You must have noticed the similarities. Tortuous negotiations. Disagreement within  the parties ranged on each side, as well as between the parties themselves. You go to meetings on these subjects and come away feeling no confidence in good sense prevailing, or that the obvious objectives – the welfare and happiness of European and UK citizens or the improvement of access to taxpayer funded research – are really top of anyone’s agenda. When the arguments are ideological they are usually perverse, and beneath each perversity is usually some self-seeking advantage promoting the arguer’s self interest. The temptation, in both cases, to say “a plague on both your houses” is almost overwhelming, and yet…

….the one issue may dictate the lives and working conditions of my children and grandchildren, while the other materially affects the condition of scholarly communication, something I have been committed to for the last 30 Years. One cannot simply disengage. So when the nice man from the big STM publisher said to me at the end of a recent debate, one of so many, that he really needed me  to tell my publisher friends the truth, and state exactly what fate awaited them. “And, look,” he said “spell out what people like Elsevier should do. Shutter the company and plant potatoes? What strategy should they pursue? You appear to think that the day will eventually come when scholars will just publish directly to the network, so you owe it to Elsevier and the rest to make it clear how they manage change, or just twiddle their thumbs in the gathering darkness…” 

I recall saying something lame about trade-publishers creating community as advertising declined. 

But I also felt a tug of conscience. Call yourself an advisor and yet, having defined the need for change, stop short of defining what to do? Seems a little less than courageous, or even honest. So here is my formula for preserving Elsevier’s many great strengths and recreating it’s brand value, offered in the knowledge that it will have little or no impact. Inside of Elsevier’s parent compan, RELX, there is a classical study of digital regeneration. Whenever I ask the team who did it how the same team , over a ten year cycle but within a 20 year timeframe, got the impetus to do it, “fear of being sold off and broken up “comes to the fore, and indeed I can recall times when that threat was very public in the markets. But that team turned over 200 subscription magazines in every business vertical, most with with falling advertising and plunging margins, into seven or so data services and solutions companies, focused on discrete fields like avionics or agriculture or HR or fine chemicals. And, with ReedExpo, it has returned to being a profitable sector. So, rather than selling Elsevier to private equity, which is the normal way of re-investing and reconditioning a tired cash cow, does RELX have to offer Elsevier an internally constructed life support system in order to build out its next stage of development under controlled conditions? And what might an RBI solution for Elsevier look like?

And in any case the fear of sale may not work for Elsevier. In last year’s financial results, reported in February this year, RELX recorded £1,905 m in operating profit, or which £942 m came from Elsevier. In other words, the reconstruction of Elsevier has to be an internal RELX task because some 40% 0f margin is at stake, and despite the stellar performance of Lexis Risk Analysis, and the real strength in events and B2B, the inevitable message to the new CEO at Elsevier at the beginning of this month will have been “Please rebuild the trust of the marketplace and reposition us vis a vis the threats of boycott from Norway to California via Germany, and do please reposition us in terms of Plan S and  the attack on hybrid journals, but please do not threaten the 37% margin you produce.” And there is a way of doing this, and it does take ten years, smaller margins, more major investment, but at the end you are in a strong position in a market where content is created and exposed by researchers and institutions themselves – the support task is linking it for discovery and analysis.

The process has three stages:

Easy for a consultant to change the world in three paragraphs, and since I have now predicted it, there is no chance of it ever taking place. But in scholarly communication’s own global warming, a very big piece of the ice flow is about to break off, and the remedies must be radical, as we know from the actions we are not taking elsewhere!

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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