The wise man at the head of the table in a meeting last week reminded me of this old saw. And quite rightly we were discussing academic publishing at the time. And the words came back to me when I saw last week that Springer had acquired the Max Planck Living Review journals and that Maney, with its considerable position in the important Materials Science sector, had sold out to Taylor and Francis. The pressure to consolidate drives both these deals. Both of these large acquirers can use their scale in terms of production and distribution to improve margins here, and manifestly there are not that many interesting acquisition opportunities around. Yet both of these deals display very different characteristics. In my view, it is hugely encouraging to see Taylor and Francis, enjoying the confidence of their new management at the Informa level, investing again in content that they have probably been eyeing for a decade. Cash cows need to be fed and watered like other assets. Yet the age of the quick add-on acquisition are drawing to a close. The major players must look to organic growth, to developing the service cultures that will give them prime sectoral positions with researchers, rather than seeking ever greater volume to thrust into diminishing library budgets.
Viewed from this angle, the Springer deal is the more innovative. Maney was descended from a printer who had moved logically into intellectual property ownership. Living Reviews is based on a research institute making the same move. But there the similarities end, because Living Reviews signals yet another move away from the traditional formats of publishing. The whole idea of having a review article which can be perpetually update and change to reflect changing trends, and always be up to date when you view it, represents a data challenge and an editorial challenge. For Springer to even think of it demands a data environment that allows for rapid new development – an agile publishing environment. The major step taken by Springer to revitalize SpringerLink by recreating it on a MarkLogic platform, is critical to the organic growth strategy because it allows all of the data to be available all of the time for new product development.
We do not know yet whether the Max Planck philosophy of continually evolving review articles will succeed in other disciplines outside of physics, but if it does it will provide a dynamic growth point, and one capable of very high impact factors as theses present “living” reviews have demonstrated in their 15 year history. But what does this imply for the researcher/author – publisher relationship? And what for the idea of the Article and the Journal? In a discussion recently I was very struck by my interlocutor referring to the “Plos 1 journal”. In any sensible world we would by now have cast out the word “journal” and referred to Plos 1 as a database. The only likeness shared by these data elements is that they passed a test of competence in scientific method and procedure. Not only are they not a journal but very many of our never-printed, never-shelved so-called journals should not be referred to using that term. And when, almost two decades ago, I wrote that the Article and not the journal was the true unit of currency in scholarly communication, I was trying to express then the need to re-invent as we move away from any sense of being rooted in a prior print world. So Living Review articles are not articles as print would know them, bounded by time. They are articles as Wikipedia would know them, and we cannot afford to let our old print culture devour our new researcher-facing strategies. But the small sample of interested parties I spoke to last week were less impressed that the Springer acquisition is Open Access and much more interested in talking about speed of update and publication. Funny, that, after all the outrage of the 1990s at slothful publishing producing the goods too slowly, publishing is now much quicker – but, in a network age, still too slow.
So to me the lesson is clear. When we get into the room we use to plan the future, we need to leave the heritage terminology outside of the door. Lets concentrate on researchers and their workflow, and then on how we can improve performance. Mendeley and ReadCube (which notched up another useful win last week) have probably done more in the past five years to make the world of science findable and manageable than anything else. If the future lies in self-publishing with institutional repositories then where is your figshare? Or its successor? The future is not a game that everyone can play, and being Big, while it helps, is not the decisive advantage that it once was. You do really need to have the right culture in order to get into the strategy room in the right frame of mind, and get out with the two vital components – a component of tomorrow and a glimpse of the horizon.
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