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Publishing about publishing

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Michael Mabe, director of academic relations at Elsevier

Considering the wide variety of subjects that are covered in the scholarly literature it is actually quite surprising that there is such little scholarly study of the scholarly literature itself, and how it is used by the scholastic community.

This was noticed by Michael Mabe, who is director of academic relations for Elsevier, so he has started doing exactly that. He has researched the behaviour of the community and published his results to the same standards as any author in the scholarly press.

He has gained appointments as an honorary research fellow at the School of Library, Administration, and Information Science, University College and City University in London, and is a visiting professor at the School of Information Science of the University of Tennessee, USA.

Professor Anthony Watkinson, a prominent publishing consultant and research fellow at UCL, says that while for most of his career Mabe has been a commercial publisher, he is the equal of any author publishing work in the scholarly press. 'His articles are real articles. All of the publishers do research but they do not follow it up like Elsevier does. Mabe's great strength is that he really does his homework. I know he would like to be a full-time scholar, but he is also deeply committed to publishing. His career has involved improving scholarly journals. There is no doubt that other publishers feed off him.'

Many have hailed his work as offering a revolutionary insight into the whole process of distributing information amongst the scientific community. However, these insights have challenged a few long-held views of experienced people in the field who are happy to contradict him based, ironically, on anecdotal evidence.

'Because he is so dedicated to his work he gets very upset when he is criticised,' said Watkinson. 'He works hard to try and understand how processes are today. That is difficult to get over to some people who described processes as how they would like them to be. Sometimes people stand up at meetings and say this is nonsense and walk out. Michael has a great belief in reason and gets upset when people question his figure. I'm sure he loses sleep over it � he's very proud of his integrity.'

An all-round interest

Mabe was born near Bognor Regis on England's south coast, a glamorous seaside resort in Victorian times. His father was a bus driver and his mother a housewife. He was a bookish child and was always interested in finding things out. He was inspired by his science teachers but also became enthused about classics. He did well enough at school to get an open scholarship to Oxford University, becoming the first member of his family to go to university.

He said: 'Science was something that I was quite good at but I was always interested in the broader sweep of things. I would have loved to have continued studying Latin and Greek because it seemed that forcing me into being science-focused limited what I could do later. I was, and am still, very interested in history, art history and the classics and so on but I had to virtually stop at the age of 14 or 16. One theme since then is to work at and develop those areas in my private life and, also, whenever possible in my professional life. For example, the chemistry research that I did at university in radio carbon dating was in the art history department. Shortly after I left this lab had helped to date the Turin Shroud.'

Mabe could not stay in research because there were no more grants available, but he found work as a lab technician. He was on the verge of taking up a PhD place at Bath University but penury forced him to look for paying work. He saw an advertisement for a job at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) working on the history of scientific words. He took the job thinking he could go back to research later, and found that he really enjoyed the work of digging deeply into records to see who had first coined various scientific terms. There, he was schooled in the discipline of scholarly publishing and production processes.

'Working on the OED was so unique that for the first three years that was its own reward,' he said. 'It was such a broadening experience because the people I was working with were not just scientists, so I got the chance to re-engage in some of the humanistic things I was interested in at school.'

When the supplement programme came to an end in about 1983, he started looking around for something new. He had got the publishing bug and he decided that he would find something more sociable than being a lexicographer. He found a job as a technical editor with the British Standards Institute.

From there he was head-hunted to join Pergamon Press, managing the scientific encyclopaedia department. Robert Maxwell was still running Pergamon but his attention had been focused on national newspapers and he left Pergamon alone. The management had been invigorated with senior figures being recruited from the STM industry and Mabe found it a very dynamic environment. Mabe got on well in this environment and, after a few years, was chosen to head up the material science publishing programme as editorial director, eventually responsible for some 35 journals.

The importance of building relationships

'Most of those journals needed quite a lot of development work and I had many changes to engineer in as diplomatic a way as possible,' he said. 'I took to it like a duck to water. In the past I had enjoyed many aspects of editorial management but it was only when I added on the role of acquisitions editor that all of the things that I had done previously began to click into place. I greatly enjoyed talking to scientists about their work and the work of others, being able to see the bigger picture going on in that community. You have to be able to engage with these people as human beings. They have as many varied interests as anyone else and there comes a point when you have to talk to them about something other than their science. A wide range of interests is very useful. It is about being able to build relationships. A really good commissioning editor is someone who can see the advantages for people they are talking to as well as the advantages for the organisation they are part of.

'I was able to get in on the Buckminsterfullerene phenomenon. I had met Sir Harry Kroto back in the early 1990s and we were able to develop a conference that brought together all the experts in fullerenes. That was probably the last time you could get all the experts in one room together. The subject area soon really took off and we were able to put together a journal programme at Pergamon.'

Pergamon was acquired by Elsevier in 1991 and, after a few reorganisations, Mabe was chosen to create and run a new department that would act as an internal consultancy and he was given the title of director of academic relations.

Mabe describes the work of his department as communications and research to study the publishing behaviour of researchers, the journal they publish in and the companies that publish those journals. 'By understanding the STM publishing system better, we are in a position to help develop better products for Elsevier and raise awareness of the STM publishing system worldwide. We are looking at what makes researchers tick, what makes them want to publish a paper and why, how they go about it and how that will be affected by technological change'

He has also developed tools for use within Elsevier, such as an author feedback system to find out what authors think and use the results to improve the level of service.

Mabe spend the first few years in this role conducting fundamental research. He did this because he could not find any fundamental research on publishing behaviour anywhere. There was not even complete information about how many authors or journals there were in the world, how often people published papers or any other basic market data. He then started publishing papers about things like impact factors (his most cited paper) and issues facing publishers. But more recently they have had a more higher profile with titles including: Dr Jekyll and Dr Hyde: Author Reader Asymmetries in Scholarly Publishing, Caveat Auctor: Let the Author Beware! A Sceptical View of Open Access and Peer Review and Pay-to-Publish: The World Turned Upside Down?

Author and reader habits are different

He had spent much of his time talking to scientists as both authors and readers and came to the conclusion that the very same person has a completely different requirement from the journal when they are an author from when they are a reader. For example, no author would publish his own lab book notes, but the same people want to see other people's lab books. Also all scientists want to publish more while the same people as readers say they want to read less. Authors also regularly claim that other scientists are publishing thinner slices of their research in each paper.

However, Mabe said that his research does not support the notion that there is some new 'serials crisis' in STM publishing. He has found that the number of unique papers published per author 50 years ago was about one per year per scientist, and today it is more like 0.75. He said the number of scientists has risen at a steady rate of about three per cent per year for the last 50 years, but that they are collaborating more. There are more papers around because there are more scientists.

He said: 'It is a myth that journal proliferation is a modern phenomenon. The rate at which new, active, peer-reviewed journals have been appearing has remained relatively unchanged for the last 300 years. The number of new titles has grown at 3-3.5 per cent per year, compounded. The phenomenon that is causing that is the rise in the number of scientists. Electronic publishing, of course, allows you to find papers more easily, but it has not caused any proliferation. People have always felt overwhelmed and will feel overwhelmed in the future.'

The author-pays model

Mabe has also spoken out against the notion of pay-to-publish because he believes there is not a sustainable business model. In practice some of the bigger journals could end up charging �10,000 for publication, he said, with questions being asked about how other publishers can afford to publish for much less than this.

'This changes what was an academic decision into a commercial one. For example, if you were a developing world author you might get excluded from publishing. That is not symmetrical with developing world scientists getting access. If a paper has not been published, it does not exist. If it exists there are ways of granting access,' he pointed out.

And he sees other problems with the model. 'Under the existing subscription model, articles are only published if they reach a quality threshold, determined by peer review. With the author-pays model, the temptation to include a few extra articles to get the extra money is very strong � especially at times of financial pressure. So there is a significant risk that the quality of the literature would slowly decline under that type of pressure.'

His views on the pay-to-publish model have upset a few people who are passionate about such developments. They often argue that his research is sponsored by Elsevier and that the company clearly has a vested interest in the results. However, his conclusions are backed by his research.

The risk of version confusion

Mabe said that there are many unexpected consequences to the electronic publishing revolution which publishers had never dreamed of when the first moves were made onto the web in the mid 90s. Firstly, it is difficult to prevent almost infinite reproduction of electronic documents and secondly, there are issues around the possibility of changing of papers after publication.

As Mabe explained, 'The big debate at the moment is about versioning. The scholarly publishing process depends on the idea of a final, published and archived version of a paper. Electronic documents can never be final and so the document in front of you could be an earlier version. If it is a final version but you do not know where it came from you could be undermining the business model that sustains the whole peer-review system. We are in a time of immense change that I don't think will settle down for a long time. The technology threw up great benefits but it bring with it new issues that have to be addressed. But more people are getting access to more information than at any other point in time.'

In addition to researching the publishing process, Mabe has the role of being the main contact between the academic world and the Elsevier management, and he greatly enjoys that role, even though according to his friend Anthony Watkinson, that can involve spending much of his time 'defending Elsevier'. He has no plans to move on but said that, ultimately, he would like to get back into the cut and thrust of publishing.

In the meantime, he is trying to come up with a word that accurately describes his scientific studies of the scholarly publishing world. And maybe one day a young lexicographer from the Oxford English Dictionary will be contacting him to get the definition into the record.

Curriculum Vitae

Education
1980 St Catherine's College, University of Oxford, BA Chemistry
1983 St Catherine's College, University of Oxford, MA

Employment
1980-82 Editorial assistant, Oxford English Dictionaries
1982-85 Assistant editor, Oxford English Dictionaries
1985-86 Technical editor, British Standards Institution
1986-90 Editorial manager, Scientific Encyclopaedia Department, Pergamon Press
1990-94 Editorial director, materials science, Pergamon Press
1994-99 Publishing director, materials science, Elsevier
1999- Director of academic present relations, Elsevier