In the world of scholarly publishing, Jan Velterop is a well-regarded “old hand”. But an old hand who has shown himself to be very receptive to new ways of doing things.
He began his publishing career at Elsevier in the mid-1970s, and subsequently worked for a number of other leading publishers, including Academic Press, Nature, and Springer. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, Velterop has always been willing to embrace new ideas, and new models, particularly those made possible by the Internet.
While at Academic Press in the mid-1990s, Velterop was one of the architects of what was to become known as the Big Deal — an arrangement by which large bundles of electronic journals are sold on multi-year “all you can eat” contracts. While the Big Deal has now fallen into disfavour, it was a revolutionary development in the world of scholarly publishing, and remains a very significant part of the landscape.
In 2000, Velterop joined BioMed Central, the first commercial open-access science publisher, and in 2001 he was one of a small group of people who gathered together in Budapest to discuss, “the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet.”
It was at that meeting that the Open Access movement was born, along with the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), and the BOAI statement — “the clearest and most generic of what Open Access means and should mean”, suggests Velterop.
Like the Big Deal before it, open-access publishing was initially scorned by other publishers. By 2008, however, it was clear that it was the wave of the future, a truth underlined by the acquisition of BioMed Central by Springer in October of that year.
Ever restless for new challenges, Velterop quickly moved on, and began to put his formidable talents to addressing the problems of information overload and the interoperability of data. To this end, in 2009 he was one of the initiators of the Concept Web Alliance, “an open collaborative community that is actively addressing the challenges associated with the production of unprecedented volumes of academic and professional data.”
Today, Velterop is CEO of Academic Concept Knowledge Limited (AQnowledge), a new company developing tools for “semantic knowledge navigation”. In particular, says Velterop, it is trying to “make the interfaces from the literature to open data resources financially sustainable.”
Velterop’s journey from traditional print publishing to the semantic web has inevitably impacted on his vision of what scholarly publishing is and ought to be — a vision now somewhat distanced from his erstwhile publisher colleagues.
At the beginning of January, for instance, Velterop wrote on his blog, “Looking at it as dispassionately as possible, one could conclude that peer review is the only remaining significant raison d’être of formal scientific publishing in journals.”
He then went on to make the heretical suggestion that traditional pre-publication peer review should be abandoned in favour of the “endorsement” model pioneered by the physics pre-print server arXiv. By doing so, he says, the research community could save the taxpayer $3 billion a year of unnecessary expense.
The heresy does not end there. Speaking of the future of scholarly publishing, and the role of publishers, Velterop says, “The evolution of scientific communication will go on, without any doubt, and although that may not mean the total demise of the traditional models, these models will necessarily change. After all, some dinosaur lineages survived as well. We call them birds. And there are some very attractive ones. They are smaller than the dinosaurs they evolved from, though. Much smaller.”
In short, if Velterop’s vision of the future of scholarly communication proves accurate, publishers can expect their role to be dramatically reduced, with obvious implications for their revenues, and thus for their profits. “I have for a long time felt that ‘publisher’ is a misnomer for the outfits that are called that, anyway,” says Velterop, “Publishing is what the author can do, and increasingly does, autonomously; it is the tagging of an article with a peer reviewed journal title that the ‘publishers’ do.”
It is, therefore, unsurprising that Velterop takes the view that publishers have made a serious error of judgment in pushing for the controversial Research Works Act (RWA) — a new bill introduced into the US House of Representatives at the end of last year that would roll back the Public Access Policy introduced by the US National Institutes of Health. “I truly don’t understand how a sophisticated industry could get itself into a PR disaster like the RWA,” he says.
More of Velterop’s views on these and other aspects of scholarly publishing can be read in the attached interview.
If you wish to read the interview with Jan Velterop, please click on the link below.
I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.
To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.