Riding the Tectonic Plates 3: The Future

Photo: The Grand Canyon, USA
Image: Tobias Alt

Report from the Third Semantico Online Publishing Symposium

Technology is driving disruptive change in scholarly publishing – as well as altered expectations and behaviours among scholars, researchers, students, librarians and those who set institutional and governmental policy. This symposium was held recently in London to discuss how publishers can survive and thrive within this fast-changing landscape.

An invited audience of publishing industry leaders debated the issues under Chatham House rules. Delegates were from organisations including Beilstein-Institut, BioScientifica, CABI, Cross Ref, eLife, Mendeley, Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Sage, SIPX and Springer.

The discussion was in three parts, covering the following themes:

  1. The changing user
  2. Changing business models
  3. Future tech trends

This post looks forward to how the technology trends identified as driving disruptive change in the previous two parts are liable to play out in the future, and how further developments of educational and publishing technology look likely to impact the business of scholarly communication.

Part 2. The future

In this concluding part of our Symposium, we asked our delegates to focus on upcoming technology trends. This fairly broad rubric allowed them to extend their discussion of the forces currently disrupting scholarly publishing to include some future likely effects, and also to speculate about the impact of more nascent technologies.

MOOCs, altmetrics, semantic technologies, online learning, big data and Google Glass were some of the topics mentioned in the discussion. But this was no mere buzzword-bingo session: as one of the delegates pointed out, talking about technology on its own is ‘kind of boring’. Deeper themes, such as the future of higher education, the internet’s power laws and the nature of online reputation kept surfacing – alongside some interesting speculations about how the scholarly mind could be digitized and monetized in future.

At the same time, moving from the immediate to the more long-term future seemed to sharpen clashes of viewpoints, as well as hinting at a common feeling of subcutaneous unease.

As we have seen previously in this Symposium, Publishers are inclined to be fairly sanguine about the disruption caused by developments like Open Access (OA) in the short-to-medium term. It’s the same money, after all, everybody is chasing; it just surfaces in a different place. Business as usual. The longer term, however, looks anything but usual.

While currently we may be witnessing the odd earthquake as plates shift against each other along local fault lines, there is a bigger picture that pulling focus beyond the next three to five years reveals, in which can be seen something more potentially catastrophic for the present order of things; something more like a collision of continents.

MOOCs: killer app for pedagogical disruption?

OA was one of the two big academic publishing stories of 2012, the other being MOOCs. (For those who need bringing up to speed see our blog post here.)

The prominence of these two stories – not just as media phenomena but as disruptive developments that raise hard questions and heated debates right across the academic community – prompts a reflection about the role of academic publishers in of 2013.

We might be at the point of saying that the job breaks down broadly into two categories; on the one hand, dissemination of scholarship, and on the other, dissemination of educational pedagogies. It is in the latter category that the greater disrupter might well be seen, in the shape of online courses. Are MOOCs the killer app for disrupting the pedagogical model?

As with OA, impulses both idealistic and altruistic have helped in giving birth to a truly big idea. The dream is represented by the story of Batthushig, the Mongolian schoolboy who got a perfect score after enrolling on Anant Argarwal’s EdX course on computer science. ‘He’s a high school student,’ said Argarwal. ‘I can’t overstate how hard this course was. If I took it today, I wouldn’t get a perfect score. We’re encouraging him to apply to MIT.’

There is another lure too for institutions in founding MOOCs, however: they are the ultimate opportunity to do brand extension. An award-winning professor in a certain fields (eg calculus), a great teacher who can really convey the subject, can be leveraged to a far wider audience than they would normally reach and become the ‘go-to guy’ for that subject, increasing the lustre that accrues to that institution’s brand.

But what will this do to the legions of less-good calculus professors in other universities?

In his article Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, Clay Shirky gives the answer. They get disrupted. Elite institutions have nothing to fear from MOOCs – in fact they are the ones leading the charge. But given the high cost of residential college education, how will ‘the four thousand institutions you haven’t heard of’ in US Higher Education fare? As one of our delegate put it, ‘Now you can go to MIT virtually, why the hell would you spend $25k+ a year (or whatever it costs) to go to the mediocre university of a mediocre state in the US and get a mediocre degree?’

Granted, MOOCs don’t yet offer credible qualifications that can readily be parlayed into graduate-level jobs, but accreditation, probably as a paid add-on, is on the way. And there is considerable interest from employers already in MOOCs, which can output a highly granular level of data about what a student has actually studied, giving a level of transparency with which ordinary degrees can’t compete.

The point is, the middle looks poor.

This disruptive effect, which cranks up competition, can also be imagined to operate not only between institutions but within them. If, all of a sudden, you have one stand-out member of faculty in your otherwise mediocre university who has become the go-to guy online for calculus, or Hungarian language studies, or whatever, then why hire all the others?

Despite whatever good impulses there are behind the giddy rise of MOOCs, could we find that they are sewing the seeds of a wholesale destruction of our current educational institutions?

Power laws

In the age of the MOOC, learners can accumulate to the courses that are perceived to offer the best reward, and they can do it from anywhere in the world.

Those who have read Clay Shirky will recognize the internet’s power laws in operation here.

This intense selectivity, this hockey stick curve which opens a gap between number one place and the runner up on an order of magnitude, and relegates practically everyone else to the long tail, seems to be constant across all areas of the web, from music downloads to blogs (is this the shape of future Ofsted tables?).

It is the reason why there is only one search engine (called Google) and can be described as the evil twin of the network effect; the same law of cumulative advantage which dictates that the rich inevitably get richer.

If this sounds like a slightly apocalyptic scenario for HE, well it is only that: a scenario; a speculation. The detractors of MOOCs delight in pointing up their high drop-out rate (98% on some courses), their lack of traditional academic rigour, and the ease with which any online test can be gamed.

As with OA, there is not a great read-across from the sciences to humanities. Most MOOCs are in technical subjects where testing can be automated easily and no reading of essays is involved – when it come to studying English Literature, will a MOOC be any good?

It also has to be said that MOOCs are pedagogically primitive by the standards of the e-learning industry, perpetuating a form of instruction – the lecture – that is widely believed to be antiquated and ineffective. It could be said that the UK’s Open University, with its TV-delivered lectures, was the first MOOC. And yet the Open University, though massively successful, did not disrupt education: it simply expanded the niche of distance education.

So what’s the big deal with MOOCs? Are they really such a ‘killer app’?

Well a lot has changed since the Open University was launched. We now have a very challenging climate for universities, with rising costs, falling enrollments and high drop-out rates. Universities are eliminating departments that are under-performing. As the world changes, the current model of HE looks less and less sustainable.

Then there is the revolution in communications media brought about by the internet, and the phenomenon we call the social web (subject of a previous Semantico Symposium).

Where distance learning students in pre-internet days were largely isolated from each other, in today’s MOOCs we see the students educating each other. Most of their interactions, in fact, are not with their lecturer but with peers, in the variety of virtual and physical groups that have sprung up around individual courses.

One delegate observed younger people in his own organisation following a Coursera MOOC and saw that they took it straight to Facebook. Conversations began flying around, and he saw the genesis of a self-organising group around that course.

He found it interesting to speculate what might happen to the MOOC in that context, how it might be used, abused and repurposed within the social network; citing the words of William Gibson; ‘the Street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturers never imagined …’

Meanwhile, as we have indicated, MOOCs currently use a fairly simple instructional model and are certainly not playing with the full toolkit available to online learning as yet.

A MOOC that took advantage of the more leading-edge developments in Edtech such as adaptive learning to drive higher engagement levels – and lower dropout rates – could really change things.

The work of Tom Chatfield was cited in this regard. He started out in Philosophy and has ended up in games and software, and was recently sponsored by Channel 4 to produce The End, a games-based way of teaching Philosophy that aims at high rates of engagement.

Chatfield is interested in applying games logic (big data, stats-driven observations of what keeps people engaged) to educational challenges (watch his TED Lecture here). Much as this might go against the grain for educators, many of whom see themselves as locked in a death struggle with the games industry for young minds, this must make sense – if you consider that this industry has spent a great deal of time and money figuring how to hold the attention of young people.

Comparing the two – the games industry and the education industry ­– you might wonder if education is several steps off the pace in this regard; and whether rather than just attempting to catch up, it shouldn’t be going straight to the games industry for help.

For many, this is where the conversation becomes extremely difficult. Is it right even to think of education as an industry? Surely it is a public good, not to say an inalienable right, rather than an industry? But this is a question, perhaps, for a different symposium, on ‘The nature of knowledge and healthy societies’.

The pragmatic view of MOOCs says that in the end what will get traction is what actually produces educational outcomes. From the end-user point of view this equates to something that enables students to pass exams and get jobs, or move on to the next thing they want to do, whatever that might be.

One last thing to say about MOOCs, and perhaps the most important thing, is that they are – for the most part, and perhaps only for the moment – free. This is what gives them their massive openness. But it also raises a question about their future: how is their development to be funded? As with all of the free services we take for granted on the internet – Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – someone at some point has to pay in order for them to keep going.

There is much talk of charging for qualifications, while leaving instruction unpaid, but another source of potential revenue, as yet largely untapped, lies in the back-end data they output.

Coursera, Khan and the rest of these organisations have a similar thing going for them to Mendeley – they have the data on what people are doing online when they learn. And this is valuable.

Reputation: popularity v authority

If MOOCs will stand or fall, in the final analysis, by whether or not they are able to provide positive educational outcomes for students, then it follows that attempts to re-engineer the scholarly system online are only going to work to the extent that they allow end-users to build positive and sustainable reputations.

Academic reputation is about something more than mere popularity. It also involves authority. And the problem here – a problem for altmetrics, notionally ­– is that what looks like reputation in the online realm too often turns out to be just about popularity. Your number of Twitter followers, the number of hits on your website – these certainly show you are popular, and that your writings are perhaps relevant to particular keywords and hashtags – but none of these metrics do anything to indicate (or increase) academic authority, do they?

It is also open to question whether there really is any mechanism for that signal to propagate in the digital environment right now.

It can be argued that citations, the current mechanism for measuring scholarly reputation, are no more real as metrics of authority. They are certainly more stable, but what makes them so different from online metrics if, as was argued in the previous part of this Symposium, citations fail to measure what was actually said about the cited source?

So both are equally bad?

But the citation system has no way to improve significantly, say technologists, while altmetrics is at the beginning of a very interesting journey. If you want to see something that goes beyond citations, watch this space.

It’s a fast-changing space, as the next part of our discussion showed.

Digitizing the scholarly mind

Semantic tagging of research documents offers a way to get beyond the reductive, binary ‘yes or no’ of citations and to record the content of what happens when scholars interact with research papers.

Elsevier’s Anita De Waard is active in this space, other large publishing companies also have their initiatives – and so does Mendeley.

Mendeley, in particular, wants to find a way that users can tag research papers in context to describe what a particular paper helped them understand – describing some sort of relationship to the content, rather than just the brute fact that a researcher looked that paper. The challenge with this sort of tagging has always been why anyone would want to do it. How do you make it simple and user-friendly to do it, and secondly, what is the incentive for people to create such citations?

The idea behind Mendeley’s existing platform has always been that people download the software and use it to organise their research for purely selfish reasons – because it makes their lives easier – but that in their use of the service, they anonymously contribute to a store of information about the use of that research which is of academic value.

This is a neat way of getting around the problem that has dogged the semantic web project: who is going to do all that tagging? No spec of altruism is required for Mendeley’s model to operate: it runs entirely on self-interest.

An interface that allows users to make meaningful links between their research documents ends by, in a sense, describing their inner world. Aggregating and crunching the data from thousands of such users results in a sort of digitization of the collective scholarly mind – and less fancifully, perhaps, in a more sophisticated measure of the influence certain pieces of research exert that has qualitatively more to tell us than impact factor.

This put other delegates in mind of Peter Suber’s ‘evidence rack’, ‘a structure for organizing the evidence in support of the basic propositions in a field, and for making that evidence OA.’ (Peter Suber is, among other things, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project and a senior research professor of philosophy at Earlham College).

The idea is that academics often have arguments (in the sense of ‘positions’) that are important to them, and which they will roll out in various circumstances again and again. Any one of these arguments might be supported by a number of papers, and indeed, argued against by others, attracting refutations which themselves are refuted, and so on. These collections of papers form ‘evidence racks’, which the academics hold in their heads, or in written notes, but which could be digitized, in Suber’s vision, as a structure of relations between published papers.

Applications that take off often do so not because they are inventing user behaviour but because make existing behaviours easier or more pleasant to carry out. An evidence rack app would have a clear benefit to the user; but if a collection of such digitized mental networks could be processed anonymously and aggregated, what sort of pictures could be built up of the scholarly mind – and what products could result?

This approach to designing online services is semantic but also social and heavily design-driven. It is about designing an experience that gets people to do what you want them to do, but which is also good for them; a win-win. The monetizable end-product is almost an ‘accidental’ by-product of solving the user’s day to day problems.

The trend of web technology is to be more and more about personalisation to individual users, but all the energy and sexy technology that goes into delivering a great end-user experience results in creating monetary value for a buyer who is not that end-user. Mendeley sells to users, but its future as a profitable company surely has to be more about selling things to publishers.

In the B2C world, companies like Facebook and Twitter are trying to work out how to make money out of the marvelous thing they have created for their end-users. At the end of the day, it is probably not going to be about charging those users. Once the service stops being free, the users will just disappear.

There is a dark side to this dynamic. Users – or readers – are grist. That is the logic that applies to every other successful internet business. If you’re the consumer and you’re not paying for what you’re using, then your use of the service is more than likely being monetized off the back end. All that freedom has to be paid for somehow.

The dumbness of crowds?

Not all free online services require such careful and indirect system design as Mendeley or Facebook, however. As Shirky argues in Cognitive Surplus, moving from a lean-backwards medium like TV to a more active, participative channel like the World Wide Web has unleashed a volunteer workforce that can be enlisted to create anything from an online encyclopaedia to an open source operating system.

There are always, it seems, some people who will do this crowdsourcing work purely for self-validation (though power laws dictate that a relatively tiny number of people within a given interest group will be the ones doing all the work). So could education tap into this spirit of altruism and co-operation? Some argue this is already happening in initiatives like Wikipedia, which has a clear educational benefit, hated though it is by many educators.

A question for the academic world, however, is whether there are limits to the usefulness of crowdsourcing to help solve its own very particular problems.

Granted, crowdsourcing has seen successes in academic areas that are highly empirical, observational or logic-driven – e.g. Tim Gowers and his Polymath project. But in more contested and more subjective domains such as History, could it really have a place? There is so much prior knowledge needed before you can make a meaningful contribution to analysing the French Revolution, for instance – including everything else that has been done in that field. It will be hard to simply turn up to the debate and start refuting other people’s carefully supported arguments if you don’t have an evidence rack of your own. This is why academic field have an expert filtering mechanism known as pre-publication peer review.

Here an anxiety surfaces about the concept of ‘Openness’, which has become such a rallying cry for the technologists. Scholarly communities are not open to all comers, with good reason. Who can participate in the debate is fairly tightly controlled. Does it really make sense to contemplate such a wholesale tearing down of ivy-clad walls?

When continents collide

We live in a world where people have more access to more usable information at vanishingly low cost than e ever before in their lives. But for good or ill, not everyone has an equal toolset when it comes to making use of that information. Just having the information is not enough: it has to be interpreted. And interpreting information is difficult.

The issue with the digital revolution for many academics – in the way that it is presented, at any rate – is that it focuses too much on the consumption of information and overlooks production. It is as if this information horde arrived through some stroke of fantastic luck, rather than through the careful labour of highly educated people, assisted by the operation of established scholarly processes. This tends to obscure the conditions under which knowledge is produced in the first place, which to date has been highly contextualized and specific.

The danger for the future is that someone wanting to make an interesting contribution to the world of ideas might not get incentivized in the right kind of ways to create information that will be a true improvement on the last lot. There’s a skimming factor which tends towards superficiality, and is perhaps overly influenced by the way that information is presented.

Publishers are keenly aware that no matter how digitally switched-on are their businesses (and Elsevier could, from some points of view, be thought to be an internet business) a huge divide separates them from digitally native businesses such as Google.

In the words of one delegate, ‘we come from our stable backgrounds, and we look at this new thing and how to transition ourselves to this brave new world that is still incredibly young’.

Academic publishing businesses are used to having sustainable transactional partners, but where are the sustainable transactional partners for businesses like Mendeley? It’s not just about a change of business model: the new business model isn’t even written yet.

The whole edifice of academic publishing is built on the need to win and maintain scholarly reputation. Even if a publisher has decided to transition to digital, how do they take with them authors who are interested only in building authority and career into a realm where mechanisms for establishing these things are basically in beta – and where the very concept of authority is pretty much infra dig.

To return to the question we asked at the beginning of this symposium but in a different way, who is the user, and who the transactional partner? In Academia the transactional partners have always been institutions of various kinds, but will this be the same be in five, ten, fifteen years time? At the moment it looks like the author, but will that last? Where will the money flow go?

If settling that question were all publishers had to worry about, their job would be tough enough, but disruption hits both ends of the value chain and all points in between. The deeper anxiety seems not so much about a dive in revenues (though that is scary enough) but about the large-scale degredation of Academe’s value-creating processes; those mostly invisible activities whose outward signs are papers and lectures – and whose end-results look to the credulous like magic – but through which scholars, on their day, turn enquiry into knowledge.


With gloom mounting, one encouraging aspect to the discussion could be identified, at least. This was the fact that it had taken place not in an online forum, but in a restaurant, over dinner. Clearly there is some value still in human interaction. We might live in a digital world but we are, after all, analogue beings.


Related posts

Combining identity and access management

What can dynamic data visualization do for us?

Why is integrated content important?

Publishing identifiers: A spotter’s guide to standards

Leave a Reply

Thank you for leaving a reply. Your email will not be published.
Email and Name are required fields.