A small blogging industry has built up around the upsides of isolation during the current pandemic. I don’t want to add to it here, except to remark that the cancellation of a number of publishing events has forced me into other channels, away from my usual haunts where industry colleagues assure each other that whatever happens in terms of change, subscription services, paywalls, impact factors and restricted copyright re-use will see them into retirement. And then it’s someone else’s problem. Since I have a constitutional requirement to keep reminding them that Change is not a measurable process: as soon as you produce a chart that maps it’s steady progress and have used it to reassure investors and stakeholders that they have nothing to fear in the short term, then you suddenly find the graph line around your neck and strangling you. Think Open Access and forget complacency. 

So this month and last I wasn’t at a book fair or even in a bar loosely attached to a book fair. Instead I was listening to world experts like Richard Susskind talking about digital law courts last month, and in May it has been a joy to get to the Open Publishing Fest, organised by Adam Hyde. And of course I have enjoyed those Bob Stein sessions on the slow re-interpretation of the meaning of “book” in a digital networked world. I never tire of the subject or it’s pioneers. But my real joy has been three sessions I attended on micro-publishing. In part this is they were run by librarians and academics with genuine expertise hard won in practice. Partly because of the manner of the discourse – no participant left unthanked, every effort made to acknowledge the pioneering work of others. And partly because all of these professors or researchers or curation librarians were outstanding experts in publishing, running fully fledged and successful publishing operations within the academic world. I soon found that I had much to learn from them. 

MicroPublishing in this context means the publication of short, single experiment, peer reviewed OA articles, with DOIs and metadata to make them citable and discoverable. Typically this might be supplementary or ancillary material that might have been once grouped into a major research program report, delaying it and making it too dense or bulky. Or it might be work on reagents that has genuine scientific interest but, as an incidental finding, only clutters the main report. And MicroPublishing might be a first chance for a post grad or even a student doing lab support work to get their name onto a collaborative publication for the first time. And in all of this work of adding small pieces to the jigsaw and making sure they did not get lost or overlooked – curation is clearly at the heart of these efforts – I heard  nothing described in terms of workflows or process  that would not have been identical in a commercial environment. And that is important. There is a great deal of bogus hype around “publishing expertise”. If you are clever enough to be a Professor of Genomics, then mastering publishing does not seem to be a huge intellectual challenge. And the digitally networked world has democratised all processes like publishing. We can all be publishers now – and we all are! 

But who are these MicroPublishing people? They are women and men of a similar type to those who I have written about for a decade when using Cell Signalling as an example. In this instance the field is data related to genomics, involving research institutions holding and curating data around MODs – Model Organism Databases. Many were members of the Alliance of Genomic Resources. WORMBase at Caltech were clearly influential with this group, especially in software development. The GOC-gene oncology consortium – has all these groups working together to create ontologies covering all the taxa involved: I noted FLYBase, XENBase and TAIR (Drosophila – fruit flies – frogs and mustard plants) amongst the participants, though no MODs for rats or mice. The one thing they have in common is collaboration around common needs. They have now re-invented themselves as fully fledged publishers of their own work and I left three sessions at Open Publishing Fest thinking that everyone who works in scholarly communications should be very attentive indeed to how they work and what they are doing. 

And we should be attentive not just because of the competitive element. I have a 30 year record of saying that the competitor to the information provider in a digital network is the user doing it for himself, and I am not altering that view now. But we really need to pay attention because this is where and how innovation takes place. This is where and how needs are discovered. If granularity, discoverability and speed to market are the critical issues here, then those are the issues that we must attend to, instead of packing articles with greater amounts of supplemental material, holding articles in peer review until they are “complete” or using citations to game journal impact factors. Above all, we have to remember that scholarly communication is communication by and for scholars. They will, and are, re-inventing it all the time. Rather than propagandising the virtues of “traditional publishing” commercial publishers should be forming relationships that help change take place cost-effectively and at scale.

“Hey, we don’t use those words anymore!” And I wasn’t even paddling around in the minefields of sexual and racial nomenclature, where people of my age step at their peril in daily risk of standing on a verbal IED. My colleague had just used the expression “STM”, and I was hurrying to point out how limited, by domain, discipline and format, that expression now was and how little it contained of where “scholarly communications” now was. He looked grumpy on screen, and about to protest so I used newly acquired meeting management skills, muted him, and addressed the rest of the virtual room. “if we use expressions like STM, we not only ignore HSS, but we also live in the pretend world that says that communications can only be recognised if they are clothed in pre-digital forms like books or monographs or articles in journals. Academic research of all types has always been about much more in communication terms.”

If we look at the workflow of researchers, or indeed of most professionals and many business people, we quickly see, in a digitally networked age, that if the screen is the viewer then a whole mass of communications pass across it in the course of our work. Some of these are trivial in essence, though they may have vital importance in a moment. Others are important long form productions, though it is rare for us to deal with them at length. Thus while it can be important for a researcher to review a scholarly article from end to end, it is more likely to be found in searches that are directed at methodologies, or references and citations, or as a result of a concept search. And bobbing along in this broad bitstream with carefully crafted books and articles are items of less formal content: blogs, reviews, annotations (hypothess.is has now passed 10 million annotations as at 8 May), nuggets of micro-publishing of all types. And thanks to the efforts of the good people at ORCID and CrossRef and millions of individual scholars we can swim in this great river because good, not yet great, metadata exists to interconnect the items. 

But some artefacts of scholarly enquiry have not fared so well. Evidential data is a prime example, though improvements are now taking place in some disciplines in the interconnection of articles to data held in repositories. But researchers do not only write: they also speak, present and debate. For a long time the content derived from this has been inaccessible. Any researcher who dreamt of a search in which one of the results would be a five minute relevant video extract from a conference speech was doomed to frustration. Despite the “when we return to paper post-pandemic” fogies, academics have been including programmable graphs, software, videos and audio in digital articles for many years. It was the conferences that got lost, or isolated and disconnected on the site of a scholarly society. Yet it is clear that in the conference workflow that we find the important early signs of results and early stage success indicators. 

Now two young companies are making determined efforts to close the gap around conferences and bring the posters and all the other content  into searchable view. I have mentioned morressier.com here, but this is what ACS, a recent partner, said: “Morressier was selected as the platform for SciMeetings due to their commitment to developing tools that enable conferences posters, presentations, abstracts, datasets, videos, and supporting files to be widely discoverable”. Moressier has gone through the long slog of building content scale, and can now reasonably expect the market, as we either move out of the pandemic travel restrictions or into a more virtual world of conferences, to flow in their direction. 

All of which makes Underline Science (underline.io) even more interesting. Here is a conference platform built for science conference events. Nine months old, it’s appearance just as many scientific meetings were being cancelled or postponed was fortuitous. It’s early concentration has been upon meetings in AI and robotics, reflecting the research interests of its founder, Alex Lazinica, also co-founder of IntechOpen and himself a former researcher. Those who attended the virtual AAMAS conference in Auckland last week saw citable lectures, presentations and transcripts. The ability to move from language to language adds a necessary but impressive dimension, especially with key languages like Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and English. In a manner reminiscent of Vitek Tracz’s video interviews with great scientists, lectures will be divided into “chapters” (how the ghosts of those old formats linger!”). This will help ensure that elements are discoverable as packets. As it develops more functionality and more polish  this service will turn into a basic way of providing conference searchability in an Open Science world. At the moment holding conferences at all is hard to justify unless you live in New Zealand. But in the development of these two companies it is easy to see parts of the research, alerting and intelligence cycle in scholarly communications that will have moved forward decisively as a result of the pandemic.