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 Last.fm 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 Nature.com) 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….