Today we feature an interview with Darrell W. Gunter. I was privileged to get to know Darrell through his leadership in the STM Association and have followed his work since then on the impact and potential of new technologies on scholarly publishing.
Darrell is the editor of a new book on Transforming Scholarly Publishing With Blockchain Technologies and AI. This book contains contributions from several dozen guest contributors and a number of pieces from Darrell, reflecting on these new forms of technology and some of the ways they may impact the scholarly publishing sector. In today’s interview, Darrell speaks at length about the sector, its history, and some of its future directions.
You’ve been involved in the scholarly publishing sector in several roles over the course of time. What kinds of changes have you seen in scholarly communications?
My journey started after I graduated from Seton Hall University when Xerox hired me to be a Marketing Representative selling copiers to local businesses in a few towns in NJ. On my first day at work, I walked into the demo room a saw the Xerox Star System. In 1981 it was the state of the art word processor. The monitor featured icons (files), a keyboard, and a mouse. After playing with the Star System, I asked my manager if I would be able to sell it, he explained that Information Services Division represented it. This interaction with the Star System prompted me to purchase the Xerox 820 computer, which featured two 5 1/4 floppy disks.
I stayed at Xerox for two years, then was recruited to Dow Jones Financial News Services and DJ News Retrieval (Factiva). So my digital journey would begin at Dow Jones, and over my 13-year tenure, it prepared me for the most significant industry transformative experience at Elsevier.
Elsevier selected me to be the first RSO Director for the Americas. The three strategic objectives were to build the organization, which consisted of sales, marketing, customer service, and IT, convert their print business to digital with the launch of ScienceDirect, and introduce long-term agreements. During my 11 years, my team successfully launched ScienceDirect, Scopus, College Markets, BioTechSelect, and dozens of other digital products.
At some point, John Regazzi introduced me to Steve Leicht, who was the COO at Collexis. Steve shared with me a wireframe of BiomedExperts.com and demonstrated the Mediator application with its Semantic Search. The two products represented the next steps of innovation in the STM industry. Biomedexperts.com would become the LinkedIn of scholarly researchers, and Mediator with its Semantic Search would transform how researchers conduct their search.
The following two years, we spent considerable time educating the marketplace about Collexis and our semantic search. It took us two years to get on the podium of the STM annual meeting. But we built the company to $6 million in revenue in three years and then sold it to Elsevier.
I have been very blessed to be at the crossroads of the industry and new technology, and after being the pied piper of semantic search, which uses AI, I found myself in a similar position with Blockchain. My first impression was that the industry was not giving this new technology a fair shot. For example, a reminiscence of the 2001 PSP meeting held a panel debating whether books would be fully digitized. I believe that several publishers held off on digitizing their book collection based on that panel.
It was clear that too few individuals understood the potential impacts of Blockchain on our economy, let alone on our sector. I needed to learn more about this technology and signed up for the executive course at MIT on Blockchain. A lot of folks were deep into Blockchain in exciting ways. During the seven-week course, weekly case study assignments required you to apply that week’s lesson to an actual application. It allowed me to expand my thoughts and understand how Blockchain technology applies to the scholarly publishing industry.
So, where are we in the digital transformation of the sector?
My view is that we are in the stone age. If you look at AI and semantic search — it hasn’t taken off. Folks are still using a standard boolean search. AI can be used in so many different ways. Blockchain is very early days and has so much great promise. Unfortunately, it is equated to cryptocurrency, but it’s not about that at all.
This is my caution to publishers. You don’t want to be Telerate. Telerate had 100% of the market before Bloomberg. Bloomberg had better analytics, better customer service, better user experience. Unfortunately, the Bancroft family took a multibillion-dollar bath with Telerate. A lot of publishers are very hesitant to try Blockchain. Someone will create a better mousetrap that will make publishing so much more effective than it currently is.
I remember speaking with a librarian in 1999, as we were rolling out ScienceDirect, who insisted that the internet would go away and print would resurge. We’ve had so many panels about whether ebooks will ever come to fruition. In this industry, we make the error of ignoring so much new technology — it’s great to challenge it for efficacy — that debate is always worthwhile, but any new technology shouldn’t be dismissed outright.
It’s clear that there are real business impediments facing the major incumbent houses in adopting new approaches to technology. Is the startup ecosystem, therefore, the way to address these?
It’s all about the ecosystem. This industry has the tools to create what is needed. We’ve done it with the DOI, CrossRef, and ORCID. Eefke Smit has led many industry-wide projects with the STM STEC group. The industry comes together when projects are in everyone’s interest.
What this industry does best is gather content from quality researchers. But they are creating all these interfaces because everyone feels they want to own the desktop. But unfortunately, the only one who owns the desktop is the user, who will choose how they do their work. In my opinion, Elsevier has the semantic search technology and chooses not to deploy it fully. Likewise, Google has the technology and chooses not to use it. Probably because more precise search results in fewer pages and ads.
To your point, a startup can introduce a new Blockchain application, and it can be the better mousetrap. Then someone big acquires them, and the latest technology gets shoved in the closet, like GM acquiring the railroad in LA in the 1930s so they could shut it down and sell more cars. That is not the approach we need to see.
I hypothesize that the long-term ROI for Blockchain will be beneficial to all stakeholders, including the librarian community, who will support this because it will decrease costs.
As you know, there is a good deal of skepticism in some parts of the sector about Blockchain. What is an actual use case for Blockchain?
Blockchain is a distributed ledger that is a glorified Excel spreadsheet. Blockchain provides clarity and transparency. In accounting, parlance clarity and transparency represents having checks and balances. That’s what Blockchain does.
Let’s look at peer review. Double-anonymized, open, crowd-sourced — put that aside. In traditional peer review, an author submits a paper. If the peer review system is derived from Blockchain, you’ll see when the article was received, when sent out for peer review, when replies are received. It provides clarity and transparency to the author and others about the process. Items are not lost; there is no miscommunication.
Of course, there is no silver bullet, and Blockchain doesn’t have a monopoly to solving these problems, but it is a compelling technology. For example, a production process on a blockchain would be tremendously streamlined. On the other hand, Blockchain runs the risk of displacing existing businesses.
There is a real gap here, a real opportunity space. Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, Digital Science had a promising project for peer review utilizing the distributed ledger model. But that has come to an end. There is something going on for peer review, but not commercially available in the marketplace. However, I have had confidential conversations with a few industry colleagues exploring use cases utilizing Blockchain.
In the book, we provide current products and services that are using Blockchain and other future potential use cases.
And how about AI applications — what can we expect to see there?
Recall and Precision are critical. Recall is defined as bringing back all relevant search results. Precision is defined as the search results will be in context to the search. For example, a search term, “Dolly, the Sheep, would not bring back a search result including Dolly Parton or the River Jordan, not Michael Jordan. Semantic search understands the entire context of the search query, could be a paragraph or a full paper, where you digitally fingerprint it to understand its words. We can bring forth better and faster research by providing the correct information in context.
What does this mean for you? Where are you going next?
My business is consulting as an ongoing concern. I’m contemplating my next steps in Blockchain and AI as I am having discussions with a third-party developer about doing something in one of these areas. I am also in talks with a couple of groups to see what we can do. I have a hypothesis that blockchain and semantic search can help serve the researcher and open up scholarly research to the long tail on a more affordable basis.
My predictions about technology and business models have been pretty good throughout my career, and I am betting that Blockchain technologies and AI will usher in substantial new opportunities for the industry,
This book’s goal is to help people ask the big what-if questions, think big about the problems we are trying to solve, and not just be protective and defensive about the status quo. I hope that the leadership within the industry educates themselves about Blockchain and AI and engages in thoughtful Blockchain and AI projects.