You must have noticed the similarities. Tortuous negotiations. Disagreement within  the parties ranged on each side, as well as between the parties themselves. You go to meetings on these subjects and come away feeling no confidence in good sense prevailing, or that the obvious objectives – the welfare and happiness of European and UK citizens or the improvement of access to taxpayer funded research – are really top of anyone’s agenda. When the arguments are ideological they are usually perverse, and beneath each perversity is usually some self-seeking advantage promoting the arguer’s self interest. The temptation, in both cases, to say “a plague on both your houses” is almost overwhelming, and yet…

….the one issue may dictate the lives and working conditions of my children and grandchildren, while the other materially affects the condition of scholarly communication, something I have been committed to for the last 30 Years. One cannot simply disengage. So when the nice man from the big STM publisher said to me at the end of a recent debate, one of so many, that he really needed me  to tell my publisher friends the truth, and state exactly what fate awaited them. “And, look,” he said “spell out what people like Elsevier should do. Shutter the company and plant potatoes? What strategy should they pursue? You appear to think that the day will eventually come when scholars will just publish directly to the network, so you owe it to Elsevier and the rest to make it clear how they manage change, or just twiddle their thumbs in the gathering darkness…” 

I recall saying something lame about trade-publishers creating community as advertising declined. 

But I also felt a tug of conscience. Call yourself an advisor and yet, having defined the need for change, stop short of defining what to do? Seems a little less than courageous, or even honest. So here is my formula for preserving Elsevier’s many great strengths and recreating it’s brand value, offered in the knowledge that it will have little or no impact. Inside of Elsevier’s parent compan, RELX, there is a classical study of digital regeneration. Whenever I ask the team who did it how the same team , over a ten year cycle but within a 20 year timeframe, got the impetus to do it, “fear of being sold off and broken up “comes to the fore, and indeed I can recall times when that threat was very public in the markets. But that team turned over 200 subscription magazines in every business vertical, most with with falling advertising and plunging margins, into seven or so data services and solutions companies, focused on discrete fields like avionics or agriculture or HR or fine chemicals. And, with ReedExpo, it has returned to being a profitable sector. So, rather than selling Elsevier to private equity, which is the normal way of re-investing and reconditioning a tired cash cow, does RELX have to offer Elsevier an internally constructed life support system in order to build out its next stage of development under controlled conditions? And what might an RBI solution for Elsevier look like?

And in any case the fear of sale may not work for Elsevier. In last year’s financial results, reported in February this year, RELX recorded £1,905 m in operating profit, or which £942 m came from Elsevier. In other words, the reconstruction of Elsevier has to be an internal RELX task because some 40% 0f margin is at stake, and despite the stellar performance of Lexis Risk Analysis, and the real strength in events and B2B, the inevitable message to the new CEO at Elsevier at the beginning of this month will have been “Please rebuild the trust of the marketplace and reposition us vis a vis the threats of boycott from Norway to California via Germany, and do please reposition us in terms of Plan S and  the attack on hybrid journals, but please do not threaten the 37% margin you produce.” And there is a way of doing this, and it does take ten years, smaller margins, more major investment, but at the end you are in a strong position in a market where content is created and exposed by researchers and institutions themselves – the support task is linking it for discovery and analysis.

The process has three stages:

Easy for a consultant to change the world in three paragraphs, and since I have now predicted it, there is no chance of it ever taking place. But in scholarly communication’s own global warming, a very big piece of the ice flow is about to break off, and the remedies must be radical, as we know from the actions we are not taking elsewhere!

First, an apology. I have started to write this piece every week in the past three. Then something happens… and then something else happens… and then I wait for the inevitable something else. And during these hesitations, I have the same feeling that I had when the music industry fell over, or when the regional newspaper industry sank into a grey dusk from which there is no return, or when post 2007 advertising declines became permanent and changed the nature of B2B publishing forever, decimating trade magazines and creating a new industry around community and workflow and solutions. There are many different network effects, but they all stem from the obvious fact: when a digitally networked society, grouping or industry finally moves over to complete reliance on digital communication, they shed the residual forms and appearances of the analogue world which for safety and reassurance they had carried with them into the new digital world. This process, slow at first, becomes a tsunami of change by the end. Once it is over, the balance of network power has moved decisively from producer or intermediary to first author and end user.

In scholarly communications these two are the same. And the people who employ them and fund their research are similarly a part of the same network power shift. History may be surprised that commercial interests were as dominant as they were in scholarly communications in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, using a powerful combination of prestige brands, control of peer review and the ability to ensure  impact and dissemination. We should neither mourn nor celebrate the passing of this age. There are other useful jobs to be done in the network to create value and improve frictionless access to knowledge, and we need the energy and the commercial support of erstwhile publishers to create the added value needed in this software driven world. My task, meanwhile, is simply to try to track the cracks of change in the plaster and see where they lead. And in the last few weeks the cracks have turned into a tracery. Hence the hesitation.

Let’s start at the most recent point and work backwards. The Springer Nature announcement that they were working with ReseachGate on a fair sharing policy has elements that run right through the tracery of fissures. It tells us that commercial players have no commercial reason to do anything but compete, and that Springer Nature, Thieme, CUP and in time others want to be seen as more user supportive in this regard than, others. This is not for me a new form of permitted “syndication” – simply a gracious concession to license what users were doing anyway and remove some friction. It also says that in the games yet to be played, many people see tracking usage of the traceable communication as an important source of information, and potentially of revenues. The pressures felt by players like Springer Nature and Wiley as they at once try to differentiate themselves from the very clear stance of a market leader like Elsevier while trying to protect their service integrity at the same time are similarly shown in the Projekt DEAL developments. Market leaders get trapped and isolated in market positions they cannot give up, while the rest dissociate and differentiate themselves as best they can, while trying hard not to lose revenue margins in the process. Then sit down and read the reactions to Plan S – Springer Nature were paragons of moderation and reason. The loudest squeals came from those with most to lose – scholarly societies with journal revenue dependence.

So what can the market leader do about this change as they face increasing user criticism? The traditional answer always was “push intransigence as far as it will go, and if those who would change the terms of trade do not come to heel, change your CEO as a way of changing your own policy without losing face”. It may of course be an entire co-incidence that Elsevier’s CEO Ron Mobed retired last week without prior indication that he was about to go, and has been replaced by a very experienced RELX strategy specialist, Kumsal Bayazit. She is warmly welcomed and deserves a good chance to rethink the strategies that have backed Elsevier into a corner with Projekt DEAL and with the University of California. The people who work at Elsevier are, to my certain knowledge, as dedicated as any group I know to the objectives of their customers and the improvement of scholarly communications: they know that at the end of the day the customer has the final say. And let’s think about what the power of a market leader now really means: 20 years ago companies like Elsevier demanded that authors surrendered their copyrights on the grounds that only the publisher was powerful enough to protect them, while today no publisher is powerful enough to shutter SciHub.

And all these things are factors of  digital change. Yet the one which was most striking to me was made by eLife  ( as they outlined their work with Substance and Stencila on the RDS (Reproducible Document Stack). Knowing that we will emerge into a world where journals are a distant memory and articles are unrecognisable, I find the idea of fully integrating video, creating graphs and graphics where users can alter the parameters, run their own variants or introduce their own data, quite fascinating. The arguments around journals and articles today will seem to our successors to be backward looking at the least. As I read the eLife article I recalled the Digital Lab Manual discussions of 20 years ago. Futuristic then, but obviously influential and now pulling through in all of this current work. All of that precursor work must have cost an investment fortune and been written off as losses – by the then market leader, Elsevier. It’s what you need market leaders for!