For a brief but happy period I rejoiced in the somewhat overblown title of “Executive Publisher” at Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, and was delighted when one of the handful of Edinburgh -sourced executives who had made the long journey with the company to London reminded me portentously that I was “sitting on the chair once graced by John Buchan”. And, indeed, Buchan in his writing days was also editorial director, keeping things safe for his old friend Tommy Nelson while that great leader was at the War – from which he never returned. So I responded with alacrity to a London Book Fair press release from Faber in which they announced an app for “The Thirty Nine Steps” (published in 1915) to create a “fully playable, fully immersive” (if its neither I shall want my money back) new product. This app includes “classic stop-frame animation and original silent film music”: what a huge mound of mine-able data this one book has produced. Hopefully the beautifully taut story-telling of Buchan himself is somewhere in there alongside what Henry Volans, digital supremo at Faber, calls “a new way of reading, with John Buchan’s story at its heart, presented afresh through a TV and gaming-inspired lens”.

I love this and want it to work: at the same time I get all sorts of goosebumps about what the result might be. I believe passionately that the network will produce art forms of its own. The long history of gaming, graphic novels, manga, picaresque narrative, novels of manners, film and television, and animated developments of all types from cartoons onwards, must, if our culture plays out true to type, be antecedents to something else. Clearly narrative is very important and clearly visualization is as well. In the same PR tranche a further Faber announcement indicated that the new Ian Pears novel, Arcadia, to be published next year, will appear first of all in an “semi-interactive” form, and only subsequently in a printed form. Here again is evidence of open-mindedness, though I found the idea that Mr Pears, whose writing I have enjoyed, wrote the novel, according to the Guardian (16 April) “inspired by quantum physics, and written in “nodes” which had been mapped to a graph constructed after consultation with an Oxford Mathematics professor. The aim was to create an infinite number of ways in which the story could be read -“. That word “infinite” has a whiff of the publicity department about it if you ask me, especially since Mr Pears later says “I’m still in charge of the story because I am arrogant enough to feel that I’m a better story-teller”.

Never mind. This is brave and ambitious stuff. The announcement occurred in this same week when The Guardian itself launched its own first essay in Citizen Journalism (see my 4 April blog on “Editorial Views and Viewers”). The Guardian has not gone for nOtice, but has created an app of its own for community responses and submissions. TNW characterized it like this:

“You can access the app via the Web, but there’s also native incarnations for Android and iOS. To contribute content to GuardianWitness, you need to create an account, either using your existing Guardian credentials, or through your Facebook and Twitter details.

The Guardian actually posts ‘assignments’, inviting users to post content based on themes – for example, when Britain experiences unseasonably bad weather. Editors set a range of assignments each week, covering news, sport, culture and life and style.

Photos and videos will constitute a large part of this, particularly for users out and about on the streets with their smartphones.

Selected submissions could be featured on the Guardian website or also in the Guardian and Observer newspapers, while video submissions could be added to the GuardianWitness YouTube channel.

The apps also lend themselves well to big breaking news stories, where Guardian and Observer journalists simply can’t cover the sheer scale of it on their own.

However, if you don’t fancy one of the assignments, and there’s nothing big going on in your neck of the woods, you can also simply submit a story, which constitutes an ‘open’ assignment.

For the Guardian, encouraging the public to submit their content via dedicated apps is a great move, and serves to formalize the growing shift towards user-generated content. It transforms anyone into a roving reporter, giving them direct access to a major news brand. Surely it’s only a matter of time before more big-brand news outlets follow suit, including the BBC.”

When John Buchan climbed down from the editorial chair at Thomas Nelson he went off to govern Canada. I always envied him this in my time: it had to be easier than trying to govern (Canadian) Thomson Corporation’s regiments of accountant managers (as my Chairman said, with deep seriousness, “you could make this so much easier for yourself if you stuck to only publishing bestsellers”). But the equations that we faced then will never be the same again. Just as print will go, so will editorial and authorial control. In a contributory content world, users will assess and vote for each others contribution, pre-buy content to which they are contributing, subscribe where they are contributors, and vote for each others contributions, views, plotlines or innovative media narrative combinations. The tools of the trade are on their desks: for some years now everyone has the potential to be his own studio, or her own graphic artist. The result may not be High Art, but the skills levels of whole populations will increase rapidly as “entertainment” becomes not just experiencing things, but participating in them as well. If self-publishing eBooks has taught us anything, from Amanda Hockings and John Lock onwards, it is that the publisher editorial selection process does not satisfy the participatory urges of large populations, and that user review and rating is seen as the selectivity tool, not publisher puff and blurb.

Now I must dash. There is a real hold-up on the M25 that I feel I should cover for the Guardian…!

…by which to test the seriousness of the industry. (Yes, I went to the new Hamlet production at Stratford last week). And this week’s play, acted out to a packed house of industry watchers and market analysts, has been the seduction and vanquishment of the fair Mendeley by all-powerful Elsevier, so rudely forced. Or, if you prefer, the seduction of barbarous Elsevier by maidenly Mendeley. Whatever, here was a deal done for a company with negligible revenues at a price , with earn-outs, of something up to $100 m, according to those ever-present “people familiar with the deal”. And since I have seldom had more requests to explain, here is my take: Mendeley represents the greatest leap forward since Eugene Garfield in representing the worth of a science research article. If it went to Thomson Reuters it would put them back into a game where Elsevier have spent a huge amount, culminating in SciVal, in competitive efforts to diminish them. As in days of yore (who remembers BioMedNet?) the competitive threat potentially posed by Mendeley proved greater than the price misgivings. If it went to Macmillan, who already have an investment in ReadCube, Mendeley’s competitor, it would create another axis of competition which would be unwelcome, given the strides that Macmillan Digital Science made by investing in Altmetric, as well as figstore. Since every article is unique and not a competitor with other articles, the true point of competition in science research publishing now lies in workflow tools which make researchers more productive – and help them to decide what to actually read, and what to reference and visualize. So, continuing my Danish theme, this is a pre-emptive strike, like Nelson destroying the fleet at Copenhagen. Do we know whether Mendeley is the ultimate social tool for tracking who buys and reads what? No, any more than we know whether FaceBook is the player in place for life in social networking. But we do know that more than 2 million active researchers value it immensely, and so it posed a question – and one that for 20 years Elsevier have been adroit in answering.

This begs a few questions. Will Elsevier be able to run it independently enough to re-assure those critics who regard it as more like Caliban than Caesar? And are we being distracted by watching the wrong part of the game with too much intensity? I am a strong supporter of what the Mendeley team have done, but they were let into the marketplace by a chronic publishing failure: the inability of producers to sell to researchers adequately identified PDFs that obeyed agreed industry standards and which would allow a researcher to auto-index his hard disk and find what he had bought. As ever, publishers were complacent about the downstream problems they caused their users. But the real question here is about metadata, and it is a timely reminder of other problems we have never fully solved. When we adopted DOI/Handle technology the publishing community worked, as always, at the lowest common denominator of agreement. The result is a world in which articles are effectively numbered, and CrossRef express that industry cohesion, but we still cannot offer researchers the ability to search consistently over the full range of articles for which they have permissions cleared using their own or even semi-standardized taxonomies. Nature ( has done sterling work in the last month on the future of publishing, but simply illustrates to me how inadquately we tackle the last steps – the ones that lead to collaboration and to each player moving forward to create knowledge stores which reflect the real research needs of their users.

I do not mean to say that publishers do not collaborate. They increasingly do, and recent press coverage of Springer and CAS, or the case study of Wiley’s work with the AGU demonstrate this. I have been involved with the TEMIS work on collaboration and have learnt a lot from it. And publicly industry leaders do point to data-led strategies, which I was interested to hear acknowledged in a talk by Steve Smith (CEO, John Wiley) to the AAP/PSP in February, which I moderated. So I was very interested indeed to spend some time with Jason Markos, Director of Knowledge Management and Planning at Wiley, and get a current view on the enrichment picture. The contrast over the past five years is, to someone used to the sometimes somnolent complacency of publishing, quite startling. Now you can have conversations about content enrichment that do begin to embrace both the narrow/deep and the broad/shallow needs of users. If the capacity now available in publishing – coming it must be said from people who entered from outside and have a real technical grasp of knowledge engineering which was not prefaced by life in linear publishing workflow processes – to think about the need to turn away from content architectures predicated by the structure of the article and towards creating entity stores or “knowledge” stores which allow data items from article databases to be searched in conjunction with data drawn from other sources like evidential data then we may indeed be on the way towards a user-driven networked vision of the future of publishing. Learning how to work with knowledge models as a way of expressing the taxonomic values of all of this shows me that we are on a route march that follows the track that has been obvious for a little while now, and which involves adopting the RDF as a basis, and creating triples to anchor our texts in semantically searchable environments. So our new Knowledge engineers will be able to spin out new service environments for increasingly demanding users, and the publishing game will not peter out with the commoditization of the article…

…I left Wiley the other day full of hope, and I still am. But this context is necessary to see that the Mendeley deal, lovely though it is, remains symptomatic of the need to scratch yesterday’s itch. I suspect that the real struggle, already underway, is to persuade researchers that publishers really can add value to data, and that they really do know how to analyse it, structure it, create smart research tools around it and extract real value from users as a reward for this investment and effort. This will need smart industry suppliers as well, and I have learnt a lot from working with MarkLogic and TEMIS in the past year. And most of all it needs the support of CEOs who see beyond maximizing PDF downloads to the strategic crossroads this part of the industry now faces – and beyond.

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