Publish or Perish: Finding New Models to Sustain Academic Research Journals

journalsDisruptive change is sweeping many areas of academia. Much of that has focused on technology-enabled course delivery. But a new wave of disruptive change is also coming to the business models that support research dissemination.

Academic journals may seem like arcane relics to the outside world, but they are the lifeblood for researchers across the globe in nearly every serious academic discipline. They define academic fields and formalize the discourse of discovery, staking out new frontiers of knowledge creation. They also facilitate communities of scientists working together and serve as a critical tool to attribute work to the rightful creator(s) in a systematic, legitimized fashion.

Despite their continued importance and relevance, academic publications have not evolved much since the invention of the printing press. The Internet has had an obvious impact on journals in that content can be more easily and quickly accessed, or even hyperlinked to a vast number of supporting sources. Technology has also helped combat plagiarism since it is now much easier to compare similar texts. Like other industries, however, much of the future change will come not with how content gets distributed, but rather in new business models to support these publications.

When I describe to MBA students how academic journals receive financial backing, they are understandably puzzled. Universities, foundations, and governments support faculty and fund research. That research ends up in articles that are submitted to journals. Those same faculty members work, with no compensation, for the journals — refereeing and editing journal articles, for example. At the same time, university libraries often must purchase the journals to provide researchers access to the information. The prices charged for those journals have escalated in recent years — far outstripping inflation — causing many to question how long this underlying business model can be sustained. In some cases, the publishers are non-profit professional associations and the profits generated by research journals are used to support the academic communities through conferences and information-sharing forums. In other cases, the publishers are for-profit entities whose mission is to create returns for shareholders. Many journals began as the creations of non-profit academic associations, but were later sold to for-profit entities.

Waking up to the financial burden of publishing, governments and universities around the world have begun pushing for broader access to information, often at no cost. Termed “open access,” funding organizations are demanding that research supported by public or university money be made open to the world. Last year the UK government required this of all publically funded research. Organizations from the US National Institute of Health to the Gates Foundation are enacting similar policies that require open access as a condition for funding research. Likewise many universities are developing open access policies. Journal publishers, both for profit and non-profit, have been scrambling to keep pace — for example, by creating new models where authors pay to publish their articles that are then made freely available on the web.

For non-profit associations, the potential change is massive. Over the past two years, I have served as the Vice President of Publications for INFORMS, a professional society of business and engineering scholars focused on analytics. The organization hosts numerous conferences and publishes 14 journals spanning operations research, marketing, strategy, information sciences, organizational sciences, and computing. INFORMS journals enjoy a global reputation as being the premier publications in their respective fields. Those publications are also critical to the financial health of INFORMS, representing nearly two-thirds of the institute’s revenues. The profits from those publications allow the organization to serve the community many ways. But, like many professional societies, the institute finds itself conflicted in its dual missions to disseminate information and fund community building, thereby searching for new business models to support what it does.

At the recent annual INFORMS conference, I moderated a panel discussion on these changes, including the editors of Marketing Science, Organizational Science, INFORMS Journal on Computing, and Information Systems Research. The conversation illustrates the changes and challenges facing academic publishing. While there are few simple answers, one thing is clear – journals will face significant change.



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