Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Times' Heavy-Handed Attack on Textbook Publishers

I was taken aback to read this one-sided editorial in the New York Times applauding Washington state's proposed law that would require publishers to disclose prices to professors considering adopting textbooks and exhorting colleges and universities to become publishers themselves to save students from those money-grubbing textbook peddlers. (Well, the editorial didn't literally call them that, but the implication was there.)

I don't disagree with the wisdom of professors taking the cost of a textbook into consideration when they adopt it. I know when I taught college courses I was very aware of the cost of the materials I asked my students to buy, and I guess I assumed that other instructors and professors would do the same. Perhaps not. But whoa folks....Hold the venom.

This position is an odd one for the Times, a profitable publisher, to take. The editorial calls textbook revisions "constant issuing of lucrative but little changed new editions — publishing’s version of planned obsolescence." It also complains that new costly electronic resources that publishers provide (for no additional charge) are "marginally useful."

As I've said many times before and as I'll doubtless say many times again, when other organizations (like libraries and universities) become publishers, they start to smell and act like publishers. They start to have expenses like publishers. They start to charge like publishers. I say, let the competition begin. If somebody can provide high quality educational material for less money, have at it.

Maybe publishers can become more efficient. The market can decide what's useful (electronic materials) and what isn't. Bring it on. But let's stop villifying an industry that is providing valuable products and services and creating a more educated public.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Plural of Anecdote is Data

Perhaps the most memorable quote of the STM meeting was dropped by MIT Sloan School of Management Economist Erik Brynjolfsson, who directs the Center for Digital Business. (It turns out the quote is attributable to Berkeley Political Scientist Raymond Wolfinger, who apparently coined it in the 60s or 70s. Lots of people quote its opposite [The plural of anecdote is NOT data] and try to attribute the source of that quote...Isn't Google great for trivia questions?)

Of course, his talk had a lot more going for it: he presented an analysis of information flows in organizations and correlated individuals at the hub of information exchanges with higher revenue-producing employees. (Again somewhat counterintuitive, I suppose depending on the industry.) In the executive recruiter industry he presented, it makes sense that those who are at the center of communication may also be the biggest rainmakers or producers as the industry is by definition about networking.

Measuring productivity among knowledge workers was another main theme of the talk. He noted wryly that the simple equation productivity = output/input suffers only from the difficulty of measuring, well, inputs and outputs. (It did remind us, however, that working longer hours doesn't increase productivity, because you are increasing input...)

He summarized the best practices of digital firms, many of which seem to be common sense (e.g. "Hire the best people") but described more fully ways to implement them (Set up rigorous screening and extensive interview processes.)

The Bizarre Wisdom of Crowds

At the spring STM meeting (that's the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers) in Cambridge, Massachusetts this week, University of Chicago Law School Professor Cass Sunstein explained the somewhat counterintutive results of the accuracy of group predictions. For example, where more than 50% of a group has some knowledge about a topic, as the group gets larger, the average of the individual's predictions will approach 100% accuracy. Where fewer than 50% have the necessary expertise or information, the average prediction will likely fail. Examples of successes in this area include Oscar winners, presidential elections, the number of jelly beans in a jar, and horse races. A notable failure was predicting Bush's Supreme Court candidates.

Perhaps even more interesting is that prediction markets are more accurate than surveys, perhaps because people have to "buy into" them, so a self-selected group of people who think they know something participate, increasing the chances of hitting the greater than 50% expertise level.

And surveys are more accurate than deliberative processes, because people, even if they are not informed, are making their own predictions and not being swayed by group dynamics.

One of the surprising side effects is that boards of directors tend to be most effective when they are contentious! In such cases, presumably, the board members continue to think for themselves, despite the strong opinions of others.

A caveat of these markets is that they only work where the outcome is ultimately measurable. Companies are beginning to use prediction markets internally for sales forecasting and validating product launch dates.

This one one of several examples from the meeting of a valuable talk outside the typical scope of scholarly publishing presentations.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Life in a Start-up

Anne Orens, somebody I've known and respected for almost 15 years since we met at Little, Brown & Company, is the Chief Marketing Officer of a start-up company called Tizra, which is creating software to automate web publishing. Anne gave me a demo a few months ago, and from what I could see, the applications go far beyond scholarly publishing.

This Forbes article provides a glimpse into life at Tizra in the post-dot.com apocalypse world of start-ups. As an independent consultant with a home office, I can appreciate the perks and pitfalls of barking dogs, children doing homework, and the bathrobe dress code.

It looks like funding is on its way. Worth a look.

Monday, April 09, 2007

E-Journal Archiving Gets Real

Portico, the electronical journal archiving organization associated with JSTOR, Mellon, and Ithaka, continues to sign new publishers, according to Publisher Relations Director Toni Tracy. Portico has agreements with some 30 publishers to archive all of their peer reviewed material and 340 participating libraries.

Portico's approach is to ingest and standardize the publisher. This approach is different from the CLOCKSS approach, which caches images from publishers' web pages. The fomer will preserve the content, but not the functionality or design. The latter will preserve the publisher's look and feel. Both organizations commit to migrate the technology and content over time to preserve access.

With both Portico and CLOCKSS, the archive is intended to remain dark until a "trigger event" opens it up. The event may be the discontinuation of a publication, a publisher going out of business, or, in certain cases, the cancellation of a subscription. Portico is now live and ingesting content. CLOCKS is operating a limite two-year trial, after which, the plans are to open the project up to wider participation.

It is good to see concrete progress in the field of archiving electronic journals. As Tim Berners-Lee admonished at CrossRef's annual meeting in November, publishers need to make a will. Nobody likes to think that their organization will not survive. But the prudent course is to plan for demise, and work to make sure the archive remains dark.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

My Favorite Web Apps

I've been spending a lot of time on web applications lately, and they are great. In my business, volunteer, and personal lives, I find the range and quality of the offerings to be impressive.

I love Constant Contact for email campaigns. I'm addicted to the reports that you can download. Wearing one of my other hats, as a volunteer for my local Girl Scout service team, I love the Patriot's Trail Girl Scout Council's eCouncil app. (Well, I don't love that it doesn't support Firefox. For that matter, neither does Sovereign Bank's online banking system. Boo). Both Constant Contact and eCouncil allow me to download data into Excel where I can analyze and slice & dice using pivot tables and such.

I also rely on yahoo groups to maintain email lists, links and file libraries for several organizations I help to manage. I also love uploading my photos to Snapfish, sharing them, and letting others pay for their own prints if they want them. I used to order double prints, painstaking label them all and send them off to my family. They probably didn't even want most of them.

The drawback to both of those apps is that the people I'm sharing with are not always web-savvy, or they don't want to have to sign up for something. I find myself doing technical support for them, or I lose them altogether.

Another app I've used but don't have that much use for is business networking site LinkedIn. I've spent my considerable career building up contacts. I'm not sure I want to just give them away. So I will not upload my Outlook contacts file to LinkedIn. I also hesitate to spam people with LinkedIn invitations, so I've taken the approach of only connecting to people who are already in the network.

Finally, I just happily signed up for a Mozy online backup account. Mozy now backs up my data whenever my computer is idle for 30 minutes or more. A few years ago I spent thousands of dollars saving data from a hard drive crash. I never want to go through that again, but setting up a local backup proved to be complicated. A backup that doesn't get run is no backup at all.

So hooray for web apps. Long may they thrive!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

XML ebook

AIP has released a free ebook entitled: XML: What's It Good For by Tim Ingoldsby. Based on a well-received talk Tim gave at the Council of Scientific and Engineering Societies Executives (CESSE), the ebook describes the benefits of XML to publishers including a number of examples, from reference linking to new product development.

Disclosure: I helped AIP put the ebook together.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Really Direct Mail

I've decided I love email newsletters. As a recipient I appreciate that they don't clog up my mail table, they don't kill trees, they're easy to act on (or delete), share, and most importantly, unsubscribe from. I wish I could say the same for snail mail.

As a sender (I create newsletters for clients) I can track who opens them, forwards them, clicks on them, or contacts us. They are everything direct mail is supposed to be, but isn't--trackable. And, the response rates are generally MUCH better than printed mailings.

Of course, you have to do it right: use permissioned lists (opt-ins), provide something of value, write a good subject line, time the release properly, and, of course, comply with the CAN-SPAM and other applicable laws.

What's not to love? Accountability and higher reach at a lower cost. Count me in.