Standing in the crowded halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair is as good a place as any to phantasize about the coming world of self-publishing. After detailed discussion about Plan S, or DUL or Open Access books one can easily become waterlogged by the huge, social, political and commercial pressures built up in our methodologies of getting work to readers. In general terms, intermediaries arise where process is so complex that neither originators nor ultimate users can cope with it without facilitation. So publishing in Europe was a refinement of the eighteenth century role of booksellers, adding selection and financing to the existing self-publishing model of booksellers. In the next two centuries the new business model became so entrenched – and, for some, so profitable, that their successors behaved as if it was ordained by God and nature, and would live for ever. Intermediation will indeed probably be required as far as we can predict, but it is certain to change, and it is not certain to include all of the roles that publishers cherish most deeply.

Two episodes this week re-inforce some of these feelings. In one instance, the scholarly market software company Redlink ( announces an agreement to supply its software toolset to the University of California Press. Nothing unusual here, but something symptomatic. More and more publishers using clever tools to heighten value and increase discoverability. But those software tools are becoming more and more “democratic” – they can be used in good machine learning contexts to help to generate more technical skill at different points in the network, both before and after the “publishing process”. In other words, the more it becomes clear to, say, a funder or a research unit or a university that the divine mystery of publishing devolves to a set of software protocols, the more likely it is, given that publishers cannot control digital dissemination, that the control point for content release will migrate elsewhere. In a previous note I mentioned UNSILO’s manuscript evaluation system with very much the same thought in mind – while the pressure is on traditional publishing to arm themselves with the new intelligent tools for competitive purposes as well as to increase speed and reduce cost, these tools also contain the seeds of a transition to a place where research teams, institutions and finders can do the publishing bit effectively for themselves. So the question left on the table is – what other parts of the processes of scholarly communication are left requiring  intermediary support?

And so the struggle now is to look at the those other parts of the scholarly research and communications process that are hard to gather and bring into focus and analysis. It was interesting in this light to reflect that Web of Science Group and Digital Science are already well down this track. Gathering together peer review and making sense of it (Publons) is the sort of thing that only an outside agency can do effectively, just as collecting and analysing posters (Morrissier) will release layers of value previously unrecognised. And while many bemoan the abject failures in optimizing research funding through effective dissemination and impact of the results, only Kudos have really grasped the nettle and begun to build effective dissemination planning processes. But how can these interventions be put together and scaled? And how can we ensure the dataflows are unpolluted by self-promotion or lack of verification and validation?

Some of these questions cannot be resolved now, but do we know that we are at least moving in a self-publishing direction? Well, Gates Foundation and Wellcome – and perhaps Horizon 2020 seem to think so, even if they use intermediaries to help them. Researchers and academics are substantially self publishers already, producing posters, blogs, tweets, annotations, videos, evidential data, letters and articles online with little assistance. And it was interesting to see the Bowker report of last week which indicated a 38% growth in self-publishing last year to over a million new books in both print and e-publishing, though ebooks are doing far less impressively. And then:

“Since 2012, the number of ISBNs assigned to self-published titles has grown 156 percent. “ 

Of course, this may just reflect consumer trends, but such trends alter attitudes to the possible in other sectors. Certainly the economic impossibility of the academic monograph in many fields will be affected by the growth of a library crowd funding model (Knowledge Unlatched) and this will extend to departmental and institutional publishing in time.

So I left my 51st Frankfurt in buoyant mood, thinking of the day when it is renamed the the Frankfurt Publishing Software and Solutions Fair, held on one floor, and I can once again get into the bar of the Hessicher Hof with a half decent chance of getting a seat – and a drink!

And then, as I was finishing, came this

Open Source for Open Access: The Editoria Story So Far


Plan S was greeted with widespread and intense… silence in the publishing industry. Part of the reaction was governed by the need for rapid analysis to see what it might actually mean. Part of it was sheer disbelief – are taxpayer funded research institutions going to be allowed to create policy which they think is in the interests of science, not business? Listening to a lobbyist tackling an industry minister on this topic this week, I had a distinct impression that if the perception of funders is that PlanS is good for science, it will be very hard for commercial interests to change the the climate of opinion. Nor, I think, will the argument that I have seen from Joe Esposito and others that making it a condition of funding that researchers publish in non-hybrid journals is a major attack on freedom of expression and scholarly independence carry much weight in Europe, even if it has more resonance in the USA. A funding body that says it is using taxpayers money responsibly when it ensures that the outcomes of research are known to the greatest number of taxpayers who funded it and at the least additional cost surely trumps (sorry about that) the commercial sector’s hand. While there must be scope for arguing funders into a slower pace – the plan to have this fully effected by January 2020 may be in place as much as anything to concentrate people’s minds – I have little doubt that the attack on hybrid journals is real and will succeed unless direct political action stops it. This is not however an issue that creates electoral movement, and the political agendas of Europe are pretty full of other things. 

So what does it mean if PlanS succeeds? Matthew Walker, the very knowledgeable analyst at Credit Suisse, points out that the potential effects on two quoted companies that he follows closely are limited. At RELX and at Informa, 4% and 2.5% of gross revenues derive from UK/Europe journal subscription revenues. He calculates that at the group operating profit level, the impact could be 5% and 2.5% respectively. The fact that share prices in both companies have fallen 10% since the summer (H1), and that these falls discount this effect somewhat is the shorter. The longer term thought of the EU with $14 bn in research funds following PlanS, as well as Wellcome and Gates, sharpens the impact. Even if we concede that it will take longer and the big players will find a degree of mitigation, the most immediate effects will be felt not where PlanS intended, but amongst scholarly societies and institutions. For many of these this could be a disaster. The enlightened few , like the Royal Society of Chemistry, are out there promulgating new business models like Read and Publish. They scored a notable success outside of the UK by engaging MIT in this last month. But this is still hybridity by another name. If you are a scholarly society and the whole organisational structure is based around funding derived from journal subscription revenues, PlanS is a threat of potential extinction. 

And some of the other PlanS conditions have equally serious implications. The Hybrido journals are not just a target because of widespread fears that they are (often unintentionally) “double dipping” – charging APCs and taking subscriptions which accidentally cover the same content during embargo periods. By removing embargo periods and demanding immediate release of content under CC BY licence, PlanS removes the “need to subscribe “requirement, while by threatening to cap APCs by reducing what it will pay as part of research grants, funders could end up in control of publishing margins for a wide sector of the industry. Capping APCs will be tough, both in terms of co-ordination and in terms of content – the increasing need to include data, graphics and video in research content widens the range of charges and makes uniformity across disciplines difficult. Some authors will lose prestige, but few will reject funding because of it. 

There will be winners too. Born-OA players like Hindawi and Frontier, and, since all of this is said to extend to books in time, new players in monograph publishing like Knowledge Unlatched. Apart from buying Gold OA journals quickly (availability strictly limited), what are STM publishers going to do? It is one thing saying that it will be slower to take effect than people think , or other parts of the world are different – it is all true – and it is another to say that there will be more mega journals, or that the industry will condense as societies cash in their journal annuity revenues – or there is only space for two big players (a long held belief of my own roundly rejected by most!), but it is harder to turn this into concrete action unless you place it in the context of the current trajectory of change. 

The STM publishing business has known for a decade that the journal door is slowly closing. Those publishers at Frankfurt Book Fair  next week who are not gripping the bar of the Hessicher Hof with whitening knuckles and asking for less water in their Scotch will be hurrying around to the UNSILO stand (Hall 4.2 L 86) to see if modelling manuscript evaluation in AI really works. Ever since publishers realised that their defensive moat of peer review was breached in a network society by the ability of evaluation to be a continuing process from funding to whenever, important publishers have been investing in scholarly workflow, led by Elsevier and Clarivate and Digital Sciences, in oversight of continuous review, in research support services, in improving discovery, in creating discipline mapping and bibliographical tools (, or in creating the dissemination and impact planning (Grow Kudos) that funders want to bake in to research approval and planning. The industry is shifting, and PlanS, by speeding change, may be doing everyone a favour.