Continuing our Kitchen Essentials series of interviews with leaders of infrastructure organizations, today we’re hearing from Will Schweitzer, CEO Silverchair, an independent platform partner for scholarly and professional publishers.

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Please tell us a bit about yourself — your role at Silverchair, how you got there, and why you embarked on a career in research infrastructure?

I’m Silverchair’s CEO. I joined the company five years ago as our head of product after spending over fifteen years in journals publishing roles at the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Science Magazine, SAGE, the American Psychological Association, and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

I didn’t start out wanting a career in research infrastructure. I initially wanted to be an English teacher, but found myself in a publishing job that paid better, was fun, and where I had a great boss (thank you Susan Harris!). I’ve been in publishing ever since.

Back in the early ‘00s, publishers were just starting their digital transformations. I had to learn to use a fax machine. Manuscript submissions were still coming in on diskettes. Copyediting and proofreading were done on paper with bicolor pencils. Journals were increasingly going online and into databases like Ovid or PsycARTICLES (I can still remember my first HighWire admin portal login). There was a lot to learn, and technology was rapidly changing everything in our business. The infrastructure and standards we almost take for granted today was just being developed, and I saw first-hand the impact that infrastructure can have during times of change.

Ever since those early days, I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about infrastructure and technology so I could help others understand how scholarly publishing could evolve. This is one of the many reasons I’m excited to show up for work every day.

What do you like most and least about working in research infrastructure?

What I like the most is that I’m still learning. There’s so much to learn about today’s technologies and how we can apply things like artificial intelligence to scholarly communications. I learn something about software development nearly every day from my colleagues at Silverchair. Our clients always want to try new things. It’s impossible to be bored.

What I like the least is how frequently technology is misunderstood. Good products aren’t cheap. Quality, reliability, and scale come at a cost. As a publisher, I often underestimated the complexity of the technology behind my products. I’d trial new software products without ensuring we had the right people and processes or capacity to evaluate their success. These are all human problems rather than technological ones. Technology isn’t magic and the people developing, evaluating, implementing, or managing a solution are far more important than actual lines of code.

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give someone starting, or thinking of starting, a career in research infrastructure?

Be tirelessly curious and adaptable. We are at a similar technological juncture today as when I started in publishing. Then, it was digitizing content and processes, and now it is AI and related technologies that are set to transform so many aspects of our industry. Learn as much as you can about your end users and your stakeholders and have a sharp understanding of your value proposition.

What sort of infrastructure does Silverchair provide, and who are your users?

Silverchair provides a content hosting and productization platform for publishers. The Silverchair Platform is home to 36 publishers (and counting) across hundreds of imprints. We help deliver more than 450,000 online products from those publishers to millions of users across the world. Our platform will support more than 1 billion content views this year.

Publishers, including their content, product, and marketing teams, use the Silverchair Platform and its tools to host their content products. These products include books, journals, proceedings, reference works, as well as news, policy, and education content. The content on, and data from, our platform is then used by a wide array of folks including students, doctors, librarians, practitioners, and, increasingly, non-human users.

How is Silverchair sustained financially?

Silverchair is a 30-year-old for-profit private company. We’re sustained by licensing and service fees paid by our publishers to use our technology. We also received a growth investment from Thompson Street Capital Partners, a private equity firm, in September 2022, that is enabling us to grow in several different ways.

As the leader(s) of a research infrastructure organization, what do you think are the biggest opportunities we’ve not yet realized as a community — and what’s stopping us?

Our community has talked endlessly about system interoperability and seamless user experience, especially given the importance of high-quality, highly-structured content and people data. It is maddening that we haven’t achieved this in twenty years. Valuable data is often lost as content and users move from submission on to final publication. This data can help publishers with all the major challenges we hear about today – research integrity, open access commerce, new product development, member engagement, author recruitment, you name it.

What’s stopping us is investment and capital structures in our market. There are entire classes of workflow solutions in our space that require modernization. Rewriting software is incredibly expensive and time consuming. Maintaining software is increasingly expensive, particularly as our products now require greater accessibility, security, and system performance. It is nearly impossible to do any of this without sustainable scale and financing. I worry about publishers adding more components to their technology stacks, introducing more complexity or fragmentation, and adding in more long-term costs at a time when future growth is uncertain.

Looking at your own organization, what are you most proud of, and what keeps you awake at night?

I’m most proud of Silverchair’s culture and community. We have an amazing team of Silverchairians across the globe who work hard to support our clients and our mission of delivering scholarly and scientific knowledge to the world. Our growing publisher community is incredible too. We have so many innovative and thoughtful partners who collaborate with us and with each other to advance scholarly publishing.

What keeps me awake at night is the uncertainty of what might happen to this community in the future. A great number of Silverchair publishers are smaller commercial operations or self-publishing associations and societies. These publishers are vital parts of the research enterprise, and many feel tenuous about their futures. Several societies publishers of this type have already sought commercial publishing arrangements or have sold their publications outright. We talk about this trend in abstract terms like hegemony or monoculture, but further consolidation may be disastrous for emerging and underserved areas of scholarship, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Consolidation certainly won’t help Silverchair’s growth either. We see helping independent publishers remain so as a critical piece of our job, and we know this won’t be easy given today’s market trends.

What impact has/does/will AI have on Silverchair?

We believe AI will fundamentally change how scholarship is created, disseminated, and discovered in time. Like everyone else, we’re trying to figure out how and by when. We recently announced the launch of Silverchair’s AI Lab to work closely with our publishers to co-create AI features and products for our community. Our first features include AI-generated summaries, SilverChat, a tool to help our publishers get the most out of the Silverchair Platform, and dynamic discovery, a feature that augments the traditional search experience with suggested prompts, content recommends, and more. Right now, we’re focusing on leveraging retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) models combined with multiple LLM agents to support high-quality user experiences or outcomes. This approach also allows publishers to retain control of their content and data. We think it has a lot of promise.

Internally, we’ve been using AI tools for over a year to make our work more efficient and to automate routine tasks in every part of our business: from people operations to our agile software development teams. There are a lot of creative ways AI can enhance our day-to-day work, and there’s still a lot for us to learn.

What changes do you think we’ll see in terms of the overall research infrastructure over the next five to ten years, and how will they impact the kinds of roles you’ll be hiring for at Silverchair?

I’ve thought most carefully about content hosting platforms, so I’ll start there. As publishers increasingly syndicate their content and given the potential impacts of AI workflow solutions on content discovery and consumption, we can envision a Silverchair Platform without a front-end or website interface where a user might search for or read content. In this possible future, the Silverchair Platform is a hub for content and data rather than a destination. It’ll be our job to help publishers understand how and where their content is being used and by whom. This means we’ll need more data analysts, engineers, and data-fluent product managers. Additionally, since we expect publishing to change considerably in the next five to ten years, we’ll need more staff with publishing industry experience who can build and maintain deep relationships with our publishers. Part of Silverchair’s success is our focus on service and our community. As we grow and our community evolves, we’ll need more account and community managers too. Silverchair is defined by its community, so as I said earlier, our people are more important than technology.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.