Dear reader, I am aware that I have been a poor correspondent in recent weeks, but in truth I have been doing something I should have done long ago: gaining some experience of AI companies, talking to their potential customers and reading a book. Lets start at the end and work backwards. 

The book that has eaten the last week of my life is Edward Wilson-Lee’s fine new publication, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, which describes the eventful life of Christopher Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando, and his attempts to build a universal library of human knowledge. Hernando collected printed works, including pamphlets and short works, in an age when many Scholars then still regarded all print as meretricious rubbish. He built a catalogue of his collection, and then realised that he could not search it effectively unless he knew what was in the books, so started compiling summaries – epitomes – and then subject indexing, as well as inventing hieroglyphs to describe the physical properties. In other words, in the 1520s in Seville he built an elaborate metadata environment, but was eventually defeated by the avalanche of new books pouring out of the presses of Venice and Nuremburg and Paris. Wilson-Lee very properly draws many parallels with the early days of the Internet and the Web. 

As I closed this wonderful book, my mind went back to an MIT Media Lab talk in 1985 given by Marvin Minsky. We need reminding how long the central ideas of AI have been with us. At the end of his talk, the Father of AI kindly took questions, and a tame librarian in the front row asked “Professor, If you were looking back from some inconceivably distant date, like, say, 2020, what would surprize you that you have in 2020 but which we do not have now?”. After a thoughtful moment, the great man replies “Well, I guess that I would praise your wonderful libraries, but  still be surprized that none of the books spoke to each other”. At that he left the room, but from then the idea of  books interrogating books , updating each other and creating fresh metadata and then fresh knowledge in the process of interaction has been part of my own Turing test. So I find it easy to say that we do not have much AI in what we call the information industry. We have a meaningless PR AI, a sort of magic dust we sprinkle liberally (AI-enhanced, AI-driven, AI- enabled etc) but few things pass the “books speaking to books and realising things not known before” test.

And yet we can and we will. The key questions are, however: will current knowledge ownership permit this without a struggle, and will there be a dispute over the ownership of the results of these interactions? This battle is already shaping up in academic and commercial research, so it was dispiriting to find when talking to AI companies that it seems there is really no business model in place yet enabling co-operation. Partly this is a problem of perception. Owners and publishers see the AI players as technicians adding another tier of value under contract – and then going away again. The AI software developers see themselves as partners, developing an entirely new generation of knowledge engine. And neither of them will really get anywhere until we all begin to accept the implications of the fact that no one, not even Elsevier, as enough stuff in one place to make it work at scale. And while one can imagine real AI in broad niches — Life Sciences – the same still applies. And if we try it in narrow niches, how do we know that we have fully covered the crossovers into other disciplines which have been so illuminating for researchers  in this generation? In our agriscience intelligent system how much do we include on food packaging, or consumer market research, or plant diseases, or pricing data? 

So what happens next? In the short term it is easy to envisage branded AI – Elsevier AI, Springer Nature AI? I am not sure where this gets us. In the medium term I certainly hope to see some data sharing efforts to invest in AI partnerships and licence data across the face of the industry. It is true that there are some neutral players – Clarivate Analytics for example and in some ways Digital Science – who are neutral to the knowledge production cycle and have hugely valuable metadata collections. They could be a vital building block in joint ventures with AI players, but their coverage is still narrow, and in the course of the last month I even heard a publisher say “I don’t know why we let Clarivate use our data – we don’t get anything for it!”. 

Of course, unless we share our data we are not going to get anywhere. And given the EU Parliament rejection of data metering and enhanced copyright protection last week all these markets are wide open for for massive external problem solving – who remembers Google Scholar? The solution is clear – we need a collaborative model for data licensing and joint ownership of AI initiatives. We have to ensure that data software entrepreneurs get a payback and that investment and data licensing show proper returns, just as Hernando rewarded the booksellers who collected his volumes all across Europe. In a networked world collaboration is often said to the the natural way of working. It is probably the only way that AI can be fully implemented by the scholarly communications world. Hernando died knowing his great scheme had failed. AI will succeed if it shows real benefits to research and those who fund it. As it succeeds it will find other ways of sourcing knowledge if those who commercially control access today are not able to find a way of leading the charge, and not dragged along in its wake. 

Judging by my email in-box, the excitement of the moment seems entirely to concern the success or failure of the Springer Nature IPO. Not Stormy Daniels and the traumas that even money cannot take away. Not whether Theresa May can find the  Alice in Wonderland magic mushroom and thus become small enough to squeeze through the crack between the floorboards called “Brexit escape route”. And least of all, will two parts of the globe ignite in local thermonuclear disaster, allowing the White House Press Secretary to claim that these problems have now been chalked up as Presidential successes, on the grounds that they no longer exist?

But for many in this industry, the Springer Nature IPO has been such a long running saga. Any company that moves out of Bertelsmann into three stages of PE ownership is going to feel some friction around re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. All the PE company investors did well out of Springer over the years, leaving  it now loaded with $3 billion in debt, some of which at least now needs to be cleared down. There has been constant date setting and cancelling since the last years of Emperor Franz Joseph (well, certainly since those of Dirk Haank). Now it just happened all over again. So what’s new?

Really very little. The IPO market in Germany is described as “soft” at the moment, though in recent months Spotify got away in Europe at $30 bn, and the markets seem to be enthused by iZettle, the point of purchase payment system. So maybe it is the story that is wrong, and which led to a $7 bn IPO to drop to a $3.2 bn  part IPO, and then disappear altogether. Like the smile on the Cheshire Cat, we know it will be back, but in the meanwhile, while I am keyboard in hand, indulge me while I offer a little advice to the IM writers employed by the great firm.

“Dear Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan,  I really do hesitate to speak up – your all-knowingness being celebrated in all quarters – but I really did want to ask whether you thought publishing was, well, “sexy”. You see Siemens got their medical technology division away in a good IPO in Frankfurt a week or so ago and that was thought to be pretty exciting, and, as you are Global Co-Ordinators to the Deal at Springer Nature I worry that this grand company may be seen by investors not as the sexy change agent who will set the huge and valuable global research market alight, but as the No 2 player in a very solid market of have-to-have information with a long run of good Ebitda performance (admittedly down from the palmy days of the Big Deal), coping with a few hiccups in recent performance (well, you have to recognize that OA dilutes Ebitda a bit ) and a long way in to the great story of digital transformation. Yes, I do know that investors have been spooked a bit by Elseviers little local difficulties in Germany. And the Digital Transformation is a bit of a puzzle  when you are writing an IM – since no one who has been transformed has grown revenues over print, investors do need to be persuaded that “smaller and more profitable” is the right direction.

So all this stuff about all the journals you have and how loved they are and how once the Elsevier  big deal goes through the library yours is normally next….. well, that may not be where the fire is now. When you come back with the 2019 IPO, try to find a bit of real allure. Try to see if the owners can find a bit of magic dust to sprinkle – any start-up with a web address ending .ai will do. Even better, say you are starting an incubator to develop the solutions to stream scholarly articles and data directly into the workflow of scientists, and using a revolutionary twist of Blockchain to do it. Make provision for future losses – they loved Spotify. Forget about content – its getting commoditized and anyway you can get it free in Kazakhstan and your investors know it. Talk about transforming the lives of end customers. And forget all this rubbish about library requirements. In fact, forget about libraries altogether. Talk about a company that is “in the forefront of revolutionising the workflow of the bench scientist “and” materially increasing the return on the global R&D budget.

I will not write more since I think you have my drift, and as you know this keyboard is always for hire and as a good advisor I do not wish to give away too much before I see the sums in your contract. Reflect that  I may be expensive, but I am a lot cheaper than pulling IPOs!  Ever your humble, etc.  David Worlock”

So you see, dear readers, this IPO thing is not for serious people like us. We are engaged in change, not in marketing If you have reached this point you may be asking why Springer Nature did not acquire Digital Science right back at the point of merger. But I only answer trivial questions about how you address investors!


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