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!


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