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!

Dear Kent. First of all this is a letter of admiration. I love your new journal, The Geyser, and I was an early subscriber. I admire your career and I love your writing. You display truly enviable skills, at once eloquent and expressive, which distinguish a true journalist, and your prolixity, if sustained, matches the rest of the commentators in this sector put together.

But, and their is always a “but”, it seems to me that you are in danger of over balancing, and I worry whether you are developing a monomania which disguises some of the generic developments taking place in scholarly communications overall. In your recent coverage I have felt that you were pursuing a witch hunt against the originators of Plan S which tended to swamp rational comment on anything else. On the day when Clarivate announced radical changes to their finance structure that could materially improve their competitive positioning, what did the Geyser give us but another flood of innuendo? I have never met Robert-Jan Smits, or indeed the founders of Frontiers, but if you continue to make veiled allegations about them without one iota of solid evidence you will be widely dismissed as another conspiracy theorist with no real credibility. Guilt by association has never been attractive, as Joe McCarthy demonstrated. I was a consultant for Robert Maxwell for two years, but you would find it hard to argue that I am expert in pension fraud as a result. In Europe, by the way, we do not generally attack public servants as if they were politicians, since they have no right of reply and we have not politicised executive functions to nearly the same level as the US, and jobs like the one Smits holds do not change with elections.

And the thought that you are slightly misunderstanding Europe leads me to another thought. We need to remember that science journal publishing is around 150 years older than the USA, and from its seventeenth century beginnings was recharged by the huge nineteenth century advances in German chemistry and British engineering, materials science, medicine and evolutionary biology. While these in turn contributed to the US industrial revolution, the published research remained in European hands – which helps to explain the dominance  of European publishing in historical STM – Elsevier, Springer Verla, Nature, and companies like Blackwell and VCH (both acquired by Wiley at the beginning of a long term consolidation of these assets but both still Europe-based). Is it then any wonder that it is European interests who have a primary concern about re-regulating this market in the light of changes in technology, communications, user expectations and taxpayer interests? And Europe is different from the USA and will solve this problem differently!

Then, I find this week, that the unfortunate Smits is under fire from you again for never having published an article in a Peer reviewed journal. He is a policy administrator, not a research scientist, for goodness sake! How many peer review journals did Dirk Haank or Ron Mobed publish in? If the answer is none, it probably stems from them being publishing managers, not research scientists. And would it have been helpful if poor Mr Smits had got something into a peer reviewed policy journal. Almost certainly not, given that there is now serious doubt in very many places over whether peer review at point of publication is intellectually or financially worthwhile. Rigorous review prior to funding awards, and rigorous examination of the impact and reaction to published results seems more in tune to a networked scholarly society. It is conceivable that pre-publication peer review has become redundant. Things do change, even in publishing.

Much the same comments also apply to your vigorous defence of “academic freedom”. I have heard the same elsewhere in the US but seldom in Europe. One is struck by how quickly some publishing advocates become upholders of academic freedom when traditional publishing is faced with economic deprivation. Publishing’s skills have a glorious future in scholarly communication, and there are real margins to be made, but not by hanging on to bogus arguments about ideological notions which barely, if ever, existed. Did academics really have what you describe, the freedom to publish where they liked? Or did they publish where they could in desperate efforts at self promotion for tenure and grant support, rather than some altruistic wish to present their findings to the appropriate subscribing audience? It seems to me that if the government\taxpayer or charitable foundation who funds the research says “and we want the results to be available to all comers with no let or hindrance”, then you are arguing that some social crime is being committed. What ever happened to those great American adages that once filled the airwaves “Follow the Money”. “Listen to the Market”. And how much financial reward did academics get for Freedom to publish? As I recall it, they were mostly forced to give up their copyrights in order to secure this hallowed Freedom!

When the histories are written, we will probably see the 1990s as the time of greatest swing to the dominance of the private sector. Dirk Haank piloted the Big Deal environment that laid library budgets to waste, and a number of commercial publishers boasted of +50 % Ebitda, and talked to investors about “have to have” markets that could not fail as long as taxpayer cash flowed into research, universities and their libraries. By 2007 when markets fell and taxpayers began to talk about value for money, I found myself taking on the role of Chief Advisor to the UK House of Commons Select Committee enquiry into Open Access. We called publishers to give evidence – how much, the committee asked Richard Charkikn, then in charge of Nature, would it cost to get an OA article into Nature. £10k, came the answer. We called Harold Varmus to give evidence, and he outlined PLOS, and in particular PLOS One. The committee, regardless of political bias, felt that a question had been answered. I then accompanied Varmus to Frankfurt, where I interviewed him in front of the STM conference. Have you ever learnt anything from publishers, I asked him. Well yes, came the reply. PLOS One is a publishing response to our (then) funding shortfall. Technical and methodological review, no fundamental peer review to keep costs down, low price point, high value, resulting in high volume and good brand reflection from the other PLOS journals. A good publisher was lost when he became a great scientist!

The pendulum I am describing here is still swinging and has a way to go, and then, like all these things it will swing back. Meanwhile, in data and analytics and machine learning and research support services and AI and through out scholarly communication there are a multiplicity of roles for risk capital and publishing skills. Journals will not survive as they are, articles will change in media and definition, research results will reach users in semi and then completely automated ways. Most readers will be machines. Those who know as much as you know can give the informed and critical commentary markets need. Please do not let us get confused with nostalgia, ideology and conspiracy theory on the way.

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