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Web readability – task 2

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Nielsen, M 2009, Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted, viewed 20 August 2010, <http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/is-scientific-publishing-about-to-be-disrupted/>

Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?


Many large and powerful organisations disappear quickly because they do not correctly predict and prepare for future possibilities.  Minicomputers, music and newspapers appear to be stupid and malevolent to competition and prefer to preserve a status quo that they find more comfortable. Newspapers companies feel they are immune to the challenges that new services provided by blogs and other specific online news sites are offering because they are a known name and people believe they can do better. Scientific publishers are likely to become technology companies in the future. Science blogs are becoming a serious medium for research as they are a more dynamic medium that journals.  New technologies will help accelerate the way scientific discoveries are made.

Part I: How Industries Fail

How is it that large, powerful organizations, with access to vast sums of money, and many talented, hardworking people, can simply disappear?

In the 1970s some of the world’s fastest-growing companies were companies like Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General and Prime. They made minicomputers like the legendary PDP-11. None of these companies exist today. A similar disruption is happening now in many media industries. CD sales peaked in 2000, shortly after Napster started, and have declined almost 30 percent since.

Kongo Gumi

  • Was the oldest construction company in the world
  • Founded in 578 CE when the then-regent of Japan, Prince Shotoku, brought a member of the Kongo family from Korea to Japan to help construct the first Buddhist temple in Japan, the Shitenno-ji.
  • In 2005, they were headed by Masakazu Kongo, the 40th of his family to head Kongo Gumi.
  • The company had more than 100 employees, and 70 million dollars in revenue.
  • In 2006, they went into liquidation, and  assets were purchased by Takamatsu Corporation. Kongo Gumi as an independent entity no longer exists.

Other examples

  • General Motors, Lehman Brothers and MCI Worldcom

Why online news is killing the newspapers

  • Newspaper advertising revenue in the United States has declined 30 percent in the last 3 years, and the decline is accelerating: one third of that fall came in the last quarter.


  • Failure to see that services like iTunes and Last.fm are the wave of the future
  • Why did they not pre-empt those services by creating similar products of their own?


  • Evil record company and newspaper executives have been screwing over their customers for years, simply to preserve a status quo that they personally find comfortable.

Blogs are thriving financially

  • Blogs can undercut the newspaper’s advertising rates. People are moving away from specialized section of newspapers to specialized blogs. This depresses the price of advertising and causes the advertisers to move away from the newspapers.
  • It’s false to say that blogs and other online sources [1] are news parasites, feeding off the original reporting done by the newspapers.
  • It’s true that many blogs don’t do original reporting, but many of the top ones do excellent original reporting, for example, the popular technology blog TechCrunch.  Part of the reason it’s grown is because TechCrunch’s reporting is some of the best in the technology industry.
  • TechCrunch is thriving because its operating costs are far lower, per word, than the New York Times.

Problems for newspapers

  • Very little they can do to make themselves cheaper to run.
  • Photography – newspapers pay photographers and that photo can cost the newspaper a few hundred dollars [3]. When TechCrunch or a similar blog needs a photo for a post, they’ll use a stock photo, or ask their subject to send them a snap. The average cost is probably tens of dollars.
  • Newspapers employ photographers for an excellent business reason: good quality photography is a distinguishing feature that can help establish a superior newspaper brand. For a high-end paper, it could be been worth millions of dollars to get stunning, Pulitzer Prizewinning photography. It makes complete business sense to spend a few hundred dollars per photo.
  • Newspapers have an organizational structure that means small changes, such as firing your photographers – don’t make your situation better, they make it worse.
  • Newspapers are locked into producing a product that’s of comparable quality (from an advertiser’s point of view) to the top blogs, but at far greater cost.

Other Industries with similar issues

  • Music industry
  • the minicomputer industry

Conclusion: It’s easier and more effective to start a company from scratch.

Part II: Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted – What’s all this got to do with scientific publishing?

Today, scientific publishers are production companies, specializing in services like editorial, copyediting, and, in some cases, sales and marketing. In ten to twenty years, scientific publishers will be technology companies [4] that are  technology-driven companies in a similar way to Google or Apple.

Their foundation will be technological innovation, and most key decision-makers will be people with deep technological expertise. Those publishers that don’t become technology driven will die off.

Previous predictions

  • In the late 1990s, many people speculated that the publishers might be in trouble, as free online preprint servers became increasingly popular in parts of science like physics.

What’s happening today?

The flourishing of an ecosystem of startups are experimenting with new ways of communicating research.

This flourishing ecosystem is not too dissimilar from the sudden flourishing of online news services we saw over the period 2000 to 2005.

Rise of Science Blogs

  • Becoming a serious medium for research.
  • It’s easy to miss the impact of blogs on research, because most science blogs focus on outreach. But more and more blogs contain high quality research content.
  • Terry Tao’s series of posts explains one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent mathematical history, the proof of the Poincare conjecture.
  • Tim Gowers recent experiment in “massively collaborative mathematics”, using open source principles to successfully attack a significant mathematical problem.
  • Richard Lipton’s excellent series of posts exploring his ideas for solving a major problem in computer science finding a fast algorithm for factoring large numbers.

The nature of information is changing

  • Until the late 20th century, information was a static entity. The natural way for publishers in all media to add value was through production and distribution, and so they employed people skilled in those tasks, and in supporting tasks like sales and marketing.
  • The cost of distributing information has now dropped almost to zero, and production and content costs have also dropped radically [5].
  • The world’s information is now rapidly being put into a single, active network.
  • The people who add the most value to information are no longer the people who do production and distribution. Instead, it’s the technology people, the programmers.

Common response from scientific publishers

These statements are currently true, at least when judged according to the conventional values of scientific publishing. But they’re as irrelevant as the equally true analogous statements were for newspapers.

“but we’re better than blogs / wikis / PLoS One / …!”

“but what about peer review”,

“what about quality control”

“how will scientists know what to read”.

When new technologies are being developed, the organizations that win are those that aggressively take risks, put visionary technologists in key decision-making positions, attain a deep organizational mastery of the relevant technologies, and, in most cases, make a lot of mistakes.

Only a few scientific publishers are attempting to become technology-driven in this way – Nature Publishing Group (with Nature.com) and the Public Library of Science.


Personalized paper recommendations

  • Amazon.com has had this for books since the late 1990s. You go to the site and rate your favourite books. The system identifies people with similar taste, and automatically constructs a list of recommendations for you. This is not difficult to do: Amazon has published an early variant of its algorithm, and there’s an entire ecosystem of work, much of it public, stimulated by the Neflix Prize for movie recommendations.
  • The original Google PageRank paper, you’ll discover that the paper describes a personalized version of PageRank, which can be used to build a personalized search and recommendation system. Google doesn’t actually use the personalized algorithm, because it’s far more computationally intensive than ordinary PageRank, and even for Google it’s hard to scale to tens of billions of webpages.

A great search engine for science

ISI’s Web of Knowledge, Elsevier’s Scopus and Google Scholar are remarkable tools, but there’s still huge scope to extend and improve scientific search engines [6]. With a few exceptions, they don’t do even basic things like automatic spelling correction, good relevancy ranking of papers , automated translation, or decent alerting services. They certainly don’t do more advanced things, like providing social features, or strong automated tools for data mining.

Why not have a public API [7] so people can build their own applications to extract value out of the scientific literature.

High-quality tools for real-time collaboration by scientists

Scientific blogging and wiki platforms

  • Nature Publishing Group is the only scientific publishers developing high-quality scientific blogging and wiki platforms

The data web

Where are the services making it as simple and easy for scientists to publish data as it to publish a journal paper or start a blog?

  • A few scientific publishers are taking steps in this direction. It needs to be organized and searchable, so people can find and use it.
  • The data needs to be linked, as the utility of data sets grows in proportion to the connections between them.
  • It needs to be citable.
  • There needs to be simple, easy-to-use infrastructure and expertise to extract value from that data.
  • On every single one of these issues, publishers are at risk of being leapfrogged by companies like Metaweb, who are building platforms for the data web.

Why many services will fail

Developing high-quality web services requires deep knowledge and drive. The people who succeed at doing it are usually brilliant and deeply technically knowledgeable.


It’s clear that there are enormous opportunities to innovate, for those willing to master new technologies, and to experiment boldly with new ways of doing things. The result will be a great wave of innovation that changes not just how scientific discoveries are communicated, but also accelerates the way scientific discoveries are made.

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