ALPSP plenary interview: Bernie Folan, Marketing Professional for scholarly publishing

We are proud to be the gold sponsors of the 2013 ALPSP International Conference. As sponsors we have been granted exclusive access to interview two of the plenary speakers at this years’event in advance of the conference – Fred Dylla and Bernie Folan. This is Bernie’s contribution on the subject of the born-digital generation.

Bernie Folan was until very recently Head of Library Marketing at SAGE in London where she worked in various marketing roles for over 20 years. She most recently had responsibility for marketing online products to the library market, working closely with Sales and Product Development teams. She is on the UKSG main committee and chairs the UKSG Marketing Committee.

Bernie speaks at various publishing and library events and has published articles about challenges in social science research and about library-publisher collaboration. She has a keen interest in understanding customer needs and the changing nature of academic study and research. She is about to begin studying for an Advanced Certificate in Market and Social Research Practice (MRS).

Bernie will chair a plenary session, How Soon is Now? Discovering what your readers expect now and in the future on 13th September at the conference.

Terry Hulbert, Semantico’s Business Development Director spoke to Bernie about some of the issues relating to the born-digital generation and how their expectations are shaping the academic world.

TH: Perhaps you can start by telling us of your experience within the industry and why this topic of meeting the expectations of the born-digital researcher is of particular interest to you?

BF: To be honest, it’s the wider topic of meeting the needs of all researchers that is of interest. My background is working in marketing for an academic publisher for over twenty years, additionally I sit on the UKSG main committee. I always strive to have as much customer contact as possible and know that understanding the needs of researchers (as well as students and lecturers) is central to our work as publishers but is not always given enough time or energy. It’s essential we regularly check our assumptions about how research is done and what we are doing to advance that research.

At the UKSG conference earlier this year we heard a medical student (Josh Harding) speak about his work. There was a palpable energy amongst the audience (both publisher and librarian) due to hearing first-hand about his methods. I was quietly dismayed that despite what we do and the fact that many of us work in or regularly visit academic institutions, this knowledge is not often actively sought out or present in all our decision-making.

Personally, I have an interest in different learning styles and a belief that it’s crucial to cater for those styles if we are to get the best out of ourselves and our young people. I have two children who do not go to school. My daughter left school recently and is studying independently for GCSEs. My son (who is autistic) is completely autonomous in his learning and none of it looks anything like a school curriculum and almost all is online. I believe that we are programmed to learn but it must be enjoyable and must be useful to us.

When it comes to research and teaching in higher education, I’m interested in those who are passionate about their role as instructors and mentors and how digital technologies are being adopted intelligently and selectively to aid their work.

TH: Could you describe a born-digital researcher to us?

BF: A number of definitions have emerged since the term digital native was popularised in 2001 but I think what most people understand from the term is “a young person who was born after 1980 and grew up in a world in which the use of digital technologies and especially the Web has been normalized,” or “a person who understands the value of digital technology and uses this to seek out opportunities for implementing it with a view to make an impact.”

The term is contentious and much has been written in academic articles, and in reports and on blogs advising caution and objectivity when considering the implications of technology use of young people. When it comes to research and study habits, there is not sufficient evidence to support claims that young people adopt radically different learning styles. The term also promotes the idea that there is some binary difference between the habits of those born before and after 1980 and that all members of the “net generation” have the same habits and learning styles. Both ideas have often been debunked in research.

In fact there are of course individual differences between researchers young and old and some older digital immigrants are more tech savvy than those they are teaching. With that in mind, I again stress that meeting the needs of all researchers is important – not only digital natives.

TH: What do you see as the key areas where publishers can better meet the expectations of this generation?

BF: This question I hope will be answered or at least some ideas will be provided in the plenary and I won’t try to pre-empt what the speakers have to say here. Publishers have many issues to contend with, including but not limited to, the rise of the technology company as publisher, the expectation for free information fast, pricing models that work across a range of customers from library to independent researcher, and DRM and licensing issues online. When applying new solutions, it’s imperative publishers understand the needs fully and then decide whether to create a solution (often service- rather than content-based) or partner with a company that is the expert. Innovation can be iterative and disciplined rather than shiny and huge but it must solve a problem or improve something, not simply be a new way to sell the same content you publish because you can. I also think publishers must always check on ensuring the right balance is struck between sustainable and responsible profitability and delivering on their stated mission. I don’t feel I’ve fully answered this question – it’s not easy and it certainly takes a few minds!

TH: Are you able to give some examples where libraries and librarians are making excellent use of new and evolving technologies, social or otherwise, to engage with their customers?

BF: It’s not always easy to distinguish between what a library is doing and what is happening somewhere else in the university and obviously from a user’s perspective perhaps not always significant. I like some initiatives that are not hugely game-changing but add value, improve a researcher’s experience, or do customer service excellently. Here are three examples from the many.

  1. Tweeting about new articles that hit an institutional repository is of obvious added value (such as the University of Huddersfield’s @hudeprints) although adding hashtags would boost discoverability hugely. There are limitations in automation with Twitter that have yet to be solved.
  2. Susan Hurst, a business librarian from Miami University, was recently telling me about their online chat service for library users which is available almost around the clock and provides a fast service where researcher and student problems are addressed. I know how useful online chat is as a customer service tool in everyday life and can imagine how much students must gain from it.
  3. Finally, I must mention the Sussex Research Hive at Sussex University which was a project I worked on with Jane Harvell, Head of Academic Services at Sussex, whilst I was at SAGE. As well as a researcher-only space within the library for researchers to use, the initiative involves three funded ‘hive scholars’ each year, providing services to researchers such as seminars (on topics such as getting published, copyright issues and researcher well-being), writing sessions and advice. The scholars maintain an active blog and Twitter feed and each year the services provided have grown with the objective of ensuring life as a doctoral student is as rewarding as possible, that help is at hand for all aspects of researcher life, and to connect researchers across the university’s schools. The relationship between Sussex and SAGE offers valuable insights into university and library practices and researcher and student behaviours that benefit both the library and publisher. It’s important to note that this initiative is not hugely cutting-edge in terms of emerging technologies, yet initiatives like this are not commonplace.

TH: And have you seen similar from any players in the publisher community?

BF: Honestly, innovation is coming from many avenues and just some of these are publishers. From time to time we have to ask the question “What is a publisher?”. Publishing is about creation and dissemination; and dissemination covers such a range of activity.

If we put aside interesting initiatives that have emerged or are emerging from the knowledge community but are not strictly publishing based (e.g. ORCID, Altmetric, FundRef, figshare, KUDOS) then I can point to a few true publishing examples that seek to offer an improvement or solve a problem. I have deliberately chosen two humanities-based initiatives as so often STEM dominates when we talk about publishing innovation.

PeerJ is one to watch. Simple, clear open-access publishing with a strong team and winning philosophy. I should tip a hat here to PLOS ONE which is less than seven years old but has firmly established itself and is increasingly referenced in all sorts of media.

Adam Matthew Digital is not a new company but does beautiful work digitising primary source collections from archives around the world and across a range of subjects, enabling researchers to access original material from anywhere with added tools to improve the teaching or research experience. I mention them here as I became aware of them only recently (they are now an independent SAGE company) and can vouch for the passion, commitment and care with which they approach each project. This shows in the finished products which often bring history movingly to life and free old letters, maps and postcards from cabinets in libraries and museums all over the world for anyone interested to experience.

I like the look of one of the finalists of the ALPSP Publishing Innovation award this year, DramaOnline from Bloomsbury which is in Beta and sets out to be a study tool that meets the full range of drama teaching needs, enriching the study of drama by offering elements like overviews of major concepts – surveys of theatre institutions, countries, genres and movements; and encyclopedic information about plays and playwrights.

TH: What organisational restructure would you anticipate in the future for those publishers and companies who plan to make strategic changes to meet the demands of the born-digital community?

BF: I don’t think there is one right or optimal structure,  so I’ll talk instead about qualities. I think looking out and making real time for learning about the world of research is vital and I’m coming around to thinking that the only way to make it happen in busy working lives is to build in that time in some formal way. I like the thinking behind Google’s 20% time although I wouldn’t suggest it’s the only way and read recently that it is dying out as work levels increase. Nevertheless some research has shown we are most creative when at rest or play.

I think it’s important to have the right people in the right roles so the innovators are not stuck in reports and spreadsheets whilst the detail people are not trying to come up with the next big thing. However, I think there should be some simple mechanism for gathering ideas from all employees. We all live in the world and whether we do it within a university or not, we are all learners.

Organisations need to be agile too. Do we really still need all of those people over there whilst we are hiring over here? Matching skills to roles and getting the numbers right overall as business changes are important and mean that companies need to invest in and develop strong leadership and prioritise honest, open discussion and brave decision-making over short-term comfort.

TH: Finally, if you could pick only one, which is the technology that you’re most excited about and why, and what potential do you see for its use in our industry?

BF: I have to say the smartphone, but I’d combine that with Google (Google owns me!). I recently thought about what I’d take if the house was burning down and couldn’t think of much beyond my phone. We have so many online tools that make life better: Google, YouTube, PayPal, Wikipedia, Twitter, Google Maps, Shazam, the list goes on. Bring these tools to the smartphone (with its apps) to truly exploit their potential. I think academic publishing has yet to do anything groundbreaking for the smartphone (but I’m open to contradiction here).

Mobile-optimised sites should be a given, in my opinion (as should much simpler publisher registration processes and simple micropayment offerings). Beyond that I think there is definitely potential to exploit. I look forward to seeing innovations that mean research and collaboration can happen anywhere without obstruction.

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