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What CEOs Say

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 30.11.2015
Post type: Article
Subject: Technological innovation

[This post was inspired by Joe Esposito’s Scholarly Kitchen piece reporting on a roundtable of startup-CEOs. Thanks Joe!]

At the 2015 STM meeting in Frankfurt just prior to the Book Fair, the last open session of the day was a CEO Roundtable. These were not CEOs of startups, but CEOs and presidents of some of the world’s most established publishing brands:

  • American Chemical Society: Brian Crawford
  • Institute of Physics: Steven Hall
  • Copyright Clearance Center: Tracey Armstrong
  • Elsevier: Ron Mobed
  • Wiley: Philip Carpenter

To facilitate the roundtable, a moderator posed a question, and then all five CEOs responded. There were eight questions.   I will use company names rather than individual names in the readout below. In some cases, the response of a particular CEO was so distinctive that I will quote him or her.

What do you see as sources of competitive advantage?

Elsevier has good quips in answer to the question about sources of competitive advantage: “why should I tell you?”, followed by “we need to offer more value than the nearest alternative, not screwing up as much as the other guys”.

Several CEOs commented about customer focus and experience: author services, user/customer experience, and a focus on the communities they publish for. Elsevier said that scale doesn’t confer much competitive advantage, but that technology can; but IOP said that scale does make a difference.

Wiley gave a good example of differentiating by customer experience even when much of the infrastructure is commoditized: “airlines use the same airports, the same airplanes, and mostly the same infrastructure; but the experience of Virgin is so much better than BA.”

What do you think about Green OA?

ACS had the sharpest comments on this: “Green OA puts publishers at risk because of the alternative venue for the Version of Record”, and the concern about “systemization around Green OA, such as with Research Gate.” Wiley reported that “12 month usage is less than 20%; we thought it would be higher”, while ACS reported that it was about 30%.

Are publishers turning into software companies, or should they be?

There was good consistency in understanding that, as Elsevier put it, “we can’t continue to think of content as the only source of value, but we shouldn’t devalue content; we should combine content and technology in ever more effective ways, to help people make scientific discoveries.” Wiley: “we should have moved on from the product oriented model of accumulating content to sell to librarians; technology allows us to do things with content we couldn’t do in the past.”   IOP: publishers are “becoming digital companies that are software enabled.”

Where would you allocate more people?

Most CEOs had a variation on adding staff in sales and “strategic account management for universities and organizations”, as ACS said, “to make complex calls with other administrators than libraries.” For IOP, “the real growth is in Asia (doubled in China) and we have people in five countries where we had none before”. Wiley would seek out competitive differentiation by investing in “people who can get under the skin of what it feels like to be a customer of Wiley.” Elsevier said it would subtract in some areas, taking advantage of productivity from continuous improvement in product activities, in order to be able to add even more elsewhere; the additions would be “staff valued for their specialty and expertise, perhaps hiring outside of the publishing sector to get the best” in those areas.   CCC – perhaps unique among the companies represented because they are not a content-creator — would “add in technology, in data engineering in particular.”

How do you as an organization retain high-potential employees?

Wiley: “The employee feels the employer is making a specific investment in them; it is a reciprocal bond of mutual investment and commitment.”

IOP: “There is a dearth of top class talent in the industry. Scholarly publishing is more risk averse than it used to be. There are fewer small publishers around, who rely on ingenuity and ability, to take risk. We are a small and incestuous industry. There is not six degrees of separation, more like 2 or 1. The industry is very conservative and spends a lot of time in a defensive posture. We have to have the right vision, mission and values to attract people; we need to encourage some risk and room for fresh thinking.

Elsevier: “We look outside the sector for talent attracted to working in a sector that has such a clear purpose: to progress science. This is a tremendous motivator for people who work for us.”

CCC: “Giving people something intellectually stimulating to work on; co-workers are key. We look outside the space to bring new ideas in from outside.”

ACS: “We seek individuals who want to serve chemistry.”

What startup has impressed you?

Several mentioned CHORUS and its collaboration with CrossRef. Elsevier mentioned startups in analytics both in and outside the publishing sector, while ACS noted analytics also, and gave HighWire’s Impact Vizor a shout out for providing analytics for editorial performance.

What will improve diversity in the workforce?

Here a showstopper response came from CCC’s CEO (the only woman on the panel): “get women to own revenue”.   A stunningly simple and direct answer to a confounding question.

What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The responses were individual and personal:

ACS: “The thrill of the chase: to introduce a new product or service.”

Wiley: “Creating a community that thrives and succeeds and fulfills their potential.”

CCC: “I love change; I’m very competitive.”

Elsevier: “I’m an engineer, I like to build things. I have a sense of purpose building something worthwhile, inventing.”

These very personal answers were a good way to close the roundtable, highlighting how distinct individuals drive the industry – and I think this is probably true for both startup CEOs as well as those of companies far older than the CEO!

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