Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Why Pay for Content?

Charles Oppenheim reports on the half-day event organised by the Publishers Association at the Faraday Lecture Theatre, Royal Institution, London on 24 June 2009.

This widely publicised half-day event [1] was held at the famous lecture theatre in the Royal Institution that is used for the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures for children. I remember going to the lectures in 1962; I can’t remember what the topic was, but I remember thinking how large the lecture theatre was. Well, 47 years later, it seems to have shrunk in size. At this point, I must declare an interest: I was one of the speakers; readers should bear this fact in mind when evaluating the objectivity of my report.

The event was billed as ‘an open debate’ with the following themes: will all digital content need to be free? Does the Internet make that inevitable? How profound is the current revolution in publishing? Are current experiments just accelerating natural evolution? Will the established value chains hold up? How can publishers best serve the academy? How can the academy best service its students? How should research outputs be funded? Will the academic scholarly and professional markets still pay for content? Why should they?

The afternoon event, ably chaired by David Worlock of Outsell, was divided into two parts; the first focused on teaching and learning – in other words, the academic textbook market; the second, on research and reference, was focused on scholarly journal publishing – and indeed, most speakers (with the honourable exception of Frances Pinter of Bloomsbury Academic) took an even narrower view, focusing on the STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) market. The whole event was an experiment by the Academic and Professional Division of the Publishers Association [2], one that is likely to be repeated in the future on other broad topics.

The debates took the form of opening remarks by two nominally opposing speakers, some even briefer remarks from some nominated ‘supporters’ of the opening speakers, and the debate was then thrown open to the 70+ audience, most of whom were publishers, though there were a few academics and other hangers-on. A few of the speakers used PowerPoint; fortunately, those that did kept their PowerPoint to a few telling and often amusing slides. The speakers in the teaching and learning strand were Liam Earney of JISC Collections, Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge [3] - an organisation whose structure and business plan he outlined and which I strongly commend all readers to learn more about, as this could be the way of the future for e-textbooks - Roger Horton of Taylor & Francis and Dominic Knight of Palgrave Macmillan.

Despite the valiant efforts of the Chairman, both sessions turned out to show an emerging consensus rather than vigorous disagreement. Thus, everyone was agreed that information has to be paid for in some way; the real debate was who would pay and in what way? In case of the textbook market, it was agreed that costs of textbook production could certainly be cut back in some ways, but that alleged savings through electronic means would not be as great as some have claimed. There was an interesting analogy with the decision whether to grow your own tomatoes, buy them from Tesco or buy them from Waitrose, though it must be said that the analogy breaks down in many ways – for example, one would never throw a rotten textbook at an unpopular politician, would one? (OK, maybe the analogy does hold good in that case.) Listeners were also reminded that, despite well publicised student poverty and their penchant for spending money on drinking and partying, the textbook market is still large and prosperous. What was accepted in the teaching and learning discussion was that there will be new entrants into the marketplace, competition will get stronger, librarians are likely to cut their book-buying budgets and that not everything that is free is necessarily of low quality. But no one seemed to be suggesting that the textbook market is doomed.

Moving to research after a tea break, again it was agreed the question as posed was a non-question and that the real question was who should pay for content and in what way? As with teaching and learning materials, much money is spent on essentials and the potential for savings is not as high as some claim. There was some debate on the expenditure on peer review, with Nick Baker claiming there was significant expenditure by publishers on this aspect, whilst others claimed this was primarily volunteer effort by unpaid reviewers. As with the teaching and learning debate, it was agreed that the Web offers many value-added possibilities not hitherto possible. It was agreed that the idea of free at the point of use was a good one, but that still did not resolve the question of where money should be injected into the system. Despite my presence on the panel and its topicality and relevance, the famous Houghton Report [4] received only the most passing of mentions. It was claimed that the customer decides how much should be paid for the content, but this is somewhat misleading, and by and large, the end-user of research materials does not have to pay anything to access it; rather it is the library that pays. Frances Pinter repeatedly and rightly pointed out that much of the discussion revolved around STM outputs, and that Humanities and Social Sciences required a very different business model because of differences in funding and publishing norms in those subjects. Most speakers and the audience seemed content with the idea that Open Access would be important, though there was considerable disagreement as to whether it would be ‘Gold’ or ‘Green’ OA that would become the major OA business model.

Overall, the conclusion of the meeting seemed to be that, whilst there would be many high-profile casualties in the scholarly publishing market, and no doubt many acquisitions and mergers, in the end we will see a better, more accessible scholarly publishing environment. Furthermore, the complex ecology of both funding and scholarly communication practices, often tied to rigid systems established many years ago, means that the transition could be very painful indeed. There seemed to be no consensus on who should pay for content – though arguably at the end of the day in scholarly publishing it ends up with the taxpayer. David Prosser had tried to press the idea that the real question should be ‘what access models give the greatest return on investment?’ He was referring to research outputs, but arguably the same question should be posed for teaching and learning materials. The Web allows all sorts of access models, many with no equivalent in pre-Internet scholarly publishing. So was the whole event worthwhile? Other than introducing me to a novel textbook publishing model, the main thing I learned was that publishers are much more accepting of change coming than I had previously perceived, and that they are keen to get involved in experimental approaches to publishing. The alleged major gap between publishers and their clients does not exist, it seems, in the UK.


  1. Publishers Asociation: APD conference 2009: Why pay for content
  2. The Publishers Association: Academic and professional homepage
  3. Our Story | Flat World Knowledge http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/about
  4. John Houghton, Bruce Rasmussen, Peter Sheehan, Charles Oppenheim, Anne Morris, Claire Creaser, Helen Greenwood, Mark Summers and Adrian Gourlay, Economic Implications of Alternative Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the costs and benefits, January 2009

Author Details

Charles Oppenheim
Professor of Information Science
Loughborough University
Leics LE1 3TU

Email: c.oppenheim@lboro.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/dis/people/coppenheim.html

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