Flourishing from complexity

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With the rise of the internet changing this industry beyond recognition, scientific publishing is becoming more complex. Siân Harris found out why this could make the agent's role more important than ever

'Only two groups are really secure in their roles in the publishing supply chain and they are the authors and the users,' believes Ian Middleton. 'Everybody else's role is less certain.' This view comes from working for one of the two biggest subscription agents in the industry.

Middleton is vice-president and general manager of the UK office of EBSCO Information Services, a business that brings together three parts of EBSCO � its online and print subscription business, its database business and its publisher services. He says bringing these parts closer together is a crucial step in responding to the trends in the industry: 'Libraries are now seeing less and less difference between these areas and many of the traditional boundaries are no longer appropriate. The term subscription is becoming less significant. Instead, librarians manage information.'

Adjusting the roles can lead to some complicated relationships in the publishing industry. Companies might compete in one part of their business, but collaborate in another. For example, MetaPress, which is EBSCO's content hosting company, competes with other services like Ingenta because both offer third-party website hosting to publishers, such as Springer Science+Business Media in the case of MetaPress, in much the same way as journal printing is usually outsourced to a printing firm.

The complexity increases when you consider that EBSCO also acts as a subscription agent for these and other journals publishers. When putting together subscription packages for customers, as EBSCO's agent business does, there can be no bias about whether the publisher of a particular set of journals has hosted those journals on MetaPress, Ingenta or even on Extenza, which is the publisher services wing of EBSCO's big subscription agent rival, Swets. 'Hosting doesn't give us any rights to repackage,' Middleton said. 'The only rights we have are those that have been allowed by the publisher � so Extenza gets exactly the same service from EBSCO as MetaPress or Ingenta does.'

This may sound complex, but it is this complication that emphasizes the clear-cut role for a company like EBSCO, Middleton says. 'We could argue as agents that there is value in having such a complex business,' he pointed out. 'We have to simplify and add value, and we do this by bringing order and economies of scale.'

From print to online
How this is achieved was clearly defined for the print world, but has the rise of the internet simplified or complicated matters? 'In many respects our role has not changed greatly,' Middleton said. 'There are still millions of little transactions needed to manage the way users obtain content.'

But the details of these transactions are different when you move from print to online. For example, EBSCO must now concern itself with issues such as authentication and IP addresses, and this has required a shift in strategy. 'We have developed our own e-resource life cycle definition and have developed a range of services to add value at each stage,' Middleton explained.

This life cycle contains five stages � acquisition, access, administration, support and evaluation � which are essential for every electronic resource. 'We see it as our aim to simplify these for our customers,' Middleton said. For example, issues such as registration services, adding URLs to catalogues and transferring IP addresses are tackled as part of the access part of the life cycle.

EBSCO Information Services offers three core e-journals services to help simplify the life cycle. The first tool, EBSCOhost Electronic Journals Service, provides a portal to 10,700 journals and 5.3 million articles. It provides management, alerting, branding and pay-per-view services, which Middleton highlighted as a growing area at the moment.

Next on Middleton's list is EBSCO A-to-Z, which is a title listing service. This is a gateway for libraries to list all their e-journals. EBSCO's role in this is to maintain all the title lists, whether the title information comes from EBSCO's databases or other ones such as Ovid or ProQuest, and maintain the URLs. This would be a time-consuming task for individual libraries, but EBSCO is already monitoring and collecting this information for a range of services, so it can do it more easily. This service helps the librarian and the patron, bcause they now have only one place to go to see a complete list of titles.

The third tool is called LinkSource. This is an open-URL link resolver and a competitor to the likes of SFX. This links references to full texts of articles that are hosted elsewhere. 'Open URL is a very important component of the online world,' pointed out Middleton.

Apart from the details of these new products and initiatives, one of the most significant actions of EBSCO in recent years was when it picked up the pieces of the third big subscription agent, RoweCom, which collapsed last year. 'We got involved because we felt it was good for us, and we felt it was good for the market,' Middleton said. 'We're pleased with the level of renewals and with the customers who have remained with EBSCO. This indicates a high level of service satisfaction with those customers, which is ultimately our goal.'

More changes ahead
Although the ripples of the RoweCom collapse have started to settle, there are still plenty more changes on the horizon. 'This is a fast-moving industry,' Middleton commented. One of the biggest disruptors is open access. 'It's definitely growing, and we provide access to a number of open-access journals,' he said. 'At the moment, we are watching very closely what is going on.'

This is a wise approach for the whole industry, because a number of different open-access models are being tested and which ones win will have a major effect on all the companies in the supply chain. 'It's difficult to see where we might operate in some of the open-access models,' Middleton conceded, but he promised that EBSCO would still be there: 'There will still be millions of background transactions.' He is also confident that publishers will be able to adjust to open access. 'The publishing industry has shown itself to be quite adaptable,' he pointed out.

One example of this adaptability is the emergence of the pay-per-view pricing model for article retrieval. 'The barrier to offering pay-per-view services has been availability, but more and more publishers are now offering it,' said Middleton. He believes that it has benefits for publishers to reach new audiences. However, there can also be the downside of users only paying for one article rather than subscribing to a whole issue. 'In corporate environments, we are seeing an increasing trend towards users paying for what they use,' Middleton said.

If this does happen, then it will serve as a reminder that the users rather than the less secure intermediaries in the supply chain often set the pace for the industry. 'Users increasingly want ease of access,' Middleton said. And there is another influence on the industry that does not have a direct involvement in the supply chain. That is the role of governments and national bodies. We have already started to see a growing interest from governments in the issues of open access and journals pricing. 'Government involvement is appropriate when issues of monopolistic pricing apply,' said Middleton.

Another external factor is the requirements of voluntary and legal deposit agreements where publishers are increasingly being required to put their electronic resources in national libraries. And institutions such as universities are increasingly setting up their own repositories for articles and other materials that have been published there. 'This is an issue about archiving into perpetuity. Fair use and copyright issues still apply. We will sell articles to whoever has the licence to distribute them,' he commented.

Meanwhile, as methods of distributing content and the players involved become blurred, the concept of content itself is also becoming blurred. 'We talk increasingly about e-resources rather than e-journals,' Middleton said.

Undoubtedly there is plenty going on to keep companies like EBSCO on their toes, but Middleton is confident about the outcome. 'In 1998/1999, there was less than $4 million of e-business worldwide in the publishing industry but by 2003 this had shot up to well over $0.5 billion,' he said. He believes this trend will continue, and predicts that by about 2008, around 75 per cent of journals business will be electronic.