This guest blog from John Peters, CEO of GSE Research is a sneak peek of his presentation at the ALPSP Digital Strategy Seminar, taking place in London on 9th February 2012.

Markets in transition give rise to fascinating anomalies.

Take the car as an example. When they first appeared in the 1860s automobiles (then steam-powered) were capable of travelling much faster than horse-drawn vehicles. Yet the British government thought they were potentially so dangerous to other road users that it introduced The Red Flag Acts in 1865, limiting their speeds to 2 miles an hour and requiring all cars to be preceded through the streets by a man on foot waving a red flag.

It’s easy to laugh now at the absurdity of this situation, but the Victorians weren’t fools. The Red Flag Act made sense at the time. It’s only when we look back at what seems now to be an obvious and inevitable trajectory for the technology and its applications that it looks foolish.

The reason I’m using this example is that I believe scholarly publishing and research is reaching a similar ‘red flag’ moment. Scholarly publishing, and scholarly research in business, policy and social science has become very introspective, with exclusivity the key driver of success.

A ‘good’ journal is one that prides itself on a high rejection rate. Similarly, ‘good’ research is research with quantitative rigour, which cites and is cited by other articles in other ‘good’ journals, in which it is fiendishly difficult to get published, because it prides itself on high rejection rates…

There are two results of this circular situation:-

1. It creates an introspective, even closed, environment, where ‘insiders’ are communicating with, writing for and citing ‘other insiders, in which it’s difficult for new and disruptive ideas to break through.

2. The process of submission and publication becomes glacially slow.

When we look backwards at these factors we will see a man with a red flag walking in front of a car. The current scholarly publishing system ignores many recent ‘megatrends’ disrupting business as usual the world over. Presently scholarly publishing has no solution to the challenges presented by disintermediation, user-created content, social media, open peer review or even shifts in the balance of power away from Europe and North America to the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.

Some of this can be ascribed to what Clayton Christensen at Harvard dubbed ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’. Scholarly publishers are so fixated on protecting the vested interests that have made their business model so successful in the past, that they are wilfully ignoring the innovations that will make them irrelevant. The businesses that survive industry ‘disruptions’ are those brave enough to realise that they need to remake themselves to be successful in times of transition. It’s why Fujifilm thrives while Kodak consigns itself to bankruptcy protection.

It’s hard to say what the ‘right’ response is. For example, here at GSE we've tried to build a ‘born digital’ business based on ideas and criticism from players in the industry - authors, academics, librarians and practitioners – and by trying to read and respond to zeitgeist trends such as responsible capitalism, social media and knowledge ecology.

And along the way, we’ve learned a few interesting lessons: -

1. A Need for Speed (to market)
The current research cycle is too slow to be effective. Research can often take two or three years (or more) to complete and write up, and can take a further two or three years to get through review and revision cycles. Then it has to wait to be published, by which time it can be woefully out of date.. Imagine a paper looking at success factors in banking and financial markets conceived in 2006, being published in 2012.

2. Strategies for accommodating, not ignoring, chaotic change
In recent years, self-published ‘non-traditional books’ have increased from less than 10% of the 300-odd thousand ‘traditional’ books published each year, to more than 2 million – dwarfing the original figure.

Both Amazon and Apple have released free do-it-yourself e-publishing apps for aspiring authors, so we can expect further chaos. Effective publishers will be those who use technology to negotiate a place for themselves in this chaotic environment, not ignore it in the hope that it will go away.

3. Authors and academics want another way of doing things
Many authors and academics are, to quote a correspondent, “fed up” with traditional publishing approaches. Take, for example, the proposed academic boycott of Elsevier journals. In their view, excessive subscription fees, excessive author processing charges, slow and restrictive peer review and time to market, all contribute to a supply chain which introduces value-reduction rather than value-adding.

4. It’s time to walk the talk
People have had enough of profiteering, bad behaviour and ‘greenwash’ If people won’t accept it from banks or oil companies, we certainly should not expect them to from publishers and academics.

Transitional markets create uncertainty, as people operating within them decide whether to hold on to historic models or adapt to new philosophies and technologies.

So scholarly publishers have to make a choice. Either they can be the person standing there with the red flag, or they can put their foot on the accelerator and move into the future.

If you're interested in knowing more about the GSE Research project, come along to the ALPSP Digital Strategy Seminar on 9th February at Portland Place in London. You can book a place here.