Twenty Years and Still Learning
Conceived in 1999, BioOne launched its first collection of 40 bioscience titles twenty years ago on April 2, 2001. The concept was transformative: BioOne created economies of scale for the publishers that contribute content and libraries that subscribe, with the goal to ensure sustainability for both. The entry price has been intentionally kept low to maximize access; meanwhile BioOne has returned over $58 million—an average of 65% of net revenue—to the publishing community.
To mark these two decades of service, I offer three lessons learned as BioOne has evolved and adapted to the social, economic, and technological forces that are transforming the scholarly communications ecosystem.
Analog or Digital
This story begins in the mists of time, when knights were valiant and paper was the coin of the realm. BioOne’s novel royalty-sharing model divided revenue from electronic subscriptions pro rata based on total pages and hits to those pages during the year. This money was regarded, however, as incremental to the sale of print journals. As the mists abruptly evaporated, it was clear by 2004 that subscribers and users not only preferred digital to analog, library budgets could no longer sustain both versions. Nor could BioOne’s incremental revenue replace the loss of print sales for its publishers.
The warning bells rang loudly as a few of the original journal cohort sought other publishing solutions. BioOne responded with a thorough review of its business model, devised a plan to raise subscription prices over a period of three years, and shared this news with its institutional subscribers. As a result, BioOne was able to return more money to its publishers without damaging its relationships with libraries.
Build or Buy
Since the advent of the Internet, scholarly publishers have grappled with whether to build or buy their technological services. There are advantages and disadvantages in either direction, which tend to vary with the prevailing technological trends.
Armed with $688K in “angel funding” from 123 library supporters and sponsors, BioOne launched on Allen Press’ proprietary platform. This system was designed with state-of-the-art SGML coding. Within four years, however, XML proved to be the more productive format to mark up text. This required retooling BioOne’s platform, plus a massive effort to recode all hosted content. As rapid changes in technology began to require increased investment, it soon became clear that working with a larger platform provider would be in BioOne’s best interest. In 2007, BioOne in partnership with Allen Press undertook a breathless year-long migration to Atypon System’s platform. This process benefitted from Portico’s generous assistance, and it afforded an opportunity to refine both BioOne’s mission and public image.
As publishing companies consolidated and costs continued to rise over time, BioOne once again considered its options. The time was right in 2018 to partner with the Society for Photonics and Optics (SPIE) that had invested in the “build” solution for its own purposes. In addition to achieving greater efficiencies, this move held for us a bonus: the opportunity to partner with a like-minded organization.
Churn and Retention
At the time BioOne began, the process of publishing on paper had not changed fundamentally since the 1440 invention of the printing press. In the three centuries following the creation of the scholarly subscription model in 1665, both producers and consumers gained a working knowledge of the scholarly publication enterprise. Financial profit was marginal, for the goal was primarily the distribution of scientific knowledge.
By the mid-1990s, commercial publishers had discovered lucrative profit margins in the scholarly market. Such relationships usually meant that the publisher lost control over many aspects of their publication. Thus, another impetus for creating BioOne was the need to provide an affordable means for bioscience publishers to retain control as they merged onto the very expensive digital highway.
Because BioOne was not designed to compete with for-profit options, some journals began to accept enticing offers from commercial publishers. Such churn came as a surprise and—frankly—a disappointment, for until this period publishers had tended to make only modest changes to their printing and distribution arrangements. Despite a bit of churn, we’re delighted to have welcomed many diverse titles to the BioOne community over the years. Now we number a proud 215 titles from 158 active publishers – quite a big club compared to our original 40.
Looking back, we’ve had many opportunities to learn similar lessons at each turn. As promised, here are BioOne’s three lessons:
- 1. The primary lesson learned was to think as a for-profit, but behave as a not-for-profit. This practical duality has served us well as we’ve adjusted our business model and pricing. Being honest and transparent with our publishers and libraries--particularly when facing the fiscal realities of sustainable scholarly communications in the 21st century – has remained a core value.
- 2. Offering our community a world-class platform looks quite different now than it did in 2001. Two platform migrations taught us to plan for 18 months of transition time, and to be prepared to invest in conversion and new standards. Budgeting for sleep is also highly recommended.
- 3. Finally, we look carefully beyond current practices and expectations towards the unexpected. No crystal ball is needed, just the willingness to periodically question how we do things, so that we can continue to serve the biosciences community.
In the next edition of BioOne News, I will share lessons BioOne has learned in its many experiments with offering open access.