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What would you say to Elsevier?

6 June 2009 32 Comments

In a week or so’s time I have been invited to speak as part of a forward planning exercise at Elsevier. To some this may seem like an opportunity to go in for an all guns blazing OA rant or perhaps to plant some incendiary device but I see it more as opportunity to nudge, perhaps cajole, a big player in the area of scholarly publishing in the right direction. After all if we are right about the efficiency gains for authors and readers that will be created by Open Access publication and we are right about the way that web based systems utterly changes the rules of scholarly communication then even an organization of the size of Elsevier has to adapt or wither away. Persuading them to move in right direction because it is in their own interests would be an effective way of speeding up the process of positive change.

My plan is to focus less on the arguments for making more research output Open Access and more on what happens as a greater proportion of those outputs become freely available, something that I see as increasingly inevitable. Where that proportion may finally be is anyone’s guess but it is going to be a much bigger proportion than it is now. What will authors and funders want and need from their publication infrastructure and what are the business opportunities that arise from those. For me these fall into four main themes:

  • Tracking via aggregation. Funders and institutions want more and more to track the outputs of their research investment. Providing tools and functionality that will enable them to automatically aggregate and slice and dice these outputs is a big business opportunity. The data themselves will be free but providing it in the form that people need it rapidly and effectively will add value that they will be prepared to pay for.
  • Speed to publish as a market differentiator. Authors will want their content out and available and being acted on fast. Speed to publication is potentially the biggest remaining area for competition between journals. This is important because there will almost certainly be less journals with greater “quality” or “brand” differentiation. There is a plausible future in which there are only two journals, Nature and PLoS ONE.
  • Data publication, serving, and archival. There may be less journals but there will be much greater diversity of materials being published through a larger number of mechanisms. There are massive opportunities in providing high quality infrastructure and services to funders and institutions to aggregate, publish, and archive the full set of research outputs. I intend to draw heavily on Dorothea Salo‘s wonderful slideset on data publication for this part.
  • Social search. Literature searching is the main area where there are plausible efficiency gains to be made in the current scholarly publications cycle. According to the Research Information Network‘s model of costs search accounts for a very significant proportion of the non-research costs of  publishing. Building the personal networks (Bill Hooker‘s, Distributed Wetware Online Information Filter [down in the comments] or DWOIF) that make this feasible may well be the new research skill of the 21st century. Tools that make this work effectively are going to be very popular. What will they look like?

But what have I missed? What (constructive!) ideas and thoughts would you want to place in the minds of the people thinking about where to take one of the world’s largest scholarly publication companies and its online information and collaboration infrastructure.?

Full disclosure: Part of the reason for writing this post is to disclose publicly that I am doing this gig. Elsevier are covering my travel and accommodation costs but are not paying any fee.


  • What everyone is sorely missing – and open access won’t change anything about that – is the big picture. Researchers spend more and more time just to stay on top of what’s going on in their field.

    I think there is a great market opportunity for high-quality reviews of ongoing research. People would certainly pay dearly for a useful filter.

  • What everyone is sorely missing – and open access won’t change anything about that – is the big picture. Researchers spend more and more time just to stay on top of what’s going on in their field.

    I think there is a great market opportunity for high-quality reviews of ongoing research. People would certainly pay dearly for a useful filter.

  • BUt I’m afraid there’s a general problem with your talk. Whatever you say, what it will mean to Elsevier is something in the line of “You won’t be able to make ridiculous amounts of money from someone else’s work any more. Sorry.”

    They won’t like the taste of it, no matter what you say in detail.

  • BUt I’m afraid there’s a general problem with your talk. Whatever you say, what it will mean to Elsevier is something in the line of “You won’t be able to make ridiculous amounts of money from someone else’s work any more. Sorry.”

    They won’t like the taste of it, no matter what you say in detail.

  • One important point might be common standards across publishers, e.g. in researcher DOIs. Elsevier seem to be one of those companies that wants to set up its own systems, so emphasising that this is a bad idea might pay dividends.

  • One important point might be common standards across publishers, e.g. in researcher DOIs. Elsevier seem to be one of those companies that wants to set up its own systems, so emphasising that this is a bad idea might pay dividends.

  • Fischer, definitely agree with your first point, but disagree that OA won’t help. A mixture of human curated and automated filtering and aggregation is required here. OA means that the machine mediated stuff can develop properly (which it can’t at the moment due to lack of access to full text and underlying data) and that more humans have the option of specialising in that as well. But definitely agree – the big picture is a problem.

    I also slightly disagree with the notion that Elsevier will reject any ideas that mean they won’t make so much money. They live in the same world as we do so they need to evolve and change as the environment forces them to do so. Indeed the session is I believe a forward looking program for trying to figure out what they should do. Obviously as a company their ultimate aim is to be profitable but my personal belief is that to do that they need to adapt in more or less the way we believe they should.

  • Fischer, definitely agree with your first point, but disagree that OA won’t help. A mixture of human curated and automated filtering and aggregation is required here. OA means that the machine mediated stuff can develop properly (which it can’t at the moment due to lack of access to full text and underlying data) and that more humans have the option of specialising in that as well. But definitely agree – the big picture is a problem.

    I also slightly disagree with the notion that Elsevier will reject any ideas that mean they won’t make so much money. They live in the same world as we do so they need to evolve and change as the environment forces them to do so. Indeed the session is I believe a forward looking program for trying to figure out what they should do. Obviously as a company their ultimate aim is to be profitable but my personal belief is that to do that they need to adapt in more or less the way we believe they should.

  • Bob, good point. That probably ought to be a big theme on its own. Open systems will prevail because people will want mobility of data across multiple providers. APIs, open standards, etc etc.

  • Bob, good point. That probably ought to be a big theme on its own. Open systems will prevail because people will want mobility of data across multiple providers. APIs, open standards, etc etc.

  • From the persepective of the humanities, the third point is definitively the most important one, and one where it might actually be possible to make money from: if somebody figures out what kind of system scholars really want to use, such a mechanism for data publication could become quite indispensible. Make it easy for daily use, and you might have a real deal-breaker.

  • From the persepective of the humanities, the third point is definitively the most important one, and one where it might actually be possible to make money from: if somebody figures out what kind of system scholars really want to use, such a mechanism for data publication could become quite indispensible. Make it easy for daily use, and you might have a real deal-breaker.

  • In full disclosure – I have consulted with them a few times (also no fee, just reimbursement for single day travel to NYC on 1 occasion and free dinner on another). I was only talking to people who had influence over the interface of a couple of products… These were clearly people who wanted their interfaces to work well for scientists. Going off on some rant about some other part of the company and about a big policy issue would have been unproductive. With that said – ScienceDirect does *work* *well* – regardless of the cost or the quality of various journals.

  • In full disclosure – I have consulted with them a few times (also no fee, just reimbursement for single day travel to NYC on 1 occasion and free dinner on another). I was only talking to people who had influence over the interface of a couple of products… These were clearly people who wanted their interfaces to work well for scientists. Going off on some rant about some other part of the company and about a big policy issue would have been unproductive. With that said – ScienceDirect does *work* *well* – regardless of the cost or the quality of various journals.

  • “What (constructive!) ideas and thoughts would you want to place in the minds of the people thinking about where to take one of the world’s largest scholarly publication companies and its online information and collaboration infrastructure.?”

    To paraphrase Clay Shirky…

    Science doesn’t need journals. What we need is scientific communication.

  • “What (constructive!) ideas and thoughts would you want to place in the minds of the people thinking about where to take one of the world’s largest scholarly publication companies and its online information and collaboration infrastructure.?”

    To paraphrase Clay Shirky…

    Science doesn’t need journals. What we need is scientific communication.

  • And I think your points all look good. I guess it depends on which group within Elsevier you’re talking to. I chatted with someone within AAS (publisher of ApJ, AJ etc) – they’ve done data for years and they’ve also identified the facility that got the data (like Hubble or whatever)… but they’re always looking for ways to improve.

  • And I think your points all look good. I guess it depends on which group within Elsevier you’re talking to. I chatted with someone within AAS (publisher of ApJ, AJ etc) – they’ve done data for years and they’ve also identified the facility that got the data (like Hubble or whatever)… but they’re always looking for ways to improve.

  • I have been invited to present to most of the major publishers. I was going to do this at Elsevier when there was a hurricane so I haven’t been to them. The problem is that Elsevier isn’t a single organisation – it’s composed of all sorts of parts and so who you reach is not necessarily connected to those who have the power. My main concern is that large publishers want power and that givinig them ideas on how to liberate data is also giving ideas on how to control it. I’m sounding rather negative, but I am afraid I don’t trust large publishers any more. It’s rather sad

  • I have been invited to present to most of the major publishers. I was going to do this at Elsevier when there was a hurricane so I haven’t been to them. The problem is that Elsevier isn’t a single organisation – it’s composed of all sorts of parts and so who you reach is not necessarily connected to those who have the power. My main concern is that large publishers want power and that givinig them ideas on how to liberate data is also giving ideas on how to control it. I’m sounding rather negative, but I am afraid I don’t trust large publishers any more. It’s rather sad

  • Would you like the original Keynote files, or a distillation to PowerPoint? I would be happy to oblige.

  • Would you like the original Keynote files, or a distillation to PowerPoint? I would be happy to oblige.

  • Given a choice between speedy publication and speedy review, I’d vote for the latter. What can Elsevier do to speed up the process of getting informed, critical feedback on work?

  • Given a choice between speedy publication and speedy review, I’d vote for the latter. What can Elsevier do to speed up the process of getting informed, critical feedback on work?

  • @Christina I think I’m mostly talking to the web and community people so Science Direct, 2collab etc. Still want to put that in a wider context though because I think it is all part of the same story.

    @Peter – yes I wonder about that but they’re not going to be getting anything that the rest of the world would anyway. If nothing else then I can rehearse some ideas at a skeptical audience. I do hope that I can make the case that their future business success relies on them moving away from a control model and focussing on providing high quality services that people want and are prepared to pay for.

    @Dorothea – keynote version would be absolutely lovely! Thankyou!

    @Greg – yes, take your point. I tend to wrap the two together but its a good point that it is the review (whether pre- or post-publication) that is the most valuable part of the process. And quality as well as speed – or a useful combination of both, first impressions rapidly, but more considered opinions as and when they come up.

  • @Christina I think I’m mostly talking to the web and community people so Science Direct, 2collab etc. Still want to put that in a wider context though because I think it is all part of the same story.

    @Peter – yes I wonder about that but they’re not going to be getting anything that the rest of the world would anyway. If nothing else then I can rehearse some ideas at a skeptical audience. I do hope that I can make the case that their future business success relies on them moving away from a control model and focussing on providing high quality services that people want and are prepared to pay for.

    @Dorothea – keynote version would be absolutely lovely! Thankyou!

    @Greg – yes, take your point. I tend to wrap the two together but its a good point that it is the review (whether pre- or post-publication) that is the most valuable part of the process. And quality as well as speed – or a useful combination of both, first impressions rapidly, but more considered opinions as and when they come up.

  • Anna

    @Peter I agree somewhat with the cynicism, but I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the future cannot be in information control, but, as Cameron says, provision of a high-quality (and probably unique) service. And whilst, to date, there is a lot of trading on brands, a lot of this relies on : high-quality review and the service of a bundled package (a paper journal). The importance of the latter (and to some extent the reader requirement for the trusted brand) diminishes substantially (but not totally – this is more of a threshold effect) with the internet model, hence the serious need for a rethink. I would suspect the only reason for the brands still standing is the publisher requirement (as a good measure of where you should send your stuff for later kudos points). But I suspect you already knew this :)
    The interesting thing of course is that a number of these arguments apply to Universities as educational establishments//information controllers – perhaps many of the solutions will also apply.

  • Anna

    @Peter I agree somewhat with the cynicism, but I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the future cannot be in information control, but, as Cameron says, provision of a high-quality (and probably unique) service. And whilst, to date, there is a lot of trading on brands, a lot of this relies on : high-quality review and the service of a bundled package (a paper journal). The importance of the latter (and to some extent the reader requirement for the trusted brand) diminishes substantially (but not totally – this is more of a threshold effect) with the internet model, hence the serious need for a rethink. I would suspect the only reason for the brands still standing is the publisher requirement (as a good measure of where you should send your stuff for later kudos points). But I suspect you already knew this :)
    The interesting thing of course is that a number of these arguments apply to Universities as educational establishments//information controllers – perhaps many of the solutions will also apply.

  • Anna

    Discussing with a colleague, we simplified what a journal provides us: quality control and facilitation of publication. (The short version of the previous comment).

  • Anna

    Discussing with a colleague, we simplified what a journal provides us: quality control and facilitation of publication. (The short version of the previous comment).

  • Two recent reports published in the UK by RIN and by JISC examine the economics of open access publishing across the STM spectrum. Both indicate that this business model could offer significant savings, despite the shift in costs towards the developed nations which fund the majority of authors.

    But they also highlight the fact that subscriptions and open access charges form but a tiny fraction of the time spent by researchers, and hence total costs, associated with finding and manipulating information. The authors do not differentiate within STM, but from other work we can infer that biomedical gets a further double hit, because biomedical researchers tend to read far more than their non-biomedical colleagues, and more importantly, require access to many, many additional curated data resources. This “balkanisation” is a major obstacle to biomedical progress.

    So let’s reinvent the boundaries of biomedical publishing to include all of these data and information sources, along with the labour-saving technologies which could make the discovery process so much more effective.

    The first steps would include sitting down with the major payers (Wellcome, NIH, HHMS, etc) and defining a publishing/informatics roadmap. Sure, this may hasten the widespread adoption of the open access model, but this new “publishing as a service” now has access to a far, far larger market, and has a much greater opportunity to add value.

  • Two recent reports published in the UK by RIN and by JISC examine the economics of open access publishing across the STM spectrum. Both indicate that this business model could offer significant savings, despite the shift in costs towards the developed nations which fund the majority of authors.

    But they also highlight the fact that subscriptions and open access charges form but a tiny fraction of the time spent by researchers, and hence total costs, associated with finding and manipulating information. The authors do not differentiate within STM, but from other work we can infer that biomedical gets a further double hit, because biomedical researchers tend to read far more than their non-biomedical colleagues, and more importantly, require access to many, many additional curated data resources. This “balkanisation” is a major obstacle to biomedical progress.

    So let’s reinvent the boundaries of biomedical publishing to include all of these data and information sources, along with the labour-saving technologies which could make the discovery process so much more effective.

    The first steps would include sitting down with the major payers (Wellcome, NIH, HHMS, etc) and defining a publishing/informatics roadmap. Sure, this may hasten the widespread adoption of the open access model, but this new “publishing as a service” now has access to a far, far larger market, and has a much greater opportunity to add value.