Business titles challenge views from STM publishing

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There is plenty of talk about how STM publishers are embracing the online revolution – but they aren’t the only ones following this trend. We asked John Peters, chief executive of Emerald Group Publishing, for a social science perspective. Interview by Siân Harris

How did Emerald come about?

Nearly 40 years ago a group of colleagues at Bradford Business School started to take on consultancy work and formed a company called Management Consultants Bradford (MCB) to manage this work.

John Peters


A publication called Management Decision then came up for sale for £1 from the Thomson Group, and MCB decided to buy it. The company thought that it would be good to have its own journal to publish its own work and others. It then launched more journals and bought others, but continued to be run as a collective.

In the early 1980s the founders took the decision to resign their jobs at Bradford Business School and other universities, take on staff and run the business full time. That is when the company started on its serious growth phase and when some of our better-known journals were launched. Since that time the firm has restructured as the founding partners have left. It is still privately held but the shareholding is now down to one founding partner and the executive directors. The company has also renamed itself Emerald, after its main electronic product.

We have 170 journals and around 160 members of staff. We are still pretty well concentrated in Bradford, UK although we have sales offices in the USA, Japan, Malaysia, China and Australia. We are about to open one in India as well.

What is your subject focus?

Our focus is still very much on business management, with nearly 150 journals in this area, including around 20 library and information management journals. This really reflects the organisation’s foundation and culture. The company came from business academia, so that has been what people are comfortable with. I think we could focus on any subject area, but that does not necessarily mean that we should. We have a good relationship with business schools around the world.

We do, however, have around 16 engineering and materials science titles. In the mid-90s these journals came up for sale and we thought it would be an interesting development. There is some overlap between some of these titles and our management portfolio, but many of them are purely materials-science focused. They run pretty happily, renew well and they have enriched the company by making it more multidisciplinary. The social sciences tend towards an interdisciplinary approach much more than sciences. The way that we run our universities and publishing houses must learn from this.

The difference in subject matter in our journal portfolio does not cause problems because we take quite a process-based publishing approach. We believe that the trick with having a good journal is to have a good editor and stand behind them with a good process. We normally leave the editorial judgement to the editors and reviewers. All the editors are external, except for me – I like editing a journal because it allows me to still interface with authors.

What geographic trends are you seeing?

We recently launched a journal in the Baltic States, the Baltic Journal of Management. This is organised by the Baltic Management Development Association, BMDA, and run out of the biggest business school in Lithuania. In the longer term I think there is a market in Eastern Europe. Researchers from these countries are starting to want to get into more English-language publications, but find that the US scholarly market is largely closed for them. They are also keen to develop their own voice as part of the expanded EU and become more than just importers and consumers of knowledge.

China is big for us at the moment, as it is for everybody, and India is emerging too. Russia is somewhat behind these two but it is going to be a significant market too. When that happens there will be issues to address, such as what language journals should be published in.

What is your approach to electronic publishing?

Emerald Management Xtra holds all the organisation’s management journals.

We were one of the first publishers to digitise our content in the mid-90s and we did so in a way that I later learnt was quite interesting. Most publishers sell digital versions of their journals and offer subscriptions to the print versions, electronic versions or both. What we did in the early days was to say, 'here are our journals [in print] but here is our Electronic Management Research Library Database’ – or Emerald as we called it. We treated Emerald, which is an electronic collection of our primary published journals, as a completely separate product. Emerald had its own pricing and management structure.

Emerald Management Xtra holds all our management journals, but we offer different levels of participation. For example, we have a version with just 40 journals. This is a lower-priced, entry-level step on the ladder.

Emerald Management Xtra is also enhanced with online support materials for authors, researchers and deans, amongst others. These provide some thoughts about how to use the resources available. For example, we do selected collections of company cases for teachers and researchers and these come with hints on application that we have gathered from the community.

We have also been involved in a JISC-supported project to research the way that digital material in a library can work with digital learning material and technologies such as interactive white boards. I think that it is important that research resources and teaching resources do not develop in isolation from each other.

The digital versions of our articles go back to 1994 and some journals have older backfiles. We may digitise the other backfiles, but I am not sure at this stage. Much of the material in social science is quite discursive, so is not as appropriate for data mining as some of the hard science, technology and medicine journals.

I can see print and electronic journals coexisting for a long time. Some people like to keep the print journals alongside the electronic versions. Something like 25 to 30 per cent of our revenue comes from outside academia, and they seem to hold more store by the print versions.

What are your thoughts on open access?

Open access is a fascinating area but there are a number of real perils. Somebody has to pay unless people simply write stuff and then post it on the web, in which case it’s unregulated and unverified. Once you have a process, verification and maintenance then somebody has to pay. The prevalent market model has become that the customer pays. Another model might be that the government pays. A third model might be that the supplier pays and I have a real problem with this. It’s very mediaeval because it means restricting the supply of information to the wealthy. Eventually, suppliers will say: 'I’m paying £2,000 for this article and I’m going to make sure it’s published.’ How many publishers would really be in the position to refuse?

Regulated market capitalism tends to be the better way to run things. With the customer in the driving seat you get a better product. I would prefer for us to find ways to get information to the less wealthy. We sometimes make our material available to developing countries. I really want us to be part of what’s going on in the developing world. This is why we are investing in on-the-ground presence in China, India and the Baltic regions. We will continue to grow our portfolio in these areas.

The quality of debate that I hear around open access is poor. It is an area that deserves intelligent debate but people get very emotional about it. I think that there are also different attitudes between science and social science. The early open-access movement was almost a reaction to one or two big publishers who were quite monopolistic suppliers of the information that was essential for people to do their jobs. These scientific researchers had to say to librarians that they needed certain journals, whatever the price. That situation doesn’t happen in business management. Nobody is really going to say that they cannot do their job without the International Journal of Manpower. These are discretionary purchases, and so survival and prosperity in social sciences journal publishing is dependent on doing a good value job for your customers, not being lucky enough to be a monopoly supplier.

We run a nice business, look after our staff and our customers well and make good journals. We can do this because we are a successful business. I haven’t seen a coherent argument that open access can do it better.

What are your thoughts on self-archiving?

The primacy of intellectual property has to rest with authors. We should operate in a mutually supporting way and we would not stop an author self-archiving. You cannot stop institutions doing some level of institutional collections of materials because they always have done. The institutional repositories are more likely to get a backlash from the authors themselves than from publishers. The idea that an institution owns somebody’s intellectual property because they are on their payroll is going to be challenged.

What are your predictions for the future?

We are going into an increasingly online world and it is changing in ways that are really exciting. I love the idea of what we can do with technology in terms of learning dissemination and outreach into remote places through schooling. I also love the idea of online communities. You can actually develop ideas, in real time, with people who are 6,000 miles away.