The ALPSP Awards — scholarly publishing’s nod to the brightest innovations and the best contributions in our sector — took place last month. (Congratulations to Alice Meadows, of ORCID and The Scholarly Kitchen, who received the Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing, and to Taylor & Francis and Wiley, whose Cartoon Abstracts and ChemPlanner, respectively, shared the Award for Innovation in Publishing).
Since the awards I’ve had a couple of curious conversations with people essentially positing that there is no innovation in scholarly publishing and that the sector is ripe for disruption. I must admit it’s a phrase I’ve probably uttered at times. But when the shoe is on the other foot (as a past winner of the ALPSP Award for Innovation, I care about what it represents), I ponder what “ripe for disruption” means. In the case of scholarly publishing, it seems to mean that while there is plenty of evolution (in publishing technologies, business models, processes, etc.) it should be happening faster. There is a gap between where we are now, and where we want to be, and plenty of people are eyeing that gap and thinking “for the love of Pete, there just needs to be foo.” I use foo as a catch-all term for the kinds of developments or disruptions people commonly call for in scholarly communications:
- a more open approach to (peer review / journal hosting / metrics / etc.)
- a more unified approach to (discovery / metadata exchange / identifiers / etc.)
- a more elegant approach to (manuscript submission / mobile interfaces / comment sharing / etc.)
Being willing to sacrifice sacred cows is of course an important aspect of innovation, but for foomongers, it’s the only aspect of innovation that matters — it’s essentially their definition of disruption. (Others would define disruption with more nuance — this TechCrunch piece does a good job, explaining that it’s about competing with established players not by re-inventing what they do, but by finding the bits they’re not doing — markets that are unprofitable for them, or that for some other reason they aren’t serving — and building a business there.) Foomongers plan to disrupt scholarly publishing by developing a better way of doing something, to which everyone will quickly transition (because, as noted, it’s better). The trouble is, of course, that while a lot of foo ideas are good, and they are picking up on things that do need improving, the idea is the easy bit. However good your idea, however necessary, however perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist, nothing happens quickly. Not development, not adoption. Every success story is the top of a huge iceberg of time and effort, and probably money. For every Spotify or iPhone, there are a thousand quiet failures, buried by:
- Lack of added value – your idea, and its execution, need to be substantially, cosmically better than the entrenched norm for people to overcome switching barriers. And of course, this applies even when your innovation is providing something completely new, because there are just as many barriers to switching from “doing nothing, doing fine” to “doing something, potentially doing better, but who knows?” – particularly, one might argue, in scholarly communications where any innovation is already a footnote for busy (and often conservative) academics for whom publishing is already a peripheral activity. Ask the various “Facebooks for Science” that have started up over the years (see also “poor timing,” below).
- Wrong focus – one example might be journal hosting platforms. To the untrained eye, they may seem bloated, bristling with bells and whistles, and particularly unsuited to open access content, because in that case, all anyone wants is a PDF, right? And yet when you try to go to market with something pared back to the basics, you find yourself struggling to keep up with demand from publishers and librarians for the features they rely on. Yes, readers might just want a PDF. But publishers and libraries want OpenURL, and COUNTER stats (yes, even for open access content), and so on.
- Parasitism – this is so obvious I almost didn’t include it, but for a series of posts this week on the ERIL list about users complaining to libraries about blocked access to Sci-Hub. To be clear, if I’ve read the original post correctly, this is random people — not affiliated to the institution, but attempting to access Sci-Hub using credentials that have been phished from it — obliviously and politely demanding that the library reinstate access so they can meet their research needs. Jim O’Donnell on liblicense has an interesting take on the positive implications of this for libraries, but needless to say, from a disruptor perspective, dependence on someone else’s infrastructure or content is a risk, particularly if you are unable to mitigate that risk with partnerships and service level agreements.
- Optimism about the achievability of better – or less poetically, lack of money. Simplicity is deceptive. Elegant user experiences typically don’t grow from the ground up; they are usually the result of huge investment in refinement — focus, filter, forget — until complex tasks are distilled into beautiful processes. Show me a system or app that you admire and I’ll show you a building full of product managers, information architects, UX designers, quality assessors, and beta testers (as David Crotty said in giving this post an editorial review, “Apple’s true success is less about catching lightning in a bottle, and more about slow, incremental evolution“). Show me a bargain APC and I’ll show you complaints about the quality of the peer review, editing, or production values.
- Wrong team – many would-be disruptors fail to recognize strategic gaps and bring in the right people to fill those gaps. For example, academia is alive with start-ups whose strong ideas are rooted in well-understood market needs — but most don’t progress, because the founder is primarily focused on his or her academic career, and lacks the capacity or business expertise to ensure those strong ideas are well executed.
- Underinvestment in marketing – building on that same point, I meet a lot of people who have executed an idea well but, further down the line, are broke and bitter and bemused about why their brilliant, beautiful innovation still hasn’t taken off. Conspiracy theorists lurk here but mostly, painfully obviously, it’s because of a “build it and they will come” expectation, and an underestimation of the extraordinary efforts and costs that will have gone into promoting successful incumbents. According to various studies cited in this post, marketing investment in successful companies ranges from 10%-50% of revenue, with smaller companies investing more, and those trying to launch consumer products (essentially what many academic start-ups are trying to do) investing most.
- Poor timing – coincidentally, as I’m writing this, Robert Harrington has posted about “the art of balance.” He touches on the need for organizations to find the “right time” for innovation, and the same is true for new players seeking to bring about change. When’s the right time to launch? When your idea doesn’t just meet a need (not urgent enough) but solves a problem (or better still, addresses a requirement)? When disenchantment with the incumbents’ failure to do this is so strong you can taste it? When your product is ready? (deliberately not my first point here, as launch timing should be about more than just when you’ve finished development). As Robert says, getting the timing right may mean “not going first”. Facebook wasn’t first to market. Spotify wasn’t first to market. Apple wasn’t first to market. In the digital publishing sense, scholarly players were first to market, and this is why the tag “ripe for disruption” is so often bandied about. The established players — publishers themselves, journal hosts, manuscript submission systems — might be characterized as the Blackberry of our sector. They were quick to embrace digital and got web-based services to market quickly — meaning that their challenge ever since has been how to maintain and innovate at the same time (rebuilding the plane while flying it). Potential disruptors get to come in late, learn from progress made by the pioneers, and develop something leaner, sexier — and cheaper.
Dodging all of these pitfalls requires experience. It’s not necessary that that experience comes from the sector you seek to disrupt, but as Joe Esposito has also pointed out here in the Kitchen, it will surely help you if it does. Innovators on the inside are more powerful, because they know the size and shape of the switching barriers, and the weak spots within them. They know the market dynamics and who the customer is. They have realistic expectations of what it will cost to achieve their goals, and what kinds of people and activities will be necessary to make that happen. They might even once have been disruptors themselves, as one could suggest commercial publishers are in terms of having shifted the business model of the university-press dominated journals market in the middle of the last century (thanks to David Crotty for reminding me of this, and Mike Clarke’s thought-provoking post on the topic). When I look at many of the foomongers eyeing up scholarly publishing today, I see people trying to reinvent what they currently see, rather than looking at the market and trying to understand its problems afresh. They think the established players in scholarly publishing are Blackberries; I wonder if in fact they’re Apples — not currently at the peak of popularity, but with the potential to use their experience to innovate from within, thereby leapfrogging the Blackberry to come up with the iPhone.