Is it true or not? Wired reports on a rumor, acknowledging it as such, that Google is embarking on a major program to disrupt–there’s that word again–scientific communications. To do this, the rumor goes, Google is building a platform that will enable scientists to post and review articles, and the platform will come replete with various tools of discovery. Yes, there will be human reviewers, but the goal (says the rumor mill) is to vastly expedite the scale and speed of reporting to the world the results of scientific investigation. For many readers of the Scholarly Kitchen this rumor, should it be true, would bring the unwelcome entry of a major tech company into the tiny world of scholarly communications. Of course, other readers would be delighted.
I recommend that you read the entire article. As a piece of journalism, though, it is irresponsible. You can see the author straining to make a story out of whispers. There is nothing to report here, but the piece drones on and on, even going so far as to include a number of other Google services (e.g., Google Docs) that would be woven into the alleged platform.
Good journalism, however, is not the measure of all things, and as I read this piece, I was wondering what uses it could be put to. The fact is that the executives in the C-suite of large companies necessarily spend a great deal of time wondering about unlikely events. Superior strategic planning is anything but evidence-based. It is based on speculation leavened with paranoia. The earth could be hit by an asteroid, it really could, and we have to be prepared.
The classic text on this topic is Andrew Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive, which I recommend, though you will likely come away with a sense of relief that you never met the former CEO of Intel–and a newly found belief in god as you rejoice that you never worked for him. Living in the world of Moore’s Law, where capacity doubles and prices drop by half every 18 months, made Grove into the John McCain of the tech business, seeing enemies everywhere, all inviting our aggressive preemptive response. But sleepless though Grove made me, I was intrigued a few years ago to stumble upon an interview with Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix (a company of nonstop profitable innovation), in which Hastings dismissed Grove’s strategy of paranoia. The problem with paranoids is that they chase too many options and still may end up getting it wrong. No one has the resources to make a company’s strategy completely safe. I think about this every time I board an airplane.
So Hastings has introduced judgment into the mix, which seems right. Google may–or may not–enter the scholarly publishing game in some capacity. Is it likely? Should we care? What do we do about if it proves to be true?
Eliminating some options is easy. I gave the mock example of the asteroid speeding to earth above, but even closer to home there are things that are too “big picture” to usefully be taken into account. Should we prepare for war? Well, no (pace John McCain); war would affect a heck of a lot more than the ability to extract a subscription from a library. Epidemics? Global financial meltdown? All these things go under the heading of simple prudence: stay in touch with the authorities, have a communications plan in place, don’t take on too much debt, and remember that your civic interests outweigh your business interests. This is not the place of strategy but of character.
The real issue is knowing what business you are in in the first place and whether Google or anyone else is likely to chase it. And here we get to the nub: scholarly publishers still maintain that they are publishers, even though the value they bring to the market is in another dimension entirely.
I say that publishing is not about publishing because publishing is the act of making things public. When we think about a publisher we think of all the things a publisher does in order to make that public presentation. This means production, manufacturing, Web hosting, printing, and so on, all things that go under the rubric of publishing services. The exception to this is editorial selection, about which more in a minute. Increasingly these services are being outsourced, sometimes to service providers (e.g., Highwire, Silverchair, Atypon, Firebrand, Sheridan, Maple-Vail) and sometimes to larger entities with service divisions (e.g., Elsevier, John Wiley, Cambridge). You don’t need a publisher to make things public any more.
The greatest success of the open access movement has been its ability to control the discourse surrounding scholarly communications. One would think, against all the evidence, that access is the biggest issue facing scientific communications today, but that emphasis has led people to focus, often critically, on the diminishing need for a publisher to make things public. Publishers are running scared; they hire lobbyists in Washington; they start OA programs of their own. But those actions will be as nothing–bupkis–if Google or any other major tech company decides to play in this sandbox. The first casualty is likely to be PLOS, whose program might become viewed as proto-Google. A publisher that thinks that publishing is about publishing may in fact be little more than the sum of its service constituents. Advantage: Google.
STM publishers are more than publishers, however; they are deeply implicated in tenure and promotion decisions. In other words, while they act as publishers, the value they add is in certification. The have gotten there by marrying editorial selection to their brands. This is a good place to be. Real challenges to the certification system are not very far along; academics are nothing if not conservative when it comes to matters of assessment and reputation. One response to the asteroid–I mean Google–is to think hard about an organization’s role in certification. How did we get here? How do we strengthen our position? How can we become agents of certification even if publishing–the making things public–is performed elsewhere?
Such a conversation among senior business types is likely to lead to a renewed interest in editorial operations. I recently came across a book publisher whose editors each sign 40 contracts a year. You can’t make 40 decisions of this kind in that amount of time. That publisher is putting certification at risk. Or how about the practice of taking a hands-off position when a client publisher appoints the editor of a journal? As the portfolios of some of the largest publishers continue to grow, are we seeing a dilution of the certification process? Are all of those new publications edited to the same standard as those that originally provided the publisher’s brand with the aura it now enjoys?
This may also be a good time to review the practice of line extension. Nature’s success at this has been one of the great commercial achievements of any publisher in the last decade. But is Nature now a hard act to follow? With the threat of Google on the horizon–or somewhere in interstellar space–is the addition of like-branded publications a strengthening or a dilution of authoritative certification? The brilliant strategic move of ten years ago may be an albatross today.
This is the virtue of rumor: it directs us to rethink our own value propositions; it demands that we do a better job at what we already do well. Google may be coming, and we will be ready.