Monday, April 07, 2008

Is sustainability really what we're after - Kevin Guthrie, Ithaka

Kevin Guthrie starts with a metaphor about pilot fish.

Q: If you're a pilot fish how fast must you swim?
A: Faster than a shark.

Q: How fast must you swim to find your next meal?
A: Faster than other pilot fish

Academic publishing is the shark apparently. We are the pilot fish.

Kevin highlights that digitisation changes and increases the symbiosis between "shark" and "pilot fish". Growth online is imense and speed of growth is staggering. YouTube was founded, grown and sold on within 2 years and users from none to 48 million in that time. This is a huge seachange.

The life cycle hasn't just shortened. Innovation adds layers - today's "value added" is tomorrows commodity. Things evolve so quickly and you must always be better than you were before (giving the example of evolution of videos through to online rental to video on demand in 10-2o years).

Kevin was previously with JSTOR at their birth and now works for a private organisation called Ithaka. JSTOR found it difficult to digitise at first but now publishers are fully onboard and involved.

Newspapers as Example
Traditionally there was protection for newspapers - geographical, advertising, media-specific view (not competing with other mediums). They relied on subscriptions and advertising (classified - thus local - advertising was key income). Even as challenges and benefits of digital production and distribution came through in the 1990's (and profits went up) the digital business started to become a threat to traditional print business.

What's been happening now is that profit margins decline. Stock prices falling 42% in 2007. Worst decline in 50 years. Even online advertising showing signs of slow down. Market place is shrinking, fewer titles, shrinking of journalist jobs (some moving online, some just ditched). Examples from multiple papers shrinking staff. The Guardian, as a contrasting example, offer multimedia training to journalists and will not cut staff who will transition to digital.

What happened?
Competition for audience - global market and competition from ALL news media. Indeed the Virginia Tech incident was actually reported best by Wikipedia - they absorbed new information most quickly. Enormous competition for advertising budgets and classified ads killed by eBay, CraigsList etc. Many papers (e.g. New York Times) are now going free rather than subscription online services (though others retain subscription is market can support - e.g. Wall Street Journal). Some serious lack of sustainability here though as all start ups seek advertising revenues. Resources of national papers stressed. By contrast small community papers are doing better as they have local information and news more relavent to their readers than cash-strapped national wire stories.

Kevin suggests a similar thing is going on in scholarly communication. Preprints and websites compete with journals. Open Access crosses territory with sustainable economic models. Consolidation is becoming key in newspaper world as it will in other digital areas. Libraries have one serious strategic advantage in their local knowledge. Niche targetted areas of knowledge also have advantages - in newspaper and libary worlds.

Kevin recommends a presentation on the similarities between newspapers and libraries:

Crisis of Wake-up Call?
Strategic change is required. It is very hard to implement though and academic areas are notoriously resistent to strategic change and reallocation of resources.

Scholarly Publishers
Historically they were insulated, walled search areas etc. Google is changing things substantially and it is now a very different commercial environment. Dissemination and intermediaries were important. Discoverability was by A&I databases and publisher marketing.

It is now the case that faculty do much of the selection more directly. Distribution quite different and threatened by the web. "Credentialing" is really the only competitive advantage of traditional serials brands - publishing in key journals still influences tenureship etc. This has not really changed.

Scholarly publishing must identify it's core values and explore new ways that the internet can enhance them.

What is needed so that new technologies can help to strengthen the core, not weaken it?
  • Outsourcing - where some functionality is best taken outside organisations core work.
  • Willingness to experiment and invest, not retrench and protect.
  • Letting go of long-held attitudes and beliefs in what the situation was, in favour of moving to what it will be.
  • Mindset shift to an ongoing focus on users and their needs and their preferences (not research project/funding drivers of content) - this will help make a much more sustainable model.
  • Compromise
  • Unprecedented industry-wide collaboration

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Anonymous Simon Owens said...

I wouldn't be so sure that Craigslist will continue to damage the newspaper industry forever. As I theorize in this post, I think its effect will eventually plateau.

5:06 am  
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