When we look back at Covid 19 in the Internet Archive, and I am hoping some of us will, then we will reflect amongst other things about our extraordinary tolerance about Lists. Yes, I do mean Lists. “Five hand sanitizers that break up the lipids without removing the skin”. “seven non-fatal ways of silencing small children in closed spaces” “fifteen ways to use a WhataApp group to persecute a family you no longer see anymore”. Well, gentle reader, now it is your turn. Here are “three ways to really add value to research without giving someone a pointless freebie”.

I am sure you have noticed the trend and been as impressed as I was though I am not sure who started it. All through March the press releases of virtuous giving tinkled into my inbox.”  YZ Publishing are pleased to announce that they have collected together all of their Covid 19 research papers and made them FREE for researchers“. It turned into a minor epidemic in its own right. And it was done with the very best of intentions, by good people anxious to help. And my heart goes out to the PR directors. Once YZ had done it, how could BC not follow? But, typically of the gesture politics of our times, no one really thought through what this might mean for the end-user. While the wider public might stand in awe of the beneficence and public spiritedness of great publishing houses, researcher reaction was less certain. “It takes some nerve to take articles that I have already paid for through my library subscription, put them in a nice data file and then hand them back to me as a gift!” was one possible reaction. “if I want to search it has to be driven by my own parameters – who are these people to say what is relevant to me or to Covid 19″ was another. 

And there was a third, worse possible reaction. For some researchers these well intentioned efforts acted as a sharp reminder that the research is not available from a single source, that you cannot text or data mine it universally, and that it is held behind paywalls and in siloes which have different rules of access, different data structures, different pricing formulae. In an age when traditional publishing is clinging to vestiges of the subscription world through transformative agreements to make the transfer to an Open Access world as slow and painless as possible, these are not good points to underline. And they did not show an industry deeply concerned about what researchers actually wanted in this moment of crisis, like faster processing of research findings already in the system, or the ability to more effectively cross reference and index the material available. Only three companies or groups passed the test of market-tuned usefulness, leaving aside the preprint servers (who have really demonstrated their usefulness in crisis, to the frustration of one traditional publishing critic who insists they will fall over tomorrow). 

So my list of three now includes: 

1. Cactus Communications https://covid19.researcher.life/ This application, powered by their recent acquisition of the AI company UNSILO brings together references to millions of  potentially relevant resources. And not just articles: included here is less formal material, reviews, blogs, podcasts and problem solving exercises. “a platform that collates research and datasets from different countries, irrespective of the language in which they were published; allows researchers to ask questions and pose hypotheses to other researchers; and curates expert-driven editorial content that simplifies and explains the latest research.” So, a research aide that is practical, multi-lingual and targeted at the problems that researchers are really facing. 

2. OASPA member response: ”Scholarly publishers are working together to maximize the efficiency of peer review, ensuring that key work related to COVID-19 is reviewed and published as quickly and openly as possible.

The group of publishers and scholarly communications organizations — initially comprising eLife, Hindawi, PeerJ, PLOS, Royal Society, F1000 Research, FAIRsharing, Outbreak Science, and PREreview — is working on initiatives and standards to speed up the review process while ensuring rigor and reproducibility remain paramount. The group has issued an ​Open Letter of Intent, https://oaspa.org/covid-19-publishers-open-letter-of-intent-rapid-review/​, and is launching an initiative to ensure a rapid, efficient, yet responsible review of COVID-19 content.” Here again is a real willingness to grasp an issue of researcher concern – how much useful input is trapped in a three month or more peer review cycle – and do something about it. 

3. Digital Science https://www.digital-science.com/blog/news/readcube-launches-the-research-pass-program This new program brings some publishers together, but there are huge omissions, notably Elsevier. It is  a researcher-orientated initiative and deserves praise for that. Of course it is using “free” as a hook to attract people to material that the system has already acquired, and of course it does not reduce the underlying silo effect: it just disguises it intelligently. But you can hear the controlling voices of the publishers in the background “you can apply for text and data mining “means” we can elect…” Temporary URLs encompassing these data can be exported to social media and third parties (great) but you cannot download or print from them (we are in control). As ever, Digital Science thinks researcher first, but is limited by its data providers. 

The proponents of traditional subscription publishing seem to believe that the hard times that are coming will kill preprints and freeze Open Access. They seem to forget that it will decimate subscriptions as well. Future research will more often be reference and data based, which these players in my list have grasped. Concept searching will grow in importance. We all have to get closer to thinking how we improve researcher workflow and outputs. There can be no doubt that in recession we shall create cheaper, quicker and easier ways of evaluating and reporting research. And if today’s publishers do not accomplish this, a raft of new players will emerge to do the job.

Pity the poor consultant! What happens when the list of changes you have predicted for the next decade largely take place inside a fortnight? I heard Richard Susskind (NetLaw Media. 14 April) describe this dilemma this week as he indicated progress towards taking UK courts of law online, and the way it has suddenly accelerated. I had lived comfortably with a matrix of predictions that I thought would not expire within my working, or indeed temporal, life. Now I feel like a player – who had not anticipated the possibility – suddenly being called upon to play Extra Time!

None of us can doubt that the Covid 19 pandemic is accelerating change. Netflix has doubled its subscriptions and overtaken Disney. Zoom has moved from 10 million participants a day to 200 million. It is easy to say that habits acquired in an emergency will never be lost, and that the wider exposure of business and professional workers to the tools of automated workflow will create value and save time and money in ways that will never be subsequently reversed. But what does that look like in lay terms? Here is an excerpt from a real estate agent’s report (Knight Frank and Rutley) on what is happening in lockdown to UK planning/ zoning enquiries:

“Looking to the future, we may subsequently see councils and planning agents using technology in a more sophisticated way.

Local authorities were already poised to benefit eventually from the roll out of virtual reality development tours and the use of drones.

Already, technical engineers are sending out drones to do surveys and site visits. The ability to do this was available before the virus, but it is becoming more prevalent, particularly now that being on site is not possible currently.

There was also a lot of work being done to create virtual reality models rather than relying on two dimensional drawings for planning decision making. While it was not ready to be rolled out, now that councils have experienced adopting new technology, plans like this could be accelerated.

Currently, a lot of planning meetings focus on 2D drawings of new developments but in the future, they will have access to 3D visualisations that allow officials and interested parties to explore schemes from all sorts of different perspectives. This would have a significant impact on the planning process, particularly for public engagement. It would allow planners to reach a much broader audience …” 

So here we see a group of workflow technologies, already in use but not widely penetrated, suddenly becoming the only way in which the work can be accomplished. And the realisation that this releases additional value to the process (3D instead of 2D) means that it becomes very hard to go back. 

A similar story can be told around the automation of the judicial system in the UK. Professor Richard Susskind, the UK’s resident expert on the the future of law, (his latest book is “Online Courts and the Future of Justice”) digs deep into the issues behind the move to online judicial systems. If the courts are a service, rather than an institution, then they need to be accessible and efficient. The backlogs of India (30 million cases) and Brazil (100 million) are the opposite. Last week 80% of the business done in British courts suddenly went virtual, either as “paper” hearings merely exchanging and agreeing documents, or as oral hearings, or, most successfully, as video sessions. Suddenly access to the courts is transformed. And while new inequalities come to light  in terms of the technical abilities of lawyers and clients, Richard’s persuasive vision of the lawyer emerging as a knowledge engineer fits the pattern in other spheres of professional life as we move to a data intensive society using intelligent decision support tools. 

Something like this is happening in every sector of business society. This does not mean that there will not be reaction. Just this week, as Cambridge University Press announced that it was ceasing to produce in print its academic journals – “for the duration”- some conservative commentators were saying that some librarians will always want print. This is very true. But their numbers decline every year, new journals are created all the time that have never seen print, and while conservation and curation remain issues, they are not the issues which will make change falter. 

So really the advisory task before us is much simpler than envisaging change beyond the bounds of current predictions. It will be much more useful to look hard at the forced change of the here and now, then imagine those changes factored into the circumstances of a post-pandemic world trying to recover from an economic recession. We need to do it job by job, workflow by workflow, sector by sector until we really understand the accelerated networked society being formulated in the ashes of the “real” world which we have been forced to relinquish. The task now is not to try to predict change, but to get our heads into a place where we can look back and envisage a society that has changed. Only then will be be able to see the gaps and discontinuities, the commercial and social opportunities, which will drive the information marketplaces of tomorrow.