I’m very happy to be joining the Scholarly Kitchen, and thought I’d give a quick recap on who I am, along with a few links to previous posts on academic publishing and new online tools over at my regular blog, Bench Marks.

I’m the Executive Editor of a fairly new biology methods journal, Cold Spring Harbor Protocols, from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.  The journal is an attempt to move a 30-plus year scientific manual publishing program out of the print world and into the electronic world. CSHL Press has long been well-known for the high quality laboratory manuals published, but younger students are less likely to seek experimental methods on the lab’s bookshelf, they want to find them online. Hence, the journal was created in mid-2006.  CSH Protocols is also serving as a laboratory bench for some experiments in new ways of scientific publishing, detailed here.

Before helping to create and running this journal, I was a Commissioning Editor for our books program, and before that, a research biologist, receiving my PhD in Genetics from Columbia and doing postdoctoral work in neural development at Caltech.  My training as a scientist remains deeply ingrained, and I tend to look at publishing ventures and new online tools with the same skeptical eye one would use to review a scientific paper.  My journey through the scientific blogosphere was started with great enthusiasm, as it seemed there was a world of exciting new tools out there that were rapidly being taken up by so many.  This was followed by a period of great disillusionment, when I realized that most of the scientific conversation happening online was something of a closed loop and that almost every single biologist I spoke with in person told me they don’t read science blogs and they don’t use any of the new online tools.  There is a relatively small online community of biologists who are not representative of the average reader of one of our journals.  They may be, as they claim, just way ahead of everyone else in using these new tools, or they may be just an odd evolutionary offshoot, a branch of people doing things online because it suits their particular personalities.  One has to read carefully, between the incessant hype, utopianism and self-promotion to figure out what’s really going on.

I’ve given a few talks on why these new tools are failing to catch on — here’s an early one given at a publishers meeting, and a later one given to an audience of scientists.  The short answer, if you don’t want to read my lengthy posts, is that very few, if any of the new online scholarly tools give benefits that outweigh the costs in time and effort.  Web 2.0 is all about huge timesinks, and so far, the tools aren’t justifying the effort they require.  Our readers are busy people — I’ve never met a single successful scientist with extra time on his hands.  They don’t want to spend huge chunks of their week filtering information or chatting online with strangers. I am at heart a technophile, and I love playing with these new tools, and I’ll let you know when I find useful ones like GoPubMed, and I’ll poke holes in others, like online reference managers.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more of a naysayer, as so few of the newly offered tools live up to the potential of the medium.  Given my daily interactions with scientists, I’m convinced that editorial oversight is more important now than ever, and it’s still something for which people are willing to pay.  As publishers, we need to be able to see through the hype, and to support and develop tools, business models and delivery systems that have real world value and real beneficial results.  And that’s the perspective I hope to bring here.  Hmm, a lot of chefs in this kitchen already.  I wonder if they could use a bartender…

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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Discussion

8 Thoughts on "By Way of Introduction…."

Mr. Crotty, I respect your perspective and experience greatly, but I still don’t understand why you equate article tagging with online reference management. Mendeley works just fine if you don’t tag anything, and the major issue you have, that of actually entering in the tags themselves, is a technical problem, not a fundamental one. You use Papers yourself, right?

About the editorial process you’re correct, it’s certainly something that’s important and needed. It’s still something for which people are willing to pay. However, people aren’t willing to pay for skilled editorial process + upcharge due to monopoly control of distribution channel. The crisis in journalism these days and the push towards open access isn’t about the value of the editorial process, but the other element in the equation. It’s only because we’ve had no other choice that we paid out the nose for the distribution channel in the past. Now that there are options, the market is setting the price, so don’t be surprised to see things get cheaper and more atomized, because that’s what’s happening in the new distribution channels.

As always, a well-written and thought-provoking post.

Hi William, thanks for coming along to my new home.

I associate tagging with online reference managers because that’s how almost all of them work. Mendeley, like Papers, is an exception, and I’ve praised both in the past. The reason they’re better is that you can use full text searching and not bother with tagging, which is much more efficient. Mendeley has the advantage of providing both an online and offline system as well, whereas Papers has a better interface and in my hands just works better (although Mendeley continues to improve in leaps and bounds). I’ve noted some other issues with Mendeley, and I still think they’re going to run into major legal problems if their software ever catches on.

I’m not sure if my program is a “technical” problem or more a rejection of the concept of manually inputting and sorting. Hopefully semantic technologies will continue to improve making the point moot but for now, full text search is vastly preferable to painstaking annotation by hand.

As for the editorial value, the problem seems to lie in the extremes. You’ve got publishers pushing for maximum revenues the market will bear, and you’ve got an online culture that expects everything to be free. I’m sure some balance will be reached in the middle somewhere.

Thanks for the kind words about Mendeley, David. Here’s my profile, in case you find yourself spending more time with it.

I definitely get that you reject the idea of manual tagging. I would personally describe the process as “painstaking”, but to each his own.

Where you’re mistaken, though, is that everyone expects everything to be free online. It’s a more complex issue, so I’d like to spend a little more time on this, and I hope you can follow me through to the end. Certainly, itunes provides a counterexample, as do the handful of sites that I’ve actually paid where I’ve actually paid to be a member, of the idea that you can’t charge for online content, but the important thing to remember is that you’re not only paying for the item, but also for the distribution channel. For the convenience, so to speak. What the online culture expects is for things to be accessible in the format of their choice and to not have the restrictions of the non-digital world ported onto the web. If it’s a choice between free and unrestricted, or for-pay and restricted, I’ll pick the free, but my choice isn’t primarily based on price. I think everyone understands now that if the recording companies had gotten over themselves and provided a fairly priced per-track music store from the very beginning, it would never have been as easy to get stuff for free as it has become. Again, it’s not paying for content people despise, it’s paying inflated costs for an outdated distribution channel that people despise. You may argue that 13-year old kids downloading Britney Spears tracks aren’t going through such a sophisticated thought process, but I’ll reply that they don’t have to for the point to remain valid because it’s the market setting the price here. You might not fully understand the business model and financials of every company in your portfolio, but based on the advice you get, you take action which makes you part of the price-setting mechanism of the market for that stock. Likewise, the theoretical 13-year old isn’t finding out about file sharing themselves. They get their info third or fourth-hand, but somewhere it traces back to someone who wrote the file sharing software so likewise the actions of the kid set the value of the distribution channel. No that record companies no longer have a near monopoly, they can’t charge as much as they were because there are other options. The arguments about how much it costs to advertise and do promotion and press a million copies doesn’t really hold any more because it’s way, way less expensive to do those things. Accordingly, the price should drop. The old arguments about how much it costs to gather news from around the globe and print a newspaper and distribute it around the country likewise don’t hold anymore, and it has nothing to do with people not wanting to pay for reporting, because a large part of the price they were paying wasn’t actually for the reporting, but for the distribution and marketing. Giving publishers the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible they simply haven’t thought about it this in-depth, but to me it’s the way forward. Publishers can’t stop feeling like they’re being ripped off by realizing that what people don’t want to pay for anymore is actually something they don’t need to incur as a cost anymore, either. Content creators can stop feeling insulted by realizing that they don’t have to pay the costs to the publishers and distributors they previously did, so they don’t have to charge extra to cover those costs, but the value of their content itself hasn’t changed. Finally, consumers can get what they want in the format they want, without having to deal with the inconvenience of a physical object not the cost of a expensive distribution channel. Everybody wins in this scenario, except for the truck drivers. Yeah, the advertisers will have to change how they do business, too, but there’s still tons of opportunity there. Business still needs to get the word out about their product, and consumers still want to know where the good stuff is.

I’m not the first to make this argument, and I’m sure I won’t be the last, but damn, it would be so nice if I was.

CORRECTION: I _wouldn’t_ describe the process as painstaking. Damn tiny input boxes make it hard to proofread.

William, if you’ve been in science for 20 years, and you’ve got a reference list that contains greater than 10,000 papers, then yes, individually tagging each one should be described as “painstaking”. If you’re just starting your career and can get in the habit from the beginning, perhaps it becomes a natural part of the process. I tend to follow the examples set by Apple, Microsoft and Google, all of whom have invested heavily in developing desktop search applications. The philosophy is that one shouldn’t spend a lot of time devising organizational schemes to find material when you can do nothing and find the material just as easily through high quality search mechanisms.

The question of willingness to pay for material on the internet is a complicated one.

I do think that eventually we’ll reach a point where people are more willing to pay for access to material. But arguing that we’ve reached that point already is somewhat naive. You cite iTunes, but please compare the number of songs sold on iTunes with the number of songs downloaded on a daily basis through P2P software. The numbers aren’t even close. The vast majority of people simply prefer to get things for free. That’s human nature. So the question, at least for now until attitudes change, is whether you can make something compelling enough to compete against free alternatives. Can you survive as a business on revenue from that smaller percentage of the public willing to pay for higher quality/ease of use? A lot will depend on the size of your market which, luckily for music at least, is huge.

The other issue is a great misunderstanding by the general public what the true costs of production are, at least in the publishing world. I work for a small science publishing house, and our costs for printing, paper, binding and shipping of a physical manual are around 10%-20% of our costs for producing that book. I’ve seen similar numbers from fiction publishing houses:
http://theharperstudio.com/2009/02/why-e-books-cost-money-to-publish/
So by going electronic, rather than paper, the “inflated costs of an outdated distribution channel” that are saved are around 10%.

But readers don’t seem willing to pay 90% of the price of a hardcover book for the equivalent e-book (DRM-restricted or not). Ditto for music buyers, iTunes (who just introduced sweeping increases in song prices by the way) buyers don’t expect to pay 90% of the $18.99 list price for a cd when they download songs.

And that’s a big issue. People are (or will eventually be) willing to pay for quality editorial work and quality production work. But it’s not clear to them what goes into that work, and how much it costs. It’s a bit invisible and so most people assume it doesn’t cost anything, when in reality (at least for us), it’s the vast majority of the costs of producing a book or a journal. The actual distribution channel is only a tiny factor in the overall picture of costs of production, yet consumers think it plays much more of a role and expect much more of a discount than it warrants.

Thanks for your comments, David. I can see you’re thinking through this to some degree. It’s not just distribution, though, it’s production, marketing, distribution, and a whole host of things that change when there’s no longer a physical object you have to schlep around the country. For smaller operations and different industries the cost structure is of course different, but the general principle remains the same. Certainly the non-recording studio costs for an album have changed way more than 10%.

My main point was that the free option became an attractive one because of mistakes the content distributors/publishers made initially. Pandora’s left the box now, though, so you can’t know what would have happened if they had gotten a clue earlier and gotten a better product available through the channels in which there was a demand. The change of business model to streaming rather than downloads would likely have preempted the whole sorry business. Now people have come to expect things to be available for free because it’s the only way to get what they want. There are business models that work, it’s just a matter of finding them. There’s just no sense in asking people to pay inflated prices to cover costs for your cotton-pickin’ slaves when the guy next door has a cotton gin.

As far as back-tagging a whole collection of papers, yeah, I agree it’s a job for which online reference managers are ill-suited. I don’t think that’s really what they were intended for, though. If you want to back-tag stuff you’re way better off using something like Mendeley. Incidentally, have you heard about Open Calais? This is what I meant when I referred to tagging as a technical problem. It’s got a technical solution, which people such as muself are actively working on this very moment.

Thanks for the tip on Open Calais, I’ll dig in over the next week or two.

I think you’re right on the money as far as Pandora’s box. Publishers have wisely taken a slower track, sticking with analog products rather than digital ones in many cases, which has slowed the level of “file sharing” or whatever one wants to call it. But we’re stuck with the culture that has developed around other industries. I wanted to point out one really telling example:
http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2009/03/iphone-develope.html
Here you have people pirating apps developed by independent individuals, apps that cost 99 cents, apps for which there are no issues with outdated distribution models. The price is about as low as it can get. There’s no real argument here to be made for doing this other than just wanting something for free.

As far as costs go, just doing something electronically does not alter the production costs other than not having to pay for print, paper and binding (often it increases them as developing a really good online product takes really talented people), nor does it alter our marketing costs (we’re a small company that does limited marketing anyway). It does decrease our distribution costs, as I said, by about 10%. So there’s not really much savings available in going electronic if you’re intent on producing a really high-quality, heavily edited product. For most publishers, making an e-book costs nearly the same as making a print book. But no one seems willing to pay similar amounts for them, hence a hesitancy by many publishers to enter the market. Why bother, if it’s a money-losing prospect?

And it is good to experiment with business models. The journal I run, for one example, is an attempt to move from selling individual books to selling institutional subscriptions for a database with the content of a library’s worth of books.

We’re both good at finding edge cases regarding the subjects under discussion, so perhaps a consensus viewpoint would be that many people will pay for files if it’s not easier to get it from someone else, but some people also will go to great lengths to get stuff for free.

I think the subscription idea is a great one, for what my opinion’s worth. As with streaming music, you avoid the whole issue of pricing something per-object.

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