A medical publishing check-up – healthy despite side effects of serious challenges

Peter Ashman – Publishing Director at the BMJ Group (British Medical Journal) – was billed as a ‘successful, informative and inspirational’ speaker. At Kingston University’s first Publishing Masterclass of the season, he proved he was all three.


Serving over 140,000 members, the BMJ Group publishes more than 40 key journals and has a long heritage as a trusted brand. The Group’s business is to deliver the highest standard of medical information and resources to improve outcomes for patients and the provision of healthcare worldwide. Or as Peter put it – they publish quality stuff for doctors, scientists and academics. Content the community needs, when and where they need it.

This is a profitable field to be in, with an average margin of 45% and revenue growth of 4.3% in the past year. Digital developments have enabled publishers like the BMJ Group to move beyond printed books and journals to provide a diverse range of databases, tools and analysis for practising professionals.

To be successful in this market, there are a number of serious challenges to be met by all – especially the smaller publisher:

  • declining library/institutional budgets facing increased content
  • migration to online access and the ability to keep up to date with emerging technologies
  • Open Access vs. the subscription model  and the proliferation of user-generated content
  • Falling advertising revenues as restrictions are placed on pharmaceutical companies
  • accessing growing global markets (e.g. Brazil and China) and capturing research as it moves from West to East (the BMJ Group are establishing their brand in India)
  • growth through acquisition to compete for market share with the dominant players

The good thing is you can tell if you’re getting it right. There are clear quality indicators for a journal’s success:

  • quality of authors
  • relevance of content to community
  • Editor in Chief as  ‘thought leader’
  • high standards for peer review
  • attention to statistics – readership figure (as opposed to subscription – the BMJ Group has the entire country of Norway as one subscriber!); downloads and citations; impact factor

    – and of course, profit


Peter provided a useful overview of the STM sector and the key publications and players in each constituent part (e.g. Nature, Science, and Cell in Scientific; IHS and Cegedim for Technical; the BMJ, JAMA and NEJM (both in the US) and The Lancet in Medical)*.  He outlined the major revenue streams, highlighting the growth of institutional subscriptions and the unpredictable yet lucrative advertising income.

For those unfamiliar with how journals work, Peter explained how the position of the Editorial Board of experts (mostly unpaid) is supported by the publishers’ editorial team. The publisher facilitates the complex and critical peer review process and, with only around 5% of submitted research papers gaining acceptance, the publisher plays an important role in the communication chain.

With hundreds of specialist societies in the scientific and medical arena, the role of contract publishing on their behalf is an important one.  The BMJ Group operates a portfolio of owned, co-owned and contract journals. Many scholarly societies outsource the business of publishing. They are already busy providing a service to professionals – funding research, advocacy/policy, fora, libraries, insurance, CPD/employment, and events. Buying in the specialist skills to publish and distribute books, journals and newsletters makes sense. Publishers bring their expertise to the party – their technology and innovation, cost control and improved financial returns. The stakes can be high and bidding for these tenders is highly competitive. Peter himself is an experienced combatant with excellent industry insight (as evidenced by his excellent article ‘What Societies want from a publishing partner’ in Learned Publishing Vol. 22 No.3 July 2009). Peter shared a case study of a recent success story where his Group were able to increase returns for a society by over 50%, through active marketing and publicity, streamlining editorial processes and resources, improving online presence, bringing advertising in house and improving financial reporting.


Peter is motivated by the diversity of his role as Publisher. He communicated clearly the level of strategic thinking required when working in this sector – whether it’s working out how to replace £5.7 million in advertising revenue when the government makes it a requirement to place junior medical posts on NHS Jobs, or pondering the impact that mandatory Open Access will have on the value chain.

Working in this field you have the benefit of being able to ask your readership if you’re getting it right. You can influence the readability and quality of your content and invest in the best. You can demonstrate the value of your publishing efforts, and given the profitable environment, this is often rewarded in higher salaries and accelerated career paths.

Verdict: well worth considering a medical publishing career!

Many thanks to Peter for sharing his knowledge and advice.


(Key players in turnover order: Elsevier, Cegedim, HIS, Wolters Kluwer Health, John Wiley, Thomson Reuters Health, Springer, Informa, BMJ Group).

For more information on this sector, Peter recommends: stm-assoc.org, alpsp.org, scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org


One response to “A medical publishing check-up – healthy despite side effects of serious challenges

  1. Informatics Outsourcing is an Offshore Scientific and Medical Content Publishing Company. They are providing the service worldwide for Medical Science,Journals,Health Care,Clinical Trials, Clinical Development, Scientific Research.

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