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Will things ever go back to normal? Donald McNeil, writing in The New York Times, interviewed twenty experts in medicine, epidemiology, public health, and related fields, but was still forced to conclude that, “In truth, it is not clear to anyone where this crisis is leading us.” No one believes that the pandemic is simply a blip in world health and the macroeconomy. On the far side of this, something will be different, but we don’t know what and to what degree. It feels as if we are in the midst of a whirlwind, ungrounded, with no clear idea as to where (or when) things will land.
It is unsettling to read the list of items, assembled by Charlie Warzel, of all that we simply don’t know. How many people have it? How many will die? If you survive it, will you have immunity? For how long? When will a vaccine be available? (The assumption is that a vaccine will indeed be created, marking significant confidence in the scientific community.) All this is set against the backdrop of anxiety about the reliability of information. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Who has a stake in spreading misleading information? The stock market is telling us that we will have a V-shaped economy — a sharp drop, then a rapid rise — but that assumes responsible and competent political leadership around the world (it is a pandemic, after all), about which we will say nothing. There are projections of 20% unemployment in the U.S., but the Dow Jones Industrial Average is now hovering around an amazingly high 24,000. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that bets against the stock market have risen to their highest level in years. And even start-ups, which typically run (until they are no longer start-ups, and even sometimes then) on invested capital, not sales, are finding the environment to be challenging and even existential.
While medical implications and the global economy are hard to predict, closer to home, in the world of scholarly communications, some trends are coming into focus. In the U.S., revenues of state governments are dropping precipitously, just as the demands on those governments are rising at unprecedented levels. The U.S. Congress has authorized $3 trillion (about 15% of GDP) in stimulus spending of different sorts, which will be added to the already soaring debt. Calls to reduce that debt as the coronavirus recedes, whether that is a good idea or a bad one, are already being heard, putting even greater pressure on the funding of higher education. Will the $40 billion the federal government invests in research each year come down a bit? A lot? That would lead to less support for researchers, diminished resources for libraries, and smaller markets for publishers (at the moment, funders are in a reassuring mode — see Item 4 below — but for how long remains uncertain).
Bad news is rolling in. Some early examples: The University of Arizona has already announced budget cuts and furloughs; Johns Hopkins has informed its staff that it will cut $475 million from the budget through June 2021; the governor of Illinois says that the state has a budget shortfall of $2.7 billion this year and is forecasting a shortfall of $7.4 billion for the next fiscal year. We expect to see more actions like that of ASU and Johns Hopkins throughout public higher education. Academic librarians throughout the U.S. expect to have sharp cuts in their budgets, which will naturally affect the amount of money available for publications, probably putting even greater pressure on the Big Deal (which was, of course, under pressure already). Meanwhile, we should not forget that in bad times some people and institutions are in a better position to survive and even thrive. We were not surprised to learn that Harvard is refinancing some of its debt to lock in lower interest rates. No doubt the CFOs of countless smaller institutions wish they had the same flexibility.
These difficult circumstances will challenge even the most experienced management teams, but the challenges will be greater in the not-for-profit sector, where the strong actions necessary to resize a flailing organization are not as familiar and go against the grain of mission-based organizations. The current environment in higher ed and the many industries that serve it, including scholarly publishing, will require more than belt-tightening. Organizations must rethink their strategies and develop new plans for a different environment. All the while these organizations must continue to explore the possibility that on the far side of the pandemic and its economic aftermath there will be opportunities to grow in unexpected ways. That is the critical question: How can we turn adversity into opportunity?
Source: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AZCentral, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Sun Times, Inside Higher Ed, Bloomberg News
Professional and Academic Publishing
The amount of COVID-19 research being published is without precedent. According to an analysis by Mary Meeker and her colleagues at Bond Capital, more than 3,000 COVID-19 papers have been published since January 1, 2020, which is 20 times the number of papers published at this point in previous public health crises (for comparison, there were 41 papers published on SARS in the first 4 months following the 2002 outbreak).
To publish this many papers in such a short period of time, journals have sped up the process, conducting peer review and performing editing and production work all in a matter of days. “It’s the same process going extremely fast,” commented Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science, in a recent story on scientific publishing in The New York Times. “Is there precedent in Science’s 140-year history? Not that anybody can remember.” Serge Horbach of Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands puts some numbers to this increase in speed in a preprint published on bioRxiv. He looked at a sample of papers published in 14 medical journals that provide information on the dates articles are received and accepted.
Compared to articles published in the same journals before the pandemic, turnaround times have decreased on average by 49%. The largest decrease in number of days between submission and publication of articles was due to a decrease in the number of days required for peer review. For articles not related to Covid-19, no acceleration of the publication process is found.
In other words, journal editors are accelerating the publication process for COVID-19 papers only. Much of the acceleration is attributable to the efforts of peer reviewers — whose efforts are particularly noteworthy as these are the same experts, in many cases, on the front lines of research and treatment related to the virus. The pressure is on journal editors and reviewers not only to move quickly but to do so without cutting corners. “We feel very much that we are publishing research that is literally day by day guiding the national and global response to this virus,” noted Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet (in the same NYT article linked to above). “And that is both daunting and full of considerable responsibility, because if we make a mistake in judgment about what we publish, that could have a dangerous impact on the course of the pandemic.”
Source: Bond Capital, The New York Times, bioRxiv
Surely this is among the best openings of a New York Times article this year: “Early on Feb. 1, John Inglis picked up his phone and checked Twitter, as he does most mornings. He was shocked at what fresh hell awaited.”
The particular fresh hell being referred to here (there are so many on Twitter these days!) was related to the posting of a paper on bioRxiv by researchers in India who claimed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus bears an “uncanny” resemblance to HIV and insinuated it may have been engineered by the Chinese government. In the short period between when the paper was posted to bioRxiv and before being thoroughly pilloried by other researchers and withdrawn, it had been picked up by conspiracy theorists on Twitter (over 18,000 tweets mentioned the paper) and impinged on Dr. Inglis’s morning reading.
The NYT piece explores the challenges that are created when the public or media pick up and spread information that has not been peer reviewed and subsequently turns out to be inaccurate. But as Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus argue in STAT, the system worked as designed in this instance. The paper was rapidly commented on by researchers and withdrawn. Oransky and Marcus note that this does not always occur in the peer-reviewed literature, where it can take years to retract erroneous papers. This is perhaps not a fair comparison as the aim of peer review is to correct research before it is published in a journal (acknowledging that the aim and the reality do not always meet and rapid retractions of peer-reviewed literature could be improved). As Brian Nosek, at the Center for Open Science, reminds us, while the “best available evidence is what’s coming through the journals … the best available evidence is far, far short of certainty — and the decisions that we make about the evidence have to embrace the uncertainty.”
Source: The New York Times, STAT
With many labs shuttered and fieldwork at a standstill, researchers are concerned about both meeting payroll and missing grant deadlines. “If this situation lasts for more than two to three months it will be impossible to finish the projects on time,” noted Juan Astorga-Wells, a biochemist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, in an interview for Nature. Thus far, funders appear to be accommodating. The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Horizon 2020, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and other major funders have issued guidance for researchers whose work is impacted by the pandemic.
NIH, for example, has indicated that “where plans for active research projects are disrupted, the period covered by the grant can be extended for up to 12 months beyond the original completion date.” Horizon 2020 has said that researchers “are allowed to reallocate funds budgeted for research, training and networking to meet the costs of working remotely, or to help pay the salaries of researchers who are unable to continue with experiments because of lockdowns or lab closures.” In addition to these accommodations, many funders have announced additional grants for research related to COVID-19.
This article, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, cites a tweet (albeit a tweet from Carl Bergstrom). Keeping up with the accelerated pace of science in the pandemic or a sign of the end of civilization? Discuss. (We’ll see you on Twitter @briefer_yet).
Source: Annals of Internal Medicine
Springer Nature has announced that the majority of the journals it publishes, including Nature and the Nature Research journals, will join Plan S, having succeeded in getting the coalition to accept, for the first time, hybrid journals — which was, of course, the obvious path to take from the very beginning. The Nature journals have committed to becoming “transformative journals” now that requirements for such no longer include a specific timeline for hybrid journals to transition to fully open access. The requirements do include a de facto timeline created by the requirement to transition “at least 5% [of papers] to OA in absolute terms and at least 15% in relative terms, year-on-year” and then to flip the journal to fully OA when 75% of the papers are OA. The timeline is different for each journal based on the starting amount of OA content but it is there nonetheless. There remain many details to work out (as there always are with all things Plan S), such as the specifics of reporting requirements, the meaning of “price transparency,” and numerous technical details. Nonetheless, it is a victory for the Plan S coalition.
Implementing this transition will pose significant challenges for Springer Nature. The most immediate challenge is convincing an additional 15% of authors to opt for the OA route and pony up monies for article processing charges. In a hybrid model, this is the decision of the author and not the publisher. In the long term, the challenge will be in replacing a broadly distributed revenue model (i.e., the subscription) with a model concentrated on a relatively small number of research-intensive institutions and their funders (i.e., the APC and Publish and Read).
Source: Springer Nature
Clarivate has announced that it is adding OA data to Journal Citation Reports. For any particular hybrid journal, users will be able to determine how many citations to that journal are to articles that are Gold open access and how many citations are to articles published under the traditional model (and, by extension, be able to easily deduce how many papers are published under an OA license and how many under a subscription model). As Dr. Nandita Quaderi, editor in chief of Web of Science, says on the Clarivate blog, with the additional data provided, “publishers and funders will be able to make better informed, more confident decisions on open access policy and strategy.” This suggests that Clarivate sees JCR becoming the arbiter of transformative agreements and neutral tabulator for offsetting agreements. By bundling this feature into its ubiquitous database, Clarivate may also marginalize other stand-alone services that assist publishers and libraries in determining the OA content of a particular publication.
Without a doubt, the most riveting piece published in a journal in the past month is this correspondence in The New England Journal of Medicine. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive at Baystate Health in Massachusetts, writes an account of his efforts to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) for his staff that reads like a thriller from John le Carré.
Three members of the supply-chain team and a fit tester were flown to a small airport near an industrial warehouse in the mid-Atlantic region. I arrived by car to make the final call on whether to execute the deal. Two semi-trailer trucks, cleverly marked as food-service vehicles, met us at the warehouse. When fully loaded, the trucks would take two distinct routes back to Massachusetts to minimize the chances that their contents would be detained or redirected.
Before a wire transfer could be made, FBI agents appeared on the scene. Read the whole thing.
Source: The New England Journal of Medicine
While many observers are saying that the pandemic will change everything about higher education, NYU’s agent provocateur, Scott Galloway, will have none of it. In his view, the pandemic will accelerate changes that are already occurring. For example, he predicts the closing of dozens, even hundreds of institutions, a prediction which would have seemed to be an exaggeration even 3 months ago, but now sounds entirely plausible. Higher ed, he argues, is the ultimate luxury brand, crafted over centuries, but its cost is more than its largest market will bear. Thus we will see (in the tradition of companies like Southwest Airlines) institutions that begin to offer 80% of the value of a traditional college education for half the price. This will, of course, be unwelcome news for institutions that cannot properly align their cost structure or continue to attract large numbers of students. Galloway also argues for the rise of the superstar instructor (he seems confident that he will be among this elite), who will teach online to innumerable students around the world; these instructors will see sharp increases in their compensation, crowding out the merely capable but unspectacular instructors we all remember from our own college days. Noting that the large tech companies are among the most aggressive recruiters of college graduates, he speculates that those firms will partner with the very top academic institutions (MIT, NYU, etc.), providing a new form of high quality, but less expensive, education. This essay is an agreeable romp by someone who clearly gets a kick out of shaking college kids out of their (supposed) conventional thinking, but we observe that Galloway, like most oracles of radical or accelerated change, sees the real disruption happening elsewhere and not to him. But sign up for a degree from Apple; maybe you will get to visit that supercool campus.
Source: No Mercy, No Malice
Can teaching in a virtual context make us more human? Paradoxically, yes, it can. While it is commonly assumed that virtual communications are sterile in comparison to a “live” classroom, in fact the virtual experience makes certain human insights and experiences possible. This is the argument of Caroline Levander and Peter Decherney, two humanists who now work in online learning. They point out that the physical classroom has a homogenized aspect, with all of the students appearing more or less alike to an instructor, whose position in the front of the class, usually standing, implies a certain power relationship. Online, however, instructors get a view of a student’s personal situation, which could be more or less privileged. Also, the dynamics of online interaction have a leveling effect, lessening the apparent distance of the instructor over her students. Our takeaway from this (something we are seeing in multiple contexts, including our countless videoconferencing sessions) is that the line between the physical classroom and the virtual one is not hard and fast but somewhat porous. In the hands of a capable instructor (who is given the resources to make this work), virtual education may prove to be closer in overall quality to the bricks-and-mortar world than we often assume.
Source: Inside Higher Ed
The Internet Archive has created the National Emergency Library and, to no one’s surprise, it has ignited a huge controversy. The NEL is essentially a vast, though not comprehensive, digital library of books that plays fast and loose with copyright law. It is built on the dodgy concept of controlled digital lending, and then goes beyond that. Under CDL anyone who owns a copy of a print book can make a digital copy. Before the announcement of NEL, the Internet Archive used CDL to undergird a lending program by which one digital copy of a print book in the IA’s possession could be loaned out at a time. But now, asserting, on its own authority, a national emergency for books in the time of pandemic, the IA has extended CDL to an unlimited number of digital copies. In other words, if IA has a print copy of any book, that book can be used anywhere in the world by as many people who want it, for free. Understandably, authors and publishers are outraged.
The National Writers Union has responded with an extensive description of how the NEL uses books for which it does not have permission (and for which it refused to ask). This looks to us as an outline for a legal challenge, though there is as yet no indication that such a challenge is on its way. The NEL’s behavior has elicited a response from Congress in the person of Senator Thom Tillis, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Intellectual Property. As Tillis says, he is “not aware of any measure under copyright law that permits a user of copyrighted works to unilaterally create an emergency copyright act. Indeed, I am deeply concerned that your ‘Library’ is operating outside the boundaries of the copyright law that Congress has enacted and alone has jurisdiction to amend.” And so it goes, tit for tat, with IA defending itself and the reasons for its action, citing IP authorities and fair use. Responding to Tillis the IA says, “The National Emergency Library was developed to address a temporary and significant need in our communities — for the first time in our nation’s history, the entire physical library system is offline and unavailable.”
So what is going on here? We think Bill Rosenblatt has summed up the situation perfectly. This is not a matter of a national emergency; “There’s no doubt that the Internet Archive is making a calculated, opportunistic move here to expand the boundaries of copyright law.” In other words, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s politics as usual.
Source: Internet Archive Blogs, National Writers Union, Publishers Weekly, Bloomberg Law, Copyright and Technology
How will the pandemic affect the university press world? The press world has been under pressure for some time, with occasional attempts by university administrators to reduce their subsidies (which are always met with a storm of protests). Press personnel, however, while not being naive about a tougher financial climate ahead, are surprisingly upbeat about their prospects. They are encouraging authors to keep writing and submit their manuscripts, and they are looking for titles that add important perspective to the current crisis. In the words of Naomi Schneider, executive editor at the University of California Press, “I’m planning my editorial programs for when we get out of our homebound cages. I hope that’s not too naïve, but I still believe in books.” Believing in books is a good thing, something we seek to nurture every day, but we anticipate that on the far side of the crisis, university presses may be fewer in number, smaller in size, and reduced in output. It seems unlikely that a university administration will spare presses from the cost cutting to come if, as is widely believed, public finances will be desperately squeezed over at least the next couple years.
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
With the coronavirus wreaking havoc on supply chains around the world, it is no surprise that the supply chain for printed books has also been disrupted. To study this, the Book Industry Study Group hosted a video chat to discuss developments with its members and interested parties. The problems are multiple, ranging from independent bookstores that are closed to an inability to get press time from printers. More and more publishers are turning to digital printing, often called print on demand (or POD), though its utility is greater than that, in order to fill orders, accepting the higher unit cost of digital printing as a reasonable tradeoff for sales that would otherwise be lost altogether. This is precisely the topic that longtime industry observer Mike Shatzkin addresses. With special access to information from his client Ingram, Shatzkin notes that the number of titles in the POD Lightning Source service has exploded since the virus hit and that sales of these titles are at an all-time high. Shatzkin speculates reasonably that when we get to a “new normal,” we will see digital printing occupy a much larger place in overall book distribution, an instance of learning from emergency procedures and carrying them into a future, more stable environment. Separately, we learn that Ingram, one of the three gorillas of book publishing in the U.S. (along with Amazon, of course, and Bertelsmann/Penguin Random House) has announced a new book discovery service, Bookfinity, a project that was in the works long before Wuhan was in the news. Bookfinity is not a bookstore but a searchable online catalog of books. We have been testing it. It appears to be still immature. For example, we searched for a half-dozen university press titles and found none of them. We also carefully filled out a profile to help the recommendation engine, but none of the recommended books were even remotely of interest. Patience, please: services of this kind take time to get right, and we are very pleased that Ingram is taking on this new challenge.
Source: Publishers Weekly, The Idea Logical Company Blog, No Shelf Required
O’Reilly announced that, due to the pandemic, it has made the extraordinary decision to permanently shutter its popular in-person meetings business, moving all future conferences to online formats. Laura Baldwin, O'Reilly’s president:
We previously made the painful decision to cancel our Strata California and Strata London events. Today, we’re sharing the news that we’ve made the very difficult decision to cancel all future O’Reilly in-person conferences and close down this portion of our business. Without understanding when this global health emergency may come to an end, we can’t plan for or execute on a business that will be forever changed as a result of this crisis.
Marc Andreessen has penned an essay that is getting a lot of attention. Titled “It’s Time to Build,” the piece argues that we (the United States) seem, in the wake of the pandemic, unable to build basic things:
We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America! We also don’t have therapies or a vaccine — despite, again, years of advance warning about bat-borne coronaviruses. Our scientists will hopefully invent therapies and a vaccine, but then we may not have the manufacturing factories required to scale their production.
Andreessen goes on to extend his “we can no longer build” thesis beyond the immediate crisis to civic infrastructure, higher education, aviation, and manufacturing in general. Andreessen anticipates there will be critics and he is not wrong! Here is a critique from Scott Berkun, who points out that many of the failures cited by Andreessen are not “building” problems but policy and prioritization problems. It is not a building problem to stockpile masks and ventilators — it is a public finance and policy problem. Over at Stratechery, Ben Thompson argues that many of the building problems cited by Andreessen are problems with how venture capital works. Venture capital is good at funding companies with high fixed costs and unlimited upside. This happens to align best with software, as Andreessen, the cofounder of one of Silicon Valley’s most notable VC firms and author of the famous “Why Software Is Eating the World” essay, is well aware. VC is not good at funding physical products with ongoing marginal costs and modest upside potential.
This is a case where everyone — Andreessen and his critics — is right. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere has suffered due to poor public health policy decisions and priorities. VC is far too focused on software to the detriment of hardware and other physical products. And we as a society need to reignite a focus on big and audacious real-world projects. But we also need to relearn how to focus on the important small things, as in Andreessen’s examples of cotton swabs and medical gowns. Everything in the value chain has value.
Source: Andreessen Horowitz (blog), Scott Berkun (blog), Stratechery, The Wall Street Journal
Like many readers of The Brief, we are metadata nerds. We were therefore interested to hear that Schema.org released new metadata tags for websites containing information about COVID-19, and that the U.S. federal government has been directed by the White House to adopt these tags.
Source: Schema.org, The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Mark Zuckerberg writes in an opinion column in The Washington Post that data, specifically Facebook data, can be used to help fight the coronavirus pandemic: “Getting accurate county-by-county data from across the United States is challenging, and obtaining such focused data from across the whole world is even harder. But with a community of billions of people globally, Facebook can uniquely help researchers and health authorities get the information they need to respond to the outbreak and start planning for the recovery.” The column goes on to describe Facebook’s Data for Good project, which is a collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University. Collecting data can, of course, feel very creepy to many people, and that’s why “it’s essential that [data collection] is done in a way that protects people’s privacy and respects human rights.” We expect to be debating these general points for some time: Is online data an invasive act or a tool that, properly managed, can benefit the public?
Source: The Washington Post, Facebook
There have been a number of notable changes in positions this month:
- Alix Vance is the new CEO of the American Institute of Physics Publishing.
- Laura Brown retires as Managing Director of JSTOR.
- Michael Forster has retired as the Managing Director of IEEE Publications.
- David Sampson is the new Managing Director, Research and Publishing, at NEJM Group.
We have lost far too many people in the last month. The loss to the world of so many members of our broader community is hard to comprehend. Here are a few obituaries that may be of interest to readers of The Brief:
Unbundling is the new look for transformative deals. Iowa State University has unbundled its deal with Elsevier, moving from a multiyear package deal to title-by-title subscriptions. SUNY has officially ended its Elsevier Big Deal as well (after a year plus of negotiations), retaining access to only 250 of the most-used titles across the SUNY system (SUNY’s ClinicalKey subscription is not impacted.) University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has also moved to a title-by-title model with Elsevier.
IOP Publishing and CERN struck a Read and Publish deal this month that allows CERN researchers to publish open access in the majority of IOPP’s hybrid journals without additional cost.
Jisc and Wiley have entered a 4-year Read and Publish deal that bundles read access to Wiley journals across the consortium of UK universities with the opportunity to publish open access at no cost to affiliated researchers. According to Jisc, “As part of the new agreement, the proportion of OA articles published by UK researchers will increase from 27% to an estimated 85% in year one, with the potential to reach 100% by 2022.”
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Jeff Bezos is back at the wheel. Podcast downloads are down about 20% on average, unless the podcast is related to coronavirus (those are up). Venice is a city with its priorities in order: the first businesses to reopen are its bookstores. Germany follows suit. Start-ups often pivot, but with 14 failed business models before finding success (with robots that vacuum your house), iRobot may be in a league of its own (the initial plan was to build a robot, send it to the moon, and sell the movie rights). The Chronicle of Higher Education has started keeping a list of different colleges’ plans for reopening. DeepDyve has announced that Elsevier will not be renewing its agreement with the article delivery service. Bibliophiles have long cringed when browsing in furniture stores to see shelves and shelves of books, often turned backward to conceal their titles (the book as furniture); but now we have the book as packing material.
We got such a warm response to our inclusion of “tunes for the times” in last month’s The Brief, that we thought we would provide some other diversions this month. We will not, as a matter of civic discipline, follow up on the recommendation that we provide a new Quarantini cocktail recipe each month, but we may revisit that decision if the lockdown continues for many more months. If you have your own diversions, please share them with us @briefer_yet on Twitter.
Conferences are so deeply embedded in the culture and cadence of science and academia that it is hard to imagine what professional life would look like without them. And yet we may be looking at another 12–18 months (or longer) before it is possible to resume larger meetings. Michael wrote in The Scholarly Kitchen about how shifting to virtual formats requires reconceptualizing meetings for the needs of attendees working from home — and rethinking business models, technologies, and processes as well. Societies and associations with significant annual meetings will need to think not only about the impact of the transition to virtual on the events themselves, but also the implications for member engagement and member renewals, manuscript recruitment, education, and other ripple effects.
Source: The Scholarly Kitchen
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. — Hosea 8:7, King James Bible