Subscription agents host supply-chain discussions

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Mark Carden reports from this year's Association of Subscription Agents conference

Subscription agents are positioned at the intersection between buyers and sellers of academic content, and so are well-placed to facilitate communication about this supply chain. The annual conference hosted by the Association of Subscription Agents and Intermediaries (ASA), aims to bring together publishers, librarians and those who mediate between them.

The conference has an air of challenge and disquiet, as the raison d'etre of subscription agents (and so of their association), is increasingly neutralised by the efficiencies of the digital age, by the looming inevitability of open access (OA), and by the consequent consolidation of the companies acting as intermediaries. Agents are, therefore, (perhaps like publishers and librarians) fighting for their survival, and one part of that fight is to try to lead the discussion about what happens next.

This year's conference, which was held in London in February, focused on 'Transforming the Publishing Landscape'. The theme was addressed from both the publisher and the librarian perspective, with inclusion of the potential disruptions to come from OA. With over 25 speakers and panellists crammed into only one and a half days, there is only space here to cover some of the highlights.

The publishing landscape was initially surveyed in the opening keynote by Youngsuk ‘YS’ Chi, the chairman of Elsevier, who jetted in at the last minute, walking into the conference centre and straight up to the podium. He spoke of the need for publishers to be mindful not only of their traditions but also of the ‘new publishing ecosystem’ that is transforming their world, memorably illustrating this tension with Janus, the two-faced Roman god. In particular, he advised attention to five big opportunities for innovation: experiential content, social media, digital tools, big data and text mining. Finally, he left us with the ominous Churchillian warning: ‘This is no time for ease and comfort, it is time to dare and to endure’.

This introduction created a framework for the following session, examining the publisher perspective, with an inspiring contribution by Stephen Rhind-Tutt, president of multi-media publisher Alexander Street Press. He observed that there is a merging and mixing of the content, the media and the customers, which is being answered by a divergence of delivery mechanisms and a convergence of publishers and intermediaries. He enthused about the changes taking place and encouraged us to move forward, threatening us with 20th century process guru W Edwards Deming's gnomic remark: ‘It is not necessary to change; survival is not mandatory’.

Following this, Dan Tonkery, former EBSCO VP and Faxon president, showed the backward-looking face of Janus, reminding us of the ‘milk and honey years’ of scholarly publishing between 1970 and 1985, confirming his ancient-history eye-witness credentials by pointing out that he ‘has underwear older than many of the conference attendees’. He took us on a tour of the Merger Years (1986-1996) and the Golden Age of Consortia (1996-2006), and is currently optimistic that intermediaries have an opportunity for rebirth and growth.

Rob Johnson, founder of Research Consulting, brought us insights from his time as head of research operations at Nottingham University, explaining the external and operational costs of OA for institutions. He concluded by suggesting that agents could usefully provide systems and processes to facilitate transaction management, improve the author experience, streamline compliance management and promote the adoption of standard metadata and identifiers.

Chris Banks, who was appointed director of library services at Imperial College last year, guided the conference through the library's potential role in OA workflows, describing the Finch Report as ‘quite a big boulder in the pond of publishing’. She declared that having the library as the node connecting many academics with many publishers was not sustainable, at least not without the availability of effective systems, and the support of information aggregators and intermediaries.

Having heard the views of publishers and libraries, it was an interesting change to hear from outside our own little world; the conference programme inventively included a keynote on how the travel industry had responded to its own experiences of disintermediation. Kathy Misunas is a travel industry expert, having been CIO of American Airlines and CEO of Sabre. She was able to provide us with an historical perspective of her industry, inviting the audience to see the similar inevitabilities within our own world.

The lifecycle of intermediary roles, which have passed through service provider, sales agent, marketer (as airlines started going direct and eliminated sales commissions), and back to service provider was very familiar, and it was reassuring to see that our past and current pressures and responses were analogous in another industry. Typical adjustments in both marketplaces include: consolidation, diversification, specialisation and polarisation. This is followed by the search for new services and revenue sources, often funded by direct payments from downstream customers rather than invisible commissions from upstream suppliers.

The inevitable OA session included a pragmatic account of OA policies and practices by Ivy Anderson, director of collections at the California Digital Library. The presentation recognised the graduated range of opinions within institutions – ‘activists, sceptics, supporters and agnostics’. Meanwhile, Ralf Schimmer, director of the Max Planck Digital Library, spoke from the perspective of a research institution that is vigorously engaged in OA, calling for a ‘100 per cent collapse of the subscriptions model’, and showing the hyperbolic ‘disruptive innovation’ extrapolations from the David W. Lewis evangelical paper, ‘The Inevitability of Open Access’(2012).

Once the author and the reader are done, the archivists rush in to protect and preserve, and Peter Burnhill, from EDINA at the University of Edinburgh, was keenly supportive of ‘institutions with archival intent’, and of international and multi-institutional efforts, quoting the Cooper & Garcia-Molina declaration that ‘Digital information is best preserved by replicating it at multiple archives run by autonomous organizations' (2002).

As I observed in my rapid-fire conference summary, the many strange charts and diagrams presented showed, with artistic clarity, the untidy mess we are all in. It remains to be seen what the situation will be like for intermediaries by next year’s conference, when the importance of workflows will potentially be a central theme.

Mark Carden is a consultant in the scholarly publishing industry. He participated in organising the Association of Subscription Agents (ASA) meeting