More On: Finding Hidden Treasure

My last column addressed an odd feature of current legal periodical publishing: a number of legal publishers do not expose interoperable metadata for their periodical articles on the free Web, and do not sell or license individual periodical articles online.

We saw that these practices seem unusual because they are inconsistent with industry trends, and because these publishers already use digital publishing processes, have access to free or low-cost ejournal platform and ecommerce software, often have access within their own corporate families to expertise in implementing such software and services, and, given the size of the global market and the interdisciplinary appeal of much of these publishers’ periodical content, seem to be foregoing substantial marketing opportunities and revenue streams.

Given all the factors weighing in favor of freeing up metadata and implementing article-level ecommerce on the Web, what could be holding these publishers back?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Low levels of competition. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger has observed that legal publishers — like producers in other industries — when faced with minimal or no competition in a market, tend to resist innovation, due to a lack of incentives;
  • Fear of cannibalizing print subscriptions. Some publishers may worry that improving Web access to periodical content will cause some print customers to cancel their subscriptions, resulting in overall declines in revenue for periodical content.
  • Fear of cannibalizing online subscriptions. Legal publishers may worry that, if interoperable metadata and ecommerce for articles were offered on the Web, online periodical subscription customers might cancel their subscriptions in favor of purchasing articles on an ad hoc basis, and that this, too, would result in overall declines in revenue from periodical content.
  • Failure to understand the scope of potential demand. Some of these legal publishers may not realize the scope of potential demand for their periodical content, especially among nonlawyers, in their own nation and in other countries. My previous post offered several examples of evidence of such demand.
  • Failure to envision second-order benefits. Some legal publishers may not have considered desirable second-order effects of the new approach. Such effects include a higher Web profile for all of the publisher’s content; possibilities for engaging with existing and new audiences in new ways; receiving innovative ideas from customers and discovering new business partners through Web 2.0 technology; and developing innovative new products and services built upon periodical metadata or content.

How might the legal community and the broader scholarly/professional publishing community respond to these concerns? Here are some ideas:

  • Competition: Members of the legal community who have not previously engaged in publishing could enter the legal periodical publishing market. Given the low costs of ejournal publishing today; the availability of a variety of free or low-cost publishing platforms including ejournal, blogging, and content management systems; and the abundance of legal academics and professionals willing and able to supply quality content, the potential for new market entrants to increase competition in the legal periodical article market seems great.
  • Cannibalizing print subscriptions: Legal publishers’ concern about reduced print subscriptions’ leading to overall reduced revenues seems reasonable. Yet we saw in my earlier post that most major U.S. and U.K. scholarly and professional publishers have adopted the new free metadata plus article-level Web ecommerce model despite such concerns. The behavior of those publishers suggests that legal publishers’ concerns about cancellation-related revenue loss may be overstated. Alternatively, the conduct of most scholarly and professional publishers might reflect an industry consensus that print’s future is bleak, while Web ecommerce’s future is bright, and that those who act now to develop free Web metadata distribution and article-level ecommerce capabilities may realize considerable early-mover advantages. The legal publishers we are discussing might counter that their content is so narrow in subject scope compared to that of most scholarly/professional publishers (for whom law is just one of many subjects in which they publish), that a move to the free Web would present the former with substantial losses in print subscriptions without compensatory gains from ecommerce. One response might be to ask whether those concerns are based on empirical evidence or on speculation, and, if based on the latter, to encourage these legal publishers to experiment: these publishers should offer Web-based metadata and article-level ecommerce respecting a small number of titles, and then evaluate the results, both in terms of overall revenues, and in terms of second-order effects.
  • Cannibalizing online subscriptions: This also seems to be a justified concern, respecting which two responses come to mind. First, many subscription customers subscribe to packages of content of which periodicals constitute just one item; such customers are unlikely to cancel those subscriptions if periodical articles alone are offered via Web-based ecommerce. Second, individual articles available via ecommerce could be priced — in light of the high probability that the customer base for such articles will include those who cancel online subscriptions plus a substantial number of new customers — so as to make up for lost online subscriptions.
  • Potential demand: One way to help these legal publishers understand the scope of potential demand for their periodical articles is for legal scholars and practitioners to educate the publishers. Law professors, practicing lawyers, and legal information professionals could discuss this issue with publishers at programs and informal conversations at legal scholarly and professional meetings. Since much of this demand may come from beyond the publishers’ home-country borders, international conferences may be especially suitable settings for these discussions.
  • Second-order benefits. Independent publishing consultants, epublishing and ecommerce specialists within the legal publishers’ own corporate families, and representatives from the broader scholarly/professional publishing community might be best equipped to help legal publishers learn about the kinds of desirable second-order effects that can arise from the provision of Web-based metadata and ecommerce.

The anomaly of some legal publishers’ declining to provide Web-based access to their article-level metadata and content need not occasion despair. Rather, this circumstance may yield promising opportunities: for the legal community to create alternative platforms for publishing their valuable article-level content; and for legal publishers, the legal community, and representatives of the broader scholarly and professional publishing community to engage in productive dialogue and collaboration.


  1. You’ve hit a bull’s eye with this post. It’s time for change in the industry — it’s time “for legal publishers, the legal community, and representatives of the broader scholarly and professional publishing community to engage in productive dialogue and collaboration”. For too long these factions have been talking “at” each other and not “to” each other.