If you are looking for an authoritative take on the history of the scholarly publishing business, there are few with more authority than John J. Regazzi. His career has spanned over four decades, including eight years as CEO of Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher. After his retirement in 2005, Regazzi became dean of the college of information and computer science of Long Island University and professor and director of the Scholarly Communications and Information Innovation Lab at LIU, where he wrote his most recent book, Scholarly Communications: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker (Rowman & Littlefield), which traces the development of scholarly communications and the first scientific journals through the rapidly advancing digital age. The book comes at a fascinating point in scholarly publishing history, with the rise of open access. Regazzi talked with us about the shifting landscape of scholarly publishing.
The book’s subtitle is intriguing: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Well, the book was envisioned as a history of scholarly communications, and there was a long-held belief when I joined the field, more than 40 years ago, that if you had the “right” or “must have” content, you could build a strong scholarly publishing business—content was king. Then, with the advent of online platforms and powerful Internet search engines, the prominence of content was challenged. For many, search became king, and content was seen more as a commodity. Today, I think it is clear that neither content nor technology alone can build a successful scholarly communication enterprise. Technology is essential in developing viable scholarly and information services, but without good content at the foundation, those services are limited. Thus, I think of content now as the kingmaker, because even if you have strong technology, you need great content to have a viable scholarly publishing enterprise.
At a London Book Fair panel discussion I attended this year, the panelists observed how especially complex the scholarly communication business is at this moment in history. One noted that libraries today are increasingly expected not only to buy and catalogue materials but also to help publish and even fund open-access fees for faculty—seemingly an impossible task. How do you see the current environment?
Yes indeed, there is a lot going on, and all types of institutions are struggling to keep up—libraries, publishers, technology companies, and others. I see a number of overarching questions, including the most basic question of where we put all this content. Do we continue to collect it in traditional scholarly sources such as journals and monographs, or institutional repositories, aggregator platforms, and so forth? I think there are best practices emerging, but I am concerned about how we balance investments in the production of scholarly information with the need to disseminate it widely as possible. As the panel you point out suggests, the toughest question may be how to fund this all. Open access, for all of its values, does place increasing demands on research institutions to fund scholarly communications. And as government regulators and other funding agencies move toward requiring public access to taxpayer and grant-funded research, again, for all of the advantages that brings, I am concerned that these policies will make it too hard for commercial and society publishers to recover their investments. I would not call it an impossible task, but figuring out how to fund our system of scholarly communication is one of the most challenging issues facing scholarship today, and an issue around which there’s little clarity going forward.
You went from leading the biggest scholarly publisher in the world, at a critical juncture, to a life in academe. I have to ask about that transition—has your thinking on scholarly communications changed from your days running a major commercial scholarly publishing business, to now studying a scholarly communications field that you helped transform?
You know, I had not thought about my own transition until you asked. I enjoy being in the classroom, and I find the graduate students I work with to be focused, dedicated, and—despite the “crass capitalist” reputation I might bring—willing to hear my thoughts as well as to engage me in discussion on matters that concern them. While I am no longer a player, this appointment provides me the opportunity to engage with some companies and individuals that I like very much, and I do find myself at times coaching or just cheering from the sidelines. And I now have the luxuries of my own time and thoughts.
Still, I remain, without question, a big proponent for a market-driven information economy. I believe in the benefits of a free and open scholarly communications marketplace. And I am concerned about the increasing levels of government and quasigovernment regulations in the industry, and the unintended effects these policies may have on the costs and quality of our scholarly communications system, a system that is world renowned and I believe needs to be cherished, preserved, and continually innovated.
What trends or turning points in scholarly communications today are you especially keeping an eye on?
The most obvious turning point in scholarly publishing history was the market demand for and the transition to digital content, but I would say the most challenging and potentially major change, fueled by digital technology, is happening right now: data mining. For example, today’s medical information systems can leverage a multitude of scholarly research and content into patient-care systems to better advise health-care providers of some on their clinical decisions. Similarly data analytics are deriving value from across diverse bodies of content, and in so doing allowing scholars and practitioners to see trends and gain insights that were previously unavailable, or available only with significantly more time and effort. Leveraging technology and scholarly content as a broad, robust body of literature, either for a specific application or for insight into broader trends, is to me a seminal turning point for the field.