What's the Uber of Publishing?

By Gemma Milne

I work in the tech industry. That means startups, innovation, diversity, co-creation, democratisation, future-thinking...but most 'buzzword-y' of all - disruption.

The phrase we all love to hate, most employed by new startups when selling themselves to investors, is 'the Uber of X' - translating as 'we do X but we do it totally differently'.

For those of us embedded in the industry, we tend to encourage startups to be slightly more creative in their sales spiel, but admittedly, it is a good way of talking about REAL disruption.

What Uber did was not just incremental improvement of the taxi industry - simply making it cheaper or faster or more enjoyable. What Uber did was totally reinvent the taxi industry. They started with the question 'why do we use taxis?' instead of 'how can we make taxis better?', or rather, they started with the PERSON, not the industry. The same story is true for Airbnb or Slack or Spotify - they didn't try to just improve something, they started from scratch.

We spoke to Jon Tennant, Communications Director for ScienceOpen and proud believer in the principles of Open Access (full interview coming soon), and on top of the usual questions around what scientific publishers provide for their charges and which journals were the career defining channels of choice...all I could think was 'what is the Uber of scientific publishing?'

To me - this is an industry just waiting on something better to come along. There's severe disparity in subscription and publishing prices from one journal to the next, and even additional costs put on researchers keen to submit their paper with an Open clause (i.e. having the paper viewable without a paywall). Policy makers don't want anything to rock the state of (the economy of) the scientific publishing industry in the UK. Scientists are being measured on the sheer number of papers they publish and, most importantly, where they are published... To me, we've kind of forgotten what the point in publishing was in the first place: knowledge sharing.

As Jon rightly pointed out, “Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet for the free, rapid dissemination of research – but corporations have put in barriers against the reason the net was invented. Paywalls expose the business model of publishers in that they make money by preventing access to knowledge.”

But academics are equally to blame; they are fuelling this commercialisation of knowledge by continuing to publish in the most prestigious (and therefore, expensive) journals, and refusing to stand up and rebel for fear of rocking their career. Surely the point of publishing your papers should be rooted in the advancement of long term knowledge as opposed to a short term pay rise or a boost in your university’s marketing?

There are many issues which arise from the current state of the industry. There is a reproducibility crisis – not enough research is being ‘double checked’ by other scientists, as this sort of work isn’t as likely to be published in the ‘reputable’ journals. There’s a lack of encouragement of researchers to communicate their results beyond a published paper - the part of the grant proposal segmented for public engagement going mainly to kids in schools as opposed to the wider adult public (who of course have much more immediate impact through policy making, funding and commercialisation).

So it leaves me wondering - what will be the disruptor? Well really the first question is: who is the consumer? Who is it that publishing exists for? For corporate enterprises, the answer to this question is quite easy to answer - the people who either provide the service or use the service (paying customers or employees & stakeholders). But for publishing this is not an easy one to solve. You could argue that the audience is fellow scientists. Or policy makers. Or the wider public. Or funding bodies. Or businesses. And all of these groups have different needs and expectations of the outcomes of scientific research.

The unifying factor - I believe - is that everyone wants more knowledge. Whether that's to inform decisions, inspire new questions, complement research or back up proposals - everyone wants to better understand what is going on. It’s from this understanding that we start to see a happy medium form between the publishers and the public - it's not that everything has to be open and free, but instead it's about creating value for everyone: the contributors, the providers and the consumers.

Right now, the value is really only being realised by the providers - and this is where we can look to Spotify and Uber and Airbnb for inspiration. They empowered all players in the industry - the riders, the drivers and the suppliers; the guests, the hosts and the platform; the musicians, the fans and the labels...and created successful thriving business too. They cut business costs by having less managed inventory; they cut prices and empowered users through feedback - giving a cheaper, more reliable experience; and lowered barriers to entry and increased revenue for the people providing the goods in the first first. They didn't make getting a taxi or listening to music or going on holiday free - they just understood the value that all players needed from the ecosystem.

The current alternatives to the older players in publishing - SciHub (an illegal website hosting uploads of ‘stolen’ papers for all to download for free) or Academia.edu (a social networking website for researchers to upload and share papers with their community), for example - are brilliant in terms of showing that people are frustrated with the current system, but none are providing a fair ecosystem which empowers all parties. They are disruptive, but they're not disruptors. If SciHub is the uTorrent of publishing - what is the Spotify?

Until there's a valid new process - which allows all parties to have value and feel empowered - no real global change will occur. There will be disruption along the way - which is important as a starting point - but until people start thinking laterally about how you can reinvent the system from scratch, the owners of the system have no reason to change, no matter how immoral or unfair said system is.

So what next? I say instead of rebelling against the system, we find ways to find value for all. Instead of complaining in echo chambers, we find inspiration in other areas and work out how we can learn from their successes (and failures).

Most importantly though, we stop trying to encourage incremental change, and have real conversations about how we would build this important knowledge sharing ecosystem from the ground up – instead of looking back and thinking ‘what if?’, working out how we do it in today's technologically advanced world.

It's what Uber did after all.