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A Scientist and the Web


Who is the Steve Jobs of #scholarlypub? Whence comes the needed disruption?

There are many ways that commercial markets evolve – response to customers, new technology, new political systems, fiscal measures.

And individual entrepreneurs.

Like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, mark Zuckerman.

You all know who these are , don’t you?

Who is the Steve Jobs of scholarly publishing?

Ummm… “The CEO of Elsevier?”

Hardly. I bet that out of a thousand people in #scholpub no-one knows his name (except Elsevier staff). It would be hard to find a more amorphous person. He has only three mentions on Google – two pages and one in Forbes (giving his salary, which is only slightly greater than the CEO of the ACS).

For me this sums up Elsevier’s business model. Corporate think, corporate style. I don’t think of people in Elsevier by their names, but their offices. The “Director of Universal Access” is not a person, it’s an office. (This is a very important lesson to learn – Amsterdam syndrome – NEVER think of individuals in Elsevier other than by their office. But that’s another post).

Jobs, Gates, etc. revolutionised industries. I am not saying they are good or bad – but they have been effective.

Who is the Steve Jobs of #scholpub? Have there ever been any?

Yes, two. [I am omitting PLoS, eLIFE as they ar not commercial]

The first was Robert Maxwell (Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch ). Hated by many, including me. Ruthless, visionary, and less-dense-than-seawater.

Maxwell set up Pergamon Press in Oxford, UK. It was highly successful and changed the model of publishing from scholarly societies to mainstream. It created brands, attractive typesetting. I remember it as appealing. It created journals according to discipline need, not organization of societies.

And it had trendy names such as “Tetrahedron” for organic chemistry (carbon – often with a tetrahedral geometry).

But Maxwell’s practices stepped over the edge.

The DTI inquiry [into his business practices] reported: “We regret having to conclude that, notwithstanding Mr Maxwell’s acknowledged abilities and energy, he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.”

And later he proved he could float.

Elsevier has bought the Maxwell journals and brands. Tetrahedron is still an averagely respected journal.

I never met Maxwell – though we corresponded through intermediaries – he wanted to build a commercial version of the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Base. (This is unrelated to me now being in Cambridge).

But I have met the next entrepreneur – Vitek Tracz. ( ) and I have respect, admiration for him. It’s not really fair to include him immediately after Maxwell, except that this is history, not sentiment.

Vitek was the person who showed that Open Access (APC, Gold) could be valuable and profitable. This was a major leap of faith in 2000 – why would authors pay (a lot) for publishing, when they could get it for free? But they did.

And without Vitek we would not have Gold OA. We might not have PLoS (PLoS was bitterly attacked by Nature as “unfair” because it was subsidized. But PLoS runs a profitable business and does not rely on subsidy now).

I regret that Vitek sold BiomedCentral to Springer. That’s sentimental of me. Vitek has every legal, moral and ethical right to sell his business. And, I understand, there are some clauses that protect BMC’s individuality. But Springer plans that it will never be more than 5-10% of the business and I find it difficult to see how the corporate values of a company that promotes possession of content 90% of the time (cf. SpringerImages, #springergate) can also accommodate Open ideas

But #scholpub is still in crisis. The Finch report showed in brilliant clarity how devoid of imagination the #scholpub community was. Trying to keep everyone happy including the publishers-who-must-not-be-upset and as a result planning for paralysis. Vague woolly good intentions, no recipe for transition.

So it’s even clearer that the industry must be disrupted. I use must not in its moral sense but simply as an imperative.

Disruption will happen.

Because even year of Finchlike inaction builds more tension into the system. More academics are becoming upset. More universities are running out of money. Students don’t like paying their tuition fees to digital landgrabbers. Funders are sick to the teeth of restrictive practices in publishers.

Some publishers charge THE PRICE OF A CAR for a hybrid scholarly article. This is barmy, and completely unacceptable.

Thefore something will break – catastrophically.

The nature of disruption and disruptive technology is that most people don’t see it coming. I see it coming, and I think I know from where.

In the next post I’ll tell you – I just didn’t want it to be in the same post as Maxwell. If you think you know please comment.

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