Thursday, March 12, 2015

Public Service Announcement: John Wiley & Sons, you are in deep deep trouble

A week ago, Wiley published a blog post celebrating 350 years of the academic journal and patting itself on the back for the unparalleled service the publishers have been providing to the scientific community: "Why has the scholarly journal endured?" Four people weighed in with their perspectives on why the academic publishing as conceived hundreds of years ago is so wonderful today. The top two reasons were that the journal provides metrics to judge the scientists and the research published and is a good way to filter out the sea of publications and decide what to read.

The entire post is a perverse inversion of all the problems in academic publishing, presented as good reasons to keep the status quo. It is so out of touch with the conversations and concerns inside the research community, it's jarring. But the real problem for Wiley is that this is not an isolated mistake in PR; this post is representative of the culture inside Wiley and perfectly encapsulates why this corporation is about to march off the cliff.

Everyone knows that past performance is no indication of future results. Many monarchies survived way longer than 350 years, but not because of the extraordinary value they provided to their citizens. And most monarchies saw a day which marked the end of their rule.

I have been interested in science publishing since 2003 when PLOS Biology launched. I have been actively talking to publishers in the past two years. While I give the corporate publishers a hard time and am convinced that it's hard for the publisher to innovate in general, there is something unique about Wiley. Unique in a bad way.

I know many people who are or were in executive positions at all of the major publishers. I know many who were in key positions at Wiley itself. One thing that comes across in conversations with ex-Wiley executives is that this publisher is deep in denial about the looming changes. The culture inside Wiley makes it seem like a Tea Party organization, with Nature and Elsevier as the Green Party radicals. For those who know the corporate publishing world, appearing conservative on the background of the other publishers is not a good distinction.

All my conversations aside, any outside observer can tell that the publishers see the writing on the wall and are desperately trying to figure out how to stay alive and what their role will be in the future. Hence Digital Science from the Nature Publishing Group, acquisition of Mendeley by Elsevier, and the acquisitions of Papers and Biomedcentral by Springer. (UPDATE March 18: Elsevier now refers to itself as a technology company, which is a major shift. From their recent report: "[This] reflects the transformation of the company to a technology, content and analytics driven business while maintaining the link with its proud heritage.")

I would love for someone to point me to any signs of creative thinking and attempts to evolve at Wiley. Alas, I think they are busier congratulating themselves on the great service and the wonders of the impact factor. Good luck Wiley.

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