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.

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!

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