1:55 p.m.: Greetings, fight fans . . . today Stewart Wills (aka “the shyest cook in the Kitchen”) will be live-blogging the closing event of SSP’s 2010 annual meeting’s closing event — “Food Fight! The Best of the Scholarly Kitchen.” SSP has promised us fireworks aplenty, but the stage is a rather sedate, un-conference-like affair — an array of comfy-looking chairs, a very civilized arrangement of water glasses and carafes, and chef’s regalia that the team is putting on right now. They aren’t exactly Iron Chefs, but then things haven’t really gotten off the ground yet.
Refresh your browser from time to time to get additional dispatches throughout the session . . . we start at 2:00 p.m.
2:05 p.m.: The session begins . . . Kent Anderson, the chief cook in the Kitchen, notes that this is the first time all of the chefs have been together in the same place. After introductions of his fellow chefs, Kent launches into a brief history of TSK. Up in a matter of a few days after the idea was hatched, the Scholarly Kitchen quickly gained traction and, as that happened others joined — Howard Ratner, Phil Davis, David Crotty, Michael Clarke, Joe Esposito, Ann Michael, Alix Vance. But it’s voices of individuals, says Kent, rather than organizations.
The first question to the panel: Have there been times when you’ve regretted what you’ve blogged? Phil Davis answers: “There’s a balance between creative writing and offensive writing, and sometimes you have to aim right down the middle. David Crotty adds that you’re going to offend people no matter what.
2:15 p.m.: Is the Scholarly Kitchen broadcast or social? Kent says definitely social . . . comments far outnumber actual posts, with many posts having 20 or more comments.
Kent asks Alix if TSK is “pro or anti anything” . . . Alix says that some of the chefs are interested in pushing the boundaries, whereas others are more closely aligned with the existing infrastructure. Mentioning no names, of course . . .
Joe Esposito notes that the Scholarly Kitchen, whatever the divsions, is “pro data.” Michael suggests that maybe “anti-stupidity” is more accurate. Hmm . . .
Phil Davis says he’s getting a lot of solicitation from companies to blog about specific products, etc. Kent agrees — as the prominence of blog has risen, they are apparently getting plugged into the publicity machine.
2:20 p.m.: An audience member is “bowled over” by the time and energy that the group puts into the blog. Joe Esposito expands on what it takes to run a blog (Kent’s role). Much better, Joe says, to just be a guest blogger . . . a lot of people, Joe says, think there’s no real labor behind blogging, but that’s not true. (Especially, says Kent, the labor of responding to comments after a controversial post.) Alix says it strikes her that the more you write for the blog, you don’t necessarily get faster. David notes how much he’s learned about the craft of Web writing through working on the team.
Message to would-be bloggers out there . . . it’s harder than it looks. It helps, Kent implies, to have a number of obsessive-compulsive conscientious, self-starter types working on it.
2:30 p.m.: Finally . . . we move on to some of the more “infamous” posts and their aftermath. As an experiment, Phil Davis had submitted a “paper” written entirely by a computer (and consisting of complete nonsense) to Bentham . . . which accepted it. A blistering blog post about the experience, and a lot of press coverage, followed. Phil noted that it raised some issues of identity — was he Phil Davis the grad student (who could get expelled for such antics), or Phil Davis the journalist. (Phil didn’t get expelled.)
Another notable post: Phil’s April Fool’s post announcing the merger of Springer, Elsevier, and Wiley into a new conglomerate . . . called “SPEW.” This year’s April Fool’s effort was more coordinated. David Crotty: “I tend to think of April Fool’s Day as the day the Internet is useless.”
Kent: It’s hard to do humor in a blog, because people can’t “hear” how you’re saying something. Another problem: people often tend to attribute what you’re *quoting* to you.
2:40 p.m.: Next up: Michael Clarke’s post on why scholarly publishing hasn’t yet been disrupted, a rebuttal to a well-known blog posting by Michael Nielsen. Michael (Clarke, that is) thought that his post was too long for the Kitchen, and wondered if it should go elsewhere — but it ended up as a very successful and widely linked TSK post. Kent: One thing we learned from that is that a long, academic post can work.
David noted that that post in particular changed his views on scholarly publishing — which he said tends to be a “self-loathing” industry; Michael’s post made David feel a lot better about how innovative scholarly publishing has actually been.
A post by Ann Michael talked about how publisher workflows and mindsets are still pushed through print, even amid a burgeoning device economy with different requirements. “Thinking about print has become how people think about content,” she says. Despite all of the talk about multichannel publishing, the print-based assumptions are so deeply ingrained that we often can’t even recognize them.
2:50 p.m.: Next: some provocative questions from Kent to the panel. Statement 1: “Publishers have the business models just right; nothing needs to change.” Joe discusses the dangers of focusing on “sustainability” rather than progress, and of a static mindset that underlies the statement. Michael says that we’ve gotten things “less wrong” than some other industries (e.g., the music industry). Apple coming up with iTunes before the music industry did wasn’t necessarily inevitable.
Kent talks with David about their differing “tolerances for risk,” but David notes that sometimes risk tolerance flows from the amount of resources you can throw at an idea. If resources are limited (as with a society publisher), the risks of experimentation are greater.
Scholarly publishers, Kent notes, are working against highly capitalized info providers (e.g., Google) — is that one reason we’re not “breaking out of the old containers”? Is it simply a matter of capital? Michael says no — “It’s always mystifying to me how much capital seems to be floating into the industry.” Even the nonprofits seem often to make very large bets, and spend a lot of money. For a lot of these things, David says, there’s just not a sufficient sense of urgency for the “big bet” — you can wait and see what works for others.
Some of the conservatism of scholarly publishing, suggests Michael, flows from the conservatism of the academic world itself.
Ann: There is no easy answer. There is no one real business model, or no one “correct” approach to risk. Often, though, we do seem to hear people talking in those all-or-nothing terms.
3:00 p.m.: Well, not really much of a “food fight” thus far. Where are the thrown tomatoes? . . .
Next, the dicey issue of vendor relations rears its head. Ann notes that a lot of the vendors that interact with publishers aren’t “relationship focused” — communication and partnership need to flow both ways. Joe, from the vendor side, notes that sometimes you’re “making presentations to people who aren’t qualified to be hearing the presentation,” especially when technology is involved. There’s a lot of waste as a result . . . Michael says that he has yet to work with a company where the I.T. department of the client wasn’t the key impediment to innovation. Maybe, Kent says, that’s because I.T. is a sort of legacy function.
Print, Ann notes, was once a “technology.” The new technologies are in fact new and unfamiliar, and these vendor-client conversations might get better as the new technologies diffuse through the system. Still, a lot of I.T. bashing from the panel.
An audience response: people’s careers are still tied to the old technology, and production of papers. Joe: there are “fault lines” showing up in the industry — e.g., the difficulties of the library market. Questions about specific technologies — e.g., XML workflows, etc. — are the wrong questions to be asking, at least strategically; we should be asking how we’re going to be ready when these large market segments start to decline in step-function fashion.
Another provocative statement: “There don’t need to be any watchdogs on scholarly journals. Nothing bad ever happens.” Phil, who has exposed a few such bad situations (e.g., “fake” or corporate-sponsored journals), says he never ceases to be surprised at the amount of backlash that the whistle-blower experiences, and where the heat comes from. Sometimes the repercussions are legal — can we really defend ourselves if we get that kind of scrutiny? Phil suggests a non-family-friendly response . . . An audience member implores the group to take out an umbrella liability policy, not a bad idea in this litigious age.
3:10 p.m.: Next, the “S” word — social media. David notes that “culture trumps technology,” and that although the tools are great, he wonders if there’s been enough careful thought about how they fit into the culture of science. You can’t make the *culture* adapt to your *tool*.
An interesting digression: How open can you be in a business environment, which is inherently competitive? Kent: We are going up against big, well capitalized interests, and yet we remain very siloed. Ann: Maybe that’s because we are still in a scarcity-dominated business model. Getting over the squabbling, Kent notes, could help us serve our audiences better. Joe ripostes that the industry is inherently competitive — but, Kent asks, who are we competing with — each other, or bigger threats like Google?
Ann: you share information, but you can still fashion a competitive advantage through your *interpretation* of the information and execution on it.
(Phil is the only one who still has his chef’s hat on, by the way.)
3:20 p.m.: Perhaps the most provocative question of all — do publishers have a role in the future? Michael reframes the question: what is a publisher, anyway? Once you get past the containers (e.g., books, journals), maybe there is no publishing industry — maybe it’s just information and knowledge production, interpretation, curation and other value adds. Adding value, David says, is indeed the key — as long as publishers add value, they’ll have a role.
Joe: Quality only matters in a mature market. Quality actually doesn’t matter if you’re trying to get into new markets. If you look at new technologies, it’s not quality that makes the difference. “If the issue was the quality of the call, cellphones would never have happened.” When we say quality matters, we have to acknowledge that we’re in a mature industry. Maybe we don’t need an (editorial) quality strategy; maybe we need a new-market-focused strategy.
David: If you’re in a new market against a competitor, and you offer a better-quality experience, you’ll do better, all things being equal. Ann: But all things *aren’t* equal in a new market. An audience member notes that the focus on “quality” can be a weapon or defense by the entrenched against change and innovation. Maybe there are other definitions of quality (e.g., timeliness) that become important in a disruptive age.
Another defense that you hear, Ann says, is “It’s not consistent with the brand.”
How do you address these cultural issues? Ann: Some companies known for their innovation have skunkworks — groups of innovators who basically ignore everyone else. These groups can get organizations to change over time.
An audience member asks if Kent really believes that “quality is subjective.” Kent says yes — in the context it’s commonly used, the implication is that it is an inviolate, single standard, and that indeed *can* stifle innovation. David: What matters to your customer is important, not what matters to your copyeditor.
3:30 p.m.: Another audience member, from academia: An aspect of quality that isn’t being discussed is the journal’s quality as a metric in the academic reward system — impact factors, etc. Kent: Those blunt measures can be very misleading. But, the audience member notes, these are the things that are put on the table — again, David notes, culture trumps everything else — what moves the customer’s career forward is what’s paramount.
Another audience member: Quality in this sense gets at the issue of trust (e.g., trust in a journal brand), and that is built up over years of painstaking process. Quality is as quality does, and that’s where trust comes from.
Joe: Surrounding all of the discussions are second-order effect of using publication brands as a metric for tenure, promotions, etc. Without that infrastructure of reward, scholarly publishing might collapse tomorrow. Hard to see where this is going to go.
Michael: In STM as well as trade publishing, publishers don’t really understand that they’re really in the marketing business. People publish in particular journals because they do the best job of marketing the author’s content. That’s something that can be lost in discussions about editorial, production, etc.
Perception of brand from the reader’s POV is also important, says David — journal brand as filtering mechanism. There’s value in pre-publication review as a filtering mechanism, just as for post-pub peer review.
One last audience question: How did you feel about being nominated for a Webby?
The less than enthusiastic response: “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”
And that, it would seem, is a good place to stop and rest my aching fingers.