Clowns to the Left of Me… Jokers to the Right: The Independent Publisher in an Age of Mergers and Acquisitions

Clowns to the Left of Me… Jokers to the Right: The Independent Publisher in an Age of Mergers and Acquisitions

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As many smart people have predicted, consolidation within scholarly publishing will continue to make big news well into 2019.

Clarivate acquires Kopernio. Elsevier acquires bepress, Plum Analytics, and SSRN. Wiley acquires Atypon, etc., etc. We have also discussed with great interest the desire of the big publishers to offer start-to-finish workflow solutions. Roger Schonfeld warned of “lock in” while others argued business diversification.

 Fuente original: Clowns to the Left of Me… Jokers to the Right: The Independent Publisher in an Age of Mergers and Acquisitions – The Scholarly Kitchen.

The workflow tools have been particularly interesting to watch. Elsevier has made their intentions clear with acquisitions such as SSRN, bePress, and now Aries Systems, developer of the Editorial Manager suite of submission, peer review, and production tracking tools.

Wiley has also made moves in this direction, albeit in a different way. Wiley acquired platform provider Atypon to build out their workflow tools. As a Wiley corporation, Atypon has purchased Authorea, Manuscripts.app, and a small company that became the basis of Scitrus (an electronic Table Of Contents [eTOC] personalization tool). These services are in addition to the Literatum platform that hosts more than 40% of English-language journals; a preprint server currently operated for the American Geophysical Union; and a forthcoming eReader.

Whew. Atypon laid out this start-to-finish platform solution at their US User Group meeting this summer, which was attended by current customers and Wiley executives. It would be easy to say that Atypon is developing a world-class platform that cuts across the publishing continuum, but it would be more accurate to say that Wiley is developing a researcher-to-reader workflow solution. I am sure some of this development was on Atypon’s roadmap prior to the Wiley acquisition and may in fact been one of the reasons Atypon was attractive to Wiley.

There is one piece missing from the Atypon/Wiley flow and that is a peer-review submission and tracking system. Currently, most of Wiley’s journals are using Scholar One, owned by Clarivate Analytics. I don’t see how leasing a third-party system will fit these perceived workflow goals so I will predict here that Atypon builds a submission system sometime in the not so far off future.

Many of us on the Atypon platform were varying degrees of concerned about the sale to Wiley. The concerns were entirely about a publisher owning the platform that housed the content of many other publishers. We are faced with the same situation now that Elsevier has bought Aries Systems. A publisher that competes with many of Aries Systems’ customers, now owns the submission and production system used by these publishers.

For some of us, like my organization (American Society of Civil Engineers), it’s a double-whammy. Our platform with all of it’s content and user data is owned by Wiley. Our submission system with all of our author and editorial data is owned by Elsevier.

Now would be a good time to talk about the “firewall.” Both companies have promised, and I have no reason to doubt this, that they are taking great care to ensure that our data does not leak to our competitors (who now call the shots). I also personally know many people at both Aries Systems and Atypon and I believe that they understand the importance of safeguarding customer data.

There are other ramifications, however.

THE ROADMAP

As a medium-large self-published society, we have felt that we have some influence over the future plans, or roadmap, of our technology partners. This may have been totally in our own heads, but we believed that we had input, even in a small way, on future developments. This is no longer the case.

It will take some time for us to adjust to our new insignificance in this respect, but there may be an upside. Maybe, just maybe, Elsevier’s vision for Editorial Manager is bigger and better. Maybe development on Atypon’s Literatum platform will be better and faster with Wiley pushing the changes. In other words, maybe our business will benefit from the big publishers making the tools we use better.

THE SQUEEZE

Revisiting the situation my organization is facing, with Elsevier owning our submission and production system and Wiley owning our platform, there is significant concern that we can be priced out of services or see a measurable loss of service.

Let’s start with pricing, I don’t think either service will just announce higher pricing overnight; however, it seems entirely plausible that upgrades will cost a whole lot more. One component of service may be replaced with a newer version that now carries with it a higher cost. Self-published societies and smaller publishers will have difficulty absorbing additional costs, making them even more vulnerable to partnership offers from big commercial publishers.

Loss of services is also a concern. We were an early adopter of Aries Systems’ Production Manager. What if Elsevier doesn’t need a production management database? Will they continue to upgrade and develop this product?

WHAT ARE THEY BUYING?

Wiley needed a platform. Elsevier needed a submission system. The decision is to build or buy. I always say “buy” because these systems are way harder to build than most of us think. Just consider the recent updates needed for GDPR. Systems like Editorial Manager and Literatum are hit pretty hard with having to make system changes they weren’t anticipating. These technology acquisitions make sense.

That said, there is another purchase being made. As Joe Esposito quipped on Twitter, they are also buying customers. Wiley owns Atypon customers. For the Wiley partnered journals, this is just billed as “synergy”. For those not already in the Wiley family, it’s a bargaining chip.

Elsevier owns Aries’ Systems customers. As one of my colleagues at Elsevier tweeted at me, “We finally get to work together.”

Others speculated that Elsevier, no longer a publishing company but rather a data analytics company, is buying data. This would only be true if there is no real firewall built to protect those of us not “synergizing.”

LINING THE POCKETS

Publications staff are often asked to identify the threats to our publishing programs, particularly as societies see challenges ahead for membership revenue. I always tell people that competing with the big publishers will continue to be a threat. They can offer more bells and whistles to our users and authors.

The paradigm shift today, is that societies on publisher-owned platforms or now publisher-owned submission systems are paying lots of money to those competing publishers. That is a particularly hard pill to swallow.

NOW WHAT?

I do not intend to be critical of technology companies selling to big publishers. In the case of both Atypon and Aries Systems, these were excellent long-standing companies each with a single owner. I understand the need for an exit strategy and I wish all involved much success.

I am concerned about what I will call “lock out.” As some librarians are concerned about their faculty, students, and institutions being “locked in” to one particular publisher’s services, I am concerned about society and small publishers being “locked out” of critical technology services.

There are alternative partners if it looks like things are going south, but these platforms and systems require the jaws of life to extricate yourself. There are inexpensive open source options if you happen to work for a society or small publisher that has the internal expertise and resources laying around to fiddle with customizing a new platform or workflow tool. Many do not.

Business is business. It’s not personal. We all need to make a living. I do wonder if there is a line in the sand anywhere. Which acquisition will be one too many?

Angela Cochran

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