Walls come tumbling down

A short article of mine will be coming out any day in Learned Publishing. Below is my original draft (so please excuse any typos). I’ll post a link to the final article once it appears online.

Update 30/3/09: Here’s a link to the official published version.

Points of View: Walls come tumbling down

Everywhere we look, the web is bringing down barriers. Barriers to personal communication, barriers to market entry, and barriers between different industries. As a totem of its potential to mix things up and accelerate change, the web has even helped an African-American underdog get elected to the most powerful post on earth.

In scholarly communication, too, we see many of the same effects, though most are overlooked. It’s common for the web to be viewed as an easy way for academics to self-publish, and for new publishers to compete on refreshingly equal terms with long-established incumbents. These changes are important, but focusing on them misses the bigger picture. Here are six more crumbling barriers that in my opinion are just as important:

Journals and databases

As journals have moved online, they have started to adopt important attributes that are characteristic of the new medium – and utterly alien to the print world. In particular, they are more searchable, structured, interlinked and dynamic. On the web we are more likely to locate an article by entering a few words that describe its content than to use a formal citation. To make this process more effective, publishers and authors are also starting to embed semantic information and attach associated datasets. And papers are updated after publication with links to related content, comments, errata and so on. To put it another way, journals have become much more like databases.

At the same time, databases have started to learn from journals about the importance of things like curation, peer-review, citability and archiving. The blurring of the boundaries between these two domains will bring huge benefits (except, perhaps, to those publishers who don’t see it coming). This will involve not only introducing richer linking between these different information sources, but also going beyond the question of whether something is a journal or a database, and focusing instead on how useful it is.

Publishers and their customers

That begs another question: how do we define and measure usefulness? There was a time not very long ago when to objectively analyse your readers’ behaviours and preferences required a formal market survey. These still have their place, but in general a much more immediate and effective (not to mention inexpensive) way to understand your readers’ is to study their actions on your website. There’s no longer much point in debating whether a link would be more useful on the left or the right of the page, or whether a red or green button is more intuitive, because now you can try both and see.

On a larger scale, the web is a supremely effective medium for trying out altogether new offerings. At Nature Publishing Group (NPG) we have launched perhaps more than our fair share of these experimental projects. Though we always start with an idea of the core need we are setting out to address, we didn’t launch any of them in the confident belief that “If we build it, they will come”. Rather we took the attitude that “If we don’t build it, we won’t know”. In short, we’re acting something like the scientists we serve, using these projects to test and understand our new environment. Like a researcher working at the boundaries of human knowledge, anyone taking this approach has to accept that failure is not merely acceptable, it’s inevitable. But the web makes it possible for publishers to fail in small, manageable increments, learning in the process – and without spending a lot of money.

Publishers and broadcasters

In order to reap the full potential of what the web has to offer, it’s essential for publishers to interpret their missions broadly. For this reason, I see NPG less as a journal publisher and more as a scientific communication company. We exist to facilitate the flow of scientific knowledge between researchers, and between academia and society at large. For almost 140 years printed journals have been the primary means by which we achieved these aims, and they still form the largest part of our business, but in the online world they represent just one opportunity among many.

Take audio and video, for example. A decade or two ago the means of production and dissemination were beyond the reach of almost everyone outside the broadcasting industry; now they are in then hands of anyone with a mobile phone. But that doesn’t mean everyone is good at it, so developing expertise in audio and video still provides a competitive advantage to those who can achieve it. Importantly, these media are also highly complementary to the written word: video can be used to convey concepts that are very difficult to communicate using only text and static images, and audio can be consumed in situations, such as driving or operating lab equipment, where it would be impossible (or at any rate, extremely inadvisable) to try and browse a journal or web page.

Of course, while publishers are becoming broadcasters, the reverse is also happening, as any newspaper publisher will tell you of or Thus a new competitive dynamic is arising in which we face unfamiliar rivals with very different histories and skills from our own.

Publisher and technology companies

The same is true – only more so – when it comes to technology companies. It seems clear to me that having moved online, most publishers will find themselves on an inexorable path to becoming technology companies of a sort, or otherwise risking irrelevance. As soon as you begin to distribute content online, there is a strong imperative to provide steadily more functionality in order to enhance its value further. The more that functionality becomes a differentiating factor, the closer the publisher comes to taking on the position of a technology player. Eventually, publishers will start (and in some cases have already begun) to build businesses based on functionality alone, independent of content.

This shouldn’t be as surprising as it might sound: if publisher[s] are in the business of information – and they are – then mastering information technology isn’t an optional extra, it’s central to their future. One of the implications of this is that they need to follow technology companies closely and learn from them.

Brands and copyright

Personally, I’ve learnt almost everything I know about online publishing from people whom I would classify as technologists rather than publishers. The person who perhaps straddles this divide most effectively is Tim O’Reilly, the man to whom much of Silicon Valley turns in order to make sense of their past and forecast their future. He is also publisher of the best web-technology books on the planet. In 1995, O’Reilly made a particularly prescient remark [1]:

“Trademark may turn out to be a far more important form of intellectual property protection for the net than copyright.”

This seems right. The most spectacular web successes – Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, craiglist – depend on their brand reputation much more than they depend on proprietary content (though many certainly depend on proprietary computer code). They achieve success by providing great user experiences that result in people coming back to their sites time and again. This quest for ‘moreishness’ is far more effective than the obsession with ‘stickiness’ (i.e., trying to prevent visitors from leaving your site) that so dominated web thinking in the 1990s.


And what of the barriers that ought to be of most interest to anyone concerned with the spread of human knowledge: those between different fields of study? Here there seems to be no intrinsic bias in the potential of the web. It can drive us into self-reinforcing and introspective niches just as readily as it can connect us to people and knowledge that will broaden our horizons.

My erstwhile boss, Richard Charkin, that rare kind of person with a genuine passion for both science and literature, once lamented on his blog the lack of interest in science among book publishers [2]. As I pointed out in a supporting comment, “a true love of knowledge doesn’t stop at arbitrary borders”. For any of us working to fulfil the web’s potential as a scholarly medium – and for scholarly societies in particular – that sentiment above all ought to be our guiding star.




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