Journal publishing industry are a load of truckers

David Wiley (coiner of the oft-useful water/polo analogy for online/education) has produced another parable – this time taking a potshot at the journal publishing industry:

Once upon a time there was an inventor. She was brilliant. […] They all set to work. It was alternately glorious and tedious, fulfilling and demoralizing. […] at length the day arrived when they had a product ready to ship!

Relieved, the inventor began contacting shipping companies. But she could not believe what she heard. The truckers would deliver her goods, but only subject to the most unbelievable conditions:

  • the inventor had to agree to ship her product via the one trucking company exclusively,
  • this exclusive shipping deal had to be a perpetual deal, never subject to review or cancelation, and
  • the truckers would be the ones who would sell her product to the public and the truckers would keep all the profits.

Every shipping company she contacted gave the same response. Dejected, but unwilling to see the fruits of all her labor go to waste, she eventually relented and signed a contract with one of the companies.

It is, of course, a story about academics and the journal publishing industry.

This is not a new complaint.  My now-retired colleague (and prolific and widely-read author) Derek Rowntree campaigned at length against the madness that meant he had to apply for permission to use his own writings in his own teaching, which was sometimes denied.

But as I argued in my Scholarly Publishing 2.0 talk, the online world is having two effects.  Firstly, the publishing industry are making the situation worse, e.g. by coming up with new ways to restrict what users of  “content” can do with it (DRM), and charging double-digit inflation year on year on electronic journals when Moore’s Law is driving all other technology products (and content) in the opposite direction.  And secondly, it opens up alternatives – it is possible to do things differently, and to organise a campaign about this.  The whole Open Access movement is a great example of this.

If I gave investment advice – which I don’t, and it would almost certainly not be worth what you are paying for it – I wouldn’t be suggesting Reed Elsevier stock as a great bet for your retirement savings.

Update: Blimey.   Apparently Merck paid Elsevier to publish a fake peer-reviewed medical journal. “Truckers” is perhaps not a rude enough word.

iPlayer on Wii

I was excited last month about the BBC’s iPlayer service being available on the iPhone and iPod touch.  Today I’m excited about it being available for the Nintendo Wii.  Internet TV … on the TV!

It’s pretty easy – you just need the Internet Channel (Nintendo’s silly name for Opera for the Wii, and an excuse to charge you £3.50 for a browser that’s available free on pretty much every other platform ever) and then … just go to the iPlayer site and off you go.

(Incidentally, the Internet Channel on the Wii is a fantastic idea, but really brings home to me a) how poor a TV set is as a computer display and b) just how desperately poor the text-entry system is on the Wii.  Watching YouTube is workable and more fun than on a computer.  Very little else is.)

Of course, it’s been possible to stream videos from your PC to your Wii via the Internet Channel for a while, through various bits of software.  And it is also entirely possible – if somewhat dubious – to strip the DRM from iPlayer downloads so you can stream them.  (Or indeed blow them to DVD and walk them through from the PC to the living room.  Never underestimate the bandwidth of sneakernet!) So this has been possible in principle for some time, but a lot more technical faff than most people can be doing with.  iPlayer is about bringing P2P to the masses, rather than the geeky copyfighting few.

As another aside, I’m amused at the ISP industry taking against iPlayer.  (See, e.g., El Reg’s piece on the recent spat between Tiscali and the BBC.)  Parts of the IT industry often seem to want to defy ordinary economic gravity – I’m reminded of the dot-com nonsense (“How could that possibly make money?”  “If you read our business plan you’d see that we will develop a monetisation strategy in Q6”).  In what other industry would businesses get terribly unhappy if the demand for their product increased beyond what they had ever anticipated?  Madness.

To be fair, it’s more as if they’ve worked out one way of making money and don’t want technical development and change to stop that working.  Rather like mobile phone ringtone vendors, traditional record industry executives, blacksmiths and indeed the original Luddites, then.  For technology companies to take that position is particularly odd.  And life-limiting.  I’d advise against buying Tiscali stock.

Anyway!  Enough asides.  What about iPlayer on the Wii?  Is it any good?

Alas, no.  At least, not for me tonight.  The resolution is great.  There seems to be far more content available than when the iPhone/iPod touch version was launched.  But the bandwidth is so rubbish as to render it unwatchable with stutters and stops.  Don’t know for sure what that’s down to – no problem at all on my desktop PC over Ether to my router, or my iPod touch using the same WiFi network as the Wii.  Anthony Rose from the BBC mentions in his announcement that they’ve had to up the bitrate for the Wii from 500 to 820 Kbps because they need to use a less-efficient codec to work with the ancient version of Flash the Wii uses.  That could be it.

Still – maybe the BBC’s wizards will fix this with tweaking.  Maybe I’ll think of some way round the physical barriers to running a hard connection from my router to the Wii.  Maybe something even better will turn up next month!

And while I’m waiting, my copy of Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party for the Wii should arrive very soon …

JIME: The Once and Future Future of Academic Publishing

I’ve just been to a meeting about the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, or JIME.

I’d been vaguely thinking that I may or may not be on the Editorial Board of it, but the meeting has usefully confirmed that I am as of this afternoon actually one of the three core Editors along with my colleagues Patrick and Will.

In 1996 it was a very exciting new development in academic publishing – it aimed, inter alia:

Through its innovative use of interactive Net-based media, to be an action research project which explores the changing face of journals, and more broadly, scholarly practice in the age of digital publishing and communication.

(Ouch. The site uses frames! Making linking to that aims page hard. Oh dear.)

It had a cool new idea about being a proper journal but freely available online, and about the reviewing happening in the open. After an initial quick ‘threshold’ review, the article appears, the reviewers make comments, and the authors respond. All in the open.

Alas, the current technical system to support all that is Broken. And not fixable for boring reasons, on top of the reason that fixing an out-of-date kludgy system that you didn’t build is a deeply boring task. Things have rather moved on from 1996.

So we need to do Something. We had some fun (and despair) thinking about what. I think we have two main principles for the journal:

  • Firstly, we definitely want a Proper Academic Journal. That clearly still has value, and is part of what JIME always was and could be. So that means a proper Editorial Board, and proper reviewing. And – note to self – proper indexing in major citation indeces, which indirectly probably means a regular publishing schedule, which is a serious – but not insurmountable – tension for a very-rapid publication model. (e.g. it might be possible to come up with a hybrid where things appear as ‘accepted’ as soon as they are, and then every four months we create an ‘issue’ which formally moves any and all currently accepted articles to ‘published’.)
  • Secondly, we want to continue to explore new, more open ways of doing that – being open access is a minimum. So teaming up with a publisher (which would get our hands on their lovely money to support the process) isn’t likely to be an obvious big win (since it would be extorted from academic libraries by means that would prevent us being openly available). I don’t know what our current licensing agreement with authors is – implicitly it must involve permission for open access – but that might want upgrading to a CC licence.

The current sketchy idea is to use Open Journal Systems (OJS) for the nuts-and-bolts of the threshold review and the publication process, then some cunning system where the reviewers post their review in their own blogs (opening up that process much more widely in a very interesting new way), and JIME picks that up via trackbacks. Ideally we’d do something clever where the initial submission appears in the author(s)’s blog(s) too, as well as their response/revised final article. Should be pretty easily do-able … just needs the time fiddling with OJS.

There’s much more we could do, it’s just thrashing out what it should be – and convincing people that it has value and then getting the resource to do it (!). We talked about deeper issues – in particular, Patrick’s fine theory that Word has set academic publishing back decades by inhibiting structured authoring and referencing, which were solved problems by the late 80s.

But following the Web 2.0 philosophy, we should do the least that would work as soon as we can, and build towards the bigger vision, rather than waiting to build the whole thing in one huge leap.

It is fun being a (small!) part of the revolution in academic publishing. We’re also looking to refresh the Editorial Board as part of this revamp – anyone interested in joining us?

The video future is here

… just not evenly distributed, as William Gibson almost said.  But it’s just got that little bit more widely distributed.

About six months ago I said that the DRM battle in video hadn’t really got started, and complained about the BBC’s choice of DRM for its iPlayer.   That’s an awfully long time ago in Internet time.

Things have just got a lot better. The BBC has opened up iPlayer for the iPhone and the iPod touch. You just go to the site in Safari and it works!

Even better, as Cory Doctorow points out at Boing Boing, this means that iPlayer content is available in DRM-free versions – all you have to do is change your browser’s user agent string to claim to be an iPhone.   (If you’re interested in the technicalities, Anthony Rose has a great explanation.)

This is a huge step on the way to video being available when and how you want it, in the way we’re getting used to audio being available.

We’ve a long way to go, of course.  Bandwidth is still a bottleneck.  (On the iPhone, you must be on a Wifi network – the phone network won’t work.)  Storage likewise.  And the content is still patchy – most of the programmes on the iPlayer site aren’t (yet?!) available like this, and the BBC is just one source of video.  And the interface isn’t fantastic – you only find out whether a programme is available when you try to play it.

But it’s fantastic to be able to see what are still quaintly called TV broadcasts on my iPod touch, on demand, in impressively high resolution – way better than most YouTube videos.  Strange the effect that new technologies have on you – I’ve never have predicted that I’d be so excited to see Jeremy Clarkson’s ugly mug.

Flash to get DRMed (thanks Adobe)

The EFF point out the likely effects of Adobe introducing DRM to Flash (via Stephen Downes). Oh great. It threatens to criminalise a vast chunk of the entire video mashup culture, and, of course:

DRM doesn’t move additional product. DRM is grief for honest end-users. And there’s no reason to imagine that new DRM systems will stop copyright infringement any more effectively than previous systems.

I’m not happy. Tony Hirst and I had a discussion in the comments to his ‘No More PDF Reader Hell?‘ post about iPaper just the other day, where the annoyingness and intrusiveness of PDF (and in particular, PDF browser plugins) was a given. And just this morning Flash was intruding about wanting to upgrade itself on my work desktop.

I rather fear that since buying up Macromedia, Adobe has been determined to change the Flash experience to be more like the PDF one. So it might be less PDF Reader Hell, but it’ll be More Flash Hell.

Gadgets gadgets gadgets

It’s been a great time for gadget enthusiasts recently. By ‘recently’ I mean the last few months, but of course, the last thirty years or so have been pretty good on the gadget stakes.

Anyway – there’s the iPhone and its phoneless little sister, the iPod touch, there’s the Asus Eee (and its distant cousin the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project), and now there’s Amazon’s Kindle.

iPhone and iPod touch

I have an iPod touch and it’s absolutely marvelous. The interface is just so right. I mostly use it for wireless web browsing. It’s physically slightly smaller than a PDA, but the web experience is so much better. The finger scrolling and text resizing is a wonder.

The Wifi just works. It’s been a nightmare on every PDA I’ve ever used – endless fiddling and tweaking and unreliable. It’s not always smooth on laptops either. But everywhere I’ve tried the iPod touch, it’s been a dream. If it’s a new network, it asks if you want to connect first, and then – boom (as Steve Jobs would say) – you’re in. If it’s a network you’ve connected to before … you’re just connected. The experience is the antithesis of the configuration fiddle of Bluetooth, which was my least-loved technology until fairly recently. (It’s now Adobe’s PDF plugins for browsers.)

The web experience is so wonderful you can even use the execrable Outlook Web Access on it without it being too painful.
The text entry is way better than I expected. In my own personal and highly unreliable testing, I scored 26 wpm on it, versus 31 wpm using predictive text on my phone, and I expect the difference will reduce as I build up practice on the iPod touch. (For comparison, my legible handwriting is 35 wpm, illegible scrawl is 50 wpm, a PDA fold-out keyboard rates 86 wpm, and a full-size keyboard is 104 wpm. Worst score ever was 6.4 wpm for handwriting recognition.)

The down side is mainly stuff it simply doesn’t do. The Calendar is next to useless since you can’t add entries (and I can’t sync it with my work calendar, but that’s true of anything ever, and I can at least see it via the web). You can’t sync or suck down fresh data by wireless. Except, of course, if you want to pay money to iTunes for a fresh tune.

This is part of the secret of Apple’s success with hardware, though: if they can’t do it well, they simply don’t do it, which makes the total experience so much nicer.
Sitting around the house, reading the very latest news, watching silly YouTube videos, catching up on what friends and interesting people are up to via their blogs … all via a tiny thing that sits in one hand … it feels like I’m living in the future.

Mini-laptops (Eee, XO)

These are very impressive at first glance, and lots of fun. It’s clearly a new form factor niche between PDA/smartphones and more full-function small laptops/tablet PCs. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a big zone outside of us initial technical enthusiasts.

Personally, the form factor is out of a sweet spot for me. They’re too big to fit neatly in to a jacket pocket (like a PDA/fold-out keyboard combo, or my iPod touch), but if I’m going to have to carry something in my hand or bag anyway, I’d rather have a larger tablet PC.

The price point is extremely attractive, but I hear that Dell has slashed prices on its Vostro range of full-function laptops to $400, so that reason for them is less compelling too.

Amazon Kindle

This is the newest device here – announced officially yesterday. It remains to be seen whether it’ll ever be available outside the US.

The form factor seems just right: close to a paperback book. But the interface and design! It’s just so ugly and clunky, particularly by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch. I read somewhere that the intention was to make it seem more serious than most gadgets, to appeal to less techie, more bookish people. I think that’s a mistake (lots of techie people are heavy readers too, and they are surely the main market for this), but even if it isn’t, nobody actively wants something that’s hard to use. I’ve not actually played with one yet, so I could be wrong in my extrapolations from the demos, but it certainly doesn’t look pretty and easy-to-use.

The eInk display looks good, and is definitely the Right Thing if you’re trying to replace books. I really hope eInk technology moves on even further – it seems so much better than LCDs.

Not requiring a monthly contract is a very smart move as well. And it doesn’t need cables to get fresh content! You pay to download a book (via One-click, which I always worry about enabling, but then I’m paranoid about accidentally spending money) and it’s beamed to your Kindle via a 3G mobile network.

(It’s a US-only version of 3G, with patchy coverage, which is a potential big problem. I think wifi would’ve been a better choice – at least with wifi, you can set up connectivity yourself at home or at work for fifty quid or so. With 3G phone networks, you have to wait for the network provider to set it up.)

But having said it doesn’t require an ongoing contract, you have to pay a subscription to get a newspaper downloaded. Eh? When I can see newspapers’ websites for free on my iPod? I don’t think so.

And the pricing gets more surreal. You have to pay to get access to blogs. I’m sorry? Pay, to read a blog? You must be joking. And it offers access to ‘the top 250 blogs’, which misses the entire point of blogs. Most of the blogs people will want are way out there in the long tail (like this one!) – hardly anyone reads them, but the few who do are often personally connected.

And yet more questionable. You can read your own documents (Word, PDFs, images) on the device … if you pay to have them converted and downloaded. I have to pay … to read content that I actually wrote and own myself? No.

It offers free wireless access to Wikipedia, which is great … but not the rest of the Internet. Because you might visit the newspapers’ websites, or blogs, instead of paying! This is an extreme walled garden, and, like all walled gardens, doomed ultimately. (Although ‘ultimately’ can be an awfully long time coming – see e.g. Facebook.)

Content is king, and they seem to have the right content initially – plenty of bestselling novels. Unlike every other eBook, including Sony Reader. The price point looks clever too – $10 rather than $25+ for hardbacks.

But the DRM! Oh, the DRM. Electronic books offer the potential for you to do so much more with a book than the traditional paper-based format – to search, annotate, share, edit, comment, cut-and-paste or even, dare I say it, mash up. But the DRM stops you doing anything but a cut-down crap version of the first two in that list. I can lend a book I’ve enjoyed to a friend, scrawl marginal notes on it and give it to a colleague or student, release it in to the wild with a BookCrossing sticker, donate it to a charity shop, or even sell it second-hand – perhaps on Amazon (!). I can’t do any of that with a Kindle eBook.

OU course materials would render much more nicely on this than – to take a random example! – on Open Learn. Students could transfer the PDFs of course materials to their Kindle – for the appropriate fee, naturally – and take a whole stack of units with them everywhere. There’s plenty of bookmarking, but it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of annotation, which many students find invaluable in studying.

Long-term something like Kindle will overtake books, and generations of readers will form the same attachment to eBooks that the Baby Boomer generation has with print books and Gen X has with the Internet. But it won’t be Kindle that does it. I can see, using a version of Martin Weller’s VLE succession model, that this is another step along the line to a rosy future.

I still think there’s a big window for local print-on-demand for books, though. Amazon’s ability to corral vast quantities of quality content in to electronic format shows that it can be done, and if the deals can be done for an eBook reader, they can surely be done for a proprietary print-on-demand system.

Update: Apparently it can’t read PDFs, at all, even via the paid-for conversion system.  Another nail in the coffin.

Book recommendations

Just had a lunchtime conversation about how you find new music that then turned to how you find new books.  There are lots of differences, with obvious reasons, but there’s one that is interesting and related to stuff I’m interested in work-wise.

For music, there’s things like LastFM, where social network effects help tell you that if you like X you might like Y, because lots of people who like X also like Y, and things like Pandora, where serious processing and analysis of the data can tell you that if you like X you might like Y, because X shares some computable properties with Y.

For books, there’s some social networking stuff (e.g. LibraryThing), but they don’t seem quite so effective.  (Possibly because books are less exciting than hot new music?)  And there is, of course, Amazon’s “people who bought X also bought Y”, but general consensus is that this is not much help.  There isn’t – so far as I know – anything that does the analysis-of-data thing and tells you that book X is like book Y in some computable way.  On the face of it that seems entirely possible and potentially very interesting.  But the trouble is getting hold of the data.  Google’s busy scanning the world’s books in, but they’re not going to let you have the entire data corpus to play with.  You can definitely do interesting stuff with full-text analysis – remember all that enthusiasm for Shakespearean authorship stuff years ago, and the who-wrote-Primary-Colors game?  Things have moved on since then.

I’ve gone on elsewhere about my belief that print-on-demand is going to be even more huge in the next five to ten years, reaching up from smallish documents that were the triumph of the 90s to full novel-length books.  Iff the publishers allow it, of course.   If they don’t they’ll go the way of the traditional music industry, which is looking extremely doomed at the moment (Radiohead having just released their latest album direct, eschewing the music industry, followed swiftly by Nine Inch Nails, Oasis and Jamiroquai, and today by Madonna – although she seems rather to have signed a traditional-style deal with a non-traditional outfit.)

Anyway – if publishers will allow distribution of electronic book texts as far as bookshops and libraries (and on to e-paper technologies as they come on stream), there is the potential for getting hold of the text of new books and doing interesting stuff with it, which will help people find new books they like.  Which would be cool.

 Edit: My lunchtime colleagues have suggested LibraryThing and What Should I Read Next – both ways of mining lists of what people have read/liked to generate suggestions for your own future reading.  (LibraryThing’s UnSuggester – books you are unlikely to find appealing – is far more fun to play with!)