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.
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:
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?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
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?
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 science.microsoft.org (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 science.yahoo.org, science.adobe.org, 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.