A Blog Around The Clock

I am feeling mean today. So, here is my first mean post of the day.

About a week ago I read this delicious post about the business of scientific publishing. It is a good read throughout – the title of the post is “Who is killing science on the Web? Publishers or Scientists?” and the answer is interesting. But what stood out for me was this paragraph:

This past February, I was on a panel discussion at the annual NFAIS conference, a popular forum for academic publishers. The conference theme was on digital natives in science. At one point I was asked (rather rudely) by a rep from a major publisher what exactly the new business model should look like for publishers in an Open Access world. My first thought was, “I don’t care if you find one or not. I’m here to advance science, not your bottom line.”

And that paragraph can be equally applied to all of publishing, not just science: from newspapers to books. Just replace “science” with “journalism” or “Truth”.

Business model! Business model! All they care about is business model. I am excited about the way the Web is transforming society and all they care is how to save their jobs! I get it – they should care. The new media ecosystem can support a much smaller number of professional journalists than the old one. So many (though not all) will lose their jobs. I don’t have an interest in that aspect of the media business at all. If they have any other expertise besides scribbling, they will find other jobs once their media houses lock the doors. If not, tough. But I am really not interested in their livelihoods. Just like blacksmiths found jobs in car factories, the journos will find something else to do. I am interested in the ways new media channels are changing the world, not the parochial or individual insecurities of those whose world is changing. I am an interested observer of the revolution and saving the inevitable victims is not my job.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    August 30, 2009

    I don’t have an interest in that aspect of the media business at all.

    You should if you want to keep your job! One way or another publishing has to be financed, which means it has to have a plan to keep the money coming in: this is all the business model is.

    If you want a revolution in scientific publishing, it has to be paid for, somehow.

  2. #2 John H
    August 30, 2009

    If the web allows us to transmit through time and space, why do we need any more than one or two chronobiologists in the world? Maybe one at Harvard, and one at Yale.

    For you, it is scribbling. For others it is a passionate exercise in the arts requiring discipline and restraint with a time-honored set of rights and rituals.

    What did we lose when the makers of fine wrought iron were reduced to factory workers, spitting out cars that are now destroying the world?

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    August 30, 2009

    John, the makers of fine wrought iron continued to be paid by the people who had always paid them, the people who could afford fancy work. It was the makers of nails and horseshoes and the hardware that held wagons together who went into the factories, and it is hardly their fault you buy into the propaganda that says that now that they work in close proximity to someone who can do the same thing they do instead of a town or two away, their work (and themselves) is worth less. “Reduced” to factory workers, my ass.

    Cars are not destroying the world. The refusal of car company executives and shareholders to accept regulations that would increase mileage and decrease emissions, the refusal of those who can afford more to drive only as much car as they need, the decision to live far from work and basic needs, those are destroying the world. Cars have merely broadened mobility to reach those who couldn’t afford a horse and the land required to keep it.

    And do you really need me to list the institutions with “a time-honored set of rights and rituals” that we’ve found it necessary to tear down in order to approximate a just civilization? You’re attempting to romanticize a past that doesn’t exist. Institutionalized elitism has always been good for a very few people, but the people who are vaunted in history books are nothing like a representation of the condition for the average person. They’re just the ones who were handed privilege.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    August 30, 2009

    If the web allows us to transmit through time and space, why do we need any more than one or two chronobiologists in the world? Maybe one at Harvard, and one at Yale.

    Could it be because there’s far more to study than two people can cover, regardless of how they report their results?

    For you, it is scribbling. For others it is a passionate exercise in the arts requiring discipline and restraint with a time-honored set of rights and rituals.

    I think you’re telling us that writing is like music: if it weren’t for the publishers (record companies) there wouldn’t be any, and a world without letters (music) is too horrible to contemplate.

    What did we lose when the makers of fine wrought iron were reduced to factory workers, spitting out cars that are now destroying the world?

    We never did lose the “makers of fine wrought iron.” We did lose the makers of schlock wrought iron. The ones in the middle became machinists. The demand for worked metal and the skills to meet that need don’t depend on the business model of the middlemen.

  5. #5 Mimi
    August 30, 2009

    WOW! I thought this was incredibly well written and all of comments are so well argued. I do have the tendency to agree, however, with what Stephanie said (and DC). You guys are far more eloquent than I.

  6. #6 wazza
    August 30, 2009

    John H: Science writing isn’t done by the publishers, it’s done by scientists who have already been paid through research grants (or they wouldn’t have anything to write about). All we need to do is figure out some way of ensuring peer review and post it on the internet. You don’t need a whole huge publishing industry for that.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    August 30, 2009

    Over here in physics territory, we’ve been doing pretty well with the arXiv. Authors post preliminary versions of their articles and attract attention; the documents are updated to reflect revisions made in peer review, indicate where the articles were published, etc. This repository got going fifteen years ago, and the journals haven’t died yet.

  8. #8 Catharine
    August 30, 2009

    Bora, I agree with you. And you know I think you’re practically brilliant, hot, and generally amazing.

    BUT: People do have to earn a living. Do you know what one of the biggest problems for the development of electricity was? How to charge for it. Scientists will always have jobs and Open Access does not detract from (but adds to) the value of their work. But what about writers? More and more people are reading (maybe not books, but online content). Does their work have no value? The Web may increase the quantity of writing, but if only a handful of people can make writing their (compensated) work, the quality, diversity and creativity of writing will suffer. Writing is hard work. It takes serious time, thought and effort.

    You seem to have no sympathy (perhaps because you have no first-hand knowledge) for people who are stuck in jobs they hate just because bills have to be paid. Excuse me, but you need to get a fucking clue about this. Every person should have the right to develop her/his talents and pursue a life’s work. As long as money provides the only access to our society’s goods and services (which I am not endorsing here), it should be possible to get paid for what you do. And you can dis “scribblers” all you want, but they *are* the revolution, baby. The technology means nothing without content.

    Perhaps the writers and journalists that aren’t getting paid for their work should all become nurses, work themselves stupid, and try to write on their days off. On second thought, better to live in the gutter, eat garbage and read all of the books and magazines that are headed for the trash — at least one’s dignity would remain intact.

  9. #9 daedalus2u
    August 30, 2009

    I agree with Bora, the problem with all business models for publishing (and doing) science is that they produce a conflict of interest and distort the scientific process.

    The way I look at science is like testimony in a courtroom. A scientist does his/her investigations and then reports about them as if providing testimony under oath. Stakeholders then use that testimony. Scientists use it to build on to make more science, engineers use it to build stuff that works, scientific journals publish it to sell subscriptions, policy makers use it to make informed policy decisions, peers use it to decide who is a peer, proposal reviewers use it to decide which proposals should be funded, academics use it to decide who gets tenure.

    There is the potential for a conflict of interest when the content of that testimony has value to stakeholders and those stakeholders attempt to influence that testimony and/or the testimony is skewed to influence stakeholders. Scientists and engineers want the testimony to be accurate and precise and to accurately describe reality so that the new science is precise and accurate too, and so that the things engineers build actually work.

    When one scientist’s standing as a peer depends on another scientist’s work corroborating it, then there is the potential for a quid pro quo. Journals want exciting and entertaining articles, so they encourage the chasing of fads. Pharmaceutical companies want their drugs found to be useful, policy makes want their policies justified or vindicated. Universities want their researchers vindicated too, as to funding agencies. Corporations want policies that favor their bottom lines and fund “science” to show that (as in tobacco and global warming).

    The problem with doing science as a business is that like all businesses it can only be driven by the bottom line. If you are doing science as a business, then your science has to be what the stakeholders are willing to pay for.

  10. #10 JMG
    August 30, 2009

    Well said. Although, I would argue that business models are important, but the problem for your critic there is that she has a problem that you can’t fix even if you wanted to. In the world of open access, business models do exist, but they aren’t as obvious as previously (take in research, publish journals, profit). It may take some creativity (and some trial and error), but new business models are out there, based on “giving stuff away”.

  11. #11 Stephanie Z
    August 30, 2009

    One thing that should be remembered in this particular discussion of business models is that the question up top isn’t, “How are you going to make a living while you make the world a better place?” It’s, “How are you going to make me enough money to make it worth my time to throw my power behind you?” and it’s said with the implication that nothing else can be discussed until that question is answered.

    This isn’t a question about the artists, scientists, thinkers, investigators, etc. The people who ask it aren’t protecting their employees with the question. They are, in fact, laying them off in droves even as they ask.

    When it comes down to it, the question translates to, “How do you intend to keep the money running through a funnel to the same people it always runs to instead of spreading out into dozens of smaller streams?”

  12. #12 Hank Roberts
    August 30, 2009

    There’s a business model for _misinforming_ people:
    http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/02/18/lies/

    There’s a non-business model for _educating_ people, one that was revolutionary 250 years ago. I quoted from it here:
    http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/throwing-schools-out-the-window/?apage=4#comment-95335

    What’s going on now is the counter-revolution, the re-concentration of power and control of information.

    Try searching with Google on any issue you know about that affects business, policy, and public health. Lead. Asbestos. Climate. Antibiotic resistance. Sleep, melatonin, and artificial light. Plenty more (got a list? someone should).

    Compare the result to using the same search in Google Scholar.

    Compare the results to using the same in Google Image Search.

    Read Tom Paine from that excerpt linked above again and think what he’d say about educating people now.

  13. #13 Adina Levin
    August 30, 2009

    There is a big difference between science and other forms of publishing. Scientists are paid to do scientific research and to publish results for other scientists. They continue to get paid for doing science when the cost of publishing results declines.

    In other forms of publishing, writers haven’t had much of an income stream separated from the publishing business model dependent on selling artifacts. So there are more reasons to care about other forms of publishing than science. Even there innovation will provide better solutions than trying to defend businesses based on obsolete technology.

  14. #14 Mr. Gunn
    August 30, 2009

    A lot of this feels like romanticizing of cotton picking to me. While it’s certainly true that handmade goods may be better than machine-made ones, the production doesn’t scale. Locally grown foods are demonstrably better than those grown in thousand acre monocrops in Iowa, but this is something that concerns those who shop at Whole Foods, not those who pay with food stamps at the local grocery chain.

    I have a great deal of sympathy for those who work in dying industries, but my sympathy only goes so far. At some point, you need to accept the inevitable and get out of the way of progress. No industry remains forever. If personal teleportation was invented tomorrow, I’m sure there would be those who bemoan the passing of passenger planes and the whole very heavily subsidized industry that has grown up around it. I would even support AmTrak-like subsidies to prevent the blow to the economy from all those people losing their jobs at once, but at some point, it’s gotta stop. The world will go on with you or without you.

    Catharine, your point about the slowed development of electricity due to figuring out how to charge makes the opposite point from that you intended, I think. Edison was a bit of a jerk and if people weren’t so hung up on commercializing things, they’d have realized sooner that DC wasn’t going to work, and electricity would have been more available, sooner. I think internet access is going the same way. People will start to realize that one wireless access point can serve many houses, and won’t the cable and phone companies cry foul when that happens! They’ll make the same arguments being made here and that are always made when an industry begins to add less value than it once did. Think of all the good things we’ve done for you! Who’ll fund continuing innovation? Certainly not the ones with the monopoly, I’ll tell you that!

    Back to the subject of business models, however. It should be mentioned that the author of the post works for Mendeley, who has a business model based on adding value to scientific literature (as do I). While their survival depends on publishers output today, it could function equally well if the content were being created another way. His post was deliberately provocative, and in truth Mendeley is working with publishers, not against them, so it’s not like there are barbarian hordes beating against the gates of publishing houses. Mean posts and deliberately provocative ones non-withstanding, I think many publishers are smart and realize, now that we’ve gone through this with other forms of content in recent years, that things are changing and if they’re alert, they can grow and change along with changes in technology. Even the most bottom-line focused executive can see the value at being positioned where the growth is occurring.

  15. #15 Coturnix
    August 30, 2009

    Yes, I am mainly talking about non-science writing and journalism here. Probably a good point to insert this link ;-)

  16. #16 Coturnix
    August 30, 2009

    And the second mean, grouchy post of the day is now up. Follows up on some of the discussion here.

  17. #17 MPL
    August 30, 2009

    Re: Catharine,

    I understand your anger about the situation, especially since you seem to be, or want to be, in a creative job, not just a remunerative one, which is admirable.

    As long as money provides the only access to our society’s goods and services (which I am not endorsing here), it should be possible to get paid for what you do.

    Sadly, this is not true, and never has been. Many people have talents and ambitions they feel very passionate about for which they will never get paid.

    Yes, industrialization caused massive dislocation, confusion, and pain while it was occurring, but it also increased the average standard of living, and more importantly, allowed the creation of a large middle class.

    Also, although I have no idea what the “business model” for writers and journalists will be, that doesn’t mean I’m not confident that there will be one.

  18. #18 Coturnix
    August 30, 2009

    See this for another way to say the same thing

  19. #19 John H
    August 30, 2009

    The argument rebutting my mention of cars is a perfect example of my point itself.

    As cars were intended to enable greater mobility, so the web is intended to enable better / more communication. But the design of cars allowed for abuses of this power. Cities and communities change simply because it became more efficient and desirable to separate work and life. This has had consequences.

    The web is similar. Designed to promote research and communication, but spinning out of control. Not necessarily good or bad – just out of control, and far removed from the original purpose.

    What I’m pointing out is: the consequences of our actions are unknown. And we’re moving very fast. That is not a recipe for great happiness, IMO.

    I am an unabashed romantic.

    The interest in the way the web is changing society cannot be removed from how it is changing _us_ and how we think and feel.

  20. #20 bill
    August 30, 2009

    I think there are two different issues being conflated here. One is that MSM is dominated by the likes of Fox, which is the disinformation arm of the military/industrial complex and deliberately hires hacks instead of journalists. When they go under you will hear nothing but cheering from me.

    The other issue is that real journalism takes talent, hard work and time. It has immense value to society: the shortest path from anywhere to a de facto dictatorship (in the US case, plutocracy) is an inept and compliant press. When you view (quality) journalism as insurance against abuse of power, worrying about how to pay for it makes a lot more sense.

  21. #21 bill
    August 30, 2009

    Not to get too topical, but the protection racket known as health insurance is a big factor in this — see, e.g., http://almostdiamonds.blogspot.com/2009/08/lets-talk-pre-existing.html.

    There might be more room for journalists to experiment with online, independent outlets, if doing so didn’t mean that getting sick was certain ruin.

  22. #22 mediajackal
    August 30, 2009

    … The way I look at science is like testimony in a courtroom. A scientist does his/her investigations and then reports about them as if providing testimony under oath. …

    No, no, nononono. You’ve never reported a real-world criminal trial or you’d see the error. Criminal trial procedure is to the scientific method as a gerbil is to an elephant. They’re both mammals, but … Scientists want to know what really happened. Lawyers want to convince a jury that their version is what really happened.

  23. #23 Coturnix
    August 30, 2009

    Bill: yes – I also made that statement into the post about RTP that I reposted last night.

    But really, what this post is all about is that I am not saying they do not require business models. I am just not interested in business models. Let the business people come up with business models – that’s not my job. I am interested in social, political and technological aspects. Others can deal with the money angle. What I am complaining is that every discussion about the way Web is changing the world gets derailed by some CEO asking us to give them business models. I don’t care. They should.

    People like this deal with the business side: I find that interesting to read, but have no expertise of ideas to contribute myself. Or this collection of excellent links from a few months ago. The business talk is drowning out all the really interesting topics about the current changes in the information/communication ecosystem.

  24. #24 Mr. Gunn
    August 30, 2009

    Bora, I think some of the “what’s the business model” questions are from people who are looking for a reason to look down their noses at social networks and the web in general. It’s easy for them to dismiss an idea with comments of the form “oh, well that’s a good idea but who’ll pay for it?”

    I’ll start responding that it’s not my job to come up with a monetization strategy. That’s what you hire CEOs for.

  25. #25 Stephanie Z
    August 30, 2009

    John, the consequences of breathing in a world that contains flying insects are also unknown, and some of the potential consequences are unpleasant. That doesn’t mean we stop breathing and it doesn’t mean we spend our time dreaming of a place with no insects.

    The fact that things are moving quickly just means that we also need to move quickly in order to have any effect on which direction they go. We don’t have time for romanticism (which is, by the way, not a mode of engaging with reality), and we certainly don’t have time to be stopped dead by someone else’s questions about how they’re going to make money.

  26. #26 daedalus2u
    August 31, 2009

    ohn H, you say “Designed to promote research and communication, but spinning out of control.” as if it was a bad thing. Who is “supposed to” control research and communication? A top-down control hierarchy cannot work for controlling science. Science can only be controlled (but that is not the right term) from the bottom-up. It is only from the details of data that a scientific understanding of reality can be built.

    If you can’t keep up with the pace of scientific discovery, you should get out of the way. That is the problem with traditional science media, it is controlled by editors and peers who are not necessarily the best judges of what data is correct or what it means. A handful of editors and peers at the top of the pyramid, can’t possibly keep up with the the hoards of researchers at the bottom. That they have the hubris to think they can is one of the most damaging aspects of the peer review process.

    I don’t worry so much about the lack of a “business model”, what concerns me more are the “career advancement models” that scientists are forced to adopt to get a place at the top of the pyramid. What those “career advancement models” are selecting for now are ability to get funding, ability to get published in glamor mags, which are to a large extent about the ability to play politics at the right place and the right time and the ability to inflate the importance of your work to the right editor.

    The most important aspect of the right “career advancement model” is not getting out of the way when you can’t keep up, but rather slowing the field until it moves at the pace you set. That is the “control” that is so damaging to science and which people like Bora, myself and Stephanie welcome an end to.

  27. #27 John H
    August 31, 2009

    Ugh. People telling me to “speed up or get out of the way”. Gladly. Go ahead and crash yourselves. Really people in this country simply don’t know how to enjoy life.

    Quick! Somebody tell William Blake and Keats to engage with life and stop fooling around already!

    I think I just swallowed a fly ;) Or was it a horse? I’ll die (now) of course.

  28. #28 Stephanie Z
    August 31, 2009

    Oh, yes. The Romantics lived slowly and died of old age.

  29. #29 Nemo
    August 31, 2009

    You hear this a lot in the world of free software, too: “What’s the business model?” It’s sometimes hard to get across to people that I don’t give a damn about the business model.

  30. #30 daedalus2u
    September 1, 2009

    John H, some of us do enjoy ourselves doing science, and can’t imagine a more enjoyable or rewarding career. We are thwarted in that effort by those who want to monetize science, make the advancement of science fit into their personal “business model”, where they make money from the advancement of science. They are similar to those who make the advancement of science fit into their own personal “career advancement model”.

    We can be exploited by those who have personal “business models” and personal “career advancement models”. This is similar to how some women can be exploited as providers of childcare at low wages because some women derive great personal satisfaction from caring for children.

    Some of the exploitive barriers that those at the top of the pyramid put up are recognized to be crimes of exploitation. The PI who makes the advancement of those in his lab fit with his “acquisition of sexual partners model” is rightly criticized.

    The most successful “acquisition model” is to develop or acquire a monopoly position on a necessity. Then the monopoly provider of that necessity can charge what ever the market will bear. This is the model that all control hierarchies use, “power” is at the top and is used by those in power to get what they want/need from those underneath them in the Kyriarchy (the generic term for a power hierarchy where power and control flows in a top-down manner). When the PI controls access to funding, or to submission of proposals, or authorship of papers, or academic credit, then he can “charge” those who work for him what ever the market will bear, including long hours of drudge work, sexual favors, child care, undo credit for their scientific discoveries.

    If you have a monopoly on a necessity, the most important thing to do is to maintain that monopoly. If the monopoly on a necessity can be maintained, then all else can be obtained from that monopoly. Those in control of the monopoly realize that, which is why they are so against any change in the status quo that lessens the value of their monopoly control.

  31. #31 Dan C.
    September 2, 2009

    The business-model conversation goes like this.

    PUBLISHER: There’s no business model! There’s no business model!

    REST OF US: Here are some promising alternatives.

    PUBLISHER: (Short pause) There’s no business model! There’s no business model!

    The reality is there’s no shortage of business models for publishing. There’s a shortage of business models that would generate enough cash to keep exiting publishing companies solvent. There’s a shortage of models that generate 20 percent profit. And there’s not a functional business model anywhere that’s going to save a publishing company that’s leveraged against the long-term expectation of double-digit profits.

    I write about business models because people say there isn’t one. I write about business models because when people feel like there isn’t an answer, they often assume that things are somehow horribly broken, and that this gives them the right to act in extraordinarily bad ways. But I’m not really a business model kind of guy. I’m a writer who likes to look at problems and wonder about solutions.

    A parting thought: Throughout much (not all) of the history of Western Civilization, journalism and art operated via subsidy. That subsidy was always based on some centralization of power and/or wealth. The destruction of the previous journalism subsidy (advertising) is a triumph of capitalism. So one thing we should decide is this: Do we WANT art and journalism that is purely responsive to the fluctuating demands of a free market for content, or do we want some degree of subsidy?

    I think that’s actually a tricky question.

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