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The death of the sponsored supplement

Whilst subscription-based revenue generating models have problems of their own, scholarly publishers can take little solace from the future prospects for their non-subscription products.

Scholarly publishers continue to place an unwarranted amount of hope for the future in products that nobody wants (journal re/e-prints), nobody reads (scholarly monographs, edited anthologies, and major reference works), and nobody trusts (sponsored supplements).

The time has long since passed when it was still possible to sell three quarters of a million paper copies of a journal reprint to a single pharma company whose legions of sales reps would work in hunt groups, raining down half a dozen copies upon each healthcare practitioner in the United States in the hope that at least one of them may serve as a mug coaster on its way into the wastepaper basket.

The reprint has not transitioned well from paper to print. If anything, it is even easier to delete a PDF than it is to throw away a reprint, and controlling the paid-for distribution of eprints whilst not restricting access has proven to be a headache.

In the read-write Web 2.0 world of scientific communications, the book, whether printed or digital, is no longer fit for purpose. During the decade that I traversed the world attending professional medical conferences, I saw those who purchased print books from the stands that I manned get ten years older and greyer. Those under 35 would politely inquire whether a digital version was available, or latterly whether they could read it on their iPhone, and on learning that they could not, promptly turned on their heel.

Effective or not, both of these products looked thoroughly respectable compared to the sponsored supplement. The Lancet‘s disdainful dismissal of the sponsored supplement in a recent editorial is only the most recent salvo fired in the direction of a publication vehicle that is held in ever-lower esteem, and for good reason. In a world where communications are based on authenticity, transparency and trust, the sponsored supplement’s ‘advertorial’ format is the antithesis of what most former sponsors are now trying to achieve in their communications.

Entities such as ISMPP are fighting a losing battle in trying to convince those who are not directly involved in the publication planning process that ghost writing doesn’t happen, that their activities aren’t designed to look like traditional academic work, but perform largely to market products, or that the entire enterprise isn’t tainted by association with other equally dubious scholarly publishing practices.

I think the sponsored supplement is a dead letter. Do you?

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4 thoughts on “The death of the sponsored supplement

  1. This is a pretty tough statement, I have to say. And from the experience I have through working with scholarly journals for about a decade now, I cannot support it.

    The sponsorship is very often a necessary means to publish compendia collecting available data about one specific item. And lots of doctors – GPs as well as specialists – ask for them.

    Maybe the arrow you shoot was directed on the category of advertorial brochures that sometimes are added to a journal or distributed with them and do not carry anything but promotion. but the hammer you use is to big to hit only this one nail.

    Publishers have done a lot to make sure each and every involvement of industry is clearly shown in their publications. This means that the support to distribute an interesting guideline is shown as sponsorship: sponsored supplement. The collection of articles produced by a specialty research group can only be published with industry support: sponsored supplement.

    I could go on with this for long, but I think I made my point clear.

    I do agree that all journals and all publishers should be careful in checking the content they publish. No doubt. Maybe it was valuable to install a special group to check those “special publications” more closely. Different journals find different ways to do do this. If they do not check carefully, they (i.e. we) risk the reputation of their work. And when it is lost it is tough and very time consuming to win it back.

    But this does neither mean that sponsorship for publication is dead nor that we should condemn all supplements.

    Let’s just do it the right way. And it stays valuable.

  2. Hi Tobias

    It’s always good to hear from you, I really appreciate your having taken the time to compose this counterpoint to my post.

    Full disclosure for other readers: Tobias and I are friends and former colleagues.

    The problem I have with your principled, estimable defence of the sponsored supplement as a vehicle is the gulf between the ideal and the real.

    In principle, the sponsored supplement at its very best is capable of manifesting all the benefits and attributes you identify, and more.

    In practice, the sponsored supplement more often resembles the Janus-faced contradiction that Sergio Sismondo gestures towards in the piece I link to in the last paragraph: marketing, veiled as academic work.

    My criticism – and your defence – are both valid, in my opinion.

    However, the transformation of healthcare communications is sealing the fate of the sponsored supplement: the opaque, inauthentic nature of its one-way broadcast messaging does nothing to advance the cause of its former sponsors.

    Simply put: there is nothing the sponsored supplement does that cannot be better affected through more contemporary, progressive media which allow its audience to air and share their opinions.

    The curtain is falling on the sponsored supplement show, and nobody will be calling for an encore.

    If sponsored supplements were stock, we’d say they had already moved from ‘hold’ to ‘sell’.

    As the ‘your audience is changing – are you?’ message continues to resonate and amplify within the pharmaceutical industry, I fail to see who is going to be doing the sponsoring two or three business cycles from now.

    Of course, scholarly publishers should (but won’t) see this as an opportunity rather than a threat. How can they redeploy the journal brands that are written, managed and read by the constituencies that the pharmaceutical industry wishes to reach in novel, appealing settings?

    There are plenty of options I could iterate, but fewer listeners than one would hope.

    As my friend Paulo Machado (@pjmachado) said yesterday in a context outside of publishing, real change will only come when real pressure is put upon margins. I don’t think you need second sight to see that the sponsored supplement will cease to exist in the relatively near future as sponsors will no longer be interested in sponsoring due to the antisocial characteristics of the sponsored supplement as a vehicle.

    The hope is that scholarly publishers will manage to tear their gaze away from the falling needles on the revenue dials for long enough to perceive and acknowledge what needs to be done.

  3. Full disclosure for other readers: Andrew and I are former colleagues.

    Andrew, please indulge me whilst I offer another reason for the space owned by sponsored supplements.

    With the ever increasing costs of producing materials via advertising companies many companies are looking to break the boredom for representatives by producing alternative discussion pieces.

    When you consider the actual cost of producing a low print run supplement to the cost of a company detail aid, the supplement compares very well.

    Added to that, the tenuous advocacy of a journal brand simply gives it a different feel and helps less experienced representatives feel empowered.

    The inclusion of the supplement in the journal envelope is incidental to the marketing, that is a just a metric for the product managers monthly report. If one person does read it, then it’s a bonus.

    So in spite of all the things that are wrong with sponsored supplements, they still are an inexpensive way to give the representatives in the field something new to talk about. I suspect they will be here to stay for a little while longer.

    Economics over ethics.

  4. Hi Graham

    Good to hear from you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    ‘Break the boredom’? You make a sponsored supplement sound like something fresh and vibrant rather than the tired and hackneyed marketing vehicle that it is.

    Why continue to sponsor a product which is an exemplar of the faceless, inauthentic nature of traditional pharma marketing practice? Pharma is trying to get away from this image, not reinforce it.

    I actively counsel pharma friends and clients not to use sponsored supplements not because I have an animus against them per se, but because they reek of everything that’s wrong with traditional pharma marketing. Their unilinear, broadcast communications scream ‘I have no interest in the forging of a relationship with you, or the creation of dialogue. I consider you more a target than a person, and as such I will treat you like a mark, not a human being’.

    And sales reps (if you can still find any) wonder why they get doors slammed in their faces?

    Finally, with regards to ‘economics over ethics’ – I’d rather define this as ‘indolence over involvement’. If a brand manager commissions (or worse still, renews) a sponsored subscription in my opinion they’re sending out a message about themselves along the lines of ‘I can’t be bothered to find a contemporary, progressive way to reach out to the communities I wish to engage with, so I’ll use a sponsored supplement instead’.

    Considering commissioning a sponsored supplement because you think it’s a completable objective you can add to your performance review rather than because you believe it is something that will add value to a community you wish to work with is not only a reason to move forward with it, it’s tantamount to an insult to the very healthcare professionals you wish to think well of you.

    A sponsored supplement is no longer a ‘door opener’ for pharma.

    It’s a door closer.

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