There is a moment in the life of every start-up when the entrepreneur realises that what he is selling is not what people are buying. Over 35 years ago this thought stopped me in my tracks outside of a solicitor’s office in a small Hampshire town in the New Forest. I was running the innovative legal retrieval start-up called Eurolex for the Thomson Corporation, and my visit to this small legal practice was part of a programme to capture as much baffling insight as I could from early customers of the service. I was selling them enhanced computerised legal information retrieval, more effective than human enquiry, covering a wide range of sources , far bigger than their own library resources and demonstrating modern technology in the law practice. How could I fail? And how was that  people were not buying my better mousetrap in the quantities that my five year plan required?

So I told the senior partner of this  law practice that his partnership really needed  my services. I sold hard on innovation and painted a picture of them being able to outstrip big city rivals with smart research covering far more sources than you would normally expect in a small country practice. He was unimpressed. He said that his current manual research activity was “good enough“. He said he was attracted by my trial offer for totally different reasons. He had no more room for books and people in his offices and would have to expensively relocate to expand the practice. He said my trial terms made it cheaper to use me than add more people. He said my billing system was compatible with his and he could simply download time and cost into his invoicing from my service. He was, he made it clear, almost totally uninterested in improved legal information retrieval,  but he would definitely buy what I was selling. I sat in the car park for almost an hour afterwards trying to rethink what we were doing as a business and retrofitting what we had invented into the way lawyers actually  worked.

I have had the great privilege to be able to meet and talk with many companies who innovate. But I have noticed with interest when they start to realise what their customers are buying as distinct from what they themselves are selling. Last month I had the pleasure of talking to my friends at Morressier (  , the Berlin-based service that gathers up all the information around posters and conferences as indicators of research group activity in scholarly communications. I realise that when I first met them I saw them as a collector of data that has been neglected and not curated. Now I see them as a way of judging the progress of a research project, through its interim activities and ability to describe its early results and objectives . Given the time pressures of scholarly research in a number of scientific disciplines, getting early indicators of potential and being able to gauge how close to completion key projects have reached becomes a high value component of predictive analysis of research outcomes. In my lifetime we have moved from taking over two years to publish a research report at the conclusion of a project to anticipating its likely outcomes at various stages of research  development. Now that Morressier have the data they can begin to apply the analysis. Combine that analysis with all the data about actual findings and you have a treasure trove of analytic feedback for funders, governments, research institutions, universities and research programmes. This company now becomes a potential powerhouse of trend research , alerting services, competitive analysis and consultancy , especially in fields that impact pharma , food science , agriculture , climatology, and any sector where governments and markets seek the earliest indicators of where to place the next bet. 

And  I have very similar feelings about another important growth point , .This Amsterdam-based start up began, to my mind at least, as a technology-centric, as distinct from a data-centric, project built fundamentally on blockchain technology. Today, as it embarks on its next funding round, the impact of work which it is doing with major players like Springer Nature, is beginning to show.   Real  contact with intermediaries and end users has shown them how the market in information is being framed by concern about impact and dissemination – who downloaded the document , who read it , who passed it to whom? – and what its provenance was – can you trace it to a legitimate source , is it fake news etc? . In the face of this , the company has become a Track and Trace player, using technologies like data ledger and document tracking to meet these needs. This marks a real shift for those who can recall times when the word “ metadata “ was always followed by a discussion on discovery . Now it is more often followed by a discussion on impact and dissemination . have found a rich new seam of need to exploit , which should make their funding round straightforward  

These two young companies are united in their discovery of addressable need . And by something else . They both respond to markets where the need for speed and certainty in information undercuts still prevalent thinking derived from the world of printed journals about acceptable timing and measurement of effect . While scholarly communications was quick to “ go digital” it has been slow to “ think digital” . These two companies , whose work could flourish as well in any other vertical sector of information markets, are indicators of more profound change in scholarly communications as well .

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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