They. Just. Don’t. Get. It…
…although some are perhaps starting to see the problems that are going to arise.
Last week I spoke at a Question Time style event held at Oxford University and organised by Simon Benjamin and Victoria Watson called “The Scientific Evolution: Open Science and the Future of Publishing” featuring Tim Gowers (Cambridge), Victor Henning (Mendeley), Alison Mitchell (Nature Publishing Group), Alicia Wise (Elsevier), and Robert Winston (mainly in his role as TV talking head on science issues). You can get a feel for the proceedings from Lucy Pratt’s summary but I want to focus on one specific issue.
As is common for me recently I emphasised the fact that networked research communication needs to be different to what we are used to. I made a comparison to the fact that when the printing press was developed one of the first things that happened was that people created facsimiles of hand written manuscripts. It took hundreds of years for someone to come up with the idea of a newspaper and to some extent our current use of the network is exactly that – digital facsimiles of paper objects, not truly networked communication.
It’s difficult to predict exactly what form a real networked communication system will take, in much the same way that asking a 16th century printer how newspaper advertising would work would not provide a detailed and accurate answer, but there are some principles of successful network systems that we can see emerging. Effective network systems distribute control and avoid centralisation, they are loosely coupled, and distributed. Very different to the centralised systems for control of access and control we have today.
This is a difficult concept and one that scholarly publishers simply don’t get for the most part. This is not particularly suprising because truly disruptive innovation rarely comes from incumbent players. Large and entrenched organisations don’t generally enable the kind of thinking that is required to see the new possibilities. This is seen in publishers statements that they are providing “more access than ever before” via “more routes”, but all routes that are under tight centralised control, with control systems that don’t scale. By insisting on centralised control over access publishers are setting themselves up to fail.
Nowhere is this going to play out more starkly than in the area of text mining. Bob Campbell from Wiley-Blackwell walked into this – but few noticed it – with the now familiar claim that “text mining is not a problem because people can ask permission”. Centralised control, failure to appreciate scale, and failure to understand the necessity of distribution and distributed systems. I have with me a device capable of holding the text of perhaps 100,000 papers It also has the processor power to mine that text. It is my phone. In 2-3 years our phones, hell our watches, will have the capacity to not only hold the world’s literature but also to mine it, in context for what I want right now. Is Bob Campbell ready for every researcher, indeed every interested person in the world, to come into his office and discuss an agreement for text mining? Because the mining I want to do and the mining that Peter Murray-Rust wants to do will be different, and what I will want to do tomorrow is different to what I want to do today. This kind of personalised mining is going to be the accepted norm of handling information online very soon and will be at the very centre of how we discover the information we need. Google will provide a high quality service for free, subscription based scholarly publishers will charge an arm and a leg for a deeply inferior one – because Google is built to exploit network scale.
The problem of scale has also just played out in fact. Heather Piwowar writing yesterday describes a call with six Elsevier staffers to discuss her project and needs for text mining. Heather of course now has to have this same conversation with Wiley, NPG, ACS, and all the other subscription based publishers, who will no doubt demand different conditions, creating a nightmare patchwork of different levels of access on different parts of the corpus. But the bit I want to draw out is at the bottom of the post where Heather describes the concerns of Alicia Wise:
At the end of the call, I stated that I’d like to blog the call… it was quickly agreed that was fine. Alicia mentioned her only hesitation was that she might be overwhelmed by requests from others who also want text mining access. Reasonable.
Except that it isn’t. It’s perfectly reasonable for every single person who wants to text mine to want a conversation about access. Elsevier, because they demand control, have set themselves up as the bottleneck. This is really the key point, because the subscription business model implies an imperative to extract income from all possible uses of the content it sets up a need for control of access for differential uses. This means in turn that each different use, and especially each new use, has to be individually negotiated, usually by humans, apparently about six of them. This will fail because it cannot scale in the same way that the demand will.
The technology exists today to make this kind of mass distributed text mining trivial. Publishers could push content to bit torrent servers and then publish regular deltas to notify users of new content. The infrastructure for this already exists. There is no infrastructure investment required. The problems that publishers raise of their servers not coping is one that they have created for themselves. The catch is that distributed systems can’t be controlled from the centre and giving up control requires a different business model. But this is also an opportunity. The publishers also save money if they give up control – no more need for six people to sit in on each of hundreds of thousands of meetings. I often wonder how much lower subscriptions would be if they didn’t need to cover the cost of access control, sales, and legal teams.
We are increasingly going to see these kinds of failures. Legal and technical incompatibility of resources, contractual requirements at odds with local legal systems, and above all the claim “you can just ask for permission” without the backing of the hundreds or thousands of people that would be required to provide a timely answer. And that’s before we deal with the fact that the most common answer will be “mumble”. A centralised access control system is simply not fit for purpose in a networked world. As demand scales, people making legitimate requests for access will have the effect of a distributed denial of service attack. The clue is in the name; the demand is distributed. If the access control mechanisms are manual, human and centralised, they will fail. But if that’s what it takes to get subscription publishers to wake up to the fact that the networked world is different then so be it.