Some years go, I worked at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, in the campus that is now called the “Harwell Oxford”, and got there every morning through a long journey involving a short car ride to Banbury train stations, two trains to Didcot Parkway (change at Oxford) and finally what should have always been a short hop on the bus from the station to the laboratory, but often became the worst part of my commute, with long and frequent delays. Didcot itself had another campus, a hi-tech looking business park called “Milton Park”. I used to look at the Milton Park shuttle buses with envy: they were frequent, free and new, with a nice exterior designed to suggest that whatever went on inside that campus was very high tech. I always wondered what they did – though I suspected it wouldn’t be as cutting edge as what we did at RAL (neutron scattering, synchrotron radiation, high-power lasers, space hardware and my speciality – theoretical physics).
Today I have had my first conscious experience of a business based at the Milton Park campus. It is certainly academic-related, but I wouldn’t say it is very high tech. I had ordered inspection copies of a couple of recent textbooks by reputable authors, from a reputable publisher. I am revamping my teaching of Quantum Mechanics and I was hunting for an introductory text on the subject that would use a modern language (Dirac notation) but without burdening the students with large mathematical preliminaries at the start of the book. I received the copies from a company (not the publisher) describing themselves as a “book services” operation, with a bill enclosed and precise instructions to either adopt the texts, return the books within 30 days or else pay a hefty bill to retain the books for my personal use. Right, so that’s what they do there.
Basically, this company working from Milton Park offers outsourcing services to publishers. What they outsource is the provision of inspection copies to academics. But the standard at which this outsourced version of the service is provided is quite different, compared to what has been the norm in the academic publishing world. Normally, in my experience, academics are allowed to keep the book for free. Because I had to return it within 30 days, I had to make a hasty decision on whether to adopt the texts, without a chance to properly compare them to those offered by other publishers. Moreover, I had to re-package the books, etc. making me waste valuable time which could have been spent writing better lecture notes for my students or – Heavens! – even doing some research.
So, yes, I always suspected what they did at Milton Park was less cutting-edge than what we were doing at Harwell – but now I know at least one company there seems to be making a negative contribution to the progress of Science.