Yet Another Turning Point….

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Yet Another Turning Point….

As some readers at this place already know, the boring fact is that I started work in the publishing and information industry in October 1967, and am thus over fifty years as an observer of change in these parts. And, in what some regard as a fifty year dotage, I am prone to remark that change is the new normal etc etc and pour scorn on the wealthy publisher who I approached for work in 1993 and who replied “ tell me when your digital revolution thing is over and then help me to cope with the next five hundred years of the post-printing world “And I quite see the point. Revolutions are not for everyone. And there were comfortable years in my twenties when it seemed possible to believe that Longman ad OUP, Nelson and Macmillan, could go on ruling the post colonial world of school textbook publishing  with nothing more exciting than a revised Latin syllabus to stir the waters of their creativity. Yet in truth the world of print, from the rise of Gutenberg to the fall of the house of Murdoch, has been full of change. It just happens faster and more completely now.

In the old world (my personal calendar divides at 1993, Year 1, when I did my first internet  strategy consultancy job: Appearances to the contrary my age is only 25!) we bought and sold companies on valuations that reflected something of their ownership of unique, proprietory content. In the deals that I did for Thomson in the early 1980s, and particularly in the building of the then large law database Eurolex, ownership and exclusivity were critical. Journeying to Luxembourg last week, I reflected on my first visit there in 1980 to negotiate the rights to put the judgements of the European Court of Justice online. Reporting triumphantly to my chairman, I recall him saying – “but surely they are worthless if everyone can get them ? “Since that day the following earthquakes have taken place: cross-file searching that gave real utility to collections of documents held online; the Internet and the Web, which permitted exposed content to be treated and searched as if it were all in the same place; and then the ability to scrape, copy, transmit and, in the age of  SciHub, mass-pirate that allegedly precious content, proprietory or not.

And so we emerge into the Age of data. It took a decade for the content world to understand that the Web was not just a place where you took the formats of yesterday, reloaded them digitally and pursued the same business models. By 2005 much of this had been done, and over the next ten years  we had some really interesting Web formats, many new variant business models, and the first tremors of the new ‘shake. We call this round of shifting and grinding tectonic plates the Data revolution, and you need to look closely at micro movements to see it happening. In an area like science research, always a useful bellwether, the last quarter showed real progress  in terms of the reaction of major players. In landmark announcements in the past three months Springer Nature have indicated that their SciGraph now contains over a billion metadata items while Elsevier have cleverly released their Unified Data Model (UDM) to a club of Pharma companies. In short this means that the largest traditional content players in the sector are awakening to two critical factors in the post-content world – the content-about – thee-content will be more important than the content itself, and that your data model will be the most important means you have of communicating with your customers.


This column has many times rehearsed the market moves away from research and towards workflow. We have dwelt here at almost embarrassing length on the device as a solution rather than a primary access point. In the research world we can clearly see the emergence of a tools and services economy, in a market that has moved away from budget restricted purchasing points like the library and towards a total concentration on researcher support. Many publishers would love to go on living in a traditional publishing world – especially in scholarly societies dependent on journal income – but as Roger Schonfeld has indicated in two recent Scholarly Kitchen articles, it is simply no longer possible. If even Titans like Elsevier and Springer Nature are moving off the floodplain and seeking higher ground, everyone else needs a lifeboat. This is a consolidating market too – acquisition and failure  are increasing, though who would want to buy traditional journals at present ?  Consolidation here means outlets decreasing, more preprints and an increase in informal availability and transmission (ResearchGate).


But the move to a data driven market where metadata searching is routine and text and data mining is a fluent part of most research processes implies that everything is available to be swept. Academic publishing is a paywall world where use of advanced mining techniques has to be negotiated with data holders. And publishers building analytics will find that you need a centrality of  deployment to make them meaningful. As Roger Schonfeld indicates, this implies a partnering spirit that is alien to the capitalist spirit. And Danny Kingsley, director of Scholarly Communications at Cambridge  said in an LII speech at the beginning of this month, the risk is that while the public purse can pay for some initial innovation, these funds cannot be reliably sustained – with the result that companies she named like Elsevier were buying their way into the academic service economy. This obviously worried her more than it does me – people fleeing for the hills cannot be too picky – but it does raise the interesting question of where the value now lies that underpins these players. It is not surely in the copyrights  . It may be in the software. Increasingly it will be in the analytics, but this will be a fast moving game of winner -takes-all. – for a moment. And how many big service companies do you need – I suggest a market leader and a competitor to keep him honest is enough. This is the trouble with earthquakes, you end up sitting somewhere unfamiliar waiting for the aftershocks.


To those who have reached this point, thanks and seasonal greetings. More funeral rites next year, for which I wish you every happiness and success- especially if you are tackling the enigma which is the networked digital society.

Originally published on On 20th December 2017