Subscription Publishing is the Hotel Industry. Science needs Airbnb.

Lenny Teytelman Feb 04, 2015

I just re-read “Dragging scientific publishing into the 21st century” (Razib Khan, Laurie Goodman, David Mittelman. Genome Biology 2014, 15:556). It ends with:

Should publishers continue to do business-as-usual, then they will (and frankly should) become dinosaurs, while younger, more innovative and more robust communication venues take the lead. The publishing industry as it is constituted today is doomed to extinction. That isn’t an ‘if’. It’s a ‘when’.

The more I deal with subscription publishers, the more I am convinced that they are trapped in a business model that basically dooms them to the extinction predicted in the above article. The publishers know what is coming, but they are almost powerless to do anything except resist the change. That’s because, as I recently wrote, their business model is intrinsically anti-Science. Moreover, just as Uber to the taxicab industry and Airbnb to the hotels, the organizations trying to innovate in scholarly communication are directly threatening the very existence of the Corporate Subscription Publisher.

Science publishing today is tedious and demoralizing. It’s a war that leaves the authors tired and angry. The system we have wastes precious research dollars; it delays and undermines science. It’s begging for change, and luckily, much is happening to improve it. Let’s take a look at the major areas of innovation in scholarly communication and the actors involved (spoiler: 1 of the 25 mentions below is from a publisher; 13 are startups, 7 non-profits, 1 government, and 3 corporate non-publisher). To me, in no particular order, the key ingredients for fixing the mess we have include:

  • Open access
  • Open peer review
  • Post-publication reviews/discussion/annotation
  • Improved discovery of research knowledge
  • UX upgrade for reading, writing and submitting research
  • Article-level metrics
  • Instant publishing and sharing


Open Access

Governments, funding agencies, PLOS, Librarians, universities, several non-profits (this category is somewhat unfair to the subscription publishers, so I won’t include it in the totals)

Open peer review

Post-publication reviews/discussion/annotation

Improved discovery of research knowledge

UX upgrade for reading, writing and submitting

Article-level metrics

Instant publishing and sharing


So my formal prediction is that the innovation will come from the organizations above. Some publishers will die. Some will evolve by buying the startups. Some of the publishers will be bought by the startups of today and tomorrow. But publishers have not innovated truly for centuries, they are not innovating today and they won’t. That’s okay. We shouldn’t blame the publishers for failing to improve science communication any more than we should blame Hilton for not starting Airbnb. But I must admit that working hard to make these publishers extinct feels very very good.


Note 1: I wrote this in part for the new group on Science Communication & Publishing, started by David Mittelman, one of the authors of the above article. Please join that group and contribute to the discussion.

Note 2: Like a research review article, I know this post will invariably upset the people that I should have and didn’t mention. This is not an exhaustive list. I apologize deeply in advance. Please make a comment below and I will try to fill in the gaps.

Note 3: I know there is a rather liberal sprinkling of up there. But also kind of silly to take out our platform from the areas it is designed to improve. I excluded the extra mentions from the counts.


The standard problem with categories is that you always end up with elements that are outside of the sets you defined. This is especially true when dealing with innovation. My copout solution is the "other great companies" below.

Other Innovators

  • Research Square (not only doesn't fit into the above - the organization type itself is unique: for-benefit corporation; go read more on them, they incubated fanstastic solutions for science communication)
  • Rubriq (for-benefit, supported by Research Square above)