v31 #3 The Scholarly Publishing Scene — Forty Years From Now

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.)  

“It says here that you attended state-run primary and secondary schools.  Can you confirm this?”

“That is correct.”  The young man crossed his legs and tried to find a comfortable position in the hard wooden chair in front of a large ornate table.  The chair had arms, which helped somewhat, but there was no padding on the seat or on the back.

A man and a woman were already seated at the table when the young man entered the room.  They were, he surmised, 15 to 20 years older than he was. The older man had a full head of dark hair and a long craggy face.  Even seated, he loomed over the top of the table. It was evident that he was very tall. The woman seated next to him appeared to be tall as well.  Her dark red hair was pulled back severely from her handsome face. 

The table was in the center of a large room with a very high ceiling.  The room was brightly lit by a large chandelier hanging directly over the table.  The room was in a large stone building that had been refurbished recently as part of a renewal project in the old European city to which the young man had been summoned by both email and text.  

The young man had waited on a bench, together with half a dozen other people his own age, in a wide hallway outside the room.  Everyone had received a similar summons, but no one knew why. They spoke quietly about their trips that morning. In the few minutes before his name was called by a uniformed attendant, who opened the door of the large room, the young man learned that everyone waiting with him was well educated.  But he hadn’t time to find out what work they did.

The two people across the table from him were looking at a binder open on the table between them.  “What are you reading from?” the young man asked.  

“It’s your dossier,” the woman said.  She smiled, perhaps to soften the aspect of the man next to her, who stared at the young man with unblinking eyes.

“Who are you people?”  The young man grew tense, as if he were trying to keep himself from shouting.

“We represent Plan S,” the older man said, his voice calm.  “You obviously know what Plan S is.”

“Obviously,” the young man said quietly.  He seemed to have regained control. “I don’t suppose you have names,” he went on.

“Names aren’t important here,” the woman said matter-of-factly.  She smiled again.

“Except mine,” the young man said.

“Of course,” the woman said.

“May I ask what exactly is in my dossier?” the young man said.

“Of course you may,” the older man said.  His stare was unrelenting. The young man wondered if he ever blinked.

“Well?” the young man said.

“It’s merely your complete academic history.”  The older man looked down at the binder. “Your history includes the names of all the state operated schools and universities you attended, your years of attendance, all of the stipends you received, plus all of the dormitories where you resided and ate your meals.”  

The older man looked up at the young man, who snapped, “That’s it?”

“Actually,” the woman said, “staff has compiled the cost of everything the state has spent on you, from pre-schooling through your attainment of your doctorate and beyond.”  She smiled yet again. It seemed to the young man that her eyes were taking him into her confidence. 

“You didn’t summon me here to check the figures, did you?” the young man said.  He sounded as if he were trying to make light of the matter. “So what’s this all about?”  He felt more comfortable in the unforgiving chair.

“We wanted to talk to you about this,” the older man said.  He unclipped a disc from the binder and held it at eye level.

“This …?

“Your novel.”

“How did you get it?”  

“All writing is reviewed by Plan S,” the older man said.  

“What do you want with it?  It’s just a love story. Why would Plan S be interested in it?”

“Two things caught our attention,” the woman said.  She paused a beat. “Firstly,” she went on, “there is the matter of the background against which the action — the love story, as you put it — takes place.  You provide the reader with your version of the history of Plan S over the past 40 years, from 2019 until now. I found it, well, fascinating.”  

The young man sensed that he was supposed to hear sarcasm in her voice.  “I’m glad of that,” he said nevertheless.

For once, the woman didn’t smile back.  “You write that Plan S was successful in a few years in requiring academic researchers — whose work was sponsored by state funding —  to publish their papers in state-run repositories where access was free and open, and not to sign copyright of those papers over to rapacious publishers, as many academics called them.  

“The publishers were on the road to financial ruin.”  The woman smiled now. “Until, you have written, the day when a publishers’ consortium began to develop a new AI business — providing automation and robotic services to academic institutions and even to funding agencies.  Libraries, classrooms, laboratories: they all became highly automated. Though not completely, of course.

“University administrators throughout the world loved it, you wrote.  With the demise of journals with hefty subscription prices, the costs of maintaining libraries plummeted.  Also, AI allowed universities to run classrooms and laboratories so much more cheaply with robots than when there were humans to pay.  Of course, there still had to be some humans, but nowhere near as many as before.

“No one seemed to notice that publishers most quickly devised replacement options for the professors who’d been their severest critics.  Even tenured faculty members, who couldn’t be replaced legally, felt the pinch in one way or another. You were a quiet one, it seems, and you survived in your university’s molecular biology laboratory.”

“I was lucky,” the young man said.  

“As was your girlfriend, I take it,” the older man said.  “but that’s not the problem we’re facing here today.”

“What is the problem?” the young man said.  The hard chair was beginning to feel uncomfortable again.  

The older man shook his long head.  “You sent your novel to a privately-owned publishing house for their consideration.  Did you have hopes that they would publish it and that you would earn money from sales of the novel?”

“Yes.  My girlfriend and I want to get married, and money from book sales would help us start our life together.”

“And that is the problem”  the older man said. “It’s quite simple, really.  Taxpayers have supported you for many years of education.  As a result, they have, unquestionably, made you the man you are today.  Without their support, you would not have the background to have written your novel.”

“You would not have experienced the achievements brought about by the success of Plan S and publishers’ response to it,” the woman interjected.  

“We need to cut this short,” the older man said emphatically.  He leaned forward. “Others are waiting. We have numerous cases to deal with today.  So let me outline your next steps. In a few days you will receive an email that will offer you the opportunity to post your novel on the Internet free of charge to anyone who chooses to read it.  I suggest you accept the offer. Don’t worry. I’m sure that a bright young man like you, someone who could write a novel as good as yours, should be able to find a way to make a living as a molecular biologist.  Even in this day and age of unbridled AI.”

“Make no mistake,” the woman said, her voice stern and emphatic now, her index finger pointed at the young man,.  She wasn’t smiling now. “We’re not censors. And we’re not promoting some discarded ideology. Let your voice ring out over the Internet, your words free to anyone.  Make as much money, gain as much fame as you want with your molecular biology. Just don’t let any of those greedy publishers profit from what you write.”

“But …,” the young man started to say, his head spinning, until he saw the two people sitting across from him rise and offer their hands.  The man must have been seven feet tall, the woman over six feet. They were much taller than the young man. He had been born soon after a six-month period when a clerical error in Plan S headquarters had allowed publication of certain research papers without proper peer review.  One of the papers had attracted rabid attention on social media, and mothers who’d followed the paper’s advice had given birth to babies who’d not grown as tall as children who’d been born before or after that odd time.

The young man felt like a child again.  Without another word — what was the point of any more discussion with these people? — he shook hands, turned and walked out of the large room.  In the hallway, he looked at the young people waiting for admittance. Who were they and whom had they contacted to publish what they had written? he wondered.  


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