The changing landscape of scholarly communications

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Adapted from Scholarly Communications: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker, by John J. Regazzi

Consider the kingmakers in our society and throughout history. They have been long admired, or reviled, for their power and ability to influence political elections, coronations, or propelling someone to a formidable position, as they remain unrealizable candidates for assuming any of these powers or authorities. Prized for their political, social, and strategic skills, kingmakers have been used for thousands of years and throughout the history of humankind.

The term is perhaps most associated with Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, who was known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, during the War of the Roses. Though various circumstances of his birth, linage, inheritance, and marriage, Warwick in 1450 emerged in the center of English politics, and over a period of about 10 years was responsible for the coronation of not one but two kings of England – Edward IV and Henry VI. These efforts earned him the moniker ‘kingmaker” for later generations and today.

The world has had many such ‘kingmakers’ however, even if they were not called such in their lifetimes.  India had Chanakya, and legend has it that as a young economics professor at the ancient Takshashila University in 300 BC, the then leader of the Nanda Empire, King Dhana Nanda, insulted him and as a result Chanakya swore to dethrone this king and destroy his empire. Chanakya befriends what he believes to be a successor to Nanda in the person of Chandragupta Maurya. With the help of only a small group, they bring down the King Nanda and the entire empire, using their skills of manipulation, surreptitiousness, and intimidation. Maurya becomes King, but Chanakya serves as his key advisor until his death.
King-making takes a variety of forms as well. From 456 until his death in 472, Flavius Ricimer is said to have ruled the entire Western Roman Empire through a series of hand picked puppet emperors.  Ricimer was able to maintain his power through his control of the military as well as his elaborate, though often secretive, social network of Roman Senators. King-making and kingmakers are without questions forces to be reckoned with and noted.  A kingmaker, in game theory for example, is a player without adequate or required resources to win the game, but possesses enough resources to decide which player will win. Game theorists often see the kingmaker as far more formidable and more powerful than any other player, even the eventual game winner.

The story of kingmakers is a story of control, power, partnership, and value creation. But their story more likely operates only behind the scenes and always with at least one other party.  Kingmakers are never kings themselves, as they always lack some basis for their own coronation. Their central value lies in the partnerships to power, that they create and sustain. Their partners, themselves, also lack the credentials or resources for power on their own, and only together does the king and kingmaker create sustainable power and value.

Has scholarly communications and scholarly information become the kingmaker of today or is it still king? This, in my view, is a central question for the information services industry and for those professionals who manage scholarly communications services and valuable content, and who are continuing to try to make these services sustainable and viable.

To be sure, scholarly communications is in transition, both in its form and format as well as in economic terms, both as raw data and structured content as well as when it is embedded in the electronic processes and services that are continuing to grow and expand in size, form, and function.

These transformations also drive many of the changes seen in the pricing and selling of scholarly content and services: from electronic journals to open access business models to professional workflow services. Scholarly content is being paired with greater and greater digital functionality, and this bundling is creating exciting and innovative scholarly services. However, bundling is only effective if it does not cost too much, that is, having too high a price for extra items in a bundle that are unwanted.

There was a time, without question, when scholarly communication was king, and generating that content could itself lead to fame and fortune for a variety of players in the scholarly information supply chain. Are we still living in an age where scholarly content is king, or does scholarly communications now play the role of kingmaker – able to create great value but not alone, and only in partnership with other resources? The scholarly communications of 100 years ago are certainly different from the scholarly communications of today, but perhaps even more importantly, the scholarly processes of today are markedly different from even 10 years ago. Without question, the form and value of scholarly content is in a great state of flux. How the scholarly communications industry can create and derive value in this new phase is becoming less clear as the rules of the market shift.

The Internet and the changes in the distribution of human knowledge have vastly altered the value of information, as Chris Anderson notes in his book Free1:
There is only one way to have unlimited shelf space: if that shelf space costs nothing. The near-zero “marginal costs” of digital distribution ... allow us to be indiscriminate in what we use it for—no gatekeepers are required to decide if something deserves global reach or not. And out of that free-for-all came the miracle of today’s Web, the greatest accumulation of human knowledge, experience, and expression the world has ever seen (Anderson, 2009, p. 3).
As we look at the changing landscape of scholarly communications, a compelling challenge emerges: while the new digital channels of information distribution have reduced information users’ costs to zero or near zero, these same channels have increased the corresponding benefits significantly.

Scholarly Communications: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker
examines how the fundamental value propositions of scholarly content have changed, how businesses which are generating and distributing scholarly content need to think differently about creating value and profits in the new digital age, and how researchers will derive increased value from the new forms of scholarly content, communications and enterprise.

1Anderson, C. (2009). Free – The future of a radical price. New York, NY: Hyperion.