Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Apptheneum: Disrupting The Scientific Media

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 23, 2014

By Matthew Grimshaw at InPress Media Group

Most people don't know much about the business of science publishing. When I tell friends what I do for a living there's a certain look of terror that flashes across their eyes at words such as, 'semiconductors,' 'physics' and 'journals' as if they are about to hear a three-hour lecture on the subject.

Since losing my old publishers job to the very disruption Silicon Valley Watcher covers I've focused on how to build a content discovery engine for science.  The world of science publishing is entangled in the middle of a mostly unreported war that will decide how the world finds out about scientific breakthroughs.

There are two basic types of science media: The first is the trade publishing business: Magazines, websites and journals. These entities are usually funded through advertising and offer free subscriptions and feature news, tech reporting and the invited editorial.

The second media group is the peer reviewed  academic journals that are funded by subscriptions. In a previous life I ran trade journals covering computer chip and solar cell research and manufacture.

Technology disrupted my segment, decimating ad revenues and leaving just a handful of publishers in each technology sector. Common sense suggests the same tale of woe would befall the academic publishers too, but that couldn't be further from the truth: They are thriving. They have not really felt the disruptive heat of the Internet because they have exclusive access to content that they control absolutely. Content that the scientific communities need to function properly.

In other industries the word 'monopoly' would be thrown around. Academic publishing is old, very old and in fact almost as old as science itself.

The problem with it being so venerable is that its methodologies are entrenched within the system and so are used for the communication of new scientific discovery. So intimate is this relationship in order to gain a PhD you must be published in a recognized journal. Now that's cornering a market.

It's a stunningly simple business model: The publisher owns all the prestige via the title/audience. Any academics that want papers peer reviewed pay a fee (depending on the journal) to have it reviewed by a team of reviewers (usually working for free or at low cost) to check the claims over, before publishing the work and charging their audience fees to either subscribe or buy the individual paper containing the research itself. Publishers keep all copyright and own the audience -- anyone that wants access to this closed network, pays.

For one hundred years and more, this is how academic publishing has been executed, but then the Internet came along and did what it did to all types of media; it began to disrupt it. As it did first to us in the trade media -- the web removed publisher control. Firstly of content by giving it a common home on the web, and then it took away the unique capability of building an audience.

Social technologies enabled anyone to build their own audience with limited promotion and then mobile came along and removed any hope of print being remotely sustainable. We in the trade media tried to adapt to this new digital reality by dropping print like a hot stone before trying to survive on digital margins which is near impossible for niche markets.

Meanwhile, those in academic media went the other direction entirely -- they jumped behind paywalls. The trouble with the pay-wall approach is that there's nothing stopping anyone creating open journals, which means a fight was inevitable with the stakes being higher then most recognize.

Open Access journals have sprung up all over the place. The largest I've seen is the Public Library of Science, but there are lots of independent niche journals too -- there's almost ten thousand attached to the Directory of Open Access Journals and there are even more direct attempts at creating peer-to-peer networks like academia.edu for direct sharing of research.

Of course the legacy publishers were not going to sit still and watch their business evaporate but it's hard to see how they'll survive as Open Access gains traction.

There are generations of MBA and PhD candidates preparing to join the science communities, and they all come from a generation that's used to sharing and connecting with community, without paywalls or the legacy rules of century old practices.

However, we should be careful that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are dangers in losing the old establishment as the scientific process requires the checks and balances of the peer review process. And contrary to what the Internet may suggest, content isn't cheap -- especially this type of content.

At InPress Media Group, I'm working on a discovery engine: apptheneum, which aims-- to connect the sciences through content, something we like to call 'content networking' -- think of a "LinkedIn" of science and technology content.

I'm trying to introduce science media to ideas such as: discovery engines, and distributing content based on its relevance to the reader as opposed to the current practice of fencing content into disciplines.

How will it evolve? I think it be a lot like the consumer media market before it. People are like water: They follow the path of least resistance, or in this case least cost.

Economics will eventually decide the winners and losers but will it help us gain from what technology enables us to do, or will science content go the way of click-baiting sites? 

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Here is a description of the apptheneum platform:

InPress Media Group

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The Holmes Report names Tom Foremski one of the top 25 Innovators of 2013.




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