I have been off the internet for three days.  This was at first a glorious relaxation, then a growing frustration as I realised that the world was sliding by me, and I was not only snowed into my hut, but likely to be quickly so out of date that when I emerged blinking into the virtual world once again, my friends would remark on the vital sequences of great debates that I had missed.

One of those great debates concerns the articles and reportage surrounding the free publication on the web of essays dedicated to the memory of Jim Gray, the Microsoft researcher lost at sea three years ago.  Gray’s argument, the Fourth Paradigm, concerned the way in which data intensive scientific discovery is altering the way in which science conducts itself.  Gray pointed to the nature of collaboration and data sharing as critical areas, and demonstrated in astronomy, very often a good exemplar, that getting all of the literature in the same places as all of the data, and making them interoperable through distributed computing you could create new findings and, in effect, ” a worldwide telescope” as the New York Times notes in the article referenced above.  Another good example might be in cell signalling, where Signalling Gateway has the same effect in a collaborative environment commissioned from Nature.  And neuroscience now throws up a number of examples.

Even in my enforced absence from the network, I have not read everything in this collection (much of which I would imperfectly understand anyway), but I would strongly recommend Clifford Lynch’s contribution.  He sees the research paper as a “window” on the research field, and points not just to evidential data , but also reference data collections (often computed upon as the stuff of research) and to data mining, with all of the power of inferencing and semantic search brought to bear to discover the things we knew, but did not know we knew.

There is a huge challenge here for STM  traditional publishing and for the information sciences alike.  Who in this new world takes the impresarial role of ensuring that all these elements are available, and not just for science and medicine, but also for the soft sciences and humanities, is critical for the survival in the medium to long term of the structures of public-private sector interaction in the research marketplace.  Yet all around us publishers and the “Open Access” lobby are locked in a footling debate about whether an article is Green or Gold (degrees of openness to those who have too much real work to do).

And the way in which that trivial pursuit is now conducted  was the subject of an excellent note by Phil Davis on the SSP Scholarly Kitchen blog.  Why, he asked on December 15, does the consultative process set up by the Office of Science and Technology Policy have to be dominated by people like Stevan Harnad (the self-appointed arch evangelist of OA), who alone has made 26% of the contributions to this forum online: in  the real world, at a public meeting, “these blowhards are given their time and asked politely to sit down.  We don’t tolerate these people very well because deep down we feel that they are disruptive of democratic discussion where diversity is valued over dominance”.

Quite so.  This is an important comment about democracy and the way we debate on the web: it also reminds us that the time is long overdue for us to get away from the sterile open access debate, which on both sides freezes the research communication process in aspic, and get back to exploring the fast moving world of knowledge discovery itself, which is where Jim Gray takes us.  Then we can begin to properly re-invent “publishing “, and it will need the brains and risk capital of the private sector as well as the needs of scientists and institutions to carry that off.

I remember the meeting so well.  I had gone up to Edinburgh to talk to the contracts manager, a courteous but dour Scot who had served Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd loyally after joining the company from school.  I was not only an employee, and a very junior one, but I was also an author (and a fairly poor one).  In both roles I wanted guidance on the new form of the author’s contract.  For example, what did ” publication in whole or in part in any format currently available or yet to be invented” mean?  What it says, said the Guardian of the Legal Rites: we act for you in any future context and all rights which will ever be available will be administered by us.  And will be pretty worthless too, his tone seemed to convey, and I thought little more of it until years later an author/lawyer friend remarked that publishers really should remove the unenforceable from their contracts and simplify them to express only the deal that could be made in the here and now.  For example, he said, all that stuff about claiming to manage distribution and rights in yet to be invented forms – it will never stand up in court.

All of which comes to mind as Mr Stephen  Covey seeks to transfer his eBook rights from Simon and Schuster to Amazon, and Random House announces that its contracts are just like those Nelson antiques of the early 1960s, in that they do cover any technology, including everything not invented at the point of signature and everything still not invented now.  Press reports that the Brits are a bit less confident that the RH USA argument will work are common on this side of the Atlantic, while in the US itself it seems clear that the Random House position of rights omnipotence will not survive a vigorous challenge , and maybe Covey himself has done enough to breach the convention.

So what is this fuss about?  And why try to bend the law into shape to defend the declining powers of publishers?  And those powers are in decline, or they would not need defending in this way.  If Random House and Simon and Schuster created the whizziest and most innovative eBook value add environments, and marketed them with an imagination and panache that compelled distributors to stock them, such that authors told their agents they would take 0.5% less just to be published in that way, then this brouhaha would never have taken place.  Truth to tell, these dogs in this manger are the very people who have resisted the onset of the digital world for half a generation, and are now feeling imperilled and are striking out to defend their traditional position.  But they do not grasp the basic concept of a digitally networked world: to succeed, you must understand users intimately, and design levels of value and enjoyment into your services which take them well beyond the simple reproduction of text in a different format.  If you cannot do that then do not bother to compete – just make way for those who can.

Mr Covey thinks that Amazon can, and will, do a better job than Simon and Schuster.  He may be wrong: this might just be a big distributor play and not result in a better service.  But it is surely his call.  I worked with a man once who was going to put all the world’s knowledge onto a block of silicon no larger than a lump of sugar.  He failed, but the thing that kept us awake at night was certainly not the spectre of Random House showing up to claim the rights to their author content in this context.

What is it about the attitudes of consumer publishing senior management which, despite the best efforts of their own often excellent but under-resourced  digital publishers, feels so much like the French aristocracy in 1789?

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