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Will Publishers Syndicate Their Content?

The scholarly publishing sector has struggled to address the problems that users face in their discovery-to-access workflow and thereby stave off skyrocketing piracy. The top-line impact of these struggles is becoming clearer, starting with Elsevier’s absence from Germany. This makes the efforts to establish seamless single-platform access to all scholarly publications — equal in extent as Sci-Hub but legitimate, and which I term a Supercontinent of Scholarly Publishing — all the more urgent. The technical solutions are challenging, and at the STM meeting in Frankfurt last week it became clear that, although progress is being made, policy, governance, and competition issues may complicate the drive to consensus. As the major publishers pursue their respective strategic objectives, do their interests align sufficiently to make a radical break on content distribution and syndicate their content to all manner of access platforms?

Will "no tresspassing" be replaced with efforts to syndicate content?
[Rusted Metal Sign: “Private Property, No Trespassing”], Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Distributed Usage Logging

Publishers already distribute content to other platforms, such as aggregators, but these are fairly labor-intensive and are generally undertaken in exchange for a fee. An alternative, comprised of two critical components, is in development today. First, it requires an ability to authorize appropriate access in a decentralized distribution environment. A Shared Entitlements System, as it is sometimes called, would be a kind of common authorization service for all publishers. As I will discuss below, there are at least two options for how Entitlements can be addressed. Second, it requires Distributed Usage Logging, which is to say the ability for all usage, wherever it takes place, to be “counted” in measuring the value of articles on behalf of authors and licenses on behalf of publishers.

Crossref and a group of early adopters last week announced that they are launching a Distributed Usage Logging (DUL) system. Elsevier is participating as both a platform (through Mendeley) and a publisher, Digital Science as a platform on behalf of several of its services, and Atypon on behalf of its publisher customers. This is a critical step in enabling the content syndication necessary to create the Supercontinent and other alternatives to traditional publisher content access platforms.

As I considered these issues, I spoke with Chris Shillum, Vice President Identity and Platform Strategy at Elsevier, and Rob McGrath, CEO of Digital Science’s ReadCube, to learn about some of the approaches that the group is taking to DUL. It will mostly be direct platform-to-publisher communication, an intentionally lightweight approach to central infrastructure, matching content to publishers using CrossRef’s lookup service.

There are several matters yet to be worked out. While the COUNTER code of practice will serve as the baseline standard, some reporting metric definitions appear to be somewhat ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations, so some definitions may require revision. The CrossRef board has not yet approved DUL as a production service, so issues of fee structure and participation requirements are not yet settled. When I asked Shillum whether Sci-Hub would be permitted to send usage data to publishers through DUL, he countered my provocation saying  that, while “rules of participation” haven’t been established, DUL “is intended to encourage good behavior.”

There are two primary beneficiaries of DUL, authors and publishers. Authors of articles whose publishers are participating should expect to see usage-based alt-metrics scores rise, which will put competitive pressure on all publishers to participate. And participating publishers will see their usage numbers rise. Elsevier estimated that its ScienceDirect usage could rise 5-6% as a result of DUL capturing usage from its Mendeley and SSRN platforms alone — let alone other platforms (slide 10 here). This in turn may, depending on how COUNTER reports are interpreted, drive down the “cost per use” metric that is simplistically but regularly used to estimate the value of library license agreements. Libraries and publishers alike should prepare themselves to negotiate bearing in mind this change.

One use case that DUL does not address is the authors’ need to have a dashboard of all their articles, with impact and usage metrics, conveniently accessible from a single interface. A reverse DUL, bringing article-level data back from publishers to scholarly collaboration networks, would be an interesting next step to contemplate.

Broadly, DUL as it is being implemented seems to be in every publisher’s interests and should become the norm rapidly. From discussions with leaders at Springer Nature and Wiley, I am confident that the underlying DUL approach has broad support and will be widely adopted by other large publishers without delay.

Shared Entitlements System

But DUL alone does not improve content access. The other component of content syndication, the Shared Entitlements System (SES), is taking longer to develop. While everyone with whom I have spoken from the publisher community is optimistic that they can make progress on SES, there are some underlying strategic dilemmas here that leave me somewhat less confident that full content syndication to access platforms — the Supercontinent — can be achieved soon.

The vision for SES is to enable an access platform to determine whether any given user is authorized to access the content item they are requesting. This requires a service to determine what, if any, institutional affiliations a given user may have and then a mechanism to determine what licensed “entitlements” each institution should afford the user. This is made more complicated by the fact that many users have multiple institutional affiliations, which is often overlooked to the user’s disadvantage.

There are fundamentally two basic models for how SES is implemented.

  • Upon being “approved” as entitled, a user could be routed to the publisher site for seamless article access. In this scenario, SES is little more than an improved linking experience. From my perspective, improved linking is the less ambitious option, and likely to meet a far smaller share of user needs.
  • Or, instead, the platform could provide access directly on its site and through DUL ensure that appropriate “credit” is provided. The latter option would require some kind of mechanism for content distribution to platform partners — content syndication — which in turn requires publishers to place a much higher degree of trust in the platform provider. Even moreso, content syndication requires that publishers abandon the idea that they can capture all the value on their own sites and instead radically improve the distribution system for their publications. For users, content syndication is the more valuable approach, because it can ultimately provide for them most of the benefits of having a single user account for all scholarship.

A year ago at STM, Elsevier’s Wouter Haak presented a roadmap for addressing access issues that included an Entitlement API that was to be developed in 2018 (slide 8 here). Behind the scenes, an STM working group was able to make a good deal of progress, following the model that article access would be fulfilled from the publisher site. Since then, progress appears to have slowed, as the publishers and platforms focused on DUL. DUL is essential to the more valuable, more ambitious, Supercontinent approach.

At the STM meeting last week, it appeared that at least some SES conversations were renewing. In his keynote at the STM meeting in Frankfurt, Springer Nature CEO Daniel Ropers made clear that he thought developing a shared entitlement system is well overdue. Wiley CEO Brian Napack said that Wiley is working on a shared entitlements system. The extent to which these initiatives are coordinated across publishers is not clear.

In response to my query about Elsevier’s role in entitlements, Gaby Appleton, Managing Director, Elsevier Research Products, emphasized the major investments that have been made in the past year on DUL, RA21, and Version of Record tagging. “The STM reference group on sharing started the discussion on entitlement standardization last year. We’re very much involved in this and support its direction…Now that DUL is pretty much finished from an engineering point of view, we can turn our attention back to the reference group discussion on entitlement and work out what needs to be done. We absolutely do want to support this.”

And, Todd Toler, VP Digital Product Management at Wiley told me, “The houses need to work towards a standardized approach to an entitlements API, because it’s long overdue and the only route to extend the seamless access promise of RA21 to a wide range of discovery options and not just our own platforms.”

At a fundamental vision level, there seems to be broad alignment among the publishers that it is time to address entitlements. But it is far less clear to me whether there is alignment on whether to pursue improved linking alone or enable content syndication as well. No one would speak with me on the record about the specific entitlement approaches that their companies support.

Content syndication represents not only an important opportunity but also potentially a major risk for any given publisher. And the ways to control those risks are not just at the technical working group level, but in terms of policy and governance. For example, publishers have a major strategic interest in being able to control which platforms can become the distribution agents for their syndicated content and under what terms. Will payments be exchanged in either direction (for example, in those cases where the publisher can be expected to lose out of advertising revenue)? Will there be limits on what services the access platforms can offer? Or requirements on data sharing that go deeper that COUNTER-compliant DUL reporting? If bilateral agreements are needed between each publisher and each platform, that will minimize the benefits of SES, but some publishers might nevertheless favor bilateral agreements that allow them to maximize the value they can generate from the access platforms. If not through bilateral agreements, how will distribution rights be awarded and through what kind of common governance process? In the environment that could emerge, not only for subscription content through entitlements but also for the growing share of open access content, will any legitimate business be able to serve as a content access platform, allowing for true platform competition? If publishers are to move to content syndication, there will be important policy and governance matters to address.

But content syndication has not been inevitable as the entitlements approach. When the Springer Nature CEO spoke last week, he also intriguingly invoked the major split about how to engage or prosecute ResearchGate, explaining that it was a consequence of the fact that in the past major publishers “weren’t clear on the end-game for entitlements.” Are they clear now?

The End Game

Scholarly publishing leaders are clear that one benefit of this new infrastructure is to enable the sector to “build new services on a competitive basis,” as Elsevier’s Shillum explained to me. Depending on how SES is implemented — if it enables true content syndication onto access platforms with DUL back to publishers, and not just improved links to publisher sites — it will have the effect of dramatically reducing the barriers to entry of creating a legitimate multi-publisher content access platform.

In this arena, the key strategic question is: will we see syndicated SES or just improved linking? Under syndicated SES, we may expect the competition around creating access platforms to grow and the business models that can be associated with them to change dramatically. This could be very good indeed for publishers.

Nonetheless, a major publisher would see that there are dilemmas associated with enabling the creation of these new businesses. For one thing, there could be seen to be an opportunity to turn every publisher site into a Supercontinent, so I asked Henning Schoenenberger, Springer Nature’s Director of Product Data and Metadata, whether publishers will eventually distribute competitors’ content through their own sites, i.e., turning SpringerLink into a multi-publisher content access platform. He said, “Springer Nature can’t speak for other publishers but fully intends to continue to invest in its own platforms (ie SpringerLink and Nature.com) and will continue to develop services and tools that will add value to the specific content that we publish.”

I wondered about some additional risks. I asked Schoenenberger if he was concerned about giving an analytics advantage to platform providers who will have more granular usage data than publishers. He said, “You can say that there is some risk that we open up some advantage to a competitor but this is an industry initiative to facilitate access and transparency in research. That balance is well done.” From conversations with other publishers as well, I am convinced that there is broad agreement that an appropriate balance can be struck.

At the same time, the split on ResearchGate that Ropers invoked, and which continues today, has me puzzling over what would constitute a level playing field for content syndication. After all, the platforms with the greatest comparative advantage from the outset are probably those with the greatest starting point traffic, which almost certainly positions Google Scholar and ResearchGate quite favorably. While much has certainly changed since 2014, at the time it was clear that Google Scholar and ResearchGate were the most powerful platforms in the scientific publishing sector. When STM looked into the matter, it found that by 2017 at least by one measure ResearchGate was well ahead of other scholarly collaboration networks (slide 5 here). ResearchGate itself has been estimated to have greater traffic than any publisher site. Might we expect to see a scenario in which Google Scholar or ResearchGate capitalizes on its position by turning into a syndicated access platform?  

Thus, we come to the question of which companies benefit from enabling what forms of SES. This in turn causes me to raise questions about Elsevier, the one company that is both a publisher and potentially an access platform for others, assuming Springer Nature continues to operate independently from its half sibling Digital Science, even after its failed IPO.

Elsevier as a publisher surely benefits from having its content distributed more broadly and therefore access and usage expanded. But Elsevier increasingly sees itself as “a global information analytics business.” To fulfill this role, Elsevier as a platform company will surely hope to gain access to far more usage data through Mendeley, Scopus, SSRN, and bepress, than it loses to third party platforms. Put another way: if ResearchGate originates as much traffic as it appears to do, would Elsevier lose access to substantially more usage data from SES syndication than it stands to gain? And if so, does this threaten in any way its interests in becoming an analytics provider? The company’s strategists are surely grappling with these tradeoffs.

Ultimately, leading scholarly publishers appear to be acknowledging the reality they face: the content they publish has begun to be decoupled from the distribution systems they control. In order to stop users from moving to pirate sites, publishers may need to abandon the idea that they can capture all the value on their own sites and instead radically improve the distribution system for their publications. Through SES syndication, an array of access platforms can enable content usage that is limited to licensed user communities, and through DUL that activity can redound to the benefit of the authors and publishers responsible for producing and distributing it. SES syndication and DUL are the necessary ingredients to creating the true “supercontinents of scholarly publishing,” as I have called them, one-stop locations where all scholarship can be discovered and accessed seamlessly. Is content syndication the end game?

I am grateful for the discussions that took place at STM/Frankfurt and a series of subsequent interviews and email exchanges that I was able to have on these topics. I thank Gaby Appleton, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, Rob McGrath, Tom Reller, Henning Schoenenberger, Chris Shillum, Todd Toler, David Tucker, Susie Winter, David Worlock, and others, for their help.


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