Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity

In June of 2009, I gave what I consider my most important speech to date, at the Association of American University Presses' annual meeting. It was the last presentation in the last Plenary session of the meeting, and allowed me to talk about the two issues that matter most to me: saving scholarly publishing, and saving civilization. In 16 minutes.

My friend Paul Murphy, of RAND Publishing, took guerrilla video footage of most of the speech, and then edited my Powerpoint in, bless his heart. It is available below, via YouTube. (Thanks, Paul!)

The first minute of my introduction got missed, as you can read below (in italics), though for most people, that section won't matter much. The fulltext substance of the presentation is provided below for those of you who prefer to read along.

Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity -- Part 1 (

Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity -- Part 2 (

Most of you know me, or at least have heard me talk during the last twenty-plus years of AAUP meetings. I've tried to be, throughout that time, a pragmatic futurist. I've been lucky enough to be in positions that allowed me to find interesting publishing problems to try to solve, by identifying developing trends, and crafting solutions. Part of my schtick is to try to look ahead. I try to be an early warning system for scholarly publishing.

I was talking about the Internet pre-gopher, about digital publishing throughout the 90s, and about open access when it was barely a meme.

And over the last decade, I've been helping build the most successful open access book publishing experiment to date, at the National Academies Press. We get 1.5 million visitors a month to our fully open material, and we still haven't gone broke.

Today I'm going to take advantage of this plenary to address two of my key interests:

a) the survival of scholarly publishing, and
b) the survival of civilization.

You may think that that's a bit grandiose, perhaps even hubristically self-important.

But I really believe that we can save scholarly publishing.

On the survival of civilization?

(Note: Beginning of recorded material):

Well, two years ago, I and my best buddy, who lives 500 miles away from me, began a Web project documenting five likely global collapse scenarios, and one recovery scenario.

Species Collapse
Infectious Disease
Climate Chaos
Biology Breach
Resource Depletion

These days, we each spend about an hour a day, filtering through the news, and identifying three to six stories that document the reality of a society reaching multiple tipping points.

And then we try to deliver a punchline for each story.

[CLICK] -- single item

We're "humoring the horror of environmental collapse," trying to find a way to make the stark realities somehow more palatable, through humor and snark.

The reason? that I am unembarassed to do such unabashed self-promotion among my scholarly publishing tribe?

[CLICK (cloud)]

Because of what I have concluded, through collecting the 2800+ items, over the last two years -- these news items that we have noted, recorded, considered, and be-quipped.

I'm quite certain that what I've learned applies to scholarly publishing, and digital open access publishing.

Let me be clear: these are my personal conclusions, and by no means those of my employer.

The realities I see ahead of us, in the next ten to fifteen years, militate for some radical strategic choices, in the next three years.

I believe that we must shift our business models -- publicly, transparently, intentionally, thoughtfully, but radically -- to a digital one, with open access as the backbone of scholarly publishing. We must do this to survive a tremendously turbulent next decade, and to ensure that our mission, and its survival, continues to be fulfilled.

If you think open access is scary, listen to this:

[CLICK] -- peak oil

There is every likelihood that we are experiencing, or will in the next two years experience, what is called "peak oil." That's the moment when society has used up *more than half* of the easily pumped oil. At that point, extreme price volatility begins. The energy cost of extraction continues to grow. The supply decreases in relation to the demand.

So the price at every pump, for every machine, for every turning wheel and lightbulb, goes up. That means that publishers will suffer the serious burden of wildly volatile production and transportation costs of physical books. All physical systems become more expensive, leaving less money for everything.

We have today, and will have, a sucky stock market. One little-discussed phenomenon, associated with our debt-laden society:

The parents of the baby boomers will be dying over the next decade. The boomers themselves will inherit whatever stocks their parents owned, and will want to pay off their own debt by selling off their parents' stocks. In a supply-laden stock market, prices will drop.

The coming *commercial-property* collapse will be exacerbated by that trend.

Job losses will increase, as will the belt-tightening of the American people.

Public funding and private funding will dry up. Universities will be looking for places to axe. Library budgets will retreat. Fewer people, even scholars, will have extra income to pay for our publications. In ten years, we will be unlikely to be able to sell our print books, at the prices we'll have to charge.

That's not even the scariest part.

Humans are causing or contributing to a truly, deeply, fundamentally terrifying array of environmental collapses.

[CLICK] more Cloud

(Note: the following links each open in a new window/tab):

The great migrations themselves are becoming extinct, from salmon to elk to butterflies to tuna.

Bats in the Northeast are suffering catastrophically from white-nose syndrome, at die-off rates of 90%. Pollinators are suffering dramatically. Top-of-the-food-chain predators everywhere are collapsing. All marine mammals have high levels of PCBs, and flame retardants, and a broad array of other human-made toxins coursing through their bodies.

The waste-processed effluent from our cities contains the prozac and viagra and hormone replacement runoff, that we flush down the toilet, which makes fish hermaphroditic. That water mixes with the pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer runoff from our factory farms -- creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey at the base of the Mississippi, joining other dead zones around the world.

In between California and Hawaii there is a gumbo of plastic gyring in the Pacific that's at least the size of Texas. Plastic does not biodegrade, but breaks down into particles that fish consume.

And we have already overfished between 85 and 90% of the raw biomass out of the ocean in the last century, and every day, we continue to hoover up four times more ocean biomass than is reborn. "Peak ocean" happened a long time ago, but our ever-more-efficient factory fishing has let us ignore it.

Coal power belches heavy metals and incredibly massive amounts of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Let me just say: global warming is not a theory, it is a given.

But CO2 does something much worse. While we bicker with global-warming deniers, the ocean is getting more acidic. Excess CO2 plus ocean produces carbonic acid. Ocean acidification is a clear and present danger. A slight rise in acidity dramatically affects calcium-carbonate-based lifeforms, like most plankton, shellfish, and coral, the cornerstones of the ocean biosphere.

If humans do not drastically reduce our CO2 output in the next ten years, our rich, biodiverse ocean will become an acidic, jellyfish- and algae-filled cesspool, in our lifetimes.

If, over the next decade, humans continue doing what we have done for the last fifty years, then we will construct our own hell, and our grandchildren will curse our names.

.... I'm lots of fun at parties, these days.
Ok, now the good news.


By our actions we can help prevent it.

We don't have to do what we've done for the last fifty years.

But what we do -- publishing the intellectual output of the best minds of our generation -- matters to society.

[CLICK] - it matters

It matters, what we do: to ensure that even under this certain strife, society continues to enable an intellectual culture that supports the further development of intellectual culture.

[CLICK] -- HSS matters.

Scholarly publishing, like society, will be undergoing tremendous upheaval in the next decade, and beyond, and we -- we have a responsibility to society, to ensure that we are part of the discussion of how the new world is made.

How do we do that? Open access is the backbone of the solution.

We have been hearing throughout this conference about collaboration, cooperation, and new models of realigning ourselves.

I'm afraid, however, they're not radical enough, given the realities I've described.

[CLICK] -- more cloud

If I were king of American university press publishing? I'd say this:

Even if I'm only half-right about the economic, ecological, and environmental catastrophes I'm foreseeing -- and unfortunately, the term "faster than expected" keeps popping up in all these stories -- then we have a responsibility to change.

[CLICK] -- change

Change our relationship to CO2 and energy-intensive production. Change our sense of ourselves and what we do.

Change to what?

For as long as I've been in this business, the trend, among business-minded Press directors, has been to try to *distance* his or her press from its parent institution. To be its own business. Be distinct. Be separate. To control our own destiny and logo.

In this new world, that direction is a mistake. Today, and planning for the next decade? It's *crazy* to think that we can continue doing what we've been doing for the last fifty years.

We should strive to *cleave to* our parent institutions, not stay separate. We should find every way to publicly brand scholarly publishing, and *your* university's Press, and its value to scholarship, on campus.

University press publishing needs a new message. Perhaps that message is:


Scholarly publishing is a vital part of a larger scholarly communications system, and must be preserved. University Presses also recognize that we have a societal responsibility. We recognize that the lifecycle energy and CO2 costs of printing, shipping, storing, and distributing physical books must be radically curtailed.

To retain the qualities of scholarly communication, we'll radically shift, if you'll step up to the plate.

Does that mean giving up some control? Yes.

Does that mean collaborating more? Yes.

Does that mean innovating our way out of a failed system? Yes.

Does that mean embracing various forms of open access in exchange for institutional support? Yes.

Does that mean rethinking the economics, and the cost recovery systems, and the sustainability models of scholarly publishing, based on a collapsing physical world?


Within the context of a world in crisis, we *must* demonstrate that we're radically rethinking our relationship to the future. We must demonstrate that we are part of the solution, not part of the problem. We must seize initiative now, and start making changes as fast as we can.


Open access + digital publishing will help get us to a sustainable world, and keep us in the mix.


Imagine, in five years, a different income stream where 50% of your income comes from some kind of value-added digital sales, and 25% from print-on-demand, and 25% through institutional support of fixed costs. Dissemination and societal impact will increase 50x, because the material is openly available and promoted online.

With that kind of documented dissemination of scholarly value and University brand, to the broadest public, no dean would be motivated to cut the support that enables scholarship to thrive online. And, our CO2 production will be radically decreased.

We must develop a different model, because the print model is frankly unsustainable.


If we don't make these kinds of changes, we will be knowing participants in the death spiral. If we passively stumble along doing what we've been doing, tepidly experimenting with digital publishing and open access, our products will become


increasingly marginalized, our societal value increasingly questioned, our markets decreasing, and the price of production and distribution will not only be expensive, but will be abusive of an increasingly fragile environment.

Of course we must live in the market of today. Of course we must make the smartest business decisions we can, every day.

But we also need to be strategizing for our future. This next fifteen years will be not just complicated, but I think traumatic. If we want to survive, to carry on the ideals of what we hold true -- the missions of our respective Presses -- we must shift to a digital-primary publishing model *ahead* of the curve, instead of behind it.

In a world of an ever-growing surfeit of content and distraction, when the clamor of voices for simplistic solutions to systemic problems, we must:


Promote our value to society, to justify our continued existence.

Further, we must:


Brand ourselves as becoming part of the CO2 solution, to our adminstrators and institutions, as part of *their* external messaging campaigns

Brand ourselves with the public as a key part of a civilized world trying to save itself

Brand ourselves as rethinking our relationship to scholarly communication

Brand ourselves as quality in a sea of content, by being openly accessible digitally

Brand ourselves as promoters of intellectual rigor and quality, online

Lookit, finally?


Scholarly publishing's role in the world must be de-linked from print publication. The print book must become the exception, not the rule, as soon as possible.


Cheap everything, bought on credit, paid for by the future, is finished. Civilization will be paying for it for the next fifty years.

For the last fifty years, printing was merely the best way for us to perform our job.

What job was that?


Finding a way to have really smart people get paid enough to help produce a lush ecosystem of intellectual ferment of very, very high quality.

Please don't write me off as a doomer -- but I hope I've scared the hell out of you.

I don't say any of this lightly. I'm not an open access zealot. It's not a religious thing with me. As I've said over and over, in the end, open access is just a business model for fulfilling our mission.


But today, knowing what I know about the looming crises, it's a business model that is likely our only means of long-term survival.

University presses must rethink and recast our profiles within our institutions, we must insist on frank discussions with our provosts, deans, funders, departments, and representatives about how to restructure ourselves to dramatically reduce our carbon output, by radically restructuring our business models.

Not put us on the dole, but help underwrite the cost of making our material open access, so we can continue to enrich the intellectual environment we call scholarship, and also, perhaps, help save our world.

Websites referenced:
National Academies Press
Apocadocs: Humoring the Horror of Environmental Collapse

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Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity by Michael Jon Jensen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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