Communities debate industry

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Siân Harris discovers how Elsevier's online product-development communities are encouraging networking and discussions about scholarly publishing

Getting users involved in product testing and feedback is a common and valuable part of companies’ product development. But the ubiquity of electronic information and particularly online networking has opened up new opportunities for publishers to communicate with their customers. What’s more, it is also enabling these customers – whether they are researchers, librarians or research administrators – to talk to each other.

Elsevier is experiencing this with two customer communities that it launched in 2008 with online-community developer Communispace. ‘We have always involved customers in product launches, but we wanted a different approach to customer engagement,’ explained Juliette Goetzee, head of marketing relations and communications for the A&G product group of Elsevier.

The company has one community of around 150 librarians and another with 300-400 researchers. According to Goetzee, the community members are based in around 60 different countries and in academic, government and corporate environments. They also include members in different stages of their careers. In the research community, for example, around 60 per cent of the members are professors and post-docs, around 20 per cent are PhD students and the rest have a range of other roles in the research environment.

The results of the product-development insight are already being seen in the recent twice-yearly updates to the Scopus and ScienceDirect platforms. But there is more to the communities than product development. ‘We wanted to partner with customers in product development and also connect the global community and help collaboration. This helps with getting insight into products and sales and marketing messages and it also helps make people feel more part of Elsevier,’ she said.

‘At the launch we didn’t know how much discussion would go on in the community. There are so many online groups that people could participate in that we were pleasantly surprised how much people use the Elsevier communities. We have had about 45,000 contributions in less than a year,’ Goetzee continued. ‘The vibrancy there is really amazing and the openness and willingness to collaborate. Much of the discussion is not related to Elsevier products.’

Brian Santin, a surgeon based in the USA, is pleased that he took up Elsevier’s invitation to join the research community. ‘I felt that this was pertinent for discussing the research needs of like-minded people and I hope it’s bettering the research community in general. I really enjoy the viewpoints that have been brought out,’ he explained. ‘Once you get into a discussion and read the discussions of other members of the community you realise things that you hadn’t thought about before.’

Samuel Charlton, an associate professor of psychology at University of Waikato, New Zealand, joined the researcher community partly out of curiosity. ‘It’s been interesting,’ he said. ‘My reason for being involved has evolved as the community has evolved.’ One of the main things he sees as important now is the opportunity to give advice and support to younger researchers.

The topics discussed reflect this. Popular themes in the communities include issues such as how to select which journal to publish in, whose name goes first in an author list, differences in different countries in areas such as funding and how research is organised, how to get grants, publication times, rejection rates and impact factors.

Charlton has also been pleased at the opportunities to clarify some confusion about the publishing process. ‘As a reviewer I’ve been able to dispel misconceptions about the review process,’ he said. ‘There are many conspiracy theories, where people have the idea that the reviewers are out to get them.’

Alongside this, he has observed discussions about papers contributed in English by people with another native tongue. ‘There is an awful lot of angst right now about English as a second language,’ he said.

Other issues that come up in the discussions include performance management and metrics and how to prove return on investment in libraries and staff, problems to do with the economic situation, multimedia and best practices. Discussions are sometimes initiated by Elsevier, but Brian Santin estimated that around three quarters of the discussion threads come from the community.

‘After you push aside the paperwork for the fundamental issues there is a lot of agreement,’ observed Santin. ‘The topic of the security of journals and publishers has come up too. Their longevity is a reflection that what we do is mutually beneficial and that’s one of the reasons why the community is so vibrant.’

Elsevier plans to work with the online community even more over the next year. The latest development has been the creation of a new online community of 150 research administrators and managers around the world. Elsevier now hopes to do some high-level cross-community discussions, as well as other things like live chats, online webinars and video. Such things should help to strengthen the communities and help their members, as well as enable members and Elsevier to gain further insight into the needs of its customers.