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Startups Occasionally Try to Serve One Stakeholder While Asking Another to Pay

27th January 2016
 | Phill Jones
One of the speakers at APE had slides with oblique visual references - like this one.
One of the speakers at APE had slides with oblique visual references – like this one.

Last year, I was invited to join the Council of Science Editors annual conference organising committee for the first time. For reasons best known to the organisers, I’ve been asked to perform the same duty again this year.

I have to confess that lightning talks are possibly among the most challenging types of sessions to put together. There are generally more speakers, and the audience are looking for new ideas and even new players that they haven’t heard from before. Anybody who has ever invited a start-up to speak will also know that occasionally, they can be a little bit flexible in their plans. If organising a normal concurrent is like being a shepherd, lightning talks can sometimes feel like herding cats.

On the upside, however, you get to learn about some of the most innovative ideas in scholarly publishing. I also think it’s an interesting and useful exercise to return to an outsider’s perspective every once in a while. Lightning talks are a good way to hear from people on the outside of our industry, looking in.

Having said that, as somebody who’s currently on the inside looking out, I have an observation that I’d like to share.

Last week, I was at the APE conference in Berlin. In this instance, I was involved in the dot-coms to watch session, a more relaxed variant on the lightning talk format. I was presenting on behalf of one of Digital Science’s portfolio companies, Overleaf, alongside Dryad, Publons, Bookmetrix and Zapnito.

What struck me were two questions from the audience. One of which came from Kent Anderson, who many will know as founder of the Scholarly Kitchen and former publisher at AAAS/Science. Anderson asked about the nature of everybody’s business models. He noted that all but one of the businesses – the exception being Zapnito – rely on broad adoption by researchers as well as a range of publishers in order to add significant value to the ecosystem. A second audience member then asked whether any of the ideas offered independent value, without relying on partnerships with publishers.

These two questions together seem to articulate a concern that some publishers have about new ideas and start-ups in the industry; some of them are relying on publishers too much for both impact and revenue.

Interestingly, if you look at the Digital Science portfolio, there aren’t any companies or products that solely rely on publisher partnerships. In fact, if we look at startups that are trying to change the way that researchers communicate (as opposed to platform vendors and so on that solve traditional publisher problems) there aren’t many successful startups that have earned sufficient revenue from sales to publishers to build a sustainable business. Most (not all) that have done well from publishers, like Mendeley and Plum, for example, have done so through investment and acquisition either from publishers or from other other players in the space*.

At Digital Science, we have some products firmly based in the institutional space, but those with publisher offerings are all multifaceted. Personally, I think one reason why that’s a successful approach is that it’s important to involve all current stakeholders in the development of the next generation of scholarly communication tools. Publishers, librarians, researchers, funders, and institutional administrators all play important roles in the space that wouldn’t be fulfilled by anybody else if they were cut out of the loop.

Some entrepreneurs do mistakenly see publishers, and sales to publishers, as a way to fund things they believe other stakeholders – usually researchers – need. The obvious issue is that for any business to be successful, the products and services must serve the needs of the person or people who are buying them. None of the companies that presented last week made that mistake. As a result, when the audience were asked if we’d all be around in five years via show of hands, we all received positive results.

If there are any entrepreneurs reading this, that are looking at the scholarly communication sector, or any other industry for that matter, here’s some advice. Make sure that you’re not creating something that clearly only benefits one stakeholder, while asking a different one to pay for it.

*The wording of this sentence has been changed to remove the implication that EBSCO is a publisher.