The nature of networks is collaboration. If we spoke of the Networked Society instead of the Digital Age we might begin to understand the implications of this. Although the tools we use are still crude, every day in the life of every office, or every research laboratory, groups of people are getting together to discuss work, and learn from each other. Moving the sharing from a room with a desk to a conference call and then to a screen simply offers process improvement, to which universal internet access adds the ability to exchange content on the fly. In the view of a collaborator in such a process, any request for information which furthers the group work objective should be answered – we do it ourselves and expect it of others. Collaboration has no rulebook except the need to gratify the requirements of the group focus. Who does not know this and practise it their daily lives?

Well, clearly the STM Association has only just found out. I apologize for not commenting earlier on the announcement in February of a consultation (a helpful change since publisher groupings are more usually into pronouncements) by that association on SSNs and SCNs. Are they a threat to scholarly publishing as we know it, the regulation of ownership, or life on earth? Amazing how you need only apply a three letter acronym to something that everyone was doing anyway and you can effectively demonize it. But what we are really talking about here are networks like ResearchGate, or Mendeley, or or ReadCube or FigShare. As a group they could be described as Scholarly Collaboration (or Sharing) Networks. Those who join them share problems and issues – and content – and sometimes do so as public network members and sometimes do so as private groups, with the network hosting the activity of scholars drawn from different places, just as scholars have always met at conferences and just as very many groups of scholars still meet online undignified by having a three letter acronym to describe what they are doing. Sometimes the SCN has attributes which add further value to collaboration – data collections, or indications of who holds which articles – but the collaboration is the essence. They have millions of members (including students and members of the public, who should of course be caught and charged immediately!).

Now there are elements to this consultation which strike me as highly risible. While I know that, under Fred Dylla as chair, the consultation will be conducted impeccably and with total integrity and fairness, the difficulties that this enterprise faces are daunting. Its not just that SCNs are ways of helping researchers do something they will do anyway, regulated or not. Its not just that publisher attempts to regulate what they do have never made the slightest difference in the past and are unlikely to do so in the future. Its not even the sight of STM making the ungainly ascent into the seaside throne of Canute that amuses so much. It is the fact that most of the SCNs who are possibly involved in the widespread transference of copyrighted scholarly materials between researchers who do not always have formal permission for those transfers, are owned and funded by … publisher members of STM.

My sympathies will always lie with the market. Follow the end user can be the only guideline in a networked society. What Elsevier or Digital Science did here with the creation of these SCNs was simple good sense and they deserve the commercial returns that their efforts on behalf of collaborative scholarship should earn them. Those of us who said loudly a decade ago that Open Access was not the real danger to the established hegemony – it was networked publishing that provided the threat, were told that the major STM players were quite capable of taking the paper journal world into the network and preserving its rules and conventions just as long as research funders did not insist on an author pays model. Well, they were wrong, as people always are when they insist that they can move business models to digital networks without change. Just this week in the UK, on the blasted heath that once was newspaper publishing, a group of news publishers banded together to form the Pangaea Collaboration for selling advertising (CNN, Reuters, Economist, Financial Times, spearheaded by the Guardian) which will allow “brands to collectively access a highly influential global audience via the latest programmatic technology”. In other words, erstwhile deadly competitors getting together to offer tech enabled solutions to customers who have the power to make choices.

Which is probably the answer to the STM question. Trying to alter market behaviour by regulation is fruitless, Forming a ring around current SCNs and licensing them collectively to do what they will do anyway must be more sensible. Creating niched SCNs for research specialities and going to where you can add yet more value must be the way forward. Surprizingly many commercial players see this – but scholarly societies, dependent for survival on journal sales and advertising, are very much more conservative. But then again, the scholars using the SCNs are usually members of those societies, whose role is perhaps what is most at stake here – and of course many commercial publishers make a living by the services that they sell to those scholarly societies. When we look back at a train of events (Macmillan setting up Digital Science, Elsevier buying Mendeley, Nature making all articles free to subscribers, Wiley adopting ReadCube etc) we can be confident that this train is not suddenly going into reverse. The answer for STM members may well be collaboration, but it will be fascinating to see how they attain it.


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1 Comment so far

  1. T.J. Elliott on March 25, 2015 23:05

    “The nature of networks is collaboration…”
    David, your brilliant and insightful first paragraph has become my ‘Knowledge Quote of the Week’ on our internal Yammer platform. However, I fear that the forces arrayed against it — a desire for unilateral control, a fear of the new, an adversion to risk at any level, the power of inertia — remain very powerful as they have been for ages well before the networked and digital. Thanks for another valuable post.