Sitting through the summer months beside a misty inlet on the Nova Scotian coast it is all too easy to lose oneself in the high politics of OA and OER, of the negotiations between a country as large as California and a country as large as Elsevier. Or whether a power like Pearson can withstand a force as large as McGraw with added Cengage. I am in the midst of Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times. There momentous events revolve around a backstairs word at Court. There great armies wheel in the Low Countries as Louis XIV and William of Orange contend for supremacy. Wonderful stuff, but the stiff of history? Nothing about peasants as soldiers, or about harvests and food supplies? Likewise, if we tell the story of the massive changes taking place in the way content is created and intermediated for re-use by scholars and teachers without starting with the foot-soldiers, by which I mean not just researchers and teachers but students and pupils as well, then I think we are in danger of mistaking the momentum as well as the impact of what is happening now. 

When our historians look back, hopefully a little more analytically than Churchill. I think they will be amazed by the slowness of it all. We are now 30 years beyond the Darpanet becoming the Internet. And over 20 of life in a Web-based world. Phone books are an historical curiosity and newspapers in print are about to follow. Business services have been transformed and the way most of us work and communicate and entertain ourselves is firmly digital. Yet nothing has been as conservative and loathe to change as  academic and educational establishments throughout the developed world, and they have maintained their success in imposing these constraints on the rest of the world. From examination systems to pre-publication peer review traditional quality markers have remained in place for the assurance, it is held, of governments, taxpayers and all participants in the process. And while the majority of inert content became digital very early in the the 30 year cycle of digitisation, workflow and process did not. Thus content providers were held in a hiatus. As change took place at the margins, you needed to supply learning systems as well as textbooks (who would have guessed that it would be 2019 before Pearson declared itself Digital First?). And by the same token, who could have imagined that we would be in 2019 before elife’s Reproducible Document Stack feasibly and technically allowed an “article” to contain video, moving graphics, manipulable graphs and evidential datasets?

It is not hard to identify the forces of conservatism that created  this content Cold War, when everyone had to keep things as they had always been, and as a result of which publishing consolidated – and is still consolidating into two or three big players in each sector, it is harder to detect the forces of change that are turning these markets into an arms race. These factors are mostly not to do with the digital revolution, much as commentators like me would like the opposite to be true. Mostly they are to do with the foot soldiers of Marlborough’s armies, those conscripted peasants, those end users. When we look back we shall see that it was the revolt of middle class American parents and their student children against textbook prices, the wish of the Chinese government to get its research recognised globally with out a pay wall, the wish of science researchers to demonstrate outcomes quicker in order to secure reliable forward funding and the wish of all foot soldiers to secure more interoperability of content in the device – dominated, data centric world in to which they have now emerged, that made change happen.

And how do we know that? You need an instrument of great sensitivity to measure change, or maybe change is a reflection of an image in the glass plate of some corporate office. Whatever else is said of them, I hold Elsevier to be a hugely knowledgeable reflection of the markets they serve. So I regard their purchase of Parity Computing as a highly significant move. When publishers and information providers buy their suppliers, not their competitors, it says to me that whatever tech development they are doing in their considerable in-house services, it is neither enough, or fast enough. It says that still more must be done to ensure that their content-as-data is ready for intelligent manipulation. It also says that the developments being created by that supplier are too important, and their investment value too great, to think of sharing them with a competitor using that supplier. 

Markets change when users change. But when the demand for change occurs, we usually have the technology – think of the 20 year migration from Expert systems and Neural Networks to machine learning and AI – to meet that new demand. The push is rarely the other way round. 

The news that Thomson Reuters announced today that it was “exploring strategic options”, as the dreadful euphemism for selling has it, for its Science and Intellectual Property businesses gives new meaning to another hoary old industry expression, “waiting for the other shoe to drop”! In this instance the other shoe has been hovering for about a decade, and might have happened at any point after the Reuters acquisition. Later, the move might well have followed the sale of Thomson Health to PE (now Truven). The logic of the Thomson Reuters merger, after all, was concentrating on the markets, corporate, and legal concerns of global corporates and their advisers. While IP had a sort of logic, in that patent activity is a measure of value, it seemed more important to build out into areas that bridge financial and legal – compliance, governance, regulatory – rather than fully absorb IP into the mix. So IP stayed with Science and now the pair are on the block. Meanwhile a new business has grown between the merging entities, worth some $600 m pa in revenues. And other investment areas of opportunity are emerging, so the parent company can reasonably say it wants to concentrate its investments on its core concerns. As it could have done ten years ago.

So just what is being offered for sale? In the firtst place two very different businesses, but together they form a $1 bn revenue block, with an Ebitda of 32% (some 10% of the parent’s margins). The bit that is being sold is slightly more profitable than the group to which it belonged. But many bidders and advisers will see it as two businesses. On the one hand, IP is the market leader in patent information, with a slew of services that run from instant updating through to the fully analysed and technically abstracted Derwent World Patent Index. IP Manager was one of the first convincing “solutions” to manage workflow effectively – in this case for in-house patent counsel. On the Science side, alongside a raft of article preparation and management systems, lies Web of Science: the market has looked to this division for the market standard in assessing the importance of articles and their journals to users and peers. The ISI index, acquired by Thomson, remains vitally important to global science research by its definition and measurement of “impact” through citations. The service which incorporates this. Web of Science, is still key to assessment and management of scientific research – and the grants that enable it.

In recent years both sections have attracted, partly as a factor of their success, a great deal more competitive attention. Gone now, for example, are the days when Thomson’s citation indexing totally ruled the roost when it came to measuring the success or otherwise of universities holding grants for science research. This is the age of altmetrics, and we can not only measure more things than citations but analyse the multiplicity of factors more effectively. Elsevier entered the market with SciVal, for example, and there is a feeling now that rapid progress is being made in developing new styles of analysis. Has Thomson Science kept up? Could it be a platform for a new “services to science and research” business at some future point in different hands? In patents, CPA offers a guide to valuations , and also an indication that there is competition in depth, not least from state owned national and international patent offices. Yet Thomson’s offerings would be at the top of the market, both in terms of data held and revenue generated.

Will these high value entities sell separately or together? We may now have at last reached the point where they are more valuable apart. There had been a tacit assumption that the long delay in divesting them was in part about making them more separate as businesses since it is hard to think of a strategic buyer ideally suited to buy both. Taken together they will fetch over $3.6 bn, a big reach for sector trade buyers as well as those private equity players actively interested in this area. There will be some competition considerations as well, in that it may be hard for RELX to buy Science, though other major STM players would have less difficulty, and for some it may suggest a way of diversifying away from a pure reliance on increasingly tough journals only markets. This would have been an ideal buy for Springer before Nature, or Bertelsmann while they were looking at B2B: they seem from this months deals to have decided that education is a better bet. One thing is certain about this divestment, however: where buyers are looking for data-based businesses with a high emphasis on analytics and solutions which add real value to the workloads of users through productivity gain, cost saving and compliance certainty – these two outfits have it in spades!

But what does all this activity mean? For one thing, it suggests that portfolio may have had its day. The sale of the FT and the Economist at Pearson, the divestment of part of Datamonitor at Informa, the trimming down of Penton, the divestment of non-event assets at UBM – all these and many more point to a determination to shed non-core assets in order to put investment heft behind growth in what are seen as more strategically important areas.This is in part a digital effect – networks create full service needs and solutions and tend to duopoly. This is also part of a cycle, and there can be no doubt that portfolio will be back one day, but in the meanwhile there can be little doubt that investors like “slim down to grow bigger”, as long as you slim by getting the right price for the assets. Which means that the real question for Thomson is – did they leave it too late?

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