At one point in his Rural Rides of 1819 , reporting on England in the fearful agricultural depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars , William Cobbett found himself crossing the flat plain  of Heathrow outside of London . Seeing how the new fashion of grazing for meat production had taken hold , resulting in the heath  being enclosed into fields and the people turned off the land in favour of the animals , he commented that Heathrow was “ a land where sheep do eat men “ . Several centuries later , sitting in the airport on the same site , I can recall setting off for my last pre-pandemic in-person Frankfurt Book Fair – my 51st and last – and determining that i would ask every scholarly communications publisher I met what the balance was between readership by machines and readership by human beings . I was sadly disappointed , but not surprised, in the results . Only a few had any idea , and even those could not distinguish between access by bots for indexation and reference  and access for machine learning and other  intelligent purposes . I thought then that if publishers really were as user-centric as they said that they were , then they would pay far more attention than they did to adding and improving the metadata and the entity extraction that made articles , reviews and books much more machine-digestible , since given the volume of research findings , commentary , blogs , posters , presentations and other material in every research sector , the chances of anyone being able to assess research unless it was in an intelligent  machine interface was getting fairly remote .

As it turns out ( though not unusually )  I had the question upside down . I should have been asking how much published material was produced by machines using machine intelligence , and then subsumed into articles notionally written by groups of people . Dull and boring ,though vital ,work has been going this way for years . References , literature listings , citations – all well-formatted elements can be far more easily assembled from the machine’s intelligence , especially in the age of the electronic lab notebook . Research based on or validated by text mining or advanced data interrogation techniques becomes  an interplay between machine  intelligence and researcher intelligence . In an age when artificial intelligence ( as in the UNSILO peer review pre-checks for publishers like Springer Nature) can take the effort and time  out of peer review and purify it into an act of judgement , no one would be very surprised when machines effectively write research articles . After all , they do all the grunt work already . 

With some in scholarly communications it remains an axiom that the sector is the bellwether of technological change . Perhaps that is less true in this case . “Data storytelling “ and “ data narrative “ have been live concepts ever since a group of computer scientists from NorthWestern created a company called Narrative Science a decade ago . Their work with early users, as with others using Automated Insights at places like   the Associated Press showed that standard reporting of easily formatted and predictable material – college baseball and football results , for example – made automated journalism quickly acceptable . The academic researchers who have looked at the issues ( Karlstad Universitet, Sweden*) report that most of us cannot tell the difference . Extending the use of machine written financial services reporting , from early experiments at companies like Hanley Wood five years ago , now reaches out to the recent announcement at Meltwater that they were using machine intelligence to write investment analysis . And anyone who doubts the ability of intelligent machines to more effectively summarise reporting should look at the analysis on the blog . 

So will we see research articles substantially or even wholly written by smart machines ? Certainly , and soon , if it is not happening already . And it will help speed up up reporting while freeing researchers to research – this is not a replacement issue , unlike MSN where some news reporters were replaced in September 2020 by automated news gatherers . But I am left with the thought that all changes to the automation of these workflows have knock on effects . Will the ability of the computer to create the research report connect to all of the other intelligent machines waiting to analyse that result and lodge its impact and status in their systems ? Or , in other words , will scholarly communication become a machine to machine environment , with the only thing reading everything in detail being …a machine ? And if that should become the case , Quis Custodiet Ipsos  Custodes ?

* Nord, L., Karlsson, M., & Clerwall, C. (2017b). The public doesn’t miss the public : Views from the people: Why news by the people? Journalism – Theory, Practice & Criticism. Epub ahead of print.

Nord, L., Karlsson, M., & Clerwall, C. (2017a). Taking Stock of Transparency Tools in Journalism : Lessons learned from Swedish citizens. Presented at the Future of Journalism, Cardiff. Retrieved from

I was 19 when my father in law to be made the remark . I had been astonished when a  friend of his , a member of the House of Lords and a close advisor to the Prime Minister , had blatantly cheated during a game of billiards . “ Dont blame him too much “, he said “ he went through Auschwitz as a capo . The man is a moral amputee . “ The expression came back to me time and again during the years in the mid 1980s when I worked as a consultant for Pergamon and then for Maxwell Communications Corporation . I do not know what made Maxwell like this , and I do not know what happened to him during the “missing ‘ wartime years from 1939 to the point where he enlisted in the British army in 1944. Nothing can excuse his criminality , or his cruel and abusive behaviour towards his family and his employees . But both John Preston’s recent book , a comment from Richard Charkin , and a long and interesting letter from Doug Whitehead , a senior MCC manager at the time of my engagement there , have given me pause for thought . We have the full measure of Maxwell the Monster : we do not have yet a proper reckoning on the man as a publisher . 

In many ways Maxwell can lay claim to being the first modern publisher , and from my own experience I can testify to the way in which he terrified his competitors into trying to keep up with him . Having founded Pergamon in the late 1940s off the back of Springer reprint and distribution contracts , he turned it into a spectacular growth story as he mapped together the explosion of  postwar science with the rapid development of new universities who needed reference collections . Then , by employing science editors and writers like Dr Ivan Klimes , for ever my image of the innovative scholarly communications publisher , it gained a competitive edge which , when Maxwell sold it to Elsevier , became the growth battery inside that company that propelled it to market leadership . 

This world was succeeded by the B2B world of MCC . The Captain stopped telling people like me that he wanted to be the biggest microfiche publisher in the world (1985) and started saying he wanted to be things like “ the biggest satellite communications company in the world “. My work had changed from two years of contract labour for a week a month ( 1985-7, always paid immaculately on time ) to ad hoc M&A and due diligence work . I shared the satellite dream , but when despatched to find the satellite takeover , drew a blank . Nothing suitable was for sale bar a three man outfit in Redhill which supplied links for realtime screen updating,  advertising late availability holidays ( “ One seat left for Famagusta on Friday “) in travel agents windows . But it was profitable . Maxwell’s eyes gleamed . Soon I was drafting the press release for Maxwell Satellite Communications ( “ world leader in growth sector “ , “ additive to group margins “ , “ largest player in the  travel sector “)

Doug Whitehead reminds me of the range of innovation . We were deep into GIS and intelligent mapping . We were dabbling in the ‘80s with linked content within digitised media . MCC led DIMPE , an EU project in distributed interactive media , seeking to build standards with people like Monotype ans Linotype . There was a feeling that we could kick the tyres of any new idea and get a hearing . And , of course , some things failed and were taken out of the shop window , or in fact proved to be the catalyst for something different which we had not envisaged . Maxwell blamed someone else and fired them in the first instance , and claimed the foresight credit in the second . But he was never afraid of failure . He expected it to happen , he made the appropriate divestments , but then he re-invested with the same tireless optimism. 

As my own clientele grew wider through the 1990s , people always wanted to hear a good Maxwell story . As I satisfied that demand I often reflected on how timorous some of these corporate players seemed compared to the piratical Captain . He had often forced them to innovate in order to keep up , and they resented it . But the fact remains , for me , that innovation on the scale practised by Maxwell needed courage and sustained self belief , and all too often those have been characteristics in very short supply in UK publishing and media boardrooms . Maxwell has a very good claim on the title “ first modern publisher “ as he sought to bridge the print to digital gulf in its earliest years . 

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