Will a Silver Bullet Save Sci-Tech Publishers?

November 11, 2011

I poked around my Overflight service and noticed a recent news release with the meaty title “Scientific Publisher Saving Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars with MarkLogic.” The subtitle was compelling as well: “New Mobile Applications Let Researchers Study in the Field.”

I thought a moment about the logic of the two statements. I am okay with the idea that a scientific publisher faces some significant challenges. The traditional markets for scientific and technical information in traditional journal form are under severe budget pressure. In response to some scientific publishers’ pricing policies, libraries and some not for profit outfits no longer renew certain journal subscriptions. Others have joined consortia in order to get better value for available budgets.

But STM (scientific, technical, and medical) publications have other issues with which to cope as well. First, technology may not be a core competency. Why would it be? Publishers get authors to write. Publishers package and sell. Technology is talked about but even giants like Thomson  Reuters buy print publishing companies in  Argentina. So much for embracing the digital revolution. Even more interesting is that some STM publishers often ask authors pay the journal typesetting, correction, and maybe some production costs. As headcount comes under pressure in research institutes and universities, some scientific publishers are finding that authors are either not willing to pay or not able to get a third party to pony up the money. In short, STM in the traditional mode is fighting for oxygen.

The mobile angle baffled me as well.

In my experience, many scientists work in what might be called “controlled environments.” In the pharmaceutical sector, certain firms operate the research facilities the way a South African gold mine superintendents monitor workers at the end of a shift. If this type of security does not resonate with you, you need to do some backfilling on gold and diamond mining security protocols. Think naked. Think weighing workers before and after a shift. Think requiring showers and filtering the gray water. You get the idea. Other types of research does require mobile devices; for example, cleaning up  a gone-wrong nuclear reactor which is not a job for an outfit like AtomicPR, in my experience. Public relations “experts” write about radiation and often have limited experience with micro-contamination and chemical decontamination. The point? Mobile often has specific requirements which stretch beyond creating an “app for that.”

In a nutshell, here’s the nub of the news release from my point of view:

Taking research into the field has a new, literal meaning with the launch of new mobile applications built on MarkLogic that are helping scientists better understand soil and crops. MarkLogic Corporation, the company empowering organizations to make high stakes decisions on Big Data in real time, today announced the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) launched Science Pubs, developed for iPad, iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry devices. Science Pubs utilizes MarkLogic to give subscribers and non-subscribers the freedom to dig deep into ASA’s journals, magazines, and eBooks while conducting first-hand research and observations in the field.

The point is that a markup language makes it possible to do an app. Puzzled I plunged forward:

“MarkLogic will save us at least $150,000 per year. That is a lot of money for any publisher, especially a non-profit like the American Society of Agronomy,” said Ian Popkewitz, director, Information Technology & Operations, American Society of Agronomy. “We originally implemented MarkLogic to cut the cost of providing critical publications to our subscribers, but we quickly realized several intangible benefits such as speed, ease of use, and flexibility. The flexibility allowed us to focus on the deployment of Science Pubs. ASA is very pleased to be able to quickly launch these services for subscribers and non-subscribers, and we expect them to generate revenue.”

I understand. However, I want to offer several observations based on my modest experience in publishing. Note I did work for a newspaper that was once one of the Top 25 in the world, but the paper is a starved dog now. I also worked for Bill Ziff, mastermind of multiple empires and the magnate other New York publishers loved to loathe, which is what I learned when I was escorted from the New York Times’s president’s office when he learned I worked for the interesting Mr. Ziff.

First, publishers absolutely have to reduce their costs and in a big way. Saving $150,00 is great, but my question is, “How much does it cost to implement a cost saving system such as a MarkLogic or JSON solution (the fat free alternative to chubby  XML), keep it up, and then running at a scientific publisher such as the American Society of Agronomy?” If a system costs $50,000, 100,000, or even $300,000, the publisher has to pay off the system, its maintenance fee, and whip out some products that sell. With revenues at many scientific publishers flat lining or shriveling, the savings are important and may light a fire under the agronomists to cope with a big expense in the name of cost savings. That type of race can be brutal. And it is one that I would be reluctant to enter.

Second, many not for profit organizations and “charities” in the UK are facing declining memberships. Unthinkable five years ago, professional organizations have to market to their members and then spend money to collect on slow paying professionals. Even the certification angle in the UK is not working as it once did. Unemployment among professionals is making it difficult for some experts to pay to be in a must-have organization. Faced with rising costs across the board and decreasing or flat revenue, some not for profit outfits are looking at a nuclear winter, not AtomicPR with a very short half life.

Third, the notion that scientific research has to be peer reviewed in a lengthy, antiquated manner.  Also, the long publication cycles for some STM journals are out of step with the real time culture in fast moving fields. Not surprisingly, the no-cost or low-cost alternatives to traditional journal publishing refuse to go away. In some fields like mathematics and physics, blogs and even social media have become the important channels for dissemination of technical information and making or breaking careers. Even grants can be determined by a Facebook-type of presence. Quite a shift.

My take on this “news story” is that it makes a possibly compelling case that an XML repository can help reduce certain costs. But without the context of total cost burdens, I have a question, “Why not use JSON?” XML is darned useful, but so is JSON.  My concern is that for many scientific, technical, and medical publishers, is JSON a viable option?

The ArnoldIT team is  finishing a report about the outlook for a major publishing company. With more than $5 billion in revenues, this well known firm may be forced to sell its STM business to generate cash. Not even cost cutting can prevent the dislocations that some publishing companies face. The digital revolution has arrived and is now moving in new directions. Many traditional publishers face stark choices and very difficult financial challenges. Alas, no silver bullets today in my opinion.

Stephen E Arnold, November 11, 2011

Sponsored by Pandia.com


Comments are closed.

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta