New scientist regains independence

New Scientist has announced in its 20 May 2017 issue that it has returned to independent ownership having been owned by Reed Business Information since the early 1970s. It has been bought by Kingston Acquisitions which the FT describes as an “investment vehicle” and which previously led the acquisition of the Times Educational Supplement (TES) in 2013.

In recent years some of my more academic colleagues said New Scientist had dumbed down its content too far for their liking. This may be true to an extent, and can spoil a good read, but there’s a balance and it does also depend on who New Scientist wants to have for its audience.

Striking this balance is not always easy, but it’s clear that New Scientist doesn’t aim to be as high-brow as Nature or the AAAS’s Science magazine. My own feeling is that it does a pretty good job in the breadth of its coverage and choice of feature articles and that if it can attract readers – including young readers – who might otherwise hesitate to pick up a science-themed journal, then that in itself is a Good Thing.

It’s probably also quite a good time to go independent as the Open Access debate continues to trundle on. Universities still hesitate as they face the annual dilemma of whether to renew their costly contracts with the large academic journal publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley, while open access journals and platforms are still debating what constitutes a truly workable open access business model and have to tackle the added nuisance of rogue open access journals and platforms which may sound good, but aren’t properly vetted or managed.

It’s clearly complicated and therefore very slow progress (I went to a dinner at the Royal Society about 15 years ago dedicated to discussing Open Access and while there’s definitely been progress, not a huge amount has changed). The above issues don’t help the Open Access cause – and I’d venture to suggest that, although rebelliously appealing, in truth, neither do sites like Sci-Hub. Maybe the individual researcher feels indignant enough towards the expensive publishers that the risk is worth the diving in, but this kicks up clouds of muddy confusion in the copyright waters and doesn’t really solve anything. It also doesn’t help business users as I wouldn’t advocate taking such action since they really don’t want the CLA (Copyright Licensing Agency) knocking at their door if they’ve been tempted into illegal downloading, however justified a protest action it might seem.

All this is part of the reason why the large publishers still exist in their current format. True, many of them have added a number of open access articles to their collections with the option to publish for open access, but this seems to be quite a small percentage of the content and is costly for the author. For example, publishing what Springer terms “Open Choice articles” on their platform involves an open access publication fee of US$3000/€2200 (excluding VAT). Not sure that’s going to catch on in a very big way!

Going independent also bucks the trend of consolidation in the industry which has seen already large publishers merge. Nature Publishing owned by Macmillan was swallowed by the large, open mouth of Springer in 2015, creating a combined entity worth $5.8 billion. A 2015 article in ScienceAlert noted that just 5 publishers controlled 50% of all journal articles published, these five being: Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage.

So if The New Scientist has managed to wriggle free of one of them, I hope that it enjoys freedom to improve and continue for many years to come.

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