STM Publishers Face Some Old, Some New Challenges, Especially the Bugaboo of “Free”

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By Richard Lampert

Richard Lampert

Richard Lampert

At first glance, STM publishing (Scientific Technical Medical publishing) resembles most other segments of the book publishing industry. It’s still dominated by commercial publishing companies plus a few scholarly houses, and new titles still appear at regular intervals supported by marketing to the book trade, individuals, and institutions. And the familiar challenges are there as well — social media, e-books, economic challenges, and all the rest.

However, the STM publishing industry faces unique challenges. Most obviously, STM authors and buyers are different from those in any other segment. To begin with, authors are scientists, engineers, and doctors rather than writers. They are largely indifferent to the niceties of language, not to mention production procedures or deadlines. Many authors work transnationally; their scientific and writing collaborators may be anywhere in the developed and developing world, including North America, UK, Europe, and increasingly East and South Asia. In response, major STM publishers such as Elsevier and Springer have transnational editorial staffs reporting to publishers who may or may not reside on the same continent. Both marketing and production are often transnational affairs, as well. Talk about globalization…

Financial pressures on STM markets relate to highly specialized pieces of the worldwide economy — health care reform in the U.S., renewable energy technologies almost everywhere, stem cell research, and the like. For instance, when the Bush Administration in the US put major constraints on funding of stem cell research, many scientists turned their attention elsewhere, and publishers who were banking on large markets for books or journals in this field found themselves with both less content and fewer customers. Also, many scientists who continued to work in the field found themselves working in corporate settings, and therefore many of their findings were kept secret by their employers. The reverse could be true if the Obama Administration in the U.S. follows through on its plans to fund more research in renewal energy. In general, funding from both governments and industry attracts scientists who generate knowledge, as well as other scientists who want to acquire it. Markets may spring up almost overnight, and often they disappear nearly as quickly if interest in a new field of inquiry wanes.

Government’s role as a source of funding is a mixed blessing for publishers and is creating challenges for the fundamental publishing business model used by STM publishing. Government funding certainly helps to generate the knowledge that fills new books, but at the same time governments are increasingly asserting their own control of intellectual property.

For instance, the U.S. National Institutes of Health requires that manuscripts arising from research that it has funded have to be uploaded to PubMedCentral, an open-access Web site. Not surprisingly, the NIH argues that taxpayers should have free access to the results of the research they have funded. Among the most vociferous supporters of the NIH mandate are librarians in universities and medical schools.

Affecting journals more than books, this mandate raises versioning problems at a minimum. A paper deposited in PubMedCentral prior to peer review and copyediting may differ in many ways from the final version published in a copyrighted journal or book, leading to confusion among readers.

The NIH mandate is spreading. Other major healthcare funders, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, and the (U.K.) Medical Research Council have all issued similar mandates to deposit materials in PubMedCentral.

In addition, the Federal Research Public Access Act (S. 1373), a bill now pending in a U.S. Senate committee, would require that final manuscripts of peer-reviewed, private-sector journal articles reporting on federally-funded research in all areas — not just health sciences — be made freely available on government-run websites no later than six months after publication. Last month, the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Committee of the Association of American Publishers expressed its concern that this broad new mandate would undermine both publisher copyright and the journal peer review system. Among the dozens of signatories are not just commercial STM publishing companies, but also societies that own their own peer-review journals.

How do authors feel about these existing and potential mandates? In some cases, they think like the scientists they are — favoring the broadest possible dissemination of scientific information, and open repositories facilitate that. On the other hand, prominent authors often are volunteer leaders of scientific societies that may own copyright in journals and other publications. Then they think like publishers and want to protect the uniqueness of the copyright material.

STM publishers know that 2010 will, as always, bring new scientific discoveries and new insights, creating the raw material for an unending flow of valuable new books. As has been the case for this new generation, their challenge — like all those — will be making a living remarkably dynamic marketplace that is requiring faster dissemination of material for a lower and lower price point — sometimes, even, free.

CONTACT: Richard Lampert directly

ACCESS: Information about S.1373.

VISIT: The Web site for PubMedCentral

Richard Lampert is a 30-year veteran of the STM publishing industry,  STM and CEO of The Lampert Consultancy.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.