Timo Hannay is Managing Director of Digital Science, a Macmillan-owned technology company whose products and services serve the needs of scientific researchers. Prior to joining Digital Science, Timo worked at its sister organisation, Nature Publishing Group, where he was director of Nature.com. In his former lives, Timo was a research neurophysiologist (in Oxford and Tokyo), journalist (at The Economist and Nature) and management consultant (at McKinsey & Co.)
Digital Science has a fascinating and diverse business model, which sees the company develop its own products while also acting as an early stage investor and incubator in innovative start-ups targeting the scientific community. As such it is an example of a growing number of ventures launched by major publishers that aim to take the venture capital and incubator-led model of developing new businesses that has proved so successful for the technology sector into publishing. You can read more about them on our blog here.
Timo will be joining the What is a publisher now? panel on 12th September at the ALPSP conference. Ahead of this, I talked to Timo about whether more publishers should be thinking of themselves as technologists and heard his views on how open access was fundamentally shifting the economic power in publishing away from readers and towards authors themselves.
JT - You're a researcher, management consultant and editor who now leads a company that sells software and services to researchers. What made you make this move, and did it represent a leap or a natural progression?
TH - To me, my career feels like it's been a natural progression, but that's certainly only with the benefit of hindsight. In particular, if anyone had told me when I was 25 that I'd end up becoming a publisher then I probably would have slit my wrists: our industry hardly has a reputation for excitement or innovation. But now that it's going through a huge disruptive transition, wrought mainly by new information technologies, it's actually a fascinating area in which to work.
Emotionally, I still see myself as a scientist, just not one who works at the lab bench anymore - and if you saw me doing an experiment then you would realise that this change alone is a major contribution to scientific progress ;). But I also love technology (in my teens I was an eager, if self-taught, programmer) and I find business very interesting too (the profit motive, when correctly applied, is a fine tool for concentrating the mind on things that other people actually find useful). My current role puts me at the intersection of science, technology and business, which feels like a good place for someone of my interests and background to be.
JT - in an earlier ALPSP event you said that the balance of economic power in scholarly publishing was shifting from the reader towards the author. What did you mean by that and what challenges does it represent to publishers?
TH - This is mainly caused by the rise of author-pays open-access publishing. A lot of attention is paid to the moral imperative to make research papers free to all. I have a lot of sympathy for that view, but the accompanying economic shift from readers as customers to authors as customers is just as significant. This is because an author with a particular paper to publish usually has a choice of several different journals and publishers, so can shop around for the best combination of prestige, service and price (or whatever combination of attributes they value). A reader, by contrast, typically has no choice about where they buy a particular piece of content, and if you absolutely need it then the publisher has you over a barrel.
Some people complain that scholarly publishers offer poor value for money, and in some cases the critics have a point. But the answer is not to do away with publishers, which will always be needed in one form or another. Rather, it's to create a more competitive market.
Switching from readers as customers to authors as customers is one way of achieving that aim. The challenge for publishers is to negotiate this transition, which is a rather profound one, and to succeed in the face of increasing competition and customer choice.
JT - You've worn many different hats in your career to date. Do you think multidisciplinary skills and experience is an important factor in building a career in scholarly publishing now?
TH - I only have experience of one company (Macmillan), so I find it very hard to generalise. The most I can say is that I think it's been important so far in the my (somewhat unconventional) career. I must say that I hope multidisciplinary skills are important across the industry because it would be a sign that we're up to the challenge of helping to reinvent human communication, and especially scholarly communication. To be honest, though, the technology industry is making the weather on this front right now, and I suspect that one reason publishers find it hard to keep up is that we're still populated by people who have a relatively traditional set of skills and a narrow worldview. I'm generalising massively here, of course, but if you compare tech companies with publishers as a whole then I think it's undeniable. And you can see the results for yourself: the main movers and shakers in publishing -- Amazon, Apple, Google -- aren't (traditional) publishers at all.
JT - Digital Science is owned by Macmillan. Do you think more scholarly publishers should be experimenting with building and then selling technology platforms and services?
TH - Of course not, otherwise we'd face even more competition. ;) Seriously though, I don't think that what we're doing would be right for all other publishers. But everyone in the industry should be asking themselves what purpose they serve, and how it's going to change (which it surely will, like it or not). And everyone should decide whether they want to be a leader or follower with respect to the various technology-driven disruptions that we're experiencing. In saying that, I'm in no way disparaging those who decide to follow: being a fast, intelligent follower can be a very effective strategy. Moreover, we're all followers in some areas even if we aspire to lead in others.
JT - Many publishers still prefer to bring in technology companies to execute on platforms and services. Do you think this is sustainable and/or desirable?
TH - Yes. We all buy some technologies and build others. Even software businesses such as ours licence things that we can't or don't want to build ourselves. I think a more important question is whether publishers see technology as a core competency. In my experience most don't, and that's a huge mistake. Publishing is the archetypal information industry and information technology is transforming our world. If you're not at least competent in technology (in whatever way makes sense for your business) then at the very least your options are going to be limited and your future controlled by those more skilled than you.
JT - You also said recently that the "author experience sucks". What two things can scholarly publishers do now to improve it.
TH - First, don't make authors use different arcane submission systems and manuscript formats for each publication, and don't make them resubmit from scratch every time they get rejected. Scientists are too valuable and human lives too short to put them through this sort of pain. Second, take weeks (not months) deciding where to publish a paper, and then publish it in days (not months). These things are extremely hard to achieve, but they're certainly possible and they would revolutionise scientific communication almost as much as the creation of the scientific journal did 350-odd years ago.
JT - Open access. Friend, foe or bedfellow? And will it fix the author experience?
TH - It's part of the environment, like the weather, and if it's a friend or a foe depends on your own attitude. My father, a keen sailor, taught me that a strong wind can be a hindrance or a source of propulsion, it all depends on where you're heading, how you're trying to get there and what kind of craft you're in. It's the same with open access in publishing.
Open access on its own won't do anything to improve the author experience, but author-pays open access business models certainly focus publishers' minds on providing authors with a better experience.
(The danger, of course, is that readers come to matter less, and they're important too.)
JT - In fifteen words or fewer, what is a publisher?
Someone who connects a person with information to another person who can use it.