Reading the ground tremors

Michael Nielsen, Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?  Michael Nielsen, June 29, 2009.  Excerpt:

…Today, scientific publishers are production companies, specializing in services like editorial, copyediting, and, in some cases, sales and marketing. My claim is that in ten to twenty years, scientific publishers will be technology companies….That is, their foundation will be technological innovation, and most key decision-makers will be people with deep technological expertise. Those publishers that don’t become technology driven will die off.

Predictions that scientific publishing is about to be disrupted are not new….

[Let me] draw your attention to a striking difference between today’s scientific publishing landscape, and the landscape of ten years ago. What’s new today is the flourishing of an ecosystem of startups that are experimenting with new ways of communicating research, some radically different to conventional journals. Consider Chemspider, the excellent online database of more than 20 million molecules, recently acquired by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Consider Mendeley, a platform for managing, filtering and searching scientific papers, with backing from some of the people involved in and Skype. Or consider startups like SciVee (YouTube for scientists), thePublic Library of Science, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, vibrant community sites like OpenWetWare and the Alzheimer Research Forum, and dozens more. And then there are companies like WordPress, Friendfeed, and Wikimedia, that weren’t started with science in mind, but which are increasingly helping scientists communicate their research. This flourishing ecosystem is not too dissimilar from the sudden flourishing of online news services we saw over the period 2000 to 2005….

Scientific publishers should be terrified that some of the world’s best scientists, people at or near their research peak, people whose time is at a premium, are spending hundreds of hours each year creating original research content for their blogs, content that in many cases would be difficult or impossible to publish in a conventional journal. What we’re seeing here is a spectacular expansion in the range of the blog medium. By comparison, the journals are standing still.

This flourishing ecosystem of startups is just one sign that scientific publishing is moving from being a production industry to a technology industry. A second sign of this move is that the nature of information is changing. Until the late 20th century, information was a static entity. The natural way for publishers in all media to add value was through production and distribution, and so they employed people skilled in those tasks, and in supporting tasks like sales and marketing. But the cost of distributing information has now dropped almost to zero, and production and content costs have also dropped radically. At the same time, the world’s information is now rapidly being put into a single, active network, where it can wake up and come alive. The result is that the people who add the most value to information are no longer the people who do production and distribution. Instead, it’s the technology people, the programmers….

How many scientific publishers are run by people who know the difference between an INNER JOIN and an OUTER JOIN? Or who know what an A/B test is? Or who know how to set up a Hadoop cluster? Without technical knowledge of this type it’s impossible to run a technology-driven organization. How many scientific publishers are as knowledgeable about technology as Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, or Larry Page?

I expect few scientific publishers will believe and act on predictions of disruption. One common response to such predictions is the appealing game of comparison: “but we’re better than blogs / wikis / PLoS One / …!” These statements are currently true, at least when judged according to the conventional values of scientific publishing. But they’re as irrelevant as the equally true analogous statements were for newspapers. It’s also easy to vent standard immune responses: “but what about peer review”, “what about quality control”, “how will scientists know what to read”. These questions express important values, but to get hung up on them suggests a lack of imagination much like Andrew Rosenthal’s defense of the New York Times editorial page. (I sometimes wonder how many journal editors still use Yahoo!’s human curated topic directory instead of Google?) In conversations with editors I repeatedly encounter the same pattern: “But idea X won’t work / shouldn’t be allowed / is bad because of Y.” Well, okay. So what? If you’re right, you’ll be intellectually vindicated, and can take a bow. If you’re wrong, your company may not exist in ten years. Whether you’re right or not is not the point. When new technologies are being developed, the organizations that win are those that aggressively take risks, put visionary technologists in key decision-making positions, attain a deep organizational mastery of the relevant technologies, and, in most cases, make a lot of mistakes. Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works: you start out with an idea that’s just plain wrong, but that contains the seed of a better idea. You improve it, and you’re only somewhat wrong. You improve it again, and you end up the only game in town. Unfortunately, few scientific publishers are attempting to become technology-driven in this way. The only major examples I know of are Nature Publishing Group (with and the Public Library of Science. Many other publishers are experimenting with technology, but those experiments remain under the control of people whose core expertise is in others areas….

Here’s a list of services I expect to see developed over the next few years….

Harvesting ProQuest metadata for an ETD repository

Shawn Averkamp and Joanna Lee, Repurposing ProQuest Metadata for Batch Ingesting ETDs into an Institutional Repository, code{4}lib, June 26, 2009.  (Thanks to Charles Bailey.) 

Abstract:   This article describes the workflow used by the University of Iowa Libraries to populate their institutional repository and their catalog with the data collected by ProQuest UMI Dissertation Publishing during the submission of students’ theses and dissertations. Re-purposing the metadata from ProQuest allowed the University of Iowa Libraries to streamline the process for ingesting theses and dissertations into their institutional repository. The article includes a discussion of the benefits and limitations of the workflow described.

Another new OA publisher

Open Access Publications (OAP) is a new OA journal publisher.  (Thanks to Jim Till.) 

OAP will allow authors to retain copyright.  Though it doesn’t indicate what license it will use, it will offer libre OA, allowing "any third party the right to download, print out, extract, archive, and distribute the article as long as its integrity is maintained and its original authors, citation details and publisher are identified."  It will charge a publication fee of £499.

OAP’s first journal is Single Cell Analysis, whose inaugural issue is still forthcoming.

More on the U. Kansas OA policy

A Web version of the text of the University of Kansas’ new OA policy confirms what I’d suspected in my last post: that the policy as passed doesn’t contain an OA mandate. It commits the university to OA, gives the university permission to provide OA to its faculty’s research via the IR, and establishes a task force to work out the details — including the details of how the manuscripts will get into the IR.

See also: Chad Lawhorn, KU plans to be first public university library to allow free online access to researchers’ work, KTKA, June 26, 2009.

… Members of the KU faculty proposed the “open access” policy, and believe that it will put KU on the leading edge of emerging trend in how scholarly research is disseminated. …

And once the system is fully functioning, KU leaders hope it will provide some interesting reading for the general public.

“We think one of the benefits is that this won’t just be for the research community, but even for lay people,” [Dean of Libraries Lorraine] Haricombe said.

Updates on FRPAA

What’s new with the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) since our last post:

  • The text of the bill is now online.
  • At first blush, I only spot two changes in the bill, both fairly minor:
    • The new bill adds a specific exception for “research progress reports presented at professional meetings or conferences”
    • The new bill specifies additional committees to receive oversight reports
  • See the Alliance for Taxpayer Access’s call to action to support the bill.
  • Sen. Cornyn’s statement at the bill’s introduction is now available in the Congressional Record:

    … I am proud to report that the NIH’s public access policy has been a
    success over the past few years. By the NIH implementing a
    groundbreaking public access policy, there has been strong progress in
    making the NIH’s federally funded research available to the public, and
    has helped to energize this debate.

    Although this has surely been an encouraging and important step
    forward, Senator Lieberman and I believe there is more that can and
    must be done, as this is just a small part of the research funded by
    the Federal Government.

    With that in mind, Senator Lieberman and I find it necessary to
    reintroduce the Federal Research Public Access Act that will build on
    and refine the work done by the NIH and require that the Federal
    Government’s leading underwriters of research adopt meaningful public
    access policies. …

    This simple legislation will provide our government with an
    opportunity to better leverage our investment in research and in turn
    ensure a greater return on that investment. All Americans stand to
    benefit from this bill, including patients diagnosed with a disease who
    will have the ability to use the Internet to read the latest articles
    in their entirety concerning their prognosis, students who will be able
    to find full abundant research as they further their education, or
    researchers who will have their findings more broadly evaluated which
    will lead to further discovery and innovation. …

Things to watch:

U.S. Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) re-introduced

In the U.S., Senators Cornyn and Lieberman have teamed up to re-introduce the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). This is huge; FRPAA would require all U.S. federal funding agencies with significant research spending portfolios to develop public access acts, similar to NIH.

Stay tuned to Open Access News for a summary and comments as well as updates like this one.