Friday, June 29, 2012

On Becoming Unglued...

On June 20th, the e-book world changed: One innovation cut through the fog of the discussions on copyright, digital rights management (DRM), and various other real and perceived problems of digital books. It did not take a revolution, angry protests, lobbying of politicians, or changes in copyright law. All it took was a simple idea, and the talent and determination to implement it.

Gluejar is a company that pays authors for the digital rights to their books. When it acquires those rights, Gluejar produces the e-book and makes it available under a suitable open-access license. Gluejar calls this process the ungluing of the book.

Handing out money, while satisfying, is not much of a business model. So, Gluejar provides a platform for the necessary fundraising. When proposing to unglue a book, an author sets a price level for the digital rights, and the public is invited to donate as little or as much as they see fit. If the price level is met, the pledged funds are collected from the sponsors, and the book is unglued.

Why would the public contribute? First and foremost, this is small-scale philanthropy: the sponsors pay an author to provide a public benefit. The ever increasing term of copyright, now 70 years beyond the death of the author, has long been a sore point for many of us. Here is a perfectly valid free-market mechanism to release important works from its copyright shackles, while still compensating authors fairly. Book readers that devote a portion of their book-buying budget to ungluing build a lasting free public electronic library that can be enjoyed by everyone.

The first ungluing campaign, “Oral Literature In Africa” by Ruth H. Finnegan (Oxford University Press, 1970), raised the requisite $7,500 by its June 20th deadline. Among the 271 donors, there were many librarians. Interestingly, two libraries contributed as institutions: the University of Alberta Library and the University of Windsor Leddy Library. The number of participating institutions is small, but any early institutional recognition is an encouraging leading indicator.

I hope these pioneers will now form a friendly network of lobbyists for the idea that all libraries contribute a portion of their book budget to ungluing books. I propose a modest target: within one year, every library should set aside 1% of its book budget for ungluing. This is large enough to create a significant (distributed) fund, yet small enough not to have a negative impact on operations, even in these tough times. Encourage your library to try it out now by contributing to any of four open campaigns. Once they see it in action and participate, they'll be hooked.

Special recognition should go to Eric Hellman, the founder of Gluejar. I have known Eric many years and worked with him when we were both on the NISO Committee that produced the OpenURL standard. Eric has always been an innovator. With Gluejar, he is changing the world... one book at a time.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The PeerJ Disruption

The Open Access movement is not ambitious enough. That is the implicit message of the PeerJ announcement.

PeerJ distills a journal to what it really is: a social network. For a relatively small lifetime membership fee ($99 to $249 depending on the level an author chooses), authors get access to the social network, whose mission it is to disseminate and archive scholarly work. The concept is brilliant. It cuts through the clutter. Anyone who has ever published a paper understands it immediately. It makes sense.

The idea seems valid, but how can they execute it with membership fees that are so  low? When I see this level of price discrepancy between a new and an old product, I recall the words of the Victorian-era critic John Ruskin:

“It is unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money — that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought is incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.”
“There is hardly anything in the world which someone can’t make a little worse and sell a little cheaper — and people who consider price alone are this man’s lawful prey.”

On the other hand, we lived through fifty years of one disruptive idea after another proving John Ruskin wrong. Does the PeerJ team have a disruptive idea up their sleeve to make a quality product possible at the price level they propose?

In one announcement, the PeerJ founders state that “publication fees of zero were the thing we should ultimately aim for”. They hint at how they plan to publish the scholarly literature at virtually no cost:

“As a result, PeerJ plans to introduce additional products and services down the line, all of which will be aligned with the goals of the community that we serve. We will be introducing new and innovative B2B revenue streams as well as exploring the possibility of optional author or reader services working in conjunction with the community.”

In the age of Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google Plus etc., we all know there is value in the social network and in services built on top of content. The question is whether PeerJ has found the key to unlocking that value in the case of the persnickety academic social network.

For now, all we have to go on is the PeerJ team's credibility, which they have in abundance. For an introduction to the team and insight on how it might all work, read Bora Zivkovic's blog. Clearly, this team understands scholarly publishing and have successfully executed business plans. The benefit of the doubt goes to them. I can't wait to see the results.

I wish them great success.

PS: Peter Murray-Rust just posted a blog enthusiastically supporting the PeerJ concept.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The End of Stuff

Ever since the industrial revolution, the world economy has grown by producing more, better, and cheaper goods and services. Because we produce more efficiently, we spend fewer resources on need-to-haves and are able to buy more nice-to-haves. The current recession, or depression, interrupted the increase in material prosperity for many, but the long-term trend of increasing efficiency continued and, perhaps, accelerated.

The major driver of efficiency in the industrial and service economy was information technology. In the last fifty years, we streamlined production, warehouses, transportation, logistics, retailing, marketing, accounting, and management. Travel agents were replaced by web sites. Telephone operators all but disappeared. Even financial management, tax preparation, and legal advice were partially automated. Lately, this efficiency evolution has shifted into hyperdrive with a new phenomenon: information technology replacing physical goods. Instead of producing goods more efficiently, we are not producing them at all and replacing them with lines of code.

It started with music, where bit streams replaced CDs. Photography, video, and books followed. Smartphone apps have replaced or may replace alarm clocks, watches, timers, cameras, voice recorders, road maps, agendas, planners, handheld game devices, etc. Before long, apps will replace keys to our houses and cars. They will replace ID cards, driver licenses, credit cards, and membership cards. As our smart phones replace everything in our wallet and the wallet itself, they will also replace ATMs. Tablet computers are replacing the briefcase and its contents. Soon, Google Glass may improve upon phone and tablet functionality and replace both. If not Google Glass, another product will. Desk phones and the analog phone network are on their unavoidable decline into oblivion.

The paperless office has been imminent since the seventies, always just out of reach. But technology and people's attitudes have now converged to a point where the paperless office is practical and feasible, even desirable. We may never eliminate print entirely, but the number of printers will eventually start declining. As printers go, so will copiers. Electronic receipts will, eventually, kill the small thermal printers deployed in stores and restaurants everywhere. Inexplicably, faxes still exist, but their days are numbered.

New generations of managers will be more comfortable with the distributed office and telecommuting. Video conferencing is steadily growing. Distance teaching is poised to explode with Massive Open Online Courses. All of these trends will reduce our need for transportation, particularly mass transportation used for daily commuting, and for offices and classrooms.

Self-driving cars are about to hit the market in a few years. Initially, self-driving will be a nice-to-have add-on option to a traditional car. The far more interesting prospect is the development of a new form of mass transit. Order a car from your smartphone, and it shows up wherever and whenever you need it. Suddenly, car sharing is easy. It may even be more convenient than a personal car: never look for (and pay for) a parking space again.

When this technology kicks in, it will reduce our need for personal cars. Imagine the multiplier effect of two- and three-car households reducing their number of cars by one: fewer car dealerships, car mechanics, gas stations, parking garages, etc. With fewer accidents, we need fewer body shops. Self-driving cars do not need traffic signs, perhaps not even traffic lights.

Brick-and-mortar stores already find it difficult to compete with online retailers. How will they fare when door-to-door mail and package delivery is fully automated without a driver? (The thought of self-driving trucks barreling down the highway scares me, but they may turn out to be the safer alternative.) With fewer stores and malls, how will the construction industry and building-maintenance services sector fare?

Cloud computing makes it easy and convenient to share computers. Xbox consoles will not be replaced by another must-have box, but by multiplayer games that run in the cloud. When companies move their enterprise systems to the cloud, they immediately reduce the number of servers through sharing. Over time, cloud computing will drastically reduce the number of company-owned desktop, notebook, and tablet computers. Instead, employees will use their personal access devices to access corporate information stored and protected in the cloud.

Perhaps, a new class of physical products that will change the manufacturing equation is about to be discovered. Perhaps, we will hang on to obsolete technology like faxes longer than expected. But right now, the overall trend seems inescapable: we are getting rid of a lot of products, and we are dis-intermediating a lot of services.

For the skeptical, it is easy to dismiss these examples are mere speculative anecdotes that will not amount to anything substantial. Yet, these new technologies are not pie-in-the-sky. They already exist now and will be operational soon. Moreover, the affected industries represent large segments of the economy and have a significant multiplier effect on the rest of the economy.

From an environmental point of view, this is all good news. Economically, we may become poorer in a material sense, yet improve our standard of living. Disruption like this always produces collateral damage. To reduce the severity of the transition problems, our best course of action may be to help others. Developing nations desperately need to grow their material wealth. They need more goods and services. Investing in these nations now and expanding their prosperity could be our best strategy to survive the transition.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Day After

On Sunday, the Open Access petition to the White House reached the critical number of 25,000 signatures: President Obama will take a stand on the issue. Yesterday was Open Access Monday, a time to celebrate an important milestone. Today is a time for libraries to reflect on their new role in a post-site-licensed world.

Imagine success beyond all expectations: The President endorses Open Access. There is bipartisan support in Congress. Open Access to government-sponsored research is enacted. The proposal seeks only Green Open Access: the deposit in an open repository of scholarly articles that are also conventionally published. With similar legislation being enacted world-wide, imagine all scholarly publishers deciding that the best way forward for them is to convert all journals to the Gold Open Access model. In this model, authors or their institutions pay publishing costs up front to publish scholarly articles under an open license.

Virtually overnight, universal Open Access is a reality.


When converting to Gold Open Access, publishers replace site-license revenue with author-paid page charges. They use data from the old business model to estimate revenue-neutral page charges. The estimate is a bit rough, but as long as scholars keep publishing at the same rate and in the same journals as before, the initial revenue from page charges should be comparable to that from site licenses. Eventually, the market will settle around a price point influenced by the real costs of open-access publishing, by publishing behavior of scholars who must pay to get published, and by publishers deciding to get in or get out of the scholarly-information market.


Universities re-allocate the libraries' site-license budgets and create accounts to pay for author page charges. Most universities assign the management of these accounts to academic departments, which are in the best position to monitor expenses charged by faculty.


Publishers make redundant their sales teams catering to libraries. They cancel vendor exhibits at library conferences. They terminate all agreements with journal aggregators and other intermediaries between libraries and publishers.


Libraries eliminate electronic resource management, which includes everything involved in the acquisition and maintenance of site licenses. No more tracking of site licenses. No more OpenURL servers. No more proxy servers. No more cataloging electronic journals. No more maintaining databases of journals licensed by the library.


For publishers, the editorial boards and the authors they attract are more important than ever. These scholars have always created the core product from which publishers derived their revenue streams. Now, these same scholars, not intermediaries like libraries and journal aggregators, are the direct source of the revenue. Publishers expand the marketing teams that target faculty and students. They also strengthen the teams that develop editorial boards.


Publishers' research portals like Elsevier's Scopus start incorporating full-text scholarly output from all of their competitors.

Scholarly societies provide specialized digital libraries for every niche imaginable.

Some researchers develop research tools that data mine the open scholarly literature. They create startup ventures and commercialize these tools.

Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search each announce comprehensive academic search engines that have indexed the full text of the available open scholarly literature.


While some journal aggregators go out of business, others retool and develop researcher-oriented products.

ISI's World of Knowledge, EBSCO,  OCLC, and others create research portals catering to individual researchers. Of course, these new portals incorporate full-text papers, not just abstracts or catalog records.

Overnight, full-text scholarly search turned into a competitive market. Developing viable business models proves difficult, because juggernauts Google and MicroSoft are able to provide excellent search services for free. Strategic alliances are formed.


No longer tied to their institutions' libraries by site licenses, researchers use whichever is the best research portal for each particular purpose. Web sites of academic libraries experience a steep drop-off in usage. The number of interlibrary loan requests tumbles: only requests for nondigital archival works remain.


Libraries lose funding for those institutional repositories that duplicate scholarly research available through Gold Open Access. Faculty are no longer interested in contributing to these repositories, and university administrators do not want to pay for this duplication.


By just about any measure, this outcome would be far superior to the current state of scholarly publishing. Scholars, researchers, professionals in any discipline, students, businesses, and the general population would benefit from access to original scholarship unfettered by pay walls. The economic benefit of commercializing research faster would be immense. Tuition increases may not be as steep because of savings in the library budget.

If librarians fear a steadily diminishing role for academic libraries (and they should), they must make a compelling value proposition for the post-site-licensed world now. The only choice available is to be disruptive or to be disrupted. The no-disruption option is not available. Libraries can learn from Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen, who has analyzed scores of disrupted industries. They can learn from the edX project or Udacity, major initiatives of large-scale online teaching. These projects are designed to disrupt the business model of the very institutions that incubated them. But if they succeed, they will be the disrupting force. Those on the sidelines will be the disrupted victims.

Libraries have organized or participated in Open Access discussions, meetings, negotiations, petitions, boycotts... Voluntary submission to institutional repositories has been proven insufficient. Enforced open-access mandates are a significant improvement. Yet, open-access mandates are not a destination. They are, at most, a strategy for creating change. The current scholarly communication system, even if complemented with open repositories that cover 100% of the scholarly literature, is hopelessly out of step with current technology and society.

In the words of Andy Grove, former chairman and chief executive officer of Intel: “To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they will do.” Ultimately, only actions that involve significant budget reallocations are truly credible. As long as pay walls are the dominant item in library budgets, libraries retain the organizational structure appropriate for a site-licensed world. As long as pay-wall management dominates the libraries' day-to-day operations, libraries hire, develop, and promote talent for a site-licensed world. This is a recipe for success for only one scenario: the status-quo.