Saturday, April 05, 2014

Interview with Jean-Gabriel Bankier, President & CEO of bepress

Founded in 1999 by three Berkeley professors, bepress (formerly Berkeley Electronic Press) spent the first decade of its existence building up a portfolio of peer-reviewed journals — much like any scholarly publisher. In 2011, however, it  took what might seem like a surprising decision: it decided to sell all its journals to De Gruyter and reinvent itself as a technology company.
Jean-Gabriel Bankier

Instead of publishing journals, bepress is now focussed on developing and licensing the publishing technology it created for its earlier publishing activities, and its flagship product is a cloud-based institutional repository/publishing platform called Digital Commons.

Digital Commons is currently licensed to more than 320 academic institutions, who use the software to publish over 700 journals, 94% of which are open access. This publishing activity is invariably managed by the institution’s library, and often includes the publishing of books, conference proceedings, data sets, audio-visual collections, and other digital content types too.

Is this a sign of things to come: Publishers becoming technology companies and librarians becoming publishers? President and CEO of bepress Jean-Gabriel Bankier believes it is. As he puts it in the Q&A below, “Library-led publishing is an integral strategy in the university taking back ownership of scholarly communication.” As such, he adds, the future of scholarly publishing now “lies in the hands of libraries and scholars.”

To support his argument Bankier cites a US study in which 55% of the universities and colleges surveyed said that they are offering or considering offering library publishing services.

Moreover, bepress is not the only game in town for libraries looking for a publishing platform. In 2001 the Public Knowledge Project released the first version of the open-source publishing software Open Journals Systems (OJS), and today OJS estimates that over 6,000 journals are being published using its software. Many of these journals are undoubtedly being published (or soon will be published) by university libraries — e.g. the library at University College London and Stellenbosch University library

We could also note that in 2012 US-based Amherst College announced that it was launching its own press. This will publish peer-reviewed books in the liberal arts, and will be managed by the library. 

What all this means, says Bankier, is that if publishers “want to continue to play a significant role in supporting the changing needs of the research community” they will need to consider following the example of bepress, and morph from content provider to technology company.

Doubtless other publishers would challenge this assertion. But whatever the future holds, I think anyone interested in open access, or scholarly communication more generally, will find what Bankier has to say below of great interest.

The Q&A begins

RP: As I understand it, bepress was founded as a scholarly publisher in 1999. Can you say briefly who founded it and what the initial goal was? Is it for profit or non-profit?

J-G B: In 1999, UC Berkeley professors Robert Cooter, Aaron Edlin, and Ben Hermalin banded together to launch Berkeley Electronic Press, now simply called bepress.

The heart of bepress has always been about listening to faculty and responding with simple technology-based solutions that support scholars in the rapidly changing world of scholarly communications.

Initially, for us, that meant exploring alternatives to commercial scholarly journal publishing which were plagued by slow turnaround times, limited access, and unreasonable prices. Later, that meant providing authors and universities themselves with the means to publish their research openly and widely. We are a for-profit company.

RP: You say bepress is a for-profit company. I assume the shareholders are the three founders? Can you tell me what the company’s revenues and profits were for the last financial year?

J-G B: Yes, the founders are shareholders. The company was born with just a little seed money from the founders, parents, and incredibly supportive friends and neighbours, most of whom continue to own part of the company. Bepress has never had venture capital or private equity. Berkeley isn't far from Silicon Valley, but we weren't that kind of start-up. Our first office, after we moved out of one of the founder's kitchen, had no natural lighting and ceilings so low that it necessitated skidding around mismatching, three-wheeled chairs to avoid banging one's head on the ceiling.

I'm happy to report that around 15 years later, we've now got offices with actual windows and chairs that don't wobble. Our business doesn't wobble any more either. Our revenues are around $10 million a year with an unbelievably low cancelation rate for subscribers (below 1% in 2013). We are very stable and run at a modest profit. It is a great feeling to finally be able to send small dividend checks to those friends and family members who put their faith in us back in the beginning.