There is an undesirable tendency amongst old consultants to want to write ‘Finis’ after everything, as if to say “after me, the Flood”. I try to resist, but there are mornings, and this is one, when the cycles of a lifetime stand out in particularly sharp contrast. Rehearsing the full cycle would be a bore. Suffice it to say that anyone who emerged from the content ownership valuations of the late 1960s into the Content is King subscription and advertising markets of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when valuations were built around ‘have to have, need to know’ content ownership, now knows they are living on another planet. 

Yet while things change, things remain the same. In the content days in M&A some of us used to talk about ‘happy families’ values, meaning that we sought to sell to a strong player the one content section that would complete his critical content field, secure his vertical market dominance and induce him to pay over the odds to get card into his hand. I spent many years hunting for ‘Mr Bun the Baker’, usually in the ‘80s to satisfy the whim of a Robert Maxwell or similar, convinced that if you owned all the right content the market would be forced to your door. 

But these are not content markets. That form of B2B publishing really disappeared in the Great Dotcom Bust of 2001-3. But we were too busy to notice at the time. We were like the RoadRunner, off the edge of the canyon but going so fast that we somehow maintained momentum. Yet each year the subscript sank and the advertising diminished and Wile E Coyote got closer, until there was only one way out – Re-invention! And then I read this in the inestimableOutsell News:

“IHS Markit and Informa announced the exchange of the majority of the IHS Markit Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT) intelligence business for Informa’s Agribusiness Intelligence group. The agreement values the two exchanged businesses at equivalent EBITDA multiples, with Informa contributing an additional $30 million cash to IHS Markit to reflect the larger EBITDA contribution from the TMT business.”

So are we going back to Happy Families, or what? I have three certainties about B2B and a few hunches. I am certain that there are powerful businesses to be built in workflow, whether you call it Robotic Process Automation or smart decision making solutions. I know that this is no longer a content market but primarily a software driven market. I know that when people like me talked about the Age of Data we kidded people that data and content were somehow the same. In fact, data, from IoT and elsewhere, is omnipresent. Ownership may prove impossible. All and any usage of it compromises and commoditises it. You can never have enough. I also think that news and information in B2B will be important as video and sound feeds, that the current trends to strong industrial training software will continue, and that the information businesses of B2B is largely inside Events, and sadly few of those really exploit the data that their market touch creates. 

OK, so what were IHS Markit and Informa about? In a word or two, consolidating and deflating. UK observers are well used to seeing companies like Top Right selling off piecemeal and slowly subsiding like a saggy balloon, or Centaur Media sadly diminish. This is a little different. The justification for consolidation is market requirement and access. Both players continue to hope that they can concentrate in a less competitive space to find the software solutions users require in these sectors. Neither have approached the regeneration issues yet in the thorough going way demonstrated by Mark Kelsey at RBI over a decade or more. But consolidation reduces risk and can enhance short term returns. We must never forget that this is now a software market, driven by licensing and maintenance agreements. It seems unlikely ever to produce the revenue size or margins of the content market it has replaced, duopoly if not de facto monopoly will be needed to encourage and justify investment, and when we wake up next a comprehensive recon extraction of this information marketplace will have taken place.

You can see a long way from Fiesole. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, remembered the red orb of the sun sinking over the Tuscan hills and likened it to the burnished shield on Satan’s back as he is cast into Hell in Paradise Lost. Some of the delegates at the annual Fiesole Retreat, looking at Open Access and the future of scholarly communication, may have felt similarly cast down, but, if so, they kept it to themselves in a meeting, celebrating its 21st birthday, that lived up to a reputation for real debate, direct speaking, but total respect for the positions of delegates from all sides of the scholarly information workflow. This meeting, a joint venture of Casalini Libri and the Charleston library conference, was at its very best as the European Commission, critically important library interests, publishers of all disciplines, and OA providers alongside traditional subscription journals all contributed viewpoints on a developing situation in scholarly communications which desperately needs the debate engendered here. 

As an observer of the debate and anchorman for the ensuing discussion I have waited ten days before adding my own view to all this. In truth, I cannot sum up the complexity and detail, or render the passion and eloquence of many of the arguments. But the cumulative effect on me was to sharpen the conclusion that I was witnessing something coming, however slowly, to an end. The debate about OA and Plan S is not an end in itself. Subscription publishing will never reassert itself and OA disappear. Nor will the world slowly become totally OA. The changes and the debate point to bigger and more fundamental changes. I was left feeling that just as we have been through Digital Replacement – all paper based content went digital – followed by Digital Transformation – the workflows and processes went digital and became wholly network interconnected – we now approach Digital Re-invention – in which the forms and artefacts of the analogue world themselves give way to digital connectivity which not only alters relationships in the network, but introduces the computer, the machine as reader and researcher, into the workflow. 

We are now in a situation where the old generalities are becoming useless. STM and HSS are near meaningless, given the differences between Life Sciences and Physics, or Chemistry, as research communication fields. Likewise statistical social sciences and humanities. And when I asked what the identifiable critical information problems of scientists were I got two answers – Reproducibility and Methodology. In other words, researchers were anxious to repeat previous experiments using the same or different data or conditions in order to see if results were the same, and they wished to explore the methods used by successful experiments  in order to justify a choice of methodology. Response to these demands requires that all of the data is available and connected by metadata, which is evidently not the case. And of course, specialist services will come into play to meet the needs – in these cases, and Ripeta and Gigantum (both new members at Digital Science). These are the type of tools that researchers will use. So what about the books, journals, articles? Who will read them? The answer of course is the intelligent machine, and the nomenclature will change as it becomes obvious that the machine is only interested in content-as-data, not in format at all. 

I asked, again and in vain, whether any publishers present had an idea of the current proportion of usage made by non search bot machines. But the fact is we are not measuring this. And we all nodded when someone said the next generation just want to get the preprint done and stop there – getting something into the network with a growing confidence that it will be found seems to be the thing. We are certainly getting smarter at measuring impact and dissemination, though still behind the curve in accomplishing those vital matters. And, Lordy, Lordy, we do have an industry hang up about the way academics are rewarded with tenure and grant support. Is it so frightening for us to imagine change here because we have hung the future of academic publishing around the neck of an archaic system of academic rewards? Why is it that we always think that change only occurs in our sub sector and the rest of the world stays constant? There is already movement around impact factors in academic review systems. The very fact of PlanS shows funders getting more interested in measuring impact and increasing dissemination. The only certainty about a network is that when one position alters, so do all the rest. 

So my concerns about this sector remain  more about the pace of change than the direction. Work like the eLife Reproducible Document Stack (RDS) is fascinating in this regard – will we interconnect the research lab manuals and review the work in progress at some point? Or will publishing be an automated function of the RDS in time. Whatever happens, we will always need the presence of cross industry multi-disciplinary groups like Fiesole to get the vital perspective, the view from a hill.

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