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. 

 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 .

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