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Meeting Reader Needs: The Increasingly Difficult Search for Grassroots Among the Astroturf

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Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design. ~ Dieter Rams

As publishers, we always try to keep our ears to the ground. We look for trends among researchers — new activities or changes in their behavior. Providing the best possible user experience is a sound business strategy, and doing so requires knowing your user and staying abreast of their culture.

Lately, this has become more difficult. Despite new communication technologies amplifying the voices of our readers, it can be hard to discern how well those voices represent the community as a whole. Adding to the confusion is the growing presence of third parties — people outside the research community who are looking to drive their own agendas, often as a means of advancing their own business concerns.

Though it finally seems to have faded to a more reasonable level, publishing meetings over the last few years have been dominated with discussion of social media, science blogging, the dreaded “Facebook for Scientists,” and other ways that new media were supposed to overtake the way researchers communicate their results. Reality has proven that the research community is both conservative (showing little interest in replacing a flawed system that ultimately works for one that is questionable and unproven) and compelled to achieve a ruthless level of efficiency (if it doesn’t provide obvious and immediate career benefits, it’s not worth committing the time).

Perhaps these lessons would have been obvious from the start to anyone deeply immersed in the research community. The problem for publishers is that we stand outside the community; for many, it’s easy to lose touch with the day-to-day lives of the average researcher.

We try to pick up on the signals that are offered. But, since the social media era is an era of self-promotion, the loudest and most prominent voices are often not the most relevant. Advocates for change can provide prescient, smart clues as to future directions for a field. Or they can just be strange outliers. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two, but these are the voices we’re most likely to hear.

Years ago, I was asked by a reporter for a list of scientists who were leading the opposition to “open science,” as the reporter couldn’t seem to find any of their blogs. I had to explain that there really isn’t much drive for writing a continuing blog about something you don’t care about — which seemed a bit obvious. Blogging, tweeting, and the like is hard work, requiring time and effort. Without a deep level of interest and passion, who’s going to make that investment?

If we rely solely on the blogosphere and the twitterverse for contact with our readers, we end up with a skewed view of reality.

Complicating the interpretation in this case was the fact that much of the noise about social media and science was not coming from within the research community, but instead from entrepreneurs, looking to cash in by translating trends from other markets to science.

Science seems an irresistible draw for Web entrepreneurs. Some of this obviously stems from the connections between the technologists and their love of science. Why not apply the business model that works for other cultures to one’s own home playing field?

Others are pulled in by the lure of high-value online content. Science journals went online earlier than most publications, and did so without sacrificing their subscription business model (unlike newspapers, who made everything free, assuming ads would pay the bills). Many business models require content for which customers are willing to pay, and science offers this rare commodity.

So what many took as a grassroots interest turned out to in fact be what’s these days called “astroturfing.”   Many of those declaring the inevitability of science blogging and social networking turned out the be those behind the SEED Media Group, or the Nature Network, or the thousands of independent would be web entrepreneurs. Rather than reflecting a real movement or widespread interest in the community, the buzz was merely a marketing attempt to build businesses by convincing researchers that this was something they needed to do. So far, the culture of science has for the most part resisted the pull, probably because the products presented offered no practical fulfillment of the community’s needs.

We’re still in the midst of a similar conundrum, revolving around questions of both open access and open science. Both concepts have been around for a while, both receive a good amount of attention, but it’s difficult to get a true reading of the interest in either from the research community.

Make no mistake about it, there are significant numbers of researchers who strongly believe in either cause (and often both). There’s nothing faux about their beliefs that these are superior ways to do and to communicate research, and better ways to increase the efficiency of the discovery process and speed progress. There’s a strong argument to be made that locking up knowledge slows the discovery process. On the other hand, there’s a counter-argument that suggests competition spurs progress faster than working in a collective group where incentives have been removed.

Regardless of where one falls on the philosophical spectrum, the great amount of attention paid to these ideas must be contrasted with the low level of uptake observed to date. Very few scientists keep their notebooks online, offering public access to current and unpublished research data. Oxford University Press released a study last year showing that uptake of open access was steady but at a low level (though the numbers varied wildly depending on the subject area).

The picture is complicated. A recent study published in PLoS ONE showed great growth in terms of raw numbers of open access journals and articles, but no real context for those numbers. As far as I can tell, the only attempt to compare the rate of growth of open access articles versus closed access was to use a 3% growth rate figure for non-open access articles, which is based on an estimate of the average rate of growth for articles for the last three hundred years.  Surely the recent explosion in journals has increased the pace somewhat over that seen in the 1700s.  The study also ignored open access articles published in hybrid journals, which would likely add considerably to the totals.

Further muddying the waters, as happened for social media, were the efforts of those with business models that attempt to profit from opennesss.  PLoS, a company founded on and driven by ideological concerns, has come up with a powerfully successful financial model with PLoS ONE. Outside copycats are now rushing in to create their own slightly variant versions of the journal.  Does this really reflect a growing demand for open access publishing by the research community or is this just a cynical attempt to cash in?

PLoS (along with Mendeley) is one of the sponsors of a recently announced contest looking to “build an app that makes science more open.” While it’s unclear exactly what’s expected by “more open,” one has to question whether this reflects anything more than a clever marketing scheme. The contest asks participants to make use of PLoS and Mendeley’s APIs.  Is there really a powerful need for open science apps or is this an attempt to drive more usage of the sponsors’ products?

Things get really weird when you realize who’s judging the contest. No, not a single scientist appears to be on the judging panel. You’d think that a contest that aims to change the culture of science might want to involve someone who is actually a member of that culture.  A working scientist might have some insight into how that culture really works that may elude the likes of the publishers, CTOs and investors that are choosing the winner.

That focus on business knowledge, rather than user reality is likely enough to doom the winning app to irrelevance. But one’s skeptical hackles really start to rise because of the actual executives chosen.  One comes from Amazon.  That’s right, Amazon, the home of the closed and proprietary Kindle, with its DRM and promotional use of elusive wordplay to avoid releasing any data that would give a clear view of how the eBook world is really developing.

That’s not the worst of it. The irony really gets thick with the inclusion of a judge from Thomson-Reuters. That’s right, the company behind the scourge of the open access world, the closed and proprietary impact factor. You might also remember Thomson-Reuters as the company that sued George Mason University in an attempt to shut down Zotero, a free and open source reference manager that directly competes with both Mendeley and Thomson-Reuters’ own EndNote.

The choices seem a bit odd here. Perhaps they’re meant to provide balance to the presence of PLoS and the other judges who at least have some experience with open models (bonus “put your money where your mouth is” points go to those readers who noticed the source of the article demanding Amazon be more open with Kindle sales figures).

So while the very nature of the contest and the judges chosen should lessen any expectations of meaningful results, those behind it should be recognized for putting together a savvy piece of marketing.  The contest takes a page from Google’s marketing strategy. There’s value in preaching to the converted, in reinforcing the message that drives your core supporters.  Google has a history of painting themselves as being “open,” in contrasting their superior “openness” with the closed systems of their competitors like Apple and Microsoft.

At Google we believe that open systems win. They lead to more innovation, value, and freedom of choice for consumers, and a vibrant, profitable, and competitive ecosystem for businesses.

This all sounds good until you take the time to realize what Google really means by “open”:

Google is always open, therefore Google is always good and will always win. And please don’t worry your pretty little minds about things like Google’s search or ad algorithms or the specific details of how its data centers work, all of which things Google could not possibly be more secretive about. Because if you think about these things, you’ll see that Google isn’t open at all about certain financially lucrative areas where it has built huge technical advantages over its competitors, and that’s not possible, because Google is always open.

The same goes for Google’s Android phone operating system, described publicly like this:

If you believe in openness, if you believe in choice, if you believe in innovation from everyone, then welcome to Android . . .

But privately within the company as,

. . . a club to make them [phone manufacturers] do things we want.

If Google really believed that being “open” was an important way to improve the world, they’d open all of their algorithms and business practices so we could all benefit from them.  Similarly, if Amazon, Thomson-Reuters, and Mendeley practiced what they preach, the Kindle wouldn’t be locked down, we’d all have access to Amazon’s superb data-handling technologies, the impact factor would be more transparent, EndNote’s file formats would be made open standards, and all of Mendeley’s usage data and code would be freely available and open sourced to allow others to build their own iterations to move the scholarly world forward.

It’s not fair, though, to ask any of the above. Asking a business to give up their core assets is in essence asking them to no longer be a business. On the other hand, credibility falls off when those businesses ask others to do the things they’re not willing to do themselves.

More and more, the life of a scientist resembles that of an independent businessman. You’re running a lab, having to make staffing decisions, balancing a budget, raising funds and spending them wisely. All of this is done in an environment with an incredible level of competition. The glut of PhDs creates a situation where if you falter, there’s a line of qualified smart people at the door ready to take your place.

Each scientist’s competitive advantage comes from their own ingenuity and hard work. They differentiate themselves through original ideas and the application of those ideas. Asking them to publicly release the few things that ensure their ability to pay their employees and feed their families is the equivalent of the unfair requests above.

Although we like to think that scientists are somehow above material concerns, they’re as human as the rest of us.  We can’t ask them to lead a spartan, monk-like existence unless we are willing to do so ourselves. And that’s why it isn’t realistic to think that an app will make much of a dent in the openness of science. What’s needed are sweeping changes in funding and the career structure of the entire enterprise.

That’s a larger societal problem, and not one addressed by a simple marketing contest like this. But any actual change wrought is irrelevant here.  The companies behind the competition are staking their claim, putting themselves firmly in the good graces of their core supporters.  For Google, there is a strongly biased group for whom this differentiation resonates — and this group has quite a bit of influence on technology purchasing decisions. For your many friends with cool new Android phones that play Angry Birds, the subject is irrelevant.

PLoS and Mendeley both enjoy a core of strong support from researchers committed to a more open world. This contest reinforces the companies’ place in the hearts of those supporters.  Offering a cash prize to see if “the crowd” can come up with a useful new angle for the product you already produce is not a bad strategy as well. Though if the companies think cash payments are required to motivate the work here, that perhaps should tell you something about where the community stands.

Understanding not only the message, but the source of the message is an important part in its interpretation.  To get back to the quote that started this blog entry, we must design for our users and the reality in which they live, not for how they “should” live, nor for how someone else wants to use them to secure a business advantage or drive profits.

There is a growing interest and practical market for open access publications, especially within particular fields.  It’s becoming a more and more viable business model beyond the currently popular high-quantity-low-overhead-high-profit fashion currently in vogue.  It is not, however, the answer to all questions, nor is it appropriate for all situations.

Knowing your users, understanding their culture, and assessing their needs is key to fulfilling those needs. But it’s important to listen carefully, and pick out the real voices amidst the din. That takes real work, real communication, and real relationships with the community, rather than a quick glance at the day’s trending topics.  The confessional nature of the Facebook era has not been widely embraced by the research community.

Though it’s frustrating, and perhaps a bit old-fashioned, there are still no easy answers.

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About David Crotty

I am a Senior Editor with Oxford University Press' journal publishing program. Prior to that I served as an Executive Editor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and was also the commissioning editor for their book publishing program. Many years ago, I was a research scientist, receiving my Ph.D. in Genetics & Development from Columbia University, and doing postdoctoral research in neural development at Caltech.

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Meeting Reader Needs: The Increasingly Difficult Search for Grassroots Among the Astroturf

  1. I have heard more than once recently that post-graduate researchers and practitioners alone comprise the audience for scholarly content and that these are the (implicitly) only audiences to whom our product development and marketing efforts should be geared. They are the Alpha and Omega of STM publishing — but I don’t buy it. 

    Rather, I see this community of authors and researchers as providing a foundational structure for scholarly publishing, which has helped it thrive, endure, and thus far serve it’s purpose.  However, the industry does itself a disservice by restricting engagement with content to the Ivory Tower. Without diminishing the CENTRAL importance to scholarship of the research community, is a PhD or research-focused position required to join the club of those who seek to engage with scholarly knowledge? 

    This begs the question(s) — How do we define the mission of scholarly publishing & for whom is their room under the umbrella? 

    One’s definition of the mission will drive the answer as to who the prospective audiences are. I’d venture that the content should (and can) scale from lay user to scientific researcher and that there’s room for a wide range of products within this span. 

    Why do I, as a lay user, care about the broader dissemination of scholarly knowledge and democratic engagement with it? Because access to knowledge is essential to educating a global populace. As per David, lay people may not innately understand the practical requirements of researchers. Do researchers understand the needs and interests of lay people? 

    Posted by Alix Vance | Jun 16, 2011, 8:28 am
    • Alex,
      I don’t think David is arguing in his piece that scholarly publishing should be restrictive to post-graduate researchers and practitioners. He does, however, make the case that the blogosphere and conference circuits are filled with individuals who may not reflect the broader community; and secondly, that we need to be cautious when particular views are being promoted with a particular business agenda behind them (i.e. astroturfing).

      “Openness” is a central ethos of science. Yet, behind every norm is a counter-norm, and in the case of “openness” we have “secrecy.” Secrecy is not altogether a bad counter-norm, and in science, it is used strategically. Being first to report novel results is highly-rewarded, which is why most laboratories are hesitant to keep open lab notebooks. This is not a cynical view of science, but reflects a realistic view of how science is practiced, and not how outsiders and outliers wish science were practiced.

      Posted by Phil Davis | Jun 16, 2011, 9:01 am
    • Kent wrote a good piece earlier this week on the need for reaching beyond one’s traditional business. I’m not advocating against that, more suggesting that one continue to develop the business one already has. The former does not have to be at the expense of the latter.

      A few thoughts:
      It’s important to know where your revenue comes from, and to be sure to continue to serve that community in order to maintain (and expand) that important revenue stream.

      We are often told that there’s an untapped market for scholarly articles beyond those we already reach. I’ve yet to see much practical evidence for the existence of this market, at least in terms of revenue. The journals with whom I’ve spoken who are employing the article rental strategy to reach this market are measuring their revenue in the tens of dollars (not yet enough to come close to covering startup costs).

      One must also think about the very nature of the scholarly journal. What purpose does it serve? Is it meant to convey the latest information to the research community or should we be thinking in terms of broadest distribution? A research article that is written for the community can be written in a sort of shorthand, with an assumption of expertise on the part of the reader. An article for the general public will necessarily be much longer and lighter on the details, as it must explain basic concepts. That sort of article may not be of great use within the research community as compared with a detailed technical piece on the latest discovery. Essentially, it’s the difference between Cell and Wired. There’s nothing wrong with trying to publish both types of magazines but each serves a different purpose, and one can not substitute for the other.

      Posted by David Crotty | Jun 16, 2011, 9:43 am
      • As I see it David, you were talking about fads like open science and social media. Alix has raised a different issue, which is broadening the customer set. The review article is an interesting exemplar here. I would not write this possibility off, but your basic point remains. If it requires scientists to change how they work, with no apparent benefit to themselves for doing so, it is a loser. So a big question is would more review articles dilute the journal? Would more people read them? What is lacking in this discussion is real data about who actually reads what?

        Posted by David Wojick | Jun 18, 2011, 7:45 am
    • Alix asks the question “is a PhD…required to join the club of those who seek to engage with scholarly knowledge?”. The answer is no. However, the hard reality is that for 99% of scholarly articles a PhD or research-focused position is essential just to be able to understand what is being written.

      Making the message accessible to ‘outsiders’ who wish to engage requires a different kind of writer, typically one more likely to want to be paid than pay to write…

      Posted by Richard Sever | Jun 16, 2011, 10:42 am
  2. It has always struck me as odd how loud the calls for ‘open access’ and ‘open science’ within this particular arena are compared with those for ‘open data’ and ‘open access to health care’, both of which would seem to have much more immediate, inarguable and measurable benefits.

    Posted by Richard Sever | Jun 16, 2011, 10:03 am
  3. One “reality” not noted here is that academic scientists do not pay their own money for access to the journal content they need. So it’s no wonder they haven’t felt much motivation to support “op[en access.” As academic libraries continue to cut back on subscriptions, however, this motivation may gradually increase.

    Odd as it may seem, for-profit companies may have more motivation to support OA to the extent that many of them closed their corporate libraries years ago and began relying on document delivery from academic libraries located nearby; again, as this supply begins to dry up, these companies may find reason to favor the OA movement.

    Finally, it should be no surprise to anyone who has worked in academe for a while that long-established practices do not change easily. Just think about how entrenched the promotion-and-tenure system is, resistant to all the changes swirling around it and still determining the basic behavior of scholars.

    If there is one practice that one would think the digital era would have changed by now is the tradition of bundling articles in issues and volumes. They were artifacts of the print era and have no compelling justification in a digital environment. But, again, old habits die hard….

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jun 16, 2011, 10:52 am
  4. Surely there must be some rigorous polls that have measured the interest of the scientific community in various products, platforms, and access models (no, not polls from SSP or PLoS or whoever). If distinguishing grassroots vs. astroturf is really important, this sort of work is probably the only meaningful solution to this problem.

    Posted by Andy Farke | Jun 16, 2011, 11:09 am
    • Polls are tough to do with real rigor, regardless of the neutrality of the party behind the poll. There’s also Jakob Neilsen’s First Rule of Usability, which is relevant here:
      http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20010805.html
      “To design an easy-to-use interface, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior.”

      Posted by David Crotty | Jun 16, 2011, 11:17 am
    • The Pew Research Center has been doing periodic phone surveys of Americans on their use of the Internet for health-related information. All suggest that there is a demand for online health and medical information, although the demand is in the form of secondary sources–websites that attempt to describe medical conditions in layperson terms, and sites that allow those who suffer from medical conditions to share personal information using social media technologies.

      The problem with these surveys is that they do not ask respondents if they use the primary literature (journals) and often have a hard time defining terms; confusing the mode of access (the Internet) and the form of interaction (e.g. social media) from the type of information.

      Posted by Phil Davis | Jun 16, 2011, 11:48 am
  5. David,

    As someone who works with a lot of folks in open science / OA, and is plenty cynical about the overebullience of interdisciplinarians trying to gain ground because they’re terrified of being marginalized, I still think you’re being too harsh on Mendeley/PLoS’ awesome efforts to get tools built for the sake of getting tools built. Yes, they proselytize a bit, and yes, screw Thomson-Reuters, but this is how novel systems need to work. The OA community is well-aware of the fact that they can’t make every individual researcher into a soldier to their cause, and it’s no fault of theirs that they don’t need to, either. You and the scientific community would be a lot better served to, for example, consider instead the apparent failure of institutional repositories to effect changes at a university-wide level. That you’re essentially calling open science “Marxist” and anti-competitive is also somewhat ignorant of the burgeoning alt-metrics community’s efforts to dethrone Thomson-Reuters’ impact factor in favour of more transparent and productive incentives for scholarly communication.

    Posted by Alex Garnett | Jun 16, 2011, 11:29 am
    • I wasn’t trying to condemn anyone here (though I certainly did mean to be critical of the implementation of this particular activity, not the activity itself). The descriptions of the arguments were deliberately simplified (cooperative versus competitive as the best means of driving innovation), but I did not mean to imply a choice of one over the other. Any apparent bias can be put down to my shortcomings as a writer.

      There’s nothing wrong with what the companies here are doing. They are run by smart people, doing smart things to further their interests. But that is perhaps obscured by the rhetoric and positioning. If someone like Microsoft ran a contest offering a cash prize for creating a tool to drive more usage of Microsoft products, we’d immediately recognize it for what it is.

      The failure of institutional repositories is a discussion for a different day, though Phil Davis gave an interesting talk about this recently (which he’ll hopefully write up here at some point–c’mon Phil). Some of the blame can be put on the lack of quality signaling and filtering offered by repositories, which are built more as “everything buckets” than as curated lists selected for quality. In an era of “information overload”, readers are looking for more filters, not less.

      We discuss efforts in alternative metrics fairly often here as well, something most of us follow with great interest.

      Posted by David Crotty | Jun 16, 2011, 12:13 pm
  6. ‘Astroturfing’ is a new word for me. Trust you won’t mind if I steal it!

    I certainly agree that it’s dangerous to rely on social media / Web 2.0 communications as proxies for the views of academic or professional communities. Generally, I find what might appear as conventional wisdom online often in fact lies nearer to the avant garde. Of course, such sources are immensely useful – but there is no substitute for going out and meeting people through attending events or making visits.

    Posted by Anthony Haynes | Jun 25, 2011, 8:17 am

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