I was sitting in my kitchen with a tortoise, a slug, and a bowl of cold molasses and contemplating how nobody in this industry seems to feel any sense of urgency. When the world was screaming for broader dissemination of research materials, publishers did nothing. Creative Commons was already an established fact before publishers woke up to it. While Heather Joseph proclaimed that open access is the norm, publishers still behaved as though their $9 billion journals business was something more than a hill of beans. The world wants all-digital all the time, but publishers engage in bizarre technological fetishism over the printing press. The world moves, publishers sleep. It is so embarrassing to be associated with people and an industry that are on the wrong side of history.
Howard Ratner has been trying to persuade me that it ain’t so bad. Howard, who was formerly associated with the Scholarly Kitchen, is now the Executive Director of CHORUS, an industry venture established to comply with new government regulations concerning public access to federally-funded research. (David Crotty, the Kitchen’s editor and the world’s sternest taskmaster, is on the CHORUS Board.) Howard delivered a presentation at the recent PSP conference, where publishers meet with other publishers, their faces cowled in shame. The topic was CHORUS and it seemed designed to refute the charge of sloth. Take a look at the slide deck and you will see what I mean.
In particular, take a look at slide #16, which shows the timeline of CHORUS’s development. In February 2013 the OSTP promulgated its manifesto, which, its egregious errors to the side (e.g., the conflation of research and formal publications about research, which is like confusing a a picture of a pizza with a thin crust, mozzarella, and tomato sauce), started a process that was to lead to the creation of open access practices. Immediately afterward a group of publishers convened to come up with an efficient solution to the new challenge of regulatory compliance. A few months later a feasibility study was put together. A couple more months and the plans for the organization were established. Money was raised; Howard was appointed to run the operation. A design was developed and rapidly prototyped. One year from the OSTP announcement the project was being piloted, with more publishers signing up every week. By the summer of this year CHORUS will be fully operational.
Did I neglect to mention that the government guidelines are not yet fully in place? Yes, that’s right: CHORUS, a solution to a government policy, was fully developed before the particulars of the policy were established.
One aspect of this project is that it points to the fundamental nature of successful enterprises: the only proven strategy is to hire the best people. I have made this point over and over to my not-for-profit clients, that commercial organizations are essentially human resource factories, but no one ever listens. It’s always easier to hire someone you know and are comfortable with, someone who won’t rock the boat. But leadership in a successful organization is all about challenging consensus and driving new practices and solutions. I can imagine someone saying that you can’t build a solution for the OSTP program before you know the details. But there it is. It’s up and running in defiance of all expectations.
So how can we explain how the dinosaur publishers, who never met an excuse they didn’t like, have moved so quickly with CHORUS? The answer is that organizations are neither fast nor slow; rather, they know their interests or they don’t, and when they see their interests at stake, they move at the speed of CHORUS.
This may serve to explain why publishers were not in the forefront of Creative Commons: What’s in it for them? At this point CC is just another check box, a new piece of overhead. It is not a rallying cry for utopian communications, but simply the cost of doing business. Give up the printing presses? Publishers would love to, and in the journals world they mostly have. Book publishers, on the other hand, are faced with the market reality that people choose print over digital by 3 to 1. Is it in a publisher’s interest to tell its customers that they cannot get books in the format they prefer? (Librarians, with their all-digital agenda, may wish to consider whether they are alienating the patrons they depend on for support.) As for open access, it took a while before the economics were worked out, but thanks to the pioneers at BioMed Central, OA is now part of the overall revenue picture for many publishers. And incremental revenue is definitely in a publisher’s interest.
Speed is an irrelevant metric. The relevant metric is determining what is and is not in an organization’s interest. This is the realm of strategy. When critics pan publishers for being slow-moving, they are attempting to foist the strategy of another realm or constituency onto the operations of another.
Left unsaid is whether or not publishers know their own interests and how CHORUS fits into them. That’s a bigger question, which I will not attempt to answer. What is clear, though, is that publishers cannot stop with CHORUS. CHORUS is a piece of infrastructure (and a new cost), but it does not address the real game, how one publisher can surpass another. For the successful publisher, CHORUS will simply be a backing band.