Elsevier Faces Tough Questions About Its Business Model During Library and Publishing Conference

New York City—Gen Z students don’t want the same things from college their Millennial predecessors did. Elite colleges will be just fine, but mid-tier campuses without defined niches will face extinction. And Elsevier, the for-profit scholarly communications giant that many librarians and researchers love to hate, will never go away. Those were all takeaways from the ITHAKA Next Wave 2018 conference, held here last week. Attendees from academic libraries and scholarly publishing explored how higher education will have to adapt to changing demographics, rising inequality and continuing tensions between big commercial companies and their academic customers. It’s organized by the nonprofit Ithaka, which delivers research and strategic advice to libraries, publishers and other members of the academic enterprise. Higher-ed futurist Bryan Alexander emceed with a combination of humor and cage-rattling questions, such as “Is higher education a commodity?” (The qualified answer from panelist Caroline Levander, vice president for global and digital strategy at Rice University: Yes, among other things. “It is a collaborative product,” she said.)The daylong program kicked off with a riveting one-on-one conversation between Kevin Guthrie, ITHAKA’s president, and Youngsuk “YS” Chi, the chairman of Elsevier. Founded as a publisher of scientific information, the company has been redefining itself over the past few years as what it calls “a global information analytics business.” Asked about Elsevier’s expansion into data analytics, Chi emphasized that publishing remains central to the company’s business model. “Let me make it very clear that we are never going to take our hands off content,” he said. Elsevier routinely attracts criticism from librarians and researchers over its pricing and profits, and for how it keeps buying up links in the scholarly-communication chain. It owns some of the most heavily used academic products and services, including ScienceDirect, a subscription-driven database of scientific and medical articles and ebooks; Scopus, a database of abstracts and citations; and Mendeley, a platform for research sharing and networking.Chi cast this strategy—acquiring platforms and services tailored to different stages of the research life-cycle—as a benefit to researchers. “Where you have a dialogue, we want to be there supporting you,” he said. When Guthrie asked whether Elsevier skeptics weren’t justified in their concerns about its long reach, Chi downplayed the threat of monopoly. “There is no way to lock in curiosity,” he said. “We don’t want to be irrelevant.”Elsevier’s robust profits, often reported as running as high as 37 percent, came under scrutiny during the audience Q-and-A. Chi responded that the reported numbers don’t take into account taxes, operating costs and other accounting realities. The real figure is somewhere in the teens, according to the chairman.“Factually, that 37 percent is a head-turning number that is not accurate,” he said. “But we are profitable.”At least one university librarian was not entirely persuaded by Chi’s argument that Elsevier acts for the greater good. Elaine Westbrooks is vice provost of university libraries and the University Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I think there are good reasons for people to be skeptical,” she said in an interview. “Being relevant is going to maximize your profits. It’s not just about humanity.”Westbrooks described the painful conversations UNC recently underwent to re-up access to must-have Elsevier resources like ScienceDirect. “That was a tough negotiation,” she said. “We just couldn’t get it done.”UNC and Elsevier did eventually strike a deal. Westbrooks compared the experience to buying a car without knowing what you’re getting for the money. For instance, “they won’t tell us what each title costs,” she said. Elsevier also needs to be more transparent with its library subscribers about usage data, Westbrooks said, noting that the company’s numbers trend higher than UNC’s in-house statistics do.In spite of all that, UNC isn’t likely to ditch Elsevier. “They’re good at what they do,” Westbrooks said. “We will always buy their content. But I don’t have to sign on to a Big Deal.” Earlier, in his conversation with Guthrie, Chi said that being big makes it possible for Elsevier to take risks smaller organizations can’t afford. But UNC’s Westbrooks saw another danger: too much power in the hands of a few powerful companies. “When you combine them with Springer, Nature, Wiley, it does operate like one oligopoly because of the control they have over scientific publishing,” she said.Adopt or DieElsevier’s academic customers have their own constituencies to think about: students. That market’s tougher than the one Elsevier faces.In a panel on “How will the higher education market shake out?” Doug Lederman, a founding editor of Inside Higher Ed, identified the most vulnerable institutions: regional, comprehensive public universities and small private colleges. He said colleges without distinct niches might not survive. “I think we will see meaningful numbers of institutions disappear, one way or another,” Lederman said. Still, he pointed to what he called “hopeful signs,” including a growing recognition among colleges that they may need to combine forces to fill niches they can’t fill alone. “Will enough institutions change fast enough to avoid disastrous outcomes?” Lederman asked. Waves of college closings have been predicted for decades, and the worst hasn’t come to pass—yet.“This is an enterprise that adapts more than people give it credit for,” Lederman said.Asked whether journalism, another industry beset by rapid change and economic pressures, had any lessons to offer higher ed, Lederman had one piece of advice. “The primary lesson is Don’t wait. Get out in front,” he said. “Don’t wait ‘til you see money go out the door.”Colleges have the power to change the way they do business, but they can’t turn back demographic tides. Jeff Selingo, a former top editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of several books on higher ed, drew on the demographic work of social scientist Nathan D. Grawe to point out a looming mismatch between college supply and demand. The Northeast and Midwest have the highest concentrations of colleges and universities, but high-school graduates will increasingly come from faster-growing areas in the South and West, he pointed out. That won’t be a problem for the most-sought-after colleges—MIT and Yale aren’t going to have to beg for students—but the middle tier could struggle to fill slots. Most college students go to school within a hundred miles of home, Selingo said.What can colleges use to sell themselves? The rising crop of Gen Z students will focus on college as career prep, Selingo argued. They won’t care about the amenities Millennials wanted. In other words, fancy cafeterias and gyms with climbing walls won’t seal the deal for this group. Good career counseling and mental-health services might. A panel on “The Liberal Arts: Essential or Unnecessary?” moderated by Wall Street Journal education reporter Melissa Korn, brought the conversation back around to the philosophical as well as pragmatic underpinnings of college.Vocational training won’t necessarily equip a student for a working lifetime, especially in this era of rapid change. “A liberal education prepares you for the next 50 years really, really effectively,” said Catherine Bond Hill, managing director of Ithaka S&R. “The only people who don’t care about jobs and earnings are those who need neither,” she said.Benjamin M. Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, put the subject in statistical perspective. Schmidt has written extensively what the numbers behind the much-talked-about crisis in the humanities really tell us. He recently analyzed the decline in history majors for the American Historical Association’s blog. In spite of such negative trends, he said, the liberal arts have an undeservedly negative reputation among students and parents. Beyond demographics and market pressures, the biggest problem facing higher ed could be bigger still. Sylvester Johnson, assistant vice provost for the humanities and professor of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, said what’s at stake is nothing less than whether college, business and political leaders will work to create a society we actually want to live in. “People who never thought they would be expendable will be expendable, because capitalism doesn’t care,” Johnson said. “If there’s a grandest of grand challenges in the 21st century, it’s inequality.”