Transcript: The Shape Of User Demand

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How User Demand Shapes Your Organization’s Policy


  • Brian O’Leary, founder and principal, Magellan Media Consulting
  • Judith Russell, Dean of University Libraries, University of Florida
  • Martha Whittaker, Sr. Manager, Marketing Strategy, American Society for Microbiology

Recorded at NFAIS Annual Conference, Washington, DC

For podcast release Monday, March 16, 2015

KENNEALLY: We just heard from the startups – or the upstarts as some of you may think of them. Now we turn to individuals from long-established, even time-honored organizations and backgrounds who view the world of change from the perspective of experience. As Tim Collins reminded us yesterday, it is possible to see change not only as revolution but also as evolution.

My hotel room looked toward the Potomac and the runways of Reagan National Airport. This morning, I watched the slow, careful choreography of jets and turboprops as they ascended and descended from the tarmac. Of course, these 21st-century marvels of engineering were hardly alone for the morning commute. Automobiles snaked through the streets below while metro cars and freight trains ran along nearby tracks like children’s toys.

I became aware of the overlapping of technologies and of centuries. I suppose if I had waited long enough, I might even have glimpsed a river barge. It’s not a stretch, in fact, to say that I could see back over nearly four centuries.

If we think of new platforms and new technologies as something like new vehicles and new roads across what we once called the information superhighway, we must recognize there will be the need and the demand for new traffic patterns. Just as the railroads run along the river and the highways line up with but don’t ever cross the runways, the complexities can be managed if we approach the challenge as enablers rather than inhibitors. And we’ll discuss how some of these players that will be speaking with see themselves in that role as enablers, and indeed, how they use the instrument of policy to enable change.

I’ll introduce our panelists now. Moving from the very far end, Judith Russell. Judith Russell, welcome. Judith Russell is currently the dean of university libraries at the University of Florida, the largest information resource system in the state of Florida. She previously was superintendent of documents at the US Government Printing Office serving from 2003 to early 2007.

Judith Russell also served as deputy director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, the federal agency that advises the president and Congress on the information needs of the American people. There, she developed and helped to implement commission policy and was responsible for day-to-day operation of the agency.

To her right is Brian O’Leary, and, Brian, welcome. Brian is founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting. He helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian O’Leary writes extensively on publishing industry issues from territorial rights in the digital age to the use of metadata in the book industry supply chain. He was co-editor of Book: A Futurist Manifesto, a collection of essays from the bleeding edge of publishing, and a guide to what comes next when all books are truly digital, connected, and ubiquitous.

And then finally to my left closest to me is Martha Whittaker. Martha, welcome. Martha is senior manager of marketing strategy at the American Society for Microbiology here in Washington. The American Society for Microbiology is the oldest and largest single life science membership organization in the world, today with more than 39,000 members, more than one third of them located outside the US. Martha joined ASM in 2013 as platform product manager for ASM Science, the society’s digital publishing platform.

Martha Whittaker was previously director of content management at the George Washington University’s Gelman Library and has held management positions at Blackwell Book Services, ProQuest, Knight Ridder, and the UnCover Company.

It has been a conference theme here around user experience, and these raise a number of issues, particularly for the traditional players. And, Brian O’Leary, if I could start with you, because you work with many of those players to help them discover for themselves just how they are going to make their way into the future. What happens if we don’t face these issues, Brian?

O’LEARY: Easy question? There’s a natural tendency to say, well, you’ll have to or you’ll fail. But when things break, they typically don’t break in an explosive fashion. They tend to decline over time. Things become harder. It’s like you’re walking through mud or molasses.

And I think what we’re seeing now is that the things that used to be easy are now hard, and we’re not quite sure, so the conversation that takes place within publishers, within libraries and different settings is – well, we used to be able to get this or we knew how to get this or we knew how to do this, and we also knew pretty much everybody that needed to be in the room.

Now it’s less the case. And I think that a failure to sort of actively embrace this will erode the effectiveness of the established ecosystem. Other things will come in to replace it, but it’s possible, as incumbents, that we won’t be part of it.

KENNEALLY: And part of it too is to be less – if we can be – less reactive, more proactive. As we heard from the panel this morning, those startups there are approaching things from their own perspective outside of publishing itself, often, and I believe one of the panelists even described the situation as kind of a layer covering over publishing, and it felt very much as if publishing was sort of outside of these problem solution providers. Is that how publishing sees themselves, as kind of on the outside looking in at this point?

O’LEARY: Well, I’m sure publishing does not see itself that way, but I think what happens is in effect it is. It’s the absence of a world view. The thing that was interesting about the startup conversations that occurred both on Sunday and today was essentially reinforcing that we’re trying to solve a specific problem. And when you talk with publishers, they’re not really talking about solving a specific problem. You’re talking about delivery of a particular object, whether it’s physical or digital, sometimes access, but less often.

It’s not really looking at the user experience and then backing up, and I think that’s a big divide. We do tend to look at the problems in traditional ways, and I think that’s a limitation.

KENNEALLY: Right. Judith Russell, the user experience that you have to respond to is myriad at the University of Florida, because you have a variety of users, a variety of collections. Talk about the place of the user experience in the way you shape policy at UF.

RUSSELL: I think as Brian said, there’s a lot of outside forces now, and there’s a lot of innovation just on the part of the users themselves in terms of trying to find new ways to interact with us and with other sources, and even to go around and find other ways to get at information if they don’t feel that the way we’re providing it is adequate.

So we do spend a lot of time trying to understand what they’re doing on their own, what they need from us, and trying to adapt what we’re doing and trying not to let the tradition of how we’ve done it before – or even the tradition of our relationships with the content providers – inhibit our ability to interact with them and respond to the way they’re seeking information.

KENNEALLY: How difficult a challenge is that then to move beyond tradition into this new approach?

RUSSELL: Well, it’s very difficult. We’ve got 50,000 students, so we have probably 100,000 opinions on everything. That’s not even counting the faculty, right? And so part of it is trying to address the complexity in terms of the range of content and the different styles of learning and exploration. So we find ourselves I think trying to be all things to all people, and we still have some people who don’t want to let go either of providing or of receiving the more traditional services, and other people who are really out in front pulling us along and saying, come on, let’s do it this way.

And I think that’s been a challenge for a lot of libraries is you’d like to think you could shed some of the old in order to reallocate resources to the new, but so often, particularly in a very large organization, you just end up stretching yourself across the spectrum rather than being able to stop some things to do others. So we’re in a constant state of assessing, is there something we can stop doing now because the use has diminished enough that we can move the resources forward?

KENNEALLY: And it’s not so much stopping and starting, but making choices about what’s going to have a priority.


KENNEALLY: And as you say, trying to be all things to all people is a thankless if not a fruitless task. And UF has made some decisions about how it’s going to focus its collection. We heard again in the opening discussion today about focus and keeping focus, how important that was to the mission of these startups. It’s equally important to your mission at the library.

RUSSELL: Yes, and absolutely we are so much more engaged in digital content that if anything is being left behind or minimized, we’re still managing our print collections, but we’re not growing our print collections except in disciplines where print remains the major way of getting content, like in some of the foreign materials.

KENNEALLY: And that’s important at UF because you have a special collection that is, I believe, the Digital Library of the Caribbean. So really, you are working not only across media but across national boundaries, across languages.

RUSSELL: And I think that’s been a very important part of the way all of us are changing is that it’s more about collaboration. It’s more about trying to find unique content from a whole variety of sources. The only way we can possibly meet the complex needs of our university is by relying on every source we can possibly tap into, whether that’s commercial or whether it’s open source, or through these kinds of collaborations.

KENNEALLY: And the subject of our discussion today is about satisfying demand, the impact on policy. But I wonder whether satisfying demand in the ways you’re talking about is really having an impact on the culture of the organization, not simply policy.

RUSSELL: Well, I think it is both culture and policy.

KENNEALLY: Distinguish those for us. How do you view them differently?

RUSSELL: Well, sometimes, the traditional policies get in the way of things that we want to do. They get in the way of the collaborative relationships because they don’t follow kind of traditional models. Sometimes, we end up with just the inability of people who are in key positions in our organizations to anticipate and adapt to change, so we have the need to work within the overall structure about how they understand and permit and encourage collaboration. But we also need to be working on change management with our faculty and staff to help them understand what’s coming and anticipate it and prepare for it and be as comfortable as possible with it.

KENNEALLY: Not easy, I’m sure.

RUSSELL: No, but a lot of fun. We were talking earlier that perhaps policy changes are among the things that make being in this environment among the most exciting because there really is a sense that you are making a difference and that you’re tilting at some windmills and it’s really satisfying when you can knock one down.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, Martha Whittaker at the Association of Microbiology, there’s a way that ASM members are making change. They are discovering new treatments for various diseases. They’re uncovering the very secrets of life, actually. But the Association itself is also going through tremendous change driven by a number of things – but particularly the shift in the paradigm as far as the user that you focus on – from the library, from the subscription model, to the author, to the researcher, and to open access. Talk about how that shift is having an impact on the policy at ASM.

WHITTAKER: I will make it clear that I work for the American Society for Microbiology. We have two publishing divisions. We have the publishing that goes on in another division. It’s a very large, diverse organization in many ways. We’re involved in a lot of different activities.

Publishing and the goals of our publishing divisions and the goals of the Society writ large are very closely aligned, as it should be. So some of the things I will say are true for the Society, some of the things are specifically about our publications division. But I will say that we’re a not-for-profit. Membership makes a minority contribution to our overall revenue picture, and any of you who’ve worked with societies are not surprised to hear this. Our publications division makes up 41% of our revenue.

And our journals division has just undergone a strategic planning exercise. They are very focused on the fact that the business model, the subscription paywall, is going away, that besides our users, scientists and researchers in the science-interested public, we also need to be sure that we’re meeting the needs of our authors and be sure that ASM continues to be a place where outstanding microbiology and allied sciences is published.

So there is within our organization a renewed, perhaps, emphasis on marketing to the author and making sure that we understand the author’s needs, wants, making sure that our publications go to press – or become available even pre-publication – quickly. There’s that, and we do have a real focus on that. And I don’t think anybody at this point in our history is oblivious to the needs of the author and how important authors are to us.

But we also are struggling with the fact that I said in my first remarks that the revenue that we get from publications is over 40 percent of our overall revenue, and while the Society is very financially stable, we don’t have just tons of money. We can’t be cavalier about our money. And so we do worry about what will happen to that revenue. I think there’s pretty much general agreement that we will never make enough from APCs – author processing charges that we charge the authors. You all know what APCs are? OK. We will never make up our subscription revenue.

So we have – and particularly I – have these two different roles. We need to be good business people. We need to be aware of our costs and our revenues. We also need to be aware of the Society’s mission to make scientific knowledge freely available. So open access is certainly an ideal that we hold to. The problem for us and for a lot of us out in society publishing similar to my size is that we haven’t figured out what that magic business model is that will take us from the subscription model to the open access model.

Librarians – and I am a librarian by background, so I’m not beating up on some outside group. This is me. Librarians are congratulating themselves right now on making open access happen. We’ve gotten those publishers and we’re making them make their stuff available for free, and that’s nice.

And the big publishers – if there’s somebody who wants to argue with me about this, I certainly want to talk about it. But the big publishers are in a place where it’s not all that scary for them to launch a new open access journal because it’s actually an additional revenue stream for them. OK, it may not cost recover, but it’s a new revenue stream. And the large, well-established commercial publishers are pretty secure in their subscription revenue. As long as impact factors matters to people, the large commercial publishers that have many titles, many packages, are getting another revenue stream so that they can straddle both sides.

KENNEALLY: Right. And Brian O’Leary, I know you’re something of an evangelist when it comes to data and the importance of it for publishing moving forward, and particularly standards around all of that data. It’s perhaps true, isn’t it, that there really isn’t a point in collecting that data if you don’t have some intention to do something with it.

O’LEARY: Yeah, I think that’s a truism. I think that the underlying thing that we haven’t quite touched on explicitly is that – because the question became – for this panel, is satisfying demand. I think the first thing you have to do is understand demand, because I think we’re moving from essentially supply management to demand management, and that’s a very different model.

And that led me – a few years ago, I was writing about it and I talked about the importance of being open, accessible, and interoperable as a principle, and you’ve already touched upon this, as well. The critical role that context or metadata plays in discovery is a principle, and yet metadata has often been seen as a supply chain thing rather than a demand piece.

KENNEALLY: Great point.

O’LEARY: And so, when you reconceive metadata as a component of demand, a whole different ballgame, and policies shift along that line, as well.

The third thing I thought was, you compete on breadth of use, not cost. Being efficient is not a really good thing, having your content widely dispersed, widely used, reused. And business models need to be developed, but we tend to go to the business model first rather than talk about what the demand piece was.

And then the final thing is – and I think some libraries are getting involved in this, and certainly publishers as well – is that you’ve got to provide tools to help readers manage abundance. There’s just so much content, and this has been a recurring theme here.

The problem is with these four – I’m not sure that they rise to the level of principles, but these four ideas – is that that’s a world view that does not exist widely, so it’s hard for people to then say, OK, let’s organize the information this way, because you go to, as you’ve had this experience, what’s the business model? How are we going to pay for it? And that’s a systemic thing. That’s one of the reasons why I’m glad NFAIS made this such a core theme of this conference.

RUSSELL: I think too there’s a part of that that really deals with sustainability, and I think it applies to the publishers and the societies as well as to the libraries. Research libraries have historically had a role in kind of preserving the intellectual knowledge for future generations as well as current, and so we’ve tended to focus on building collections for current use but also with anticipation of future use.

Most of us don’t have that financial luxury in quite the way that we did before, but we’re still very conscious, and it’s even more difficult to do in the digital environment of the fact that we can’t really know what users are going to want and need of these materials five and 10 years from now. And so our institutional responsibility and our relationship with the publishers is a really important one to try to assure that while we’re focused on the current demand, we don’t lose sight of that responsibility for what future users are going to need.

KENNEALLY: Martha, I know that ASM has a privacy policy published on its website and goes into great detail on some of these questions. Respond to that notion of the concern around privacy and what we give up when we give up data.

WHITTAKER: I think it’s not just a library/publisher problem. It’s ubiquitous because everybody’s going through this. We want all of these services that give up our privacy. We want to be able to find out where the closest Pizza Hut is. We want to be able to find out how we get from my house to your house. We want to have somebody give us sidebar ads that are exactly what we’ve been shopping for. We like this, and most people kind of get a kick out of it. But at the same time, we’re going, oh my God, privacy! What am I letting out?

In the medical community, we have some fairly good protocols about what you can disclose and what you can’t. But even those are subject to breach. So I think as a society, we either have to get over our obsession with privacy or figure out what the rules really are and make sure that they’re fungible enough to change as we need, because this I want customized services versus I want my privacy – it’s forever going to be battling each other.

KENNEALLY: Brian O’Leary, a last word on policy and privacy.

O’LEARY: I would just say I’m very much in the camp of favoring privacy in all these settings, but what I was advocating is a decision that’s controlled by the owner, the user rather than by the institution. A terms of service agreement that effectively allows you to gather all this information in background, no one reads the TOS. I think it should be an explicit tradeoff where the transparency is there.

KENNEALLY: Right. Well, I want to thank our panel today, Judith Russell, the dean of university libraries, University of Florida, Martha Whittaker, senior manager, marketing strategy, American Society for Microbiology, and Brian O’Leary, founder principal of Magellan Media Consulting. Thank you all for a terrific conversation on the impact and policy. Thank you so much.


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