Being wrong is a feature, not a bug

An incisive and unblinking analysis of the fate of publishing and other dinosaurs recently appeared on Michael Nielsen’s blog: Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted? This longish essay is based on a colloquium given June 11, 2009, at the American Physical Society Editorial Offices. The topic and the occasion of its delivery would not normally promise an exciting read – most writing of this kind being tedious in the extreme – but this paper is a cracker.

help graffitiAlthough Nielsen’s main subject is the impending fate of the likes of Elsevier, his theme is broader.  With compelling insight and a rare ability to avoid excessive jargon and boilerplate, he describes why it is hard for incumbent organizations in a disrupted industry to change to a new model. He makes telling comparisons with the newspaper and music business, both of which are singing the same swan song from the same hymn book. He could just as easily have been talking about another industry tilting on the edge: academic libraries. Does this sound familiar?

I’ve described why it’s hard for incumbent organizations in a disrupted industry to change to a new model. The situation is even worse than I’ve described so far, though, because some of the forces preventing change are strongest in the best run organizations. The reason is that those organizations are large, complex structures, and to survive and prosper they must contain a sort of organizational immune system dedicated to preserving that structure. If they didn’t have such an immune system, they’d fall apart in the ordinary course of events. Most of the time the immune system is a good thing, a way of preserving what’s good about an organization, and at the same time allowing healthy gradual change. But when an organization needs catastrophic gut-wrenching change to stay alive, the immune system becomes a liability.

Many unsuccessful attempts at implementing services like those I’ve just described have been made. I’ve had journal editors explain to me that this shows there is no need for such services. I think in many cases there’s a much simpler explanation: poor execution. Development projects are often led by senior editors or senior scientists whose hands-on technical knowledge is minimal, and whose day-to-day involvement is sporadic. Implementation is instead delegated to IT-underlings with little power. It should surprise no one that the results are often mediocre. Developing high-quality web services requires deep knowledge and drive. The people who succeed at doing it are usually brilliant and deeply technically knowledgeable. Yet it’s surprisingly common to find projects being led by senior scientists or senior editors whose main claim to “expertise” is that they wrote a few programs while a grad student or postdoc, and who now think they can get a high-quality result with minimal extra technical knowledge. That’s not what it means to be technology-driven.

The same basic story can be told about the disruption of the music industry, the minicomputer industry, and many other disruptions. Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

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. Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works: you start out with an idea that’s just plain wrong, but that contains the seed of a better idea. You improve it, and you’re only somewhat wrong. You improve it again, and you end up the only game in town.

books-piled-up

Nielsen’s predictions are stark, but possess the clear contours of hard, inevitable truth. The implications for libraries are obvious:

This flourishing ecosystem of startups is just one sign that scientific publishing is moving from being a production industry to a technology industry. A second sign of this move is that 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. But the cost of distributing information has now dropped almost to zero, and production and content costs have also dropped radically. At the same time, the world’s information is now rapidly being put into a single, active network, where it can wake up and come alive. The result is that 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.

How do librarians add value to information? We won’t find the answer in the NYRB or the TLS.

So far this essay has focused on the existing scientific publishers, and it’s been rather pessimistic. But of course that pessimism is just a tiny part of an exciting story about the opportunities we have to develop new ways of structuring and communicating scientific information. These opportunities can still be grasped by scientific publishers who are willing to let go and become technology-driven, even when that threatens to extinguish their old way of doing things. And, as we’ve seen, these opportunities are and will be grasped by bold entrepreneurs.

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