Disrupting journals

Recently, Joe Esposito pointed me to a thought-provoking blog post by Michael Clarke that asked, “Why hasn’t scientific publishing been disrupted already?”

Clarke parses the history and the evolution of scientific publishing to explain the five core functions of scientific journals:

  • Dissemination of ideas and information
  • Registration of discoveries
  • Validation (peer review of the idea or discovery)
  • Filtration
  • Designation (validation of the author)

He invokes Clay Christensen’s work to argue that the latter three functions have not been disrupted by the internet because they are deeply entrenched, cultural functions. On this front, I am not so sure.

Christensen’s work describes two types of technologies: sustaining, and disruptive. Sustaining technologies help make things better, incrementally. I’d argue that the internet, as a whole, is a sustaining technology for all of the core functions of scientific journals. It helps make the prevailing model of dissemination, registration, validation, filtration and designation work better.

At their inception, disruptive technologies deliver significantly lower functionality than the prevailing model requires. At the end of his post, Clarke identifies two technologies that may qualify as disruptive: semantic applications that improve delivery and search; and mobile technologies that improve access (notably, this includes access in regions that would never have seen a traditional journal).

While Clarke does not specifically use the term “sustaining”, it underpins his arguments on how the advent of the internet has affected scientific publishing. However, I think he misses an aspect of Christensen’s work that would better explain why journals persist.

In Christensen’s estimation, disruptive technologies start by addressing smaller markets that are either over-served or not served at all by existing products. Those opportunities are typically unattractive to firms serving market leaders.

Over time, the small firms that embrace disruptive technologies grow larger by serving niche or previously unattended customers. Robustness of the new technology improves quickly, often at lower margins than the traditional businesses. In time, these technologies don’t necessarily replace the standard model, but they do replace the traditional market leaders in the new models.

I very much appreciate the clarity of Clarke’s analysis, and I agree that the traditional journal model is unlikely to be replaced wholesale in the near term. We may differ on the reason why. I’d argue that the internet is a sustaining technology that makes the traditional model work incrementally better. The incumbents will continue to own that model.

Potentially disruptive technologies, like semantic applications and mobile access, likely won’t replace journals, but they may well address markets that will be owned by firms not currently seen as significant entities in the journal space. As the existing journal model erodes (at whatever rate), traditional publishers may find it hard to migrate to new markets. That’s the impact of disruptive technologies.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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