Thoughts on ALPSP and future of society publishers

I returned yesterday from Birmingham, UK and the 2013 ALPSP international conference. It was great to listen, to present, and of course nice that PeerJ won an award for its publishing innovation (we’ll do a proper post about that on the PeerJ blog shortly). 

I spent some time talking with different society publishers and staff. This was new for me. My co-founder at PeerJ is much more seasoned in the publishing world than me - I’m the outsider coming from more of a quasi tech/academia/academic software background. Thus, my perspective on the current situation facing publishing is probably refreshing, naive, flat out wrong in some areas, but dead right in other areas. Yes, I’m qualifying what I’m about to say next :) …

If I had to choose one analogy to describe the state of publishing it would be a deer paralyzed in a beam of on-coming headlights. From numerous discussions at the annual ALPSP meeting, it became apparent that society publishers in particular are standing still in fear, unsure of which way to turn, or to make that risky move. From a high-level bit of questioning, it seemed many publishers didn’t have the right mix of people in their organizations for the digital world.

There was an interesting plenary session with Ziyad Marar (SAGE), Timo Hannay (Digital Science), Victor Henning (Mendeley/Elsevier), and Louise Russell (a publishing consultant). Ziyad and Timo seemed to have opposing perspectives on what a publisher today should be composed of or targeting. Ziyad was on the side of focusing on content, while TImo more on the side of focusing on the tech. That’s a simplification, and both of them probably value and implement both in their orgs, but the extreme views are the two sides of what I see in publishers today. Those who do not have people in place, either through empowerment or directly though titled positions, to make technology a center piece of their organization risk being stuck in the headlights.  

I’ll be even more specific than technology, it’s user experience. We can all blame Apple for this one too. It may not be dominant over content just yet, but it’s coming, and those who do not have the tools and people in place will be left behind. This was missing in the organizations of many who I spoke with at ALPSP. And to do user experience right, you need to be focusing on the right technologies and the right product strategies,  with the right people. I gave a high-level talk on cloud computing and many commented how they just didn’t have the people within the society to make it possible. That’s a mistake, not because cloud computing is the answer, but because you can’t then focus on building the tools needed to please the future reader, author, reviewer, etc.

What’s also interesting is that user experience isn’t something new to publishing, it’s been going on for 300 years. We think of publishers as just delivering content, but they’ve been tweaking the layout and typography of that content for centuries to make it more legible, more comprehensible, etc. That’s user experience. To make that happen today though requires people with different skill-sets than even a decade ago, and those people are either avoiding careers in publishing, not given priority, not empowered enough, or not even considered.

Before Pete (PeerJ co-founder) and I announced PeerJ in 2012 I related to him a little research that I had done on PLOS and lack of technology focus. This came about because we wanted people to know how PeerJ would be different than what had come before. I went through the WayBackMachine on the Internet Archive to look at PLOS’s website history. One thing stood out to me - it took several years before any tech-related people started to appear in the staff list and even today (like other publishers) tech empowered employees are not in positions of business strategy. I wanted PeerJ to make engineers equal to the editorial positions, and that’s how we’re different. That’s what’s needed if society publishers are going to continue. 

Really, it isn’t tech versus content. They support each other, the only problem is that there are a lack of people in the position to make it happen today. Yesterday’s typographers are today’s user experience engineers, today’s human-computer interaction experts, today’s software engineers. That’s what scared me the most in all of my conversations at ALPSP, the missing people.