point out that most apparent 'opportunities' are a long way from turning a profit, and many probably never will. They're right. Do any of the STM projects I've mentioned above make a lot of money? No. But are they representative of the future of scientific communication, and do they provide a platform on which to build information businesses of the future? You'd better believe it.

Update. The title I picked for this post overstates's Timo's position. Thanks to Timo for his clarification and apologies for creating a false impression. As he writes on his blog:
I'm a tiny bit concerned that [Suber's] title overstates my position. Subscriptions of various kinds are going to be with us for a long time to come. But in the context of social software (which is what I was writing about in one of the passages he quotes), it often doesn't make sense to charge users directly. That's why I think publishers need to get much, much better at monetising traffic we're almost all useless at this right now.