Saturday, October 6, 2007

A modest (billion-dollar) proposal

Imagine the following scenario. A secretive meeting, years ago, when Apple´s Steve Jobs, the benevolent dictator, put in place a strategy to get into the music business. It included not only a gadget, but also an online store, iTunes. I have no idea how that meeting went, but one thing is for sure: many people afterwards must have been back-stabbing Jobs, and mentioning "the music business? We´re going to sell music? This guy has totally lost it."

Fact of the matter was, technology had forever changed the economics of the music business, and Jobs could see it.

Having said that, I´d like to make a modest, billion-dollar, proposal, to the likes of Adobe, Yahoo, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and whomever else might be up to the task.

Cui Bono?

Think about science publishing. I publish papers for a living. My first paper came out in Biological Cybernetics, a journal which cost, in 1998, over US$2000 for a one year subscription. I live scared to death of Profa. Deborah, who reviews my scientific output. And there are others like me in this world. Oh yes, many others.

The economics of science publishing is completely crazy for this day and age. Authors give enormous effort to bring their work to light, editors and journal and conference referees also put in enormous effort. All of that is unpaid, of course (or at least indirectly paid, in the hopes of tenure and/or prestige). But then, our masterpieces go to a journal, which obliges me to transfer copyright to the likes of Elsevier, or Springer, or someone else. Then some money starts to show up! According to wikipedia, Springer had sales exceeding €900 million in 2006, while Elsevier upped the ante to a pre-tax profit (in the REED annual report) to a staggering €1 billion (on €7.9 Billion turnover). But for those who brought out the scientific results, for those that bring the content, and the fact checking by referees and editors, all that work goes unpaid. The money goes to those who typeset it, then store it in a server, then print it out and mail it to libraries worldwide. And let´s not forget those which actually pay for the research, the public, as most research is government-financed. In the words of Michael Geist, a law professor:

Cancer patients seeking information on new treatments or parents searching for the latest on childhood development issues were often denied access to the research they indirectly fund through their taxes
How did we get here? A better question is how could it have been otherwise? In the last decades, how could a different industrial organization appear? Cui Bono?

Lowly (and busy) professors or universities were obviously not up to the risky and costly task of printing and mailing thousands of journals worldwide, every month. A few societies emerged, and, mostly funded by their membership, they were up to the task. So, in time, the business of science publishing emerged and eventually consolidated in the hands of a few players. And these few players could focus on typesetting, printing, mailing much better than the equation-loving professors or the prestige & money-seeking universities.

The other day I tried to download my own paper published in the journal "Artificial Intelligence", and I was asked to pay USD30.00 for it. That´s the price of a book, and I was the author of the thing in the first place!

Now, if you ask me, technology has forever changed the economics of the scientific publishing business, and it´s high time for someone like Jobs to step forward.

Adobe Buzzword is specially suited to do this. Most scientific publishers (Elsevier, Springer) and societies (IEEE, ACM, APA, APS, INFORMS) have just one or two typesetting styles for papers. I imagine a version of Buzzword which carries only the particular typesetting style(s) of the final published document, and researchers would already prepare those manuscripts ready for publication (there are glitches today, of course, like high-quality images and tables and equations--but hey, we´re talking about Adobe here!). A submit button would submit the papers for evaluation, either to a journal or a conference. Referees could make comments and annotation on the electronic manuscript itself, or even suggest minor rewritings of a part here and there. The process would be much smoother than even the most modern of online submission processes. And, since Adobe has flash, this means that they´re especially positioned to bring up future papers with movies, sounds, screencasts and whole simulations embedded. Wouldn´t that be rich? Doesn´t that beautifully fit with what´s stated in their page?

Adobe revolutionizes how the world engages with ideas and information.

But Buzzword is just my favorite option (because it enables beautiful typesetting, is backed by a large, credible, player, works on any platform, and enables worldwide collaboration between authors, editors, referees). Other options could be desktop processors (MsWord, Pages, OpenOffice, etc). There would be a productivity gain by using something the likes of Buzzword, but using desktop processors wouldn´t affect the overall idea.

Now, why would the people in Adobe, Yahoo, SUN, IBM, Microsoft, Google, or others actually want to do a thing like that?

There are two reasons. The first one is goodwill, the second one is money.


I recently had a paper outright rejected in the IBM Systems Journal. In retrospect, I now see that it was a very bad call to submit there. I had mentioned that choice to the editor of a very prestigious scientific journal, and he responded by saying: "They´re going to hate it. They´re not in the business of publishing great original science for a long time now. That´s just a marketing thing; they´re in the business of trying to impress customers." I responded that I thought that they´d be open-minded; that the journal had had some great contributions in the past and I thought it was just great. I was, of course, wrong. They didn´t even look at the thing; they didn´t even bother to send back a message. After a quick check, I felt enormously stupid: all papers, or maybe not all but something way above 90%, come from IBM authors. The IBM Systems Journal, it seems to me, is now a branch of IBM´s marketing department. And while it may impress less sophisticated customers, it´s definitely a huge loss for IBM.

The Systems Journal (and their R&D journal) used to be a fountain of goodwill for IBM. Scientists took pride in publishing there, and hordes of researchers (not customers) browsed it and studied it carefully. It was a fountain of goodwill--with a direct route to IBM´s bottom line: it attracted the best scientists to IBM. Now that it´s in the hands of marketing, you can hardly find any serious scientist considering it as a potential outlet. If I were in IBM, I´d be fighting to change things around. But I´m not there, I can speak the truth as I see it, and I can just submit somewhere else. The BELL LABS Technical Journal also seems to be meeting the same "marketing department" fate. Don´t expect to see nobel prizes coming from these journals any time soon.

When these journals didn´t belong to marketing, they brought, at least to this observer, a huge amount of goodwill and good publicity for their respective companies. The HR department must have loved choosing among the best PhDs dying to get into IBM. Sad to mention, I doubt that the best PhDs are now begging to work on these companies anymore.

Yet, IBM could change things around. As could Adobe, SUN, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and many others. What I feel they should do is establish a platform for online paper submission, review, and publication. This platform should be made openly available for all scientific societies, for free. From the prestigious journal "Cognitive Science" to the Asia-Pacific Medical Education Conference, this platform should be free (to societies, journals, and conferences) and the papers published online should be freely accessible to all, no login, no paywall, nothing in the way. Copyright should remain in the hands of authors. Gradually, one after another, journals and conferences would jump ship, as the platform gained credibility and respectability.

Now here´s the kicker. It´s not only about goodwill. There´s money to be made.


One crucial point is for the platform to be freely accessible to all. But you can do that, and still block the googlebot, the yahoobot, and all others "bots", but your own. Let´s say, for instance, that Microsoft does something of the sort. In some years time, not only it gets the goodwill of graduate students who are studying papers published by (as opposed to hey-sucker-pay-thirty-bucks-for-your-own-paper-Elsevier), but also the way to search for such information would be only through that website. As we all know, advertising is moving online: according to a recent study, the last year saw "$24 billion spent on internet advertising and $450 billion spent on all advertising". Soon we´ll reach US$100 Billion/year in advertising on the web. And imagine having a privileged position in the eyeballs of graduate-educated people, from medicine to science to economics to business to engineering to history.

I hope someone will pull something like this off. Maybe for the goodwill. Or maybe for the money.

Many companies could pull it off, but some seem specially suited to the task. My favorite would be Adobe--with buzzword and AIR and flash and pdfs, that´s definitely my choice. Google might want to do it just to preempt some other company from blocking the googlebot to get its hands on valuable scientific research. Microsoft, the Dracula of the day, certainly needs the goodwill, and it could help it to hang on to the MS-Word lock in. Maybe Amazon would find this interesting--fits nicely with their web storage and search dreams. Yahoo would have the same reason as Google.

I don´t see Apple doing it. I think it could actually hurt their market value, as investors might think that they would be over-stretching, ever expanding into new markets.

I don´t see IBM or SUN doing it either; in fact, if anyone in a board meeting ever proposed this, I can only see the exact same back-stabbing that must have gone through, years ago, in Apple: "Science-publishing? This guy has totally lost it. This is IBM, and that´s not the business we´re in." They´re to busy handling their own internal office politics, who´s getting promotion and pay packages. Innovation is hardly coming in from there (though both have been embracing open-source to a certain degree).

One thing is sure. The open-access to research movement is getting momentum everyday. It´s time to sell that Elsevier stock.

Just a final note. If any player is willing to do this, use an org domain name. Don´t name it "Microsoft Science". That won´t work with intelligent, independent scientists. Use a domain name such as,, and name it as "Open science", "World of Science", anything... but please don´t try to push your name too far. Let it grow slowly.

And just in case someone wants to pull this off, and is actually wondering... I´m right here.

4 comments: said...

I agree, but I think It wouldn't be a dumb move if the likes of Elsever started doing it themselves. After all It's theirs own in the line.

Anonymous said...

Dear Alexandre,

"papers published online should be freely accessible to all, no login, no paywall, nothing in the way. Copyright should remain in the hands of authors".

I completely agree. Stevan Harnad proposed something quite similar in his "Subversive Proposal" way back in 1994; he calls electronic publishing that is free of the tyranny of paper the "Post-Gutenberg World".

The Internet truly has allowed the beginnings of a revolution in scientific publishing. Vitek Tracz (my employer) launched BioMed Central in 1999, and Mike Eisen and Harold Varmus launched the Public Library of Science in 2000 (originally an advocacy organisation, now a publisher). BioMed Central and PLoS are the two biggest players in open access publishing. All our peer-reviewed research is immediately available online at no charge and with no access barriers. Copyright is retained by the authors. Under the Creative Commons license, anyone can copy and reproduce the articles: all anyone needs to do is properly attribute the source.

Some people thought that Vitek had lost it when he launched BioMed Central. Well, BioMed Central has seen our submissions double every 14-18 months, and PLoS has seen a similar rapid growth. Smaller open access publishers like JMIR, Hindawi, Libertas Academica are thriving. The impact on the world of publishing is clear – over the last two or three years, virtually every large biomedical publisher has begun to offer authors an option of publishing open access, and in physics CERN has even promised not to publish with any journal not offering an open access option.

The difference to your proposal is that we're not reliant on internet advertising, although we do make some income in this way. Being reliant on advertising risks making a journal answerable to its advertisers, as if they see something they don't like they can pull the plug - a similar state of affairs to that you claim that IBM Systems Journal is in. Because we don't charge readers, we've turned the funding model on its head. As publishing is in effect the final part of the research process, it makes sense to ask authors to fund the publication process, and we do this by charging authors (or more usually their institution or grant funding body) an article processing charge. This funding model scales perfectly with the amount of research conducted. PLoS has been quite reliant on philanthropic grants, but they are weaning themselves off these grants now that their high-volume journal PLoS ONE has been launched. There are several others way to fund open access journals, including society support; Peter Suber's blog is the best source of information on this.

The suggestion of only allowing searching on the journal website would leave a journal stillborn. The key to success is to have as many readers find and read the work as is possible – this is the whole point of open access! We are indexed and tracked by as many services as we can find, and we are mirrored by PubMed Central and on several other international websites. Authors want visibility, and that is what we give them.

Google have already made their first move into scientific publishing with Google Scholar, which is to my mind one of the most powerful ways to find scientific research. The full text of all of our articles is fully searchable by Google Scholar. Google's area of expertise is the organisation of information, and Google Scholar fits perfectly into this program. Microsoft is also moving in this direction – they have built their own literature search engine (Windows Live Academic Search), and Microsoft Research are sponsoring BioMed Central's latest research awards.

BioMed Central has its own publishing platform – we built it in-house, and we handle our own submissions, peer review and web publishing. We like to think that it is user friendly, we've certainly received positive feedback. We have an independent journals program that allows researchers and societies to launch new journals using our platform, or to transfer across existing journals. PLoS have their own platform and are working on an open source platform called Topaz, and an open source platform called Open Journal Systems is already being used by several small open access journals.

Our published articles already easily integrate figures and movies. Annotation of manuscripts and integration of figures and movies during peer review would be a boon, and several publishers included BioMed Central are looking into this, but it is hardly a 'killer app'. We can already handle LaTex (familiar to many mathematicians and computer scientists) and Wolfram’s Publicon, both easy for typesetting, and we have little trouble with MS Word or PDFs.

Google or Adobe don't need to reinvent the wheel, but they could certainly jump onto the open access bandwagon. It's already rolling at quite a pace.

Best wishes,


Matt Hodgkinson
Senior Editor
BMC-series Journals
BioMed Central
(in a personal capacity)

Stevan Harnad said...

OpCit: The " Subversive Proposal" (1994)

-- SH

Anonymous said...

Dear Author !
It agree, rather useful idea