No matter which innovation you talk about in academic and scholarly publishing, people have been at the heart of it. Innovation is a human endeavor, not a remote activity emanating from think-tanks or residing solely in the low areas between hills lined with Atomic Number 14. Innovations can be small — a new data field in a manuscript system that captures something emerging among authors — or large.
No matter the scale, making new things remains challenging, fraught with chances to fail, and as Joe Esposito wrote yesterday, populated by stubborn bears.
As someone who has been fortunate to have catalyzed or participated in a number of innovations over the years — and who is in the midst of a few at the moment — I wanted to pause to talk about what it’s like inside an innovation experience or two. Innovation is an experience that is quirky, difficult to explain, and, unlike a refrigerator, the light can shut off if someone opens the door. So this is not without risk.
Currently, I’m in the middle of bringing PRE-val and PRE-score to market, as well as SocialCite, two new tools we hope will help publishers scale quality across the scholarly literature even as we scale quantity. We’ve had a busy few months, and the past week has been especially exciting — SocialCite signed its first four publishers for its pilot phase (Rockefeller University Press, the Genetics Society of America, the American Physiological Society, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), while PRE-val and PRE-score attended the STM Spring Conference and the Council of Science Editors meeting, receiving a lot of positive feedback at both.
For many, SocialCite and PRE-score are new products, but for those of us directly involved, they are familiar ideas. Both Adam Etkin (the creator of PRE, which stands for Peer Review Evaluation) and I (SocialCite is my idea) had our ideas back in 2009. The ideas wouldn’t go away, as the need kept appearing to both of us independently. In fact, I didn’t know Adam had the idea for PRE until we talked last year, at which point I realized we were on the same page and could do more together.
There is no comprehensive list of innovation techniques or approaches or philosophies. Entire books have been written, more will be written. This is merely a set of ideas that are top of mind given some innovations I’m working on currently.
Ideas incubate, require care and feeding. As I mentioned, both Adam Etkin and I had our initial ideas the same year (2009), but the ideas incubated for a long time for each of us. Life interferes with ideas, and finding the time to care for them and feed them is difficult. But we each kept seeing the core problem again and again, which is sort of a lonely feeling. For instance, Adam didn’t know I was walking around with SocialCite in my brain, and I had no idea Adam was thinking about PRE-val and PRE-score. But the ideas persisted. I remember distinctly a meeting in December 2012 in which the speakers and audience were both talking around the issue SocialCite seeks to address, but nobody had yet articulated a solution — and I wasn’t ready to announce anything. Adam was seeing articles and blog posts circling the issues PRE-val and PRE-score seek to address, namely helping journals that conduct rigorous and ethical peer-review. This “nursery mode” creates a fair amount of inner tension — you want to shout your idea from the rooftops, but you know you can’t yet because that’s not how the world works. Nascent ideas require a lot more care than that.
Ideas evolve, and everything is under development. To me, innovation follows the rules of improvisation. In improv comedy, the lesson I’ve translated over via my very informal fan status of the medium is to never say “no” or “but.” Rather, rightly or wrongly, what I’ve absorbed is that the good improv builds on what the other performer started, with “and” and “or” responses. Whether it’s good improv or not, it seems like good innovation. Saying “no” isn’t innovation. Saying, “and” or “or” can be. This is also why I like to break up innovation projects (and I challenge you to find a project that isn’t at its heart an innovation project) into phases. Nothing is perfect. Journals aren’t perfect. Books aren’t perfect. E-this or e-that isn’t perfect. Everything can be better. Your current products are in a phase of development, my friends. They are not finished. If you’re going to have an innovation culture, you need to start throwing “and” and “or” at your current products at the very least.
Words matter. Because innovation is a human-fueled endeavor, I’ve always found words to be incredibly important to getting the starting point set out properly. The right words can galvanize activity. This was the genius of “Web 2.0.” We knew something was going on, that social media and broadband and mobile were shaking up the Internet, but coining the term “Web 2.0” allowed people to nail it down, as it provided a sense of being controllable and discussable as a unit. The same thing happens with ideas. If you forget to name them, or name them in a way that’s not compelling, they’re more likely to slip into oblivion. This may be why initiatives to think about “NewCo” arrive pre-doomed — they’re both non-compelling and non-specific. Words make things specific. “Web 2.0” conveyed a sense of being new, temporary, iterative, and part of a progression. The beauty of the “PRE” acronym for “peer review evaluation” is that it points slyly at pre-publication peer-review.
Prototypes work far better than explanations. This is an obvious point, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. Prototypes can be simple — a PowerPoint sequence of screens, a few items taped together, a simple video shot with your smartphone. After experiencing a good prototype, people understand the value and the approach. Best of all, making the prototype is often the most effective way for you to understand and address limitations or problems you hadn’t fully anticipated. It can even help you see the value even more clearly or give you additional ideas.
Write some marketing copy. Try it, you’ll hate it. It’s some of the hardest copy to write, especially for a new product or idea. But nailing it is critical. Once again, words matter. If you can’t nail your message, or if the message isn’t one that will resonate with the target audience, you’re sunk. So, write some marketing copy, and test it — over time, with various people, and on good days and bad days. Once you get it right, you will live with it for a long time.
Critics matter, as do founders. To manage innovation, I’ve found you have to manage a natural tension between the person with the initial inspiration and vision, against the critics of various types who will challenge or denigrate the ideas for whatever reason and in spirit ranging from friendly critique to outright disparagement. If the innovator can’t answer the critics, it may be for an emotional reason (e.g., how dare you call my brainchild ugly?) or a significant reason (e.g., the critic may have identified a fatal flaw). More often, criticism taken in the best sense start telling you what product design and marketing challenges you’ll have. And you will face market challenges. Anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a bubble. Which leads me to another point . . .
Get your criticism done early and privately. Going straight out to a market without testing and prototyping and piloting can be exquisitely painful. Test, test, and test again. Ask friends, colleagues, and others to criticize your ideas, point out flaws, ask obvious questions, and so forth. Doing this early and quietly will only make you look smarter and increase your chances of success.
Again, there are many more areas of endeavor I could discuss — how to get things financed, how to create advisory groups (formal or informal), how to get your colleagues to understand the value, how to size the market, how to deal with technology, how to create a preliminary business model, and so forth. I can’t cover all these here. However, I do want to talk a little bit about the fun that can come with even the first hints of success.
Recently, we’ve seen some success with both PRE-val and PRE-score and SocialCite. For PRE-val and PRE-score, Aries Systems agreed to a development partnership around data provision, the first of what we hope will be a comprehensive set of agreements like this with other manuscript systems. For SocialCite, we were able to announce our first three publishers for the pilot, which was exciting and rewarding — and then we added a fourth, and hope to add others. But the real fun of innovation comes before any agreements are signed — it comes at that moment when someone else “gets it,” when the spark of inspiration that first flared in your brain sparks in another brain. That moment of shared fire, when eyes meet and you can tell the other person is sharing the vision — that’s one of the great payoffs of innovation. Taking it to scale, so that wider audiences see the benefit, is tantamount to putting these moments into production.
Innovation isn’t easy, it doesn’t always work, and it often sets you on a long, lonely road before you reach any inkling of success. It’s also a road that may never end, and that’s the good news. If the road washes out early, that means early success didn’t lead to long-term success.
Humans are natural builders and collaborators, which is fortunate, because nothing is perfect, nothing is finished. Innovation at some level is part of every day’s work. No matter the scale, innovation is challenging, requires dedication and stamina, but it is one of the two things we do in business according to this Milan Kundera quote:
Business has only two functions — marketing and innovation.