Transcript: Publishing’s New World

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Interview with Caroline Sutton

For podcast release Monday, January 20, 2014

KENNEALLY: In scholarly publishing adoption of an Open Access business model entirely redraws the map. All at once, customer service for authors swells from the tiny island to continental proportions. Rivers of subscription revenue may run dry, but they are replaced with countless dreams of article processing charges.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. The Swedish based cofounder of an exclusively Open Access publishing house has some lessons to share in this new publishing geography. Caroline Sutton of Co-Action Publishing joins me today from her office in Oslo, Norway. And welcome to Beyond the Book, Carline.

SUTTON: Hi, Chris. Thank you very much for inviting me.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re looking forward with a discussion with you. We’ll tell people briefly about your background. Caroline Sutton is publisher and cofounder of Co-Action Publishing, an Open Access scholarly publishing house based in Scandinavia with a portfolio of scholarly journals spanning a range of subject areas. Caroline served as the first president of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, and now is chair of OASPA’s Policy Committee. She holds a Ph.D. from Uppsala University in Sweden.

And Caroline, Co-Action was founded in 2007 as one of the first Open Access scholarly publishing houses. It’s quite a new approach when it comes to scientific publishing, and scholarly publishing. What are you attempting to do? What is Co-Action trying to be, and what do you want to become, and frankly, what do you not want to become?

SUTTON: Well, it’s interesting when you say that this is quite a new approach, because I suppose for us, we’ve been doing this since 2007, and so it seems like a long time long, even though it’s gone quite quickly. But, of course, it is still new for a lot of people, and certainly, still quite new for some subject areas.

When we started Co-Action in 2007, then it really, really was new, there was only six other publishers that we could count that were working with Open Access publishing at that time. Some of the known, large figures like BioMed Central, Plus, Copernicus, for example.

But what we really wanted to do was, we wanted to – we, myself and my two partners, we saw that there was a real opportunity here. That things were changing. And we that the group that we were currently working for wasn’t interested in that change at that time. But we thought this could be extremely exciting.

At the same time, we were looking to create a company that was perhaps a bit smaller scale, so that we could really get focused to our partners, those we worked with. So I named Co-Action, built on this idea that we wanted to act together with those that we were working with. Those authors, but also if we were publishing on behalf of societies, etc.

So while we’re still growing, we have almost 40 titles today, that’s still quite small in the broader market of scholarly publishing and in comparison with to other publishing houses. So our goal has not necessarily been to be the biggest, but we would like to grow those journals that we do have. We’d like to reasonably add journals to our portfolio as we feel that it’s comfortable to do so and that they fit for us.

KENNEALLY: I hope we’ll get a chance to find out about the kinds of new journals that you’re looking to include in Co-Action’s portfolio. And I’m looking at an announcement here from September that the Journal of European Continuing Medical Education joined Co-Action Publishing at that time. Give us an idea of the types of publications that are now coming from Co-Action.

SUTTON: Like many Open Access publishers, the majority of our titles are within medicine or biomedicine. We do have a few journals that are in the social sciences. We also have a few that in the humanities, so we’re kind of testing new areas that have otherwise been overlooked by some of the other publishing companies.

But we’ve had kind of a mix of our – if you look at our overall portfolio, we have quite a number of new journals that we’ve launched together with societies or with a group of potential editors that came to us with an idea. And we also have a number of journals that have transitioned from a subscription model and wanted to move to Open Access that have moved to us, from some of the legacy publishers. And the Journal of Continuing European Continuing Medical Education, JECME, we say, is one of those examples of a journal that’s moved to us from another publishing house.

And it was one that didn’t necessary want to continue to work with Open Access, and so this group came to us and said, we’re wanting to still try to grow this journal and develop it, and would you be interested? And they were talking to a few other groups as well at the time, but then chose to continue with us. So we just have them on board now for a couple of months.

KENNEALLY: R. Well, it’s interesting in that particular case, and I know that there are a few others where you got publications that have come from legacy publishers moving to an Open Access model. How difficult is that transition to manage, and what are the kinds of things Co-Action has learned about that transition that you want to share with our audience?

SUTTON: We are seeing more and more – and often these are society titles, of course, because societies own their journal, and they have a contract with publications. And we’re seeing that more and more societies are taking a look at their journal and feeling the need to consider whether or not they should be looking at an Open Access solution.

And today, I would say those that have moved to us kind of fall into one or two categories. One is these were journals that were owned by groups or societies that are perhaps small-to-medium size. So these aren’t the journals that were making the largest amounts of monies. And in fact, it may have been a journal that the main bulk of money came from the society, because they were paying for their subscriptions for their members. So they’re taking a look and trying to consider should we instead use that money to pay for Open Access, rather than use that money to pay for member subscriptions.

In other cases, it’s been journals that actually were struggling as a subscription journal. Subscriptions were declining, perhaps declining fairly rapidly. And they felt, hey, maybe this is a time to actually try something that’s a little bit more radical for us, and test out Open Access. And we have a few cases where those journals are doing quite well under an Open Access model.

KENNEALLY: And Open Access is, you say, is to move away from subscription as a way to fund the work involved, typically towards something called article-processing charges and various other kinds of author-paid fees.

So, you know, on the one hand, Open Access makes it look as if the price of a journal article is merely zero or zero. But, in fact, you point out that there are costs associated with scholarly publishing, and so therefore one needs to raise funds somehow. If you give up that subscription model, you have to move somewhere.

Talk about that issue, how zero is inevitable as a price for access, but why there are costs which simply don’t go away, and which must be reckoned with in any case.

SUTTON: Right. So there’s sort of several things I think that relate to this issue and this question. One thing is that I think that we in general as publishers have not been very good at articulating what we actually do. So when new online tools came, it seemed as if oh, well, anybody can do that. We can now download software. We can do this because publishers really don’t do all that much.

And I hear this comment quite regularly actually at conferences when I meet with researchers.

So I think that part of it was when we – in a subscription world, and if you think about what we charge for is what we’re selling. Right? We have to sell something to get in money.

And in a subscription world, you’re selling access, so we’re charging for the access. In an Open Access world, obviously, we’re not charging for access, so we have to really rethink what is it that we’re delivering. What is it that we’re asking people to pay for? Be that through an article process you charge that typically isn’t being to be paid personally by an author. It’s typically from their funding agency or from their institution, but it may also be, as in the case with some of our journals, it’s a society paying us to do the job to do it, or an institution. But we have to think about what is it we’re actually providing them with and what are we selling.

And the other thing is, and I think you might be referring to an article that I wrote for the College and Research Libraries News, where I talked about this issue about free.

I think there was also something that took place when we moved online. Because as we know, the default cost of things we find online is typically zero. And just before I had written that article for that journal, I’ve read Chris Anderson’s book free, and it got me to thinking about what does that mean for Open Access and for scholarly publishing.

Because what he points out is if you take a look and you think on terms of Bertrand economics, that would suggest that in a competitive market, the price of goods would be moving towards the marginal cost of producing an additional good. Well, today, online, a byte cost us – is next to zero. So that sort of says that if you were to apply those rules of economics, everything should be zero.

But of course, we do have costs. We have a lot of costs, because we actually – and this comes back to my point that we as publishers needs to do a better job of articulating what do we do. You know, on the editorial side, we work together, either with this society together with the editors to try and develop the journal, think about how the content should be developing, what directions we might take. If it’s a new journal, how do we really get this role and how do we get it moving.

KENNEALLY: We’re chatting right now with Dr. Caroline Sutton, publisher and cofounder of Co-Action publishing based in Oslo, Norway. And, I guess, in your view then the answer to this question about what is it that we do as publishers is really, frankly, to compete for authors. And so, I guess I have to ask you about what Co-Action is doing to provide authors with the kinds of services that are going to bring them into your journals, make sure that they have a satisfying experience, and keep them in that stable.

SUTTON: Right. So, you’re right. Competition today really is around the authors and about attract – it’s always been around attracting good content, obviously. But today that’s also many cases where we make our money.

So for us, it’s – on the one hand it is – what we do is obviously we’re publishing articles. But within an Open Access content, there’s sort of more to that. And certainly for us at Co-Action, there’s more to that.

So when we have an author publish with us at Co-Action Publishing, we measure ourselves on the type of feedback we get from authors after they’ve published their article. We count the number of e-mails we get every week with authors saying this was one of the best experiences I’ve had publishing with you, or I really appreciated that you did this, or you really went the extra mile. We really want them to feel like they were taken care of when they came to us, and that we saw them.

So we’ve actually created a workflow specifically said that they’re in contact with the single person throughout the process and feel like we’ve taken care of them and seen them. And then after that and beyond, what I think is also really critical. And what we really do as Open Access publishers, is it’s not about controlling access to the content, but it’s actually about getting it out there as far and as wide as possible.

So another part of my service to them, because I work with the marketing and promotion of our journals, is I need to be constantly conscious of all of the possible outlets where these articles could be.

So for a single journal, I need to know what are all the possible forums where that journal could be discovered. Or is everyone who could have access getting access to it. Because once it’s free, it’s sort of like Google. If it can be everywhere, it should be everywhere.

So part of my job is to try to get that everywhere. Because it’s not really enough to just put it out there and you have free access to it, but because you can also reuse the stuff that’s out there under Creative Commons License that we use, I want to make sure people that are both finding it and they’re reusing it. And that we’re seeing exciting stuff is happening downstream.

And I do try to find out if something exciting is happening that I can report that back to authors as well.

KENNEALLY: Right. And what’s going to drive reuse, of course, is quality. It’s not simply making something available for the sake of its self. Because what you published is going to have real value in the field, or in research beyond the immediate field, and to applications that people wouldn’t have expect in the first place.

SUTTON: Yes. That’s right. And related to that, we’re actually developing some initiatives that we’ll announce later next year that are really focused about how we can make this even more visible in terms of quality.

We know the people publish with us experience quality, but we also know there’s a lot of stuff out there today that isn’t quality, and so we need to do a better job of communicating that to the wider community about the quality that we stand for and what’s happening at Co-Action Publishing.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. And you know Co-Action is looking for proposals for new journals, I understand, and so, tell us about the kinds of things you are looking for. What’s been successful with you in the past? And what kind of areas would you like to go into in the future.

SUTTON: Sure. In sort of a general way, what we typically do us if there’s a proposal, if there’s something we see, the first question we ask ourselves are we excited about it? Because, as a small company, we really need to be choosy.

So, we first ask are we excited about it. Number two, do we feel we can truly make a contribution. I mean, do we have something very special and unique that we can contribute that’s going to make this successful. And are the people involved people that we feel speak the same language as us, truly work together well.

And then, beyond that obviously, we want to make sure is this something that can be financially viable, at keas in a reasonable amount of time.

Right now, we’re really building up a portfolio around public health issues. We have a number of titles. Our longest running is Global Health Action, but we also have a journal on Infection Ecology and Epidemiology, Emerging Health Threats, and several other titles.

So we’re looking to build up around that. We’re also building up – now obviously, we’re in the Nordic area, so we have a small cluster that’s building up around artic – artic and polar titles. Also we’ve got Social Science of Humanities, and we are looking at investigating further how we can build up some of those areas. And also, around education. We’ve got several titles now that are related to education. Two titles on medical education, and then three in general education.

So we’re starting to sort of see what we think we think that we’re getting to be really good at, and where we feel we do make a good contribution.

KENNEALLY: Right, and you mentioned those artic studies journals. It’s interesting to think about. Scholarly publishing has had two real centers for a number of years. Of course, in the UK, where probably scholarly publishing began, and here in the United States as well.

SUTTON: Right.

KENNEALLY: What’s it like to be on the edge of all that. To be based there in Oslo, Norway, with partners throughout Scandinavia. Does that make a difference? Does that make it easier or is it more difficult?

SUTTON: Well, you know, it’s really interesting, because we launched our company from my partner’s summer place outside of Stockholm on a lake, watching a moose walk by. Right?

And we actually thought initially – we had worked in international publishing house. We’re use to working international. But we did think that initially the societies we worked with would be probably Scandinavian based. Our editors would be Scandinavian based.

But in fact, while we do have a large number that are that, we actually have editors all over the world today. Quite a number in the United States and Canada, Japan, all over Europe.

So it’s interesting that this being virtual and, in fact, all of our staff work from home offices. So it was really a matter of when we launched our company, we were really able to embrace the opportunities that were there at the time of not just Open Access, but also everything that the digital and virtual environment could give us, that obviously would be very difficult if we’ve been in an already established large publishing house to try and change gears.

And I think it’s also been exciting because there have been certain things from the Nordic region that have become very well known, like the Directory of Open Access Journals, DOAJ, that was based here. So there was initially a really good Open Access conference that was based at Lund University for many years that was sort of the Open Access gathering place, in particular for the few publishers that were involved.

So oddly enough, it was actually kind of a good place to be.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, and you know, certainly with the digital environment, it really doesn’t matter where you are as long as you can reach the people you’re trying to reach. And so being there in Oslo has it’s own advantages.

And it’s quite interesting indeed. And to think about the future, how big would you like to grow? You were saying that there was a certain pride in being small, or at least being agile, but you would like to see this company grow all the same, I’m sure.

SUTTON: Right. I kind of have an idea. We kind of have an idea in mind that maybe we’ll grow to around 100 titles, but it’s not something that we’ve put on paper. There’s some people, that’s sort of their strategy is just grow. And for us, it’s more about – our strategy is more about how do we develop quality products at a pace, and with the correct partners, so that we continually are able to provide that level of service that we’re able to provide today.

And we do think we can grow beyond what we are today. But we need to do it in a managed way, so we’re not just growing for the sake of growth. Because that doesn’t mean we necessarily have a better profit margin, but that we’re growing in a very intelligent way.

So maybe down the road we’ve grown fairly quickly I’d say, if you look over – even though we’re not as big as others, but we about double the number of articles we’re publishing every year.

So maybe you’ll see us with a hundred journals down the line in a few years’ time for instance.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’ll wish you the best of luck with that particular ambition. We’ve been chatting today with Dr. Caroline Sutton, who is publisher and cofounder of Co-Action Publishing, an Open Access scholarly publishing house based in Scandinavia, and she’s spoken with us today from her office in Oslo, Norway. Dr. Sutton, thanks for joining us on Beyond the Book.

SUTTON: Thank you so much for having me on the program, Chris. Really appreciate it. I enjoyed it.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and ebooks, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at the Copyright Clearance Center website: Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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