Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Responding to change in scholarly communications: fight, face-off, fix and faff

Hugh Looks tells a long and amusing story about a minor train crash he was in as a child to indicate that despite the serious global threats that circulate in the world, it's often smaller more mundane problems that really derail us. Publishers are under pressure at the moment to sustain their margins and other divisions within their parent companies are also suffering, and unable to provide any support at this crucial time. We don't fully know the shape of tomorrow's pressures, though continuing economic uncertainty will be a shared problem and changes in research and education will have a growing impact, particularly as students become more demanding. Current developments will continue to change the shape of scholarly communications (OA etc).

Responding to threats
  • Fight - lobby - consult - become indignant.
  • Flight - sell (who to?) - close.
  • Face-off - pretend it's not happening; ignore the problems.
  • Fix - big deal, better terms, enhanced products
  • Follow - accept that alternatives are needed
  • Faff - make small changes without a real strategy.
So far we have witnessed a combination of fight, face-off, fix... and faff. The only real solutions are follow and fix. Fixing requires us to make it more attractive for people to stick with the existing model - super-consortia, increased big deal flexibility - creating efficiencies that allow reduced costs without lower margins. Follow (stay in the business, accept alternatives are needed) requires further changes to pricing models, with redistributed functions and costs (e.g. author pays).

There are 3 places where value is created and costs are managed in a networked business.
  • At the periphery (libraries operate here) - close to the user with specialist expertise.
  • At the core - where the shared infrastructure and expertise is (where the researchers are).
  • In the middle - the distribution part - which is always most vulnerable to commoditisation, and is a hard position to defend. Libraries are partly here, as are publishers.
Alternative models that could be considered at the periphery include advertising and sponsorship - not a good market for this just now. We could take a leaf out of the mobile phone pricing market where pricing is comparatively low but with caps on usage.

There are no simple answers
The issues are all about transition - many of these models could work, and the problem is the disruption involved in getting there. None of us really understand how that's going to work, and it can only be managed on a system-wide basis (it can't be managed by individual entities). It may not even be a solvable problem. Potentially we're part way through a long cycle and we don't yet understand the beginning and end of it. We have to live with high levels of uncertainty which will lead to a lot more short-term Face-off (a great shame - waste of time and energy) and more Fix (because we haven't yet worked out what the Follow strategy is). "Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens" (Schiller - against stupidity, the Gods themselves struggle in vain) - deeply and painfully true, and at the root of most of our problems. We are only going to work this out with a lot of communication and some serious applied intelligence - there are no simple answers.

During questions, John Cox points out that it's very difficult for us to communicate well and to act as a system because of anti-trust laws. The only way out is for libraries to decide what they will demand of publishers and see what the response is. John also raised the idea of a telecoms style subscription model for scholarly publishing. I think it was Peter Burnhill who then noted the gap between funding for research and funding for libraries which have not risen commensurately.

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