08 February 2012

From open gaming to open science

I am an academic, not a business person. With the ongoing move to boycott Elsevier, which has gained attention from academic news sources, I asked someone who was in business for his take.

I’ve know Ryan Dancey for about 15 years, from his creation of the game Legend of the Five Rings. He created a business called Five Rings Publishing Group that was sold to Wizards of the Coast. As part of that sale, he was involved in the move of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game from TSR to Wizards of the Coast.

Just before that sale, TSR had been viewed by players for years a big, greedy corporate publisher. Gamers often referred to it online T$R, which indicated an unhealthy disconnect between the company and their buyers, which reminded me of the disconnect between Elsevier (and other publishers) and scientists and librarians.

Once at Wizards of the Coast, Ryan oversaw the rollout of Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition. For those of you not involved in tabletop role-playing, D&D3 was notable because it was open. The d20 system that D&D had used for years was being given away, for other publishers to use, for free.

The rationale for opening the system was that the biggest strength of D&D was not the rules, or the world, but the number of people who knew how to play the game. Any gamer could go anywhere, and probably find other people who knew how to play D&D. It was less likely that they’d be able to find someone playing some less popular role-playing game, of the hundreds that proliferated over the years. By opening up the rules, players could be drawn in by other kinds of role-playing experiences besides the familiar “dungeon crawl” of D&D, and this would ultimately make D&D stronger in the market.

So Ryan has a few experiences with open versus closed publishing systems.

Ryan also knows a bit more about science than your average guy on the street. The open gaming license came from his understanding of open licenses in computing. Plus, he once told me that he was reading Steve Gould’s mammoth The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (I reviewed it here) for fun. This is not most people’s idea of fun.

I asked Ryan if he thought a publishing company like Elsevier could climb out of the hole it dug itself into.

Sure they can. Remember when Apple was viewed as being ridiculously high-priced without enough value-add to warrant the price premium?

I think the industry has a couple of inter-related problems. First, over many decades an entrenched culture of profit-taking has evolved in the science publishing field. Today you have large companies employing lots of people with stakeholders and shareholders who expect growth and profitability. The need of this industry to thrive has become a tautology - it exists because it exists.

At the same time you have real science being done more rapidly and interactively via things like on-line article repositories and various group chat venues. For the people who think science should be done transparently with full disclosure and communication of data and results, this only makes sense. The original need for the published materials was one:many communication, which was only really feasible using print. Now we have many:many communication facilitated by the internet, the old system has become not only redundant but it is charging a monopoly rent as well.

I think what will happen will be that the scientific community will move (slowly) away from a model where citations from peer-reviewed publications are the indicator of success to one where citations from highly-regarded internet publications replace them. To get there the community needs a reputation economy and a web of trust (although frankly the existing web of trust for peer review seems tissue-thin to and outside observer such as myself).

At the end of the day I wouldn't bet on the survival of any of the existing publishers in their current formats or with their current product line. The publisher that best provides for a transition to a social network-driven science model will likely win the race. Unfortunately, everyone involved is going to suffer the chaos and disruption that always comes with this sort of transition in process.

Were I CEO of Elsevier today I'd be working feverishly to get my business model off of getting paid to publish, and into getting paid for providing the service of managing the social network of the science internet.

Posted with Ryan’s permission.


Namnezia said...

And here I thought your post was going to be about graph paper.

simon said...

roll for impact factor!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the quote Zen. And I did really enjoy the Structure of Evolutionary Theory. :)