Brand Equity and Its Strategic Source in Scholarly Journal Publishing

A teaser for the session at the 39th Annual Meeting of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, Boston:  Brands are gatekeepers to content. At least partly. A comprehensive theory of a brand and its equity is important to understand the influence brands have on customers’ behaviour. This starts with seeing brands as more than just logos, and goes on with shaping value propositions with regards to potential customers. In journal publishing—a form of network economy—it highly depends on how you define your customer: reader (with a need for easy-to-access and reliable content) or author (with a need to accumulate high-IF brands on her CV). Or both?

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Reputation Matters. Brands are its Identifiers

Reputation matters a lot in academia. This starts with students choosing their alma mater and goes on to decisions in tenure cases. Somewhere in between, researchers must face decisions such as what to read to build research upon, or where to publish. These decisions are—rather more than less emotionally—based on perceived value propositions, which are associated with logos. That’s the concept of brands: there is a logo (a) and it promises a value (b), which the customer experiences (c).

Why is it important to realise that there is more to a brand than just a logo? Well, consider the concept to be an iceberg. Most publishers merely see the logo. Though they might think about their value proposition as well (hopefully…), most publishers merely see a value proposition as a distinct concept, that is—once defined—a promise that sells stuff. But that’s short-sighted. Brands are dynamic as a whole and they require handling as such. Building upon this, brand equity is the surplus that a product—here a journal—gains from having the brand compared with an unbranded counterpart. That’s where brands become measurably essential for businesses. And that’s also where businesses—here publishers—exploit brands for the sake of more equity; to the harm of the scientific ecosystem. This, the advantages and risks of brand equity, will be the topic of my talk and discussion in Boston.


Elements of a brand

Hands-on Discussion

After a short introduction to the concept, I’ll elaborate on specific issues of brands and brand equity in journal publishing. Building upon my research at University College London, this will be a hands-on discussion, building a bridge from theory to practice for valuable take-aways. Together with David Crotty of Oxford University Press and Mark Johnson of the Public Library of Science, I’ll try to find answers to questions like:

  • How do authors, readers, and librarians perceive brands differently?
  • Do publishers actively shape publishing brands (as producers of consumer products do)? Or is it rather the published content that shapes the brand?
  • How important is the level of publishing services for the perception of brands?
  • Next to relevance, quality seems to be a key attribute that determines choice for a brand (i.e. choice for a journal to read or to publish in)?
  • Can brands be signifiers for research communities, i.e. the publisher neither aims to reach top notch IF nor establish cutting edge services?
  • What’s the matter with network externalities for top-notch brands or mega journals and how do publishers exploit this?
  • Is it brand equity that drives APC?

What’s the Point with Network Externalities?

Publishing is a two-sided market. That is, publishers act as intermediaries between authors and readers. Hence follows, if either side of the market changes, it affects the other, so that effectively the success of the business can be explained with the dependency of the two on each other, readers and authors.

This constellation incubates network externalities, which basically describe the effects of the dependencies. For instance, if readership decreases, the journal will in the long run be faced with a decrease in authorship as authors rather want to publish in journals with many readers. This is called a positive network externality because the dependency triggers a movement in the same direction. This holds true for most of the journals. Yet, it doesn’t apply to high-impact journals.

A high impact journal needs to reserve itself to publish only a top percentile of potential publications, say, the top five percent. This is a requirement for maintaining a high Impact Factor (IF). If it tried to increase authorship, say, to the top eight percent, the IF will likely decrease which will in the long run trigger a decrease of readership. Sounds complicated, but the key point is simply: top brands derive their equity from exclusiveness; and with this we can explain a lot of what’s going on in the business.

Be part of the discussion and learn more about the concept on Friday, June 2nd, 2.30 pm

Abstract of the Session: The nature of scholarly journal publishing relies on certain economic constraints like monopolistic competition, imperfect substitutes and the attributes of a two-sided market. Furthermore, academia itself relies heavily on reputation and a standardised understanding of quality. Yet, the value of brands in such a market remains unclear. This session will provide a differentiated view onto brands. For instance, for readers, brands merely function as filters. Yet, for authors, brands generally function as a cascading system: the lower the impact of a brand, the more the author’s recognition is replaced with the interest in ease of publication. Overall, brand equity of journal brands mainly builds upon the assessment of quality and impact in scholarly publishing, making top tier journals autopoietic systems and lower impact brands merely indicators of the existence of a research community.

This session will provide insights into the role of brands and the origin of brand equity in scholarly journal publishing. It will not discuss specific brands, but show where brand equity stems from, how researchers engage with brands,  how publishers can manage brand equity in business development processes. The insights of this session draw from my research at the UCL Centre for Publishing, where I conducted extensive research on this topic.

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