Understanding how researchers and practitioners use STM information

I gave a presentation on Understanding how researchers and practitioners use STM information at the Association of Subscription Agents annual conference The 3 Rs: Reach, Readership and Revenues last month.

The (over-long!) subtitle was How data analytics and field research are transforming our understanding of researcher and practitioner use of STM information, but more specifically the theme was understanding how to design information products and services for researchers and practitioners against a background of information abundance (aka information overload).

I am particularly interested in the powerful combination of online analytics, user segmentation and contextual enquiry. I gave a couple of recent examples (Elsevier’s ClinicalKey and Wolters Kluwer’s OvidMD launches), and reference Richard Harrington’s classic HBR account [1], but Michael Mabe pointed out that the Superjournal project predated these (and was arguably more relevant to the ASA audience).

[1] Harrington & Tjan 2008 Transforming Strategy One Customer at a Time, Harvard Business Review


Academic and Professional Publishing – book review

My review of Academic & Professional Publishing, edited by Robert Campbell, Ed Pentz and Ian Borthwick has now been published in Learned Publishing where it is (currently) freely available . I liked it, a lot:

The fact that book publishing deadlines (especially multi-contributor works) sometimes means that the rapid pace of events can overtake some details has not prevented the authors from including concrete examples (notably in the excellent chapter on publishing and communication strategies) and it is all the better for it. Indeed, the book’s pace and scope compared to the daily torrent of information provides exactly the space for perspective and critical thought that we need.

If you’d like a second opinion, Judy Luther has also reviewed it for Scholarly Kitchen:

Reviewing this book had the feel of attending a productive meeting with a mix of interesting facts, worthwhile references, and different perspectives on important topics providing food for thought. Much like looking in a three way mirror, we recognize the familiar and realize that there are dimensions that we hadn’t seen before.

The STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing

STM have just published the third edition of The STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing, by myself and Michael Mabe.

This is a significantly updated and expanded version of our 2009 report – now 100 pages, and it’s free!

As you’d expect, the sections on open access and new technologies are particularly heavily revised, but there’s barely a section not revised in some way. We’ve expanded the analysis and insight sections while keeping it all evidence-based, with 160 referenced primary sources.

Heading for the open road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications

I have a new report (jointly produced with CEPA for RIN) out today: Heading for the open road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications.

We investigate the drivers, costs and benefits of potential ways to increase access to scholarly journals. The report identifies five different routes for achieving that end over the next five years, and compares and evaluates the benefits as well as the costs and risks for the UK. The conclusions are interesting … [read more]

Recession is the Mother of Invention (ASA Conference)

I was pleased to have been invited to talk at the Association of Subscription Agents Annual Conference this week, because otherwise I would most likely not have gone and this would have meant missing an interesting meeting.

Nearly all the talks were informative and engaging, and even if not one then usually the other. For me it was particularly interesting to get updates on the state of PDA (patron-driven acquisition), the Chinese market and new developments in data-linked and semantic publishing (though it would be nice to see an actual prototype  from Jan Velterop rather than just his ever-more-ingenious Keynote slides), while sobering to hear about the likely state of UK university finances over the near (and indeed, medium) term. (To summarise, in the notorious words of the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne: “I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.”) Unashamedly at the engaging end of the informative–engaging spectrum (he was not being overly disingenuous when he described it as “fact free”), Mark Carden’s talk was nonetheless thought-provoking (and is available on YouTube).

The conference programme is listed on their website and I understand the speaker slides will be made available at some point. In the meantime my own slides (not terribly informative without the accompanying talk, I’m afraid) are available on Slideshare here.

The Twitterstream can be found here, for what it’s worth. I got the impression that there was rather less in the “back-channel” than at some previous conferences, with the bulk of twittering coming from just two tweeps.

Are not-for-profit publishers better for not-for-profit journal owners?

A contact mentioned to me that a large university press was drawing attention to a journal article by the economist Mark Armstrong to support their contention that non-for-profit (NFP) journal owners would be better off having their journals published by a not-for-profit publisher (i.e. themselves) rather than a commercial publisher.

The article (published ironically enough by a large commercial publisher) is Collection Sales: Good Or Bad For Journals? published in Economic Inquiry 48(1), Jan 2010, and available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1465-7295.2008.00207.x/pdf.

Armstrong uses economic modelling to examine the impact of collection sales (bundling) of journals and concludes that “nonprofit journals may benefit from withdrawing from commercial publishers which distribute their own for-profit journals, and joining together to be distributed by less commercial publishers who set relatively low prices for their collections”.

Many NFP journal owners do indeed prefer to use NFP publishers, often for “soft” reasons such as alignment of mission/objectives and “cultural fit”, so I was interested to see that there might be an economic advantage to them for this.

Unfortunately it is hard to see that Armstrong’s economic modelling can have more than very limited relevance to the real world, because the simplifications he uses lead to descriptions that are more caricature than realistic.

For example, he says that

“all journals prefer to participate in collection sales programs, but the two kinds of journals are distributed by publishers with different pricing strategies: for-profit journals are attracted to (or are owned by) publishers who offer them high revenue but relatively low reach, while nonprofit journals use publishers who market their collections with relatively low bundle prices and higher reach.”

This comes near the start of the article; unfortunately for Armstrong’s thesis, it is the commercial publishers that currently offer the largest reaches (through their very large consortia deals), not the NFP publishers. (Not that the NFP publishers aren’t doing their best to catch up, of course!)

He also asserts that

“While for-profit journals do not care about reach, a nonprofit journal will need to consider both its remuneration and reach when choosing its publisher”

In this fantasy world, therefore, Nature (a for-profit journal) would not care about its reach while its arch-rival Science (a not-for-profit) would. This goes beyond caricature, it’s just plain wrong. All journals compete for authors and citations, and reach is one of the key means to these ends.

I’m not qualified to comment on the technical analysis used in the paper but it’s hard to put any credence in any conclusions that are built on such shaky foundations.

I’m inevitably reminded of my old marketing professor at Cranfield, Malcolm MacDonald, who use to say of economists that they would say on the battlefield as they were being overrun by the enemy: “Let us assume a tank. Ceteris paribus, we win”.

Returning to my friends at the university press, I do warm to the idea of evidence-based publishing – first coined I believe by the inestimable Richard Smith at the BMJ – but those professing to follow this path do need to understand the difference between evidence and cherry-picking. Or perhaps I’m just confusing discourse and rhetoric?

Is peer review in crisis?

I don’t think so, although it’s not hard to find statements in the literature like these:

“The peer review system is breaking down and will soon be in crisis: increasing numbers of submitted manuscripts mean that demand for reviews is outstripping supply”

“The peer-review system … the foundation on which scientific advance is based, is near to breaking point”

I just completed an overview of the current state of peer review and my impression was vibrant innovation and surprisingly rapid change for an area often described as conservative and slow to change. Read more here: Peer Review in 2010 2011-01-02 (preprint)


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