light bulb
A light in the darkness.

What has become known as “STM Week” represents a series of meetings in London which expanded this year to include London Information International as a competing/complementary event in another part of the city (known to some as “western Norway,” depending on how that train ride to the eXcel Center felt to you).

STM Innovations has become one of the industry’s better meetings. This year’s event was focused on the relatively worrisome and grim subject of cybersecurity, focusing on the publisher’s role in it. The theme jibed with discussions earlier in the week at the STM FutureLab meeting, a collective discussion I’ve been attending for about a decade now, and one that never disappoints. Other meetings throughout the week sought to move these deliberations along the road toward a solution set.

Out of these meetings, networking discussions, and chats while walking, here are a few stray thoughts to give you a flavor of some take-aways I gleaned from all the meetings and interactions above. Because it’s such an active week, another attendee’s results may vary.

Security is a publisher’s business — Despite Sci-Hub being fresh in everyone’s mind, there were times when the incessant talk of blockchain, WAYF, and SAML provoked skeptical minds to ask, “Do publishers really need to be carrying water in the security game? After all, it’s only content licenses at risk for us?” Well, yes and no. This is where “publishers are an extension of academia” comes into play, and Sci-Hub is a perfect example of this. While IP authentication/authorization itself was not compromised by Sci-Hub, the lax approach to usernames and passwords we share with our customers is largely to blame for the incursions by Sci-Hub. In one talk, a cybersecurity expert talked about “hacktivists” and “criminals” as distinct, failing to note that the latter can leverage the former. This is the concern with the Sci-Hub attacks — that a hacktivist going after free content was a pawn for cybercriminals, who may use the credentials gleaned from publisher logins to exploit SSO implementations at universities. We guard a door into academia, and we need to protect it better. Cybercriminals, hackers, and nation-state players are busy probing the web for vulnerabilities. Security is no longer optional. Incursions are not limited to content licenses, but include submission systems, e-commerce systems, and internal systems. We have to get real about this. Our approach is 20 years old, and it’s showing its age. Armor up!

Are we content or data companies? — One of the most interesting conversations I had during the week was with someone whose company is working with some of the larger subscription and e-commerce businesses in the world, many of whom are creating original content now in order to drive customer engagement. They are doing this not because they are content companies, but because they are data companies. It’s like the old saw about newspapers, which were, in their heyday, advertising sheets with news in the spaces between the ads. Now, it’s data companies with content in between the data capture. Think Netflix or Amazon or Hulu, who create content to get data they can then use to leverage their businesses in new and exciting ways. How important is data to these companies? About a year ago, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon made their algorithms open source, in order to let the community improve them more rapidly. It’s the open source version of the Netflix Prize. But if algorithms are the differentiators, why level the playing field in this way? Because the algorithms are useless without data, and these player have vast amounts of data.

The book Joe Esposito reviewed last week starts with the story of how Netflix was able to use data to confidently purchase two seasons of House of Cards for $100 million, without requiring even a pilot episode to be made. How? Because they had data showing their subscribers had viewed the British predecessor, liked movies featuring Kevin Spacey, liked movies directed by David Fincher, and liked political dramas. The stars were aligned for success, but only Netflix had the right datascope to see it. The networks were comparatively blind.

The challenge for us may be to rethink ourselves in the data paradigm — are we truly the “content is king” people, or should we shift to “data is destiny” and begin to think differently about our businesses, our content, our promotional approaches, and our editorial processes? The thrall of content is strong. We have editors, not data scientists, at the nominal head of our content businesses. Even OA publishers, who seem poised perfectly to become strong data businesses with content as a lure, only seem to think of themselves as content providers. Perhaps the concerns over governmental (or non-governmental) snooping into the reading habits of individuals keeps us from thinking this way, but there are ways to thrive in a data business while safeguarding privacy. This may be a good topic when you sit down for your next strategic planning session.

Does OA need to be disrupted? — This thought arose after multiple discussions, listening to a few talks, and watching the world at large. It’s been 18 years since E-Biomed was brought forth as a cure-all for the woes of information inequality. Over that span of time, information inequality seems to have grown. Rather than more scientific literacy, we seem to have less. Rather than a more enlightened populace, we seem less able to agree on how the world works. At the same time, the flaw in the business model of Gold OA — an over-reliance on producers who are unwilling to bear the full costs — has become clearer. So, the major premises — more enlightened populace, better scientific literacy, a superior business model — all seem to be failing. Perhaps this is just the darkness before the dawn, but if so, the question remains: After nearly 20 years now, does OA itself need to be disrupted?

This is not a long think piece, and I’m going to stop there. Just some items to chew on today for you and your colleagues. Enjoy!

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "STM Week 2016 — Stray Thoughts on Security, Open Access, and Data"

On your oa point: how are you measuring information inequality? And abstract concepts such as enlightened populace?

How are we ‘less able’ to agree on how the world works. Has there ever been agreement?

Of course strawmen exist to be kicked over and you have created them here. Oa set out to make information available to all if they needed it, Not to make them more enlightened in the use of it. And it was premised on access to the internet: therein lies information inequality – the access to networks needed to read the information.

It certainly didn’t set out to make the world more agreed on how it should work.

The full costs argument may have validity – though it’s true of many, if not all, new business models, that they are reliant on some kind of subsidization (even if its many rounds of vc capital) to mature before they become truly self standing.

The assertion that OA would lead to a more enlightened society is not mine. It is found in wording from SPARC, various OA advocates, and so forth.

Science sets forth to make it clearer how the world works. When major consensus on issues like climate change, vaccination, and even the value of science and scientific research begins slipping away, we are less able to agree on how the world works. For centuries, society has agreed that scientific research is vital to health and prosperity. We no longer seem to agree on that fundamental point.

Information inequality comes from the new type of blindness of too much information, which is itself a form of censorship. Good information is blanketed by bad information, making it less likely to be believed and valued. Misleading information can be dressed up to appear equivalent to reliable information.

Subsidizing new business ventures is typical. However, we’re 20 years in, and OA seems to have dimmer prospects for non-subsidized success, with the exception of a few high-volume pockets that mostly benefit the larger publishing corporations.

I believe it’s time for a rethink. Or is the OA business model so sacrosanct that it is not subject to re-examination?

You make assertions on SPARC etc. Quick search. Can’t find. Can you provide the links to back up your premise?

Information overload is perhaps a function of age (and maybe therefore adjustment to the digital world) than it is a reality.

And it’s hardly a new issue. Michael Faraday complained of it way back in 1826.

“It is certainly impossible for any person who wishes to devote a portion of his time to chemical experiment, to read all the books and papers that are published..; their number is immense, and the labour of winnowing out the few [of interest] .. is such, that most persons who try .., pass by what is really good.”

Seems the subscription model did nothing to solve that in the following 180+ years. 20 years for oa seems a little harsh therefore.

But neither did I suggest oa was sacrosanct or indeed ideal. That is a truly a product of your imagination.

Strawmen and dead cats ( do far more disservice to rational discourse and progress than oa. as one example where this kind of thinking comes through. Search better, and you’ll find other examples. I could find a half-dozen in five minutes. Plenty of dubious assertions here (I particularly love the one about the patent clerk).

Information overload is different from information chaos. Overload is a personal phenomenon, but chaos is when there is a storm/flood of information swamping good sources with mixed or bad sources. This is observable currently. What Faraday and others didn’t experience was information pelting them constantly during a day from devices strapped to their hips vibrating with alerts, with newsfeeds insensible to the quality of information they convey. The subscription model helped to ensure that the baseline of information purveyance was higher. To point to the Faraday quote, he seemed to think that the information available was likely good, just that there was more than anyone could consume. That’s different from distrust in the information baseline, which is occurring today.

I suggested that OA might need to be disrupted or rethought. You are defending it. That’s where I inferred that you may view it as sacrosanct.

Yes I found that one easy enough myself when I searched. Can’t see any reference to enlightening the populace (or synonyms). Just standard oa benefits.

Not sure why you’re differentiating overload from chaos (the one leads to the other) unless to split hairs and create a false dichtomy. Too much information has been a constant refain for many years, yet we always seem to cope. Oa seems a side show on that score.

I can’t see where I defended oa. But the question is so what? Is there something wrong in defending oa? If I disagree on one point do I disagree on all?

Oa is not sacrosanct. It’s a choice some scholars make. And some publishers provide the means. It doesn’t always pay its way. But then neither do all subscription journals (how many would wither if there was no big deal to support them?)

And surely as supporters of scholars that’s how we’ve always operated. To try and provide a means for academics to disseminate their work, preferably at a profit but at times we find ways without that because the work is important culturally.

So I find it hard to understand your disdain for oa. Some extreme supporters yes. But most of us see it as an important addition to our business, and of our way of supporting academic research. Which will, yes, make the world better (regardless of the business model of dissemination). And if that leads to more disruption, of oa or whatever, so be it.

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