Michael Nielsen (Photo by Michael Clarke)
Michael Nielsen (Photo by Michael Clarke)

Instead of attending a meeting with a bunch of gadget geeks blathering ad nauseum about ebook readers, I decided to see what some of the folks who invented electronic publishing, and have been doing it successfully for decades on numerous platforms, had to say about the future of the industry at the annual STM Frankfurt Conference (where there was also blather about ebook readers, but only just a bit).

This year’s conference began with a provocative keynote talk by Michael Nielsen entitled “Is Scientific Publishing About to Be Disrupted?” The talk was based on, and closely followed, his blog post of the same title. As this post has already been covered in the Scholarly Kitchen, I will only highlight a few points from the talk here.

Nielsen provided two reasons as to why he thinks the scientific publishing industry is on the verge of disruption:

  1. A flourishing ecosystem of startups. Examples include PLoS, JoVE, SciVee, Mendeley, and ChemSpider to name just a few startups focused on science communication. Additionally, Nielsen pointed to tools not explicitly designed for scientists that have nonetheless been embraced by many of them. These include WordPress, Delicious, MediaWiki, and FriendFeed. Nielsen estimates that 80% of startups will fail but that the 20% that survive will develop innovative, non-traditional cost structures and skill-sets that will challenge traditional publishing enterprises.
  2. The changing nature of information. Nielsen posited that the locus of value in the publishing enterprise has moved from production-focused to technology-focused activities and that publishers, by and large, do not have technology expertise.

The first of these two reasons was questioned by Michael Keller of Stanford University who asked why early, technology-driven start-ups, such as ArXiv and PLoS, have failed to have a disruptive impact on science publishing. Nielsen responded that, in the case of ArXiv, there is an insulating layer, in the form of libraries, between physicists and journal publishers. Nielsen speculated that if physics departments had to pay publishers directly from department budgets that they would opt to cancel journal subscriptions in favor of ArXiv or other yet-to-be-developed pre-print platforms. Keller was not entirely convinced by this hypothesis (nor were many other conference attendees—though, as one attendee pointed out, with not a little tongue in cheek, that this could be due to an “organizational immune response” Nielsen mentioned in his talk and in his blog post).

In regard to the second point, I agree with Nielsen that online technology will provide increasing levels of value in science publishing in the future. However, publishers are—and always have been—a cross between content and technology companies. And while the technologies that publishers have long specialized in are fast becoming obsolete, STM publishers can retool for the online world while still retaining a deep expertise in their highly specialized content areas. The question is whether they can do it fast enough.

James Mouw, Assistant Director for Technical and Electronic Services at the University of Chicago, provided an update on ebook use at that university. Mouw began by noting that Chicago’s spending on print books has remained relatively stable and that the university is, in fact, building another library to house its growing dead tree collection (the design is quite innovative, and this alumnus can’t wait to visit the new facility). He did, however, indicate that STM spending dipped slightly in 2009 (the first drop during Mouw’s tenure), due largely to cancellation of print resources for which the university held electronic versions of the same content.

In looking closely at the use of one set of books—a series of monographs published by Oxford University Press—for which Chicago has acquired both print and electronic editions, Mouw noted that online titles were used, on average, 34 times more frequently than print titles. This stunning statistic might lead one to wonder why Chicago is bothering with building a new library to house print books at all. Mouw noted that the primary obstacle to increased ebook acquisitions is publishers, who have made it more difficult to purchase ebooks than their print counterparts. Ebooks are not always available from the same outlets as print, are not always released at the same time, and often have complex packaging models. Though as Ian Rowlands of the University College of London T. Scott Plutchak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham later noted (and as I have written about previously), we are still in the incunabula phase of electronic publishing. Incunabula are books printed in the 15th century before print publishing practices were well established. We are currently in a similar nascent period with electronic publishing and things such as ebook purchasing mechanisms continue to evolve.

Mouw briefly touched on one such evolving mechanism: patron-assisted purchasing. Patron-assisted purchasing puts acquisition decisions more directly in the hands of library patrons, such as university students and faculty. Rather than librarians making purchasing decisions on an annual basis, electronic resources would be purchased on the fly when a patron first seeks to download the material. In other words, a patron might locate an ebook on a topic that interests them. On clicking to access the ebook, the patron would trigger a purchase of that title. The patron would be unaware of this—from her perspective she simply downloaded an ebook. Obviously, this would only work with publishers or aggregators who support such purchases and have established customer relationships with libraries. This sort of just-in-time delivery of ebooks is a very interesting development with some far-reaching implications for publishers.

Amazon’s David Naggar provided some background on the new Kindle International Edition, which will be released next Monday. This new Kindle opens up ebook sales via Kindle to customers in 100 countries. This is very good news for publishers with Kindle editions as it has the potential to greatly expand sales. It is also good news for Kindle users (sadly not for existing Kindle owners, however) as it will facilitate downloading of new content whilst traveling. I imagine this will be especially useful for things like newspapers (you can wake up to a copy of your local paper wherever one happens to be in the world) and travel guides.

Naggar also noted that Amazon is conducting a number of pilot studies with students and seeks to further improve the Kindle DX (an international edition of the DX has oddly not yet been announced) for use with educational and scholarly content, such as textbooks and journals.

Unfortunately, Naggar was both disappointing and unconvincing in his response to a question about Amazon’s plans to continue using Kindle’s proprietary format. He was disappointing in that he indicated that Amazon has no plans at present to move towards an open standard such as EPUB. He was unconvincing as he indicated the reason for this is so that Amazon can better support synchronization across multiple devices. Naggar stated that Kindle’s proprietary format has allowed Amazon to provide bookmarking and other content synchronization across Kindles, PCs, and iPhones (via Stanza). While this is useful, I find it hard to believe that the same level of synchronization would not be possible using the EPUB format. In fact, EPUB seems better suited to synchronization as one could synchronize content across a wider array of devices.

David Worlock and Derk Haank (Photo by Michael Clarke)
David Worlock and Derk Haank (Photo by Michael Clarke)

Some interesting observations on innovation came from Derk Haank, CEO of Springer Science + Business Media, who was interviewed by Outsell’s David Worlock. Haank observed that, in his experience (which includes a stint as CEO of Elsevier), the biggest impediments to innovation are the entrenched interests of senior managers and their need to defend their internal interests (on this point I could not agree more). One method Springer employs to remove this type of obstacle is to lower the threshold for project approvals. Haank noted that if the threshold for approval is very high, managers have much more invested, politically speaking, in a project’s success. This leads to projects being supported long after they should be shuttered or transitioned to new initiatives.

This strikes me as a good policy and one that publishers should keep at top of mind as they experiment and retool for the future, emerging from our incunabula period into a natively digital industry.

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services.


5 Thoughts on "The 2009 STM Frankfurt Conference"

Thanks for the summary, Mike. There was certainly plenty of food for thought at the meeting. I’m interested if knowing if anyone has yet done any modelling on the finances of an STM book programme as it makes a transition from print to online. The Springer approach of “license everything to the Library electronically and allow students to order individual print-on-demand copies” is interesting, but then what impact does this have on print-runs and profit margins? How do you incorporate the costs of the online platform into the cost of sale calculation? How do you explain it all to the Board when arguing for a strategic investment in e-books? It’s certainly making my head hurt a bit, and I’d be very interested to discuss this further with anyone else in the same boat!

Michael wrote: [James] Mouw noted that online titles were used, on average, 34 times more frequently than print titles. This stunning statistic might lead one to wonder why Chicago is bothering with building a new library to house print books at all.

It sounds like Mouw is committing the very frequent error of equating downloads with circulation, or at least equating them both to the flexible notion of use.

As Joe Esposito wrote recently on liblicense, there are many bonafide instances of print use that escape capture, and many instances of online use which may not be very meaningful.

A 34:1 ratio, a ‘stunning’ figure reported by Mouw, should have given this right away.

While I would agree that print readership has been declining slowly each year, and online readership growing correspondingly, I simply cannot believe that readers have the capacity to consume 34 times more text than they did in the past.

I would hope that librarians are both knowledgeable and skeptical of the data they receive from publishers, especially when it comes to making huge policy decisions like canceling all print book purchases or building new libraries.

Good summary of the meeting. One slight (and slightly inconsequential) correction — the “incunabula phase” comment was from my presentation, not Ian’s.

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