Greetings from Frankfurt, where I find myself attending, for the 49th time, the greatest book show on Earth, despite claiming for 25 years that my days here are done. Yesterday I moderated the STM Association’s Futurist Panel, where three brilliant men (Phil Jones of Digital science, John Connolly of Nature and Richard Padley of Semantico) spoke brilliantly about the Future of Science Publishing, In order to get us all in the mood for change, I introduced them by quoting the Outsell market report for Science information and scholarly communication for the year 2027. Yes, I said 2027 (not difficult if you are a real Worlock!). And here it is:

Outsell Annual Report 2027

“The clear market leaders, IBM Watson Science and Gates Science Services announced their intention to secure the complete commoditisation of content in a new accord to be signed in 2028. Brad Biscotti, Gates Chairman, announced in his annual statement that they felt that content-based competition was no longer appropriate. “By creating and maintaining a huge central database of scholarly communication between us, we can best serve science by competing vigorously in supporting the research process with intelligent software tools. Our two companies have created a self publishing marketplace – now it is time to move on to increase the value derived from research funding. We shall be changing our name to Gates Smart Research as we roll out our first generation of virtual laboratories.”

His opposite number at Watson Science, CEO Jed Gimlet, issued a matching statement: “This long decade of buying publishers and building self-publishing draws to an end as any research team anywhere has available to it online services and solutions for concluding and publishing research articles and evidential data within days, or at least a week, of project completion. Our tried and tested post- publication peer review systems give an accurate guide to good science, and continue to re-rate research over time. We have maintained some of our strong brands, like Nature, Science and Cell, so that republication there could add additional rating value. But
our duty to science is to ensure that everything is in one searchable place and subject to cross searching by any scholar using his own data mining protocols. In making this move we recognise that the production of research findings is now so vast in terms of numbers or articles and available data that creating content silos creates risk from non discovery of prior research.”

Outsell comment on these statements: “There is some special pleading here, of course, since the decline of library budgets in the last ten years meant that article downloads have rapidly declined, while rising volumes of self-published papers create problems for researchers who fundamentally have ceased to read new research. IBM’s intelligent science module, Repeatabilty, used in over 80% of laboratories, needs far more data than an article typically contains, leading to calls to reassess the usefulness, format and content of articles. And when a Repeatability process succeeds or fails, it automatically creates a new citation, enriching the metadata attached to the database and requiring a mandatory notice to all previous users. IBM think this is a cost they should share with Gates.

Gates in turn would point out that almost no one reads articles now. Almost all enquiry is robotic, governed by research protocols mandated by funders and implemented at project inception and regularly during the research process. This may lead researchers to check some findings, though many of the enquiries are satisfied at a metadata level. Their major program, Gates Guru, uses this type of intelligent machine reading to provide a metrics-based rating system for scholarship and institutions. Guru, following Gates landmark deal with the Chinese Government in 2025, is the universally accepted standard and there is no university or researcher
who does not subscribe to it at some level.”

(DISCLAIMER – this is a work of imagination, not of Outsell, and they should not be blamed for my heresies)

Unusually for such events, we had a good 45 minutes of discussion. Many intriguing and interesting points were raised. There were fewer than usual change – deniers, though a few arguments were tinged with the “say I can go on doing it like this for a few more years – please” frame of mind that consultants to this sector are very used to encountering. It almost seemed for a moment as if we as an industry accept that real change is afoot – and we are several phases in already.

Until I got a beer in my hand, and a smiling, intelligent, successful publisher said quietly “that deal you mentioned between Wellcome and F1000 – you don’t think that will succeed do you? I mean, they will never make money!” And all of a sudden the best part of a decade had flashed past and I was back in that same room at the same time room interviewing Harold Varmus, co-founder of PLoS, in front of the same crowd. He told them about the launch of PLoS1; they said megajournals would never succeed. I rest my case!

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