Living at high altitudes is often credited with changing brain activity but until I read a piece by an esteemed Outsell colleague, Chuck Richard, (Outsell Insights “IHS to sell GlobalSpec” 24 November last week, I had not realised some of the fuller implications of that. But then again, all companies come to decisions in their own ways, and the manner in which they explain them does not always align exactly with the reasons for making them.

Yet I am still shocked. When IHS bought GlobalSpec in 2012 I hymned them with tributes (A Stroll Down Utopia Road, 13 June 2012). I had followed GlobalSpec since its foundation in 1996. Owned by Warburg Pincus, it did truly belong to the age when it was tough to sell subscriptions to engineers. But it amassed a unique collection of 10 million design briefs and specifications, as well as a library of 50,000 supplier catalogues, 70 e-newsletters and 15 online shows. I thought, in my ignorance, that this was a free workflow directed service just ready for IHS, with all their skills and specialization in engineering markets, to add some analytics and a real workflow productivity element and win hands down. How many of GlobalSpec’s then 7 million users needed to be converted and how much cross selling would take place with the existing IHS engineering strengths I thought was grist to the mill for the ever-active IHS acquisition team. After all, in a world where RBI had moved from over 200 subscription products to less than ten subscription-based, data-fuelled, workflow orientated, focussed information services and solution areas in B2B, and IHS was seen to be working in the same strategic framework, what could possibly go wrong?

The lines in the Investor Day presentation (7 October 2015) which remove GlobalSpec from the IHS roll-call are terse to say the least. On a slide which notes that the plan was to “transition” the company from an advertising-based to a subscription-based revenue model, appears this “Were not able to achieve this objective as market not ready to transition from advertising-based to subscription-based revenue models”. Did investors, hearing this, start to sell RELX shares on the grounds that Knovel could never succeed for Elsevier? Or did they ask what value had been added to those design specs to entice users out of the free into the value-added?

No, I suspect they were wholly unruffled. GlobalSpec, although a real prospect in 2012, has been massively overtaken in the annals of IHS by further waves of acquisition in fresh industrial and commercial areas. Indeed engineering itself is now heavily camouflaged and not mentioned in the deck as a business focus in its own right. A decade ago this company, having burnt its fingers as a portfolio player, decided in the time of Charlie Picasso to redefine itself as a focussed player concentrating on energy and engineering (the latter being very much where the group roots lay). Energy is still there, but a steady stream of important acquisitions over the past five years, culminating in Polk, seem to have distracted attention from engineering. This is now again a massively diversified player with outcrops of activity all over the place. Was there focus in this activity? Perhaps indeed they simply forgot they had GlobalSpec?

Well, we smile at such thoughts, but I can testify to the power of the new in corporate portfolios. Nothing was more powerful than the magnetism of the latest buy in Michael Brown’s Thomson Corporation in my adolescence in this marketplace. These companies had the best leadership practices, the best strategies, the best business models and the best sales plans, and this much was self evident… because we had bought them. Six months later, when the discredited leadership had departed and their successors were trying to explain why it was impossible to to reach the forecasts they had been committed to make, it did not seem to matter – after all, we had usually bought something even newer and shinier in the meanwhile!

Is this what happened to GlobalSpec? Maybe. But whatever the answer what happened to those 7 million registered users. Surely IHS changing the name from GlobalSpec to Engineering 360 did not entirely throw them off the track, even if it wasted the brand asset developed since 1996. And what happened to all that delicious data. Since all of those specifications and design briefs were deposited by users, and all those catalogues submitted and updated by suppliers, it could be said that the data acquisition model came out of the user community. Was none of that data useful in the engineering workflow platform which IHS has built and of which it is justly proud? Before engineering took a back seat to other sectors more newly acquired we might wonder whether any attempt was made to see where the data now to be sold off formerly worked so well in the working lives of engineers, and how it might be re-energized in a value-added service model.

And finally lets turn to all of these engineers who were “not ready” for a subscription-based world. I wonder how such readiness is measured. Is there a formula available in the management schools? Did Netflix have to apply it at the point of deciding whether they could compete with free to air advertising-supported broadcast TV. Or did they simply say “We are confident of a value so powerful that people will want to have it to enhance their lives”. Or, in the case of GlobalSpec, their jobs. Building that have-to-have value is not easy, and takes some of that detailed appreciation of how people work for which IHS was once famous – in engineering. Buying GlobalSpec and selling it again within three years does not represent a failure of markets to recognize what they should do; it represents a failure of management. Either that failure was down to buying the wrong asset in the first place, or it comes down to not deploying it effectively and getting the reward from the investment. Rather than one line on a slide investors might have reasonably expected a “mea culpa”.

The STM Associations London seminar on Publication Impact last week (19 November 2015) seemed oddly like two events, struggling under a single skin. Not hard perhaps to see why the organizer’s had decided to put both the whole immense subject of new techniques and technologies for measuring the reputation of researchers and the worth of science research into the same skin as the measurement of impact and case studies in new techniques, but since I think these subjects are more important than journal publishing itself, the modest number of attendees had a double bounty. Maybe next year STM will give these subjects the space they deserve. There really is too much going on here that is not only important to science research, but vital to the future of science publishing.

I started this debate by introducing the recent Outsell report, written by Deni Auclair (The Impact of Research Funders on Scholarly Communication; August 2015; Deni’s hugely informative paper outlines the sea change that has taken place in measurement since altmetrics, and I wanted to add my own feeling that we are about to see another power surge in the unstable structure of publishing as the middleman role in the transfer of knowledge in research-influenced marketplaces. If the Gates Foundation can grant The New Media Corporation of Austin, Texas, $3.2 million to create personalized learning tools, as it did on 12 November 2015, what is to prevent it from creating article publishing software and circulating it to grant-holding researchers, so that they could prepare and upload articles and data to Dryad or figshare or F1000 for a fragment of the APC cost currently charged in conventional publishing houses? The answer, written large in this seminar for me, is that this happens when they realize that the accumulating costs of APCs are unsustainable, and that sufficient mechanisms are now in the marketplace to measure reputation post-publication to ensure a proper scrutiny of their output and its reasonably accurate ranking with its peers.

The meeting did not address the first of those pre-conditions, but it covered the second in very considerable detail. Stephane Bergmans of Elsevier showed how the European Union is moving from a conservative starting point to a more wide-ranging approach. Kevin Dolby of Wellcome Trust convincingly argued the case for the deep interest of funders in reputation. But, as ever, it was Dave Nicholas who plunged us into the unpleasant realities. When it came to loading your H-Index, it really did make a difference on whether you used Google Scholar or Web of Science or Scopus. Different sourcing did matter in a marketplace where he now recognizes 25 different emerging reputation platforms. 13 of those concerned research (and he rightly bemoaned the fact that only 3 were concerned with teaching quality). And he noted the new mystery being born, especially around the use of blogging and social media in altmetrics. Why don’t ResearchGate publish their ranking formula? Because they are afraid that academics seeking to gain a swift promotion will “game” the system? Or because (my thought) they want to preserve the magic until they get an offer from Springer Nature or Wiley?

How do you optimize without cheating? Charlie Rapple and Kudos had the answers to how to explain what the research was about and how it was relevant. Noting time-based correlations between communications and reactions helped you measure whether scholarly peer group communication worked, and Fiona Murphy, who followed her, was able to bang the drum for data deposits as a route to reputation enhancement. It struck me how slow we have been to give data its due: only now are we creating data citation principles (the DC), and using the Resource Identification initiative – and, above all, developing some good practice standards in altmtrics usage and evaluation (NISO). PlosONE showed how they have wobbled (sorry, I mean “developed”) over the years, and how post-publication review and evaluation becomes a critical concern if peer review becomes a simple checklist to technical compliance. But while some publishers in the audience may have sniggered, as I did, we must recognize that this really is the future: a few branded high visibility lead journals, and large databases of articles and data, branded but subsuming the current forest of small second and third level titles, often created to pursue a line of enquiry that nobody followed and inappropriate in times of cross-disciplinary emphasis.

And at the end of the day came a presentation of progressive good sense from Inez van Korlaar, the Director of Product Strategy at Elsevier working in this area. She is managing the soft launch of Mendeley Stats, and she is clearly continuing the line of thinking that has taken her company from Science Direct to SciVal. If publishers are to remain in the game they have to provide value at the point of use to all participants. Moving against the ResearchGates and of the world is one thing: finding a greater utility edge by turning Mendeley Stats into a social network is another. It must be right to look at the economic consequences of research, via patent analysis for instance, just as it must be right to use Elsevier’s Newsflo toolset as well as content from Altmetrics to flesh out a multi-faceted reputation analysis. They have experimented with Elsevier’s citation and usage alerting, via the 65,000 users of MyResearchDashboard. Now Mendeley Stats are two weeks old, and it will be fascinating to see if it provides a way of keeping publishers in position as key intermediaries, or whether the rise of the funders erodes that positioning fatally.

To the indefatigable Anthony Watkinson, who orchestrated and moderated this event should go the last word. He pointed out that the Watson-Crick paper on the Double Helix was never peer reviewed at all: it was simply sent by Sir Lawrence Bragg with a covering note suggesting that Nature should publish it – which they did. Who needs reputation management when that is the role of your head of department?

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