When publishers began outsourcing tasks and offshoring jobs to overseas vendors several decades ago, the primary goal was to achieve cost savings through staff reduction. In the intervening time, the vendor market has grown and matured, and now provides a far more wide-reaching array of services back to publishers. But, with technological advancements driving a whole new world of possibilities, are publishers still deriving the best value from these partnerships, or is it time for publishers to revisit their offshore outsourcing strategy?

Offshoring is not a strategy

Offshoring is a strategic decision, but not a strategy itself. Reducing costs, driving greater efficiencies and improving speed to market are all achievable if you choose the right offshore partner, but these are not strategic goals, they are ‘hygiene metrics’ – goals that every business should look at the impact of each and every year.

With publishers increasingly seeing themselves as digital organisations, offshoring can provide immediate access to a range of technologies to facilitate and enhance a digital strategy without publishers having to bear the cost of development themselves. The right technology partner can enable data-based decision making, drive greater discoverability, enhance and extend the lifetime value of content, and improve author relations. These strategic goals, way beyond trimming costs, will future-proof publishers and pave the way for a true digital strategy.

A step too far?

While the initial moves were focused on publishing production, and more specifically on typesetting and XML markup, in recent years outsourcing has extended up and down the publishing process, from content acquisition to sales. A trend for the largest publishers has been to shift end-to-end project management to outsourced partners, with responsibility for logistics, quality control, and more all lying with the partner.

Some commentators have questioned the value of a publisher whose every operation is outsourced, asking whether those with fully outsourced operations are effectively licensing their brand to a third party. In Deanta’s 2021 survey of academic publishers, 80% of publishers expected their outsourcing levels to grow, but it was noticeable that the majority kept creative skillsets and author relations in-house.

Indeed, community publishers such as learned societies and university presses have typically been more circumspect about their outsourcing, balancing the cost savings of automated operations against retaining personal connections with authors and editors. Rather than outsource everything to a single vendor, these community publishers have worked with a constellation of vendors in different areas, from marketing bureaus (to attract readership), sales agents, platform hosts, and of course production services. By working with these third parties, they have been able to access everything from disciplinary expertise for selecting peer reviewers to technical expertise in metadata, via project management and author communications, without losing their brand value.

By contrast, large journal publishers, managing high-volume businesses, saw benefit from investing in partners who could automate rote tasks like XML markup, or who could reduce headcount through training staff in offshore centres to provide quality control and manual oversight of those automated activities.

Outsourcing innovation

With offshore vendors now managing much of publishing’s volume business, it’s been left to this sector to develop systems and technologies which derive most value from these tasks. Whilst some vendors have maintained a ‘manpower approach’, others have invested heavily in technology to automate simple, then complex, tasks, from machine-learning-driven clean-up of reference lists and automatic proof layout to automated tracking and file sharing. Some have taken this still further and productized their systems, giving publishers the option of going full cycle and using these technologies to bring elements of these functions (primarily close management and data) back in-house, something that a decade ago would have been impractical.

Auditors, not operators

The best offshore vendors require minimal management, so modern publishers have found new ways to leverage time. Publishers are adding value to the publishing process not by ‘doing’ tasks, but by using the data and technology to manage them in a way which delivers the greatest value to the business.

Several publishing houses have broadened the remit of the production team up-and down-stream into full-service publishing operations teams. Upstream, production teams have taken on peer review support, working with editorial to optimise peer review systems and workflows to both reduce turnaround times and improve author service.

Downstream, the same production teams have collaborated with editorial and sales to identify the most relevant abstracting and indexing services for their content before creating data feeds out to those locations.

Several of these combined operations teams have even become involved with developing new Open Access business models: they have the necessary broad view across the entire portfolio, as well as the skill to extract the required information on things such as institutional-level publishing trends from publisher records. Depending on the size of the publisher, publishing operations teams may have sub-units responsible for different aspects of the publishing process.

Some publishers have formed author relationships groups, taking on all communication with authors from pre-submission to post-publication, offering a single, named point of contact throughout the process to give authors confidence and consistency.

Other publishers have created an audit group, investigating issues reported by authors, editors, customers, or colleagues, and identifying the root causes of failures within the workflow or systems, together with solutions. Audit groups, particularly when part of a publishing operations team with whole-workflow responsibility, allow publishers to implement and benefit from lean continuous improvement methodologies that are more commonly associated with manufacturing and big technology firms.

These same groups are also charged with keeping up to speed with the latest emerging technologies and industry standards for things like file formats and metadata. Knowing the difference between the industry’s endless list of technology acronyms, as well as precisely how ORCID or JATS may benefit the portfolio, and allow publishers to take advantage of changes as they become relevant.

Procurement and vendor management groups, meanwhile, maintain day-to-day vendor relationships, ensuring each vendor reaches or exceeds their Key Performance Indicators for turnaround time and quality. As well as performance, these teams assess whether vendors are keeping pace with market shifts and new technologies, undertaking regular reviews of the vendor landscape, issuing Requests for Proposal, and managing contract negotiations as needed.

Whatever the chosen team configuration, the roles opened up as a result of offshoring are usually more interesting and challenging than traditional production jobs, allowing staff to develop expertise in a new range of transferable skills. Particularly in a small team where there are limited opportunities for promotion, these varied roles with opportunities for learning and development are an excellent way to retain and motivate staff, creating a reputation for the publisher as an employer of choice.

Partners not vendors

Outsourcing and offshoring have always held promise for publishers looking to automate their workflows, upskill their teams, and optimise their productivity. But rather than simply cut costs by reducing headcount, strategically savvy publishers are now partnering with leading vendors who have invested in the latest technologies. Through these partnerships, publishers are driving new digital strategies; maximising the marketing opportunities and sales potential from their content, and breathing new life into established industry roles.