I Hear the Train a Comin'

by | Nov 8, 2012 | 0 comments

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Innovation panel (L-R) Peter Binfield, Greg Tannenbaum, Timo Hannay

Greg Tannenbaum, CEO, ScholarNext, writes a column with that title in Against the Grain, and it has become a tradition at the Charleston Conference for him to present a live version.  This year, his event took the form of a conversation with two industry leaders–Peter Binfield (Co-Founder and Publisher, Peerj) and Timo Hannay (Managing Director, Digital Science).  The topic was innovation, and Greg asked the panelists questions (in italics below) to stimulate the discussion.

What does innovation mean to you?

Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.  There is no guarantee of success.    It is something that you don’t know what will result.  You must have a vision and be able to take a risk.

Are we fundamentally an innovative or a conservative industry?

We are fundamentally conservative.  There have been some examples of innovation, but not nearly enough.  Innovation is bubbling up in our industry, and it seems to be concentrated on open access.  This is encouraging.

Why do you think that is?

Publishing is going through a profound revolution now.  It has not done anything like this before.  We’re now in a networked digital world, and we need to find value in new ways.  There is a huge role for information specialists of all times.   Information is getting more important.  Dissemination of information has been commoditized, so we must find new ways to do it.  There is still lots of opportunity to do things differently, and it is incumbent upon us to experiment with them.  We would be crazy not to make the most of that.

What challenges do scholarly publishers and technology companies face in this space?

People are much more willing to take risks.  You have to be adept in the new technologies of the era.  Many publishers never want to be in the technology business, but that severely limits their opportunities.  We also serve inherently conservative markets, like academia.  There   are many different challenges, but we have seen some progress.  We are a very consolidated industry, with 4 or 5 very large publishers and many smaller ones.  The big publishers’ mindset is to serve their customer base.  New markets bubbling up are not of much interest to them because the revenues are small.  Therefore, there is not much impetus to innovate.

Does the trend towards openness help to drive innovation in academia?

It is native to open access.  What new businesses does it enable?  Openness is enabling a certain type of innovation in our industry.  Publishing is like many other areas; it is vulnerable to innovation.  Now is the time to invest and re-invent yourself.  It is an unfortunate reflection on publishers that we are seeing innovation coming from young startup companies without many resources.  Much innovation is coming from outside our industry.

What is the role of the academic library in fostering innovation in scholarly communication?

It is incumbent on all players to embrace this change.  Each needs to play its part.  All of us need to be able to disseminate information and knowledge to support our mission.  We need to support innovation wherever we see it, even if it means taking a risk.  You don’t need to have lots of money to innovate.    Libraries could be innovators themselves because they understand both sides of the industry: publishers and users.

What role can the library play in taking information and doing something with it?

Historically, libraries have filtered and curated content for their audience.  Librarians should be excited about the possibility of building tools to help their audience.  They should work closely with publishers and collaborating with them.  We serve a common end of facilitating the dissemination of knowledge.

What are the lessons you have learned about trying to accelerate big picture change?

It’s hard.  Established organizations have priorities.  There are challenges at every level.  Over time, things do change, however.  We often underestimate how far things have already come.  Stretch the envelope but don’t break it.  Don’t go so far that nobody will submit to your innovations. If we can make it very easy for scientists to share their data and provide easy metrics on the impact that has had, we might be able to nudge the incentive system in the right direction.

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Don Hawkins blogs about conferences for Information Today and Against The Grain. He also maintains the Conference Calendar on the Information Today website and is the Editor of Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, published by Information Today in 2013, and Co-Editor of Public Knowledge: Access and Benefits, published by Information Today in 2016. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked in the information industry for over 45 years.

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