Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Last week, news broke that the scholarly STM publisher Elsevier is in talks to purchase Mendeley, the successful research collaboration platform used by researchers and academics around the world. And while “Elsevier” and “Mendeley” may just sound like fancy three-syllable words, this news is a big deal to the academic publishing sector—and says a lot about the way the Internet continues to change how we interact with information.
Who are these guys?
Elsevier is a major player in the STM industry—STM being “scientific, technical, and medical.” STM publishers produce academic journals and frequently have publishing arms that also produce peer-reviewed niche publications including textbooks, monographs, scholarly reference, and professional education titles. Other STM publishers include Springer, Wiley, Cambridge University Press, and others.
Mendeley is a cross between a personal library and academic social media. It allows users to store PDFs (the electronic reading medium of choice among academics), organize information, collaborate with each other… basically a dream come true for folks whose job it is to stay on top of the latest trends and further the general body of information in their field. (Still not quite sure what it does? Read some of Mendeley’s testimonials to see who uses this and how, or this succinct analysis of Mendeley and the Elsevier situation by the Electronic Lab Notebook.)
Why is this important?
As information becomes more freely available, and as Open Access issues loom on the horizon, the purpose of STM publishers is becoming kind of… hazy. Once the mouthpiece for scientific research—publishers of journals that disseminated the cutting edge research in a given discipline—now STM publishers (not unlike trade publishers) are in a state of constant self-justification. And as technology makes it easier to sort, share, and study raw data, research has the potential to move away from single-author or team-authored theses and into an almost crowdsourced situation. (Okay, that’s exaggerating. Kind of.)
STM publishers are starting to look at ways to get involved with the research/publishing process earlier in the cycle—specifically, at the data stage. In fact, they’ve been talking about this for a long time, as shown by this 2006 white paper commissioned by the STM Association. The paper, titled “Scientific publishing in transition,” notes that publishers should explore “how scientists make use of journals and related resources in their research, how access to journals adds value and whether the overall system could be developed to enhance research productivity,” which means asking big questions about whether journals are still an appropriate “final product” in a world where wading through data has become much less daunting than in pre-spreadsheet days.
For researchers, a key part of furthering the field is testing and re-testing every “fact” we know to make sure we’re not misunderstanding data. And as disciplines grow more specialized, research is no longer a one-man-discovery system; teams of researchers, sometimes in disparate regions, are working together to make sure that every advancement we make is tested and re-tested before being added to the canon. It’s not helpful to draw quick conclusions from limited sets of data; it’s helpful to extract careful, informed hypotheses from multiple data sets in a variety of situations to come to a carefully proven conclusion. In that case, perhaps it can be more useful to share one’s data sets than to share one’s tentative conclusions from a limited range of study.
The white paper says it best: “We also need to recognize that the publishing industry and the wider environment are both changing rapidly and not devise solutions to yesterday’s problems.” Elsevier, along with other STM publishers, is investing in a future where pure information—not just published, polished journal articles—could become the currency of choice in academia.
What does that mean for you and me? Not much, directly. But for the institution of academia (and its publishers), it could be pointing to a new way of thinking about usefulness, prestige, accomplishment, and status in an internationally-collaborating scientific community.