“You can write about Online Events all you like”, said my friendly but critical Events industry client, over a decade ago. “But nothing will change in the slightest while margins for real events are where they are”. And he was quite right. I went on writing and very little did change (perhaps not so unusual!). Every now and then an online seminar or lead-in presentation was added. Or some one made a speech about the digital future of events. I made one in Seoul some years ago to a Ufi. (the trade body of the events industry) annual convention. Every one was very polite afterwards. All of them emphasised that tracking future developments was important to them. However, like St Augustine’s prayer on celibacy they wanted to reach that glorious future – “but not yet, Oh Lord.” 

The present pandemic, many very knowledgeable people tell me, may shake us free of this complacency. Certainly that was the view at an excellent seminar last week run by Zapnito. There Susanna Kempe, with her huge experience in the UK at events marketing, was at pains to point out that we should be clear about the functions of events and about the way in which they were experienced. Taking a more forensic approach to the motivations of people attending real events is probably needed in my view to get behind the misleading fog created by tick box satisfaction surveys and into the driving requirement that makes people come to the same city year after year, often to see the same people. The Zapnito founders, Charles Thiede and Jon Beer, together with Susanna and Maggie McGary, debated the differences between audience and community in a way which seems to me vital to the way in which we approach the next stages. The seminar is here: https://the100-live.zapnito.com/users/1-jon-beer/videos/63724-zapnito-advisor-webinar-recording. You can also check out the dummy online event modelling they have been doing.

But let’s think a moment about that distinction. Getting an audience of unrelated people to an event is of course very different to assembling a community of precisely aligned interests. A competitive community (publishers) is different again from a supply chain (author/publisher/delivery and storage technology/ librarian/reader). But after 52 consecutive trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair (until my knees understandably gave out) I noted that purpose and function had shifted radically. The Fair as the only place where you could negotiate rights and translation contracts gave way to the place where you signed what had been negotiated online and eventually to the place where you orchestrated P.R and made new contacts. If the Börsenverein and the Frankfurt Messe were to create a 24/7, 365 day a year online dealing room with seminars, training, translation, book able video rooms, secure transactions and document exchange – and I  am amongst many who wonder why they have never done this – it would still not prevent hordes of publishers arriving to greet each other every October and making it impossible to get a drink in the bar of the Hessicher Hof Hotel. But less would come from each company, it would all get very much more focussed, and of course very much cheaper. 

Zapnito is very much about proliferating the tools that enable community inter-action. This is vital at the present time, and communities of interest (those who have a financial or intellectual reason for wanting or needing to share the same virtual space) are very much the easy target. Audience is harder, but the major film companies and their distributors will come back with evidence as soon as they start, as they now plan, to release films for online streaming premiere whilst cinemas are not available. The launch of a new car does not rely only on the Geneva Motor Show, but is already a multiple media event, and will soon be driven and organised around its virtual positioning. 

And there will be advantages too. Ever been to an event carrying with you a list of people you wanted to meet? The apologies of the assistant with the stand diary.? “I told him you would be here at three but he’s not back from lunch.” Now, if mutually agreeable, you can have a video appointment in a virtual meeting room, or a group discussion. You will always have the right documents whatever turn the discussion takes. And the community network application can bring you news, research, job changes and promotions, jobs classifieds, results, rankings and valuations. Working within the community application will have real efficiency gains. Ufi estimate the economic impact of closing the worlds trade fairs as follows:

Related to the exhibition industry, €81.6 billion (USD 88.2 billion) of total economic output will not be generated by the end of Q2. Broken down into regions, the respective total economic impact that will not be generated is:

Sounds as if getting those digital alternatives in place has moved sharply up the priority list!

The current coronavirus crisis – for it is a crisis whether complacent politicians decide we are in “delay” mode or in a “contain” strategy – also asks questions of scholarly communications which have needed answers for at least 20 years. The best of my publishing friends in the industry have always espoused a service ethic – “we are there to ensure quality control and effect dissemination” – while for many of them that could only be done by a peer reviewed article in a subscription journal. As virologists scramble for a vaccination, and every form of current media is looking at the impact of what is happening to us, those who work in scholarly communications have questions of their own to consider. 

And I am not just thinking about speed, though I did meet a publisher recently who spoke candidly of his article backlog and his two year voyage from acceptance to publication. If market forces really did work in science publishing, he said, he should be out of business, but reputation and prestige kept him in place. A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal (22-23 February) devoted its review page to the question of speed (“Sharing Data Faster to Fight an Epidemic”). It pointed out an increased usage of pre-print servers to speed transmission of new virology findings. virological.org, medRxiv and bioRxiv are cited. It is said that the latter two are getting about ten papers a day on the coronavirus issue: medRxiv has so far published 105 and bioRxiv 67. Later a contrast is drawn with New England Journal of Medicine, which at this point was receiving between 20 and 45 coronavirus papers a day and had so far published 10. 

But this is not an argument about the differences and qualities of peer reviewed journals and pre-prints, whatever the WSJ might imagine. It is about the speed and efficiency with which the science available gets to the researcher. It points to the need to get the editorial workflow as fully automated as possible. While this is easy in, say, Plagiarism checking, it is harder checking references and citations. Getting the data associated with the article and ensuring the ability to at least attempt reproducibility are more complex. But here we are, in a race for information yet again, and the publisher, of all people, must appear not as the delaying factor but as the facilitating factor. This is the time to search the archives and bring together historical collections of apposite precedental material. Now is the time for collaborative actions by market competitors to ensure the completion of collections. 

Once information, of whatever type, is publicly available, how soon does it get to the right places? In an increasingly Open Access world, it is even easier for things to get overlooked. And if the vital communication is not even an article? We could be moving towards the day when specialist researchers register to get alerts. The social media function and the publishing function, become one. Posting something with this server or that journal will at least mean that every researcher who wants to be has been alerted. 

Finally, what if the vital information is not an article? Maybe it’s a procedural correction. Or a reproducibility attempt that failed, or simply a description of something noted. Almost 20 years ago I started writing about the Cell Signalling Alliance and their huge datasets held on the supercomputer at UC San Diego. Scientists looking at the chemical and electrical communications between cells are in the frontline in cancer research, immunology, and, of course, viral and bacterial infection. The teams involved, from many different institutions, were, when I last looked, in the habit of recording observations, findings and data as elaborated data sheets which they called Molecular Pages (http://www.signaling-gateway.org/aboutus/). They rightly regarded this, once placed in the relational database built for them by Nature, as a new publishing form. Each page had a DOI. Peer review was community-based and ongoing. And we have to remember our place: we are facilitators serving communities. 

We seem to be in great haste to write off innovation before it has failed enough to have a chance of succeeding. The saying of Mark Twain, to the effect that all successful decisions are the product of experience, and the best experience is gained by failing at something, seems appropriate. This applies to pre-prints and many other things. If the scholarly communications community, including its publishers, is to respond to the pandemic challenge, then we have to really understand the urgent needs of research teams for the appropriate information of assured quality at the right time, and persist until we have it right, regardless of forms or conventions. And as the results of that flow back through our processes, we will stop talking about trivia like “digital transformation” and start gripping the real customer needs with the more than adequate skills and technologies at our disposal.

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