Building the next generation

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John Sack, founding director of HighWire Press, describes some key moments during his time in the industry

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications...

As part of my graduate work in English at Stanford University, I spent some time as an instructor and researcher. At one point I was doing a research project on modern poetry, when a public service librarian duplicated three days of my work scrabbling through the card catalogue by turning to a computer terminal and typing maybe two or three commands into a system named “BALLOTS” (the most elaborate acronym I’ve encountered: Bibliographic Automation of Large-Library Operations on a Time-sharing System).

I saw the benefits of what was then called 'library automation' but was really the glimmer of what would become online library catalogues and ultimately comprehensive search engines that were able to search full text. At that point I became a lot more interested in what computers could do for researchers than I was in my own research! I then became the first grad student in English that the computer centre ever hired. And I started learning how to program and explain text and bibliographic databases right away.

After that, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Being at Stanford University in the early/mid-80s – as Silicon Valley was going through its first 'hockey stick' growth phase, as Steve Jobs sold the first Macintoshes on campus, as network-connected laser printers meant that you could print out a book or article rather than going to the library to read or photocopy it – meant that researchers, publishers, administrators and faculties were increasingly open to re-thinking what was physical vs. digital. The game was on!

One of my first successes was working with a highly talented and motivated team of experts to develop Stanford University’s first online library catalogue. The system anticipated Google with its 'one box' search, anticipated Amazon with its connection between the library and the bookstore, and allowed you to browse the stacks virtually.

How and why did HighWire come about?

In the mid-90s I began to work with Mike Keller, the co-founder of HighWire, who had recently become the head of Stanford University's libraries. At the time, many library leaders were worrying about 'the serials crisis' in which journal prices were climbing faster than library budgets. Mike wanted to do something about it, and that web-based online journals might be part of a solution. 

We built the next generation of scholarly communication, centred around the way researchers used information to communicate. Our collaborators were scholarly societies, who owned some of the strongest journals in the world. With HighWire they would have a community-based platform owned by the academy, that they could drive into the future according to their needs as readers, researchers and editors. 

To accomplish this, we worked with the leadership of the Journal of Biological Chemistry – which was then one of the highest-volume and most-cited journals in the world – and the Human Computer Interface group in the Stanford Computer Science department, to design what would eventually be the dominant paradigm for delivering web-based scholarly articles, issues and journals. 

What has been the most important development during your time in the scholarly communications industry?

Since I started my time in scholarly communication in the early 1990s, the industry went through great change. It goes without saying that the development of the Web has made the biggest impact and revolutionised the industry. However, drilling down to specifics, I would say the aggregation search engine was an important development, at first it was PubMed in the life sciences, but now particularly Google and Google Scholar, as they have been essential to providing researchers a more efficient way to discover information.  

IP-based authentication, as much as we love and hate it, was an essential early development in getting information moved to people, rather than moving people to the library for information. In addition to this, open access has been a significant development in the industry, as it has quietly literally opened access to information and content online, from anywhere.

The addition of multiple access paths, such as CASA and RA21, which complement and support each other, has created an environment of legal resources that can be easily accessed online. Just as the music industry has the likes of Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music, all complementing each other to create a smooth user experience, scholarly communications is heading towards a similar barrier-free and streamlined access of resources. 

Tell us about Universal CASA and your collaboration with Google Scholar...

Originally, with IP-based authentication, researchers were limited to accessing scholarly content on-campus, meaning the literature-review portion of their workflow was restricted. Many libraries added proxy servers, and some campuses eventually added VPNs, to provide a way for off-campus users to get access to subscribed resources; using proxy servers often took several steps, and you needed to first find the documentation unless you used the proxy regularly. However, as researchers are becoming increasingly mobile, they expect – as in their non-scholarly-application life – to access content any time, anywhere, from any device and any source and with a seamless, hurdle-free path. Researchers, librarians and publishers are all in agreement that more access is good.

HireWire and Google have been in collaboration for well over a decade. Our long-standing relationship meant that we are constantly building out and brainstorming new ideas to extend the reach, impact, and exchange of scholarly knowledge. Two years ago, I presented my talk on 'Friction in the Workflow' to the Google Scholar team. One of the friction points I addressed was ‘off-campus access’, which highlights that gaining access to a version of record requires following a process every time and sometimes multiple times, to use a campus or employer’s proxy server. Google Scholar’s co-founder Anurag Acharya pointed to this friction and said they might be able to help.

From then, HireWire collaborated with Google Scholar to introduce ‘Campus Activated Subscriber Access’ (CASA) functionality as the first step in addressing that challenge. CASA allows researchers to access subscribed content off-campus in the same way they would on-campus. CASA remembers which subscriptions a researcher has access to and makes it easy for them to seamlessly access these subscriptions when they are off-campus. I would estimate researchers carry out perhaps a third of their literature-review work away from campus – and since Google Scholar notes that the use of CASA rises on the weekends, it’s likely that those 'off campus' hours in the evenings and the weekends are literature-study times for many scholars. 

After introducing CASA in the fall of 2017, the next step was introducing the recently-launched Universal CASA, which addresses the next key problem: that scholars start their research journeys from a variety of different places, whether it’s an email from a colleague, a blog post, a Google search, a Tweet or elsewhere. Universal CASA allows researchers to click through to legitimate, authorised content, without having to start at Google Scholar. And, in this age of increasing piracy, now researchers can more easily get legal access, then they can use Sci-Hub as a work around to off-campus barriers.

In addition to CASA and Universal CASA, over the last year, HighWire also collaborated with Google to roll out Quick Abstracts, which optimises mobile Google Scholar to speed up mobile research workflow by loading article abstracts at fast speeds so that researchers can quickly scan, swipe and discover the correct scholarly resource remotely and on the go, gain awareness of what an item is about, and mark items for later detailed study.

There are a couple of tools and services that the industry is working on now to help with the particular problem of smoothing off-campus access. Of course, for years we have had Open Athens and before that we had proxy servers (some of which are older than the students they serve). However, tools like CASA, RA21, Unpaywall and Kopernio work differently and each has its own place in a researcher’s workflow. Acting as the Spotify of the Scholarly Research industry, CASA and Universal CASA work with and complement these other tools to provide streamlined, legal access to resources through different avenues – essentially creating multiple paths to the same destination.

What is the biggest challenge facing scholarly researchers and the industry in the future?

The biggest challenge for STEM researchers is probably grants and funding, especially younger researchers. Looking specifically at the scholarly communication aspect of research, challenges include:

  • Keeping up with the work of others in their field on a continuous basis – alerts and profile based alerting help address this;
  • Getting their own work in front of the right community of readers – pre-prints help address this; and
  • Wasting time in the publishing workflow, in the form of submitting and re-submitting, reviewing and re-reviewing, revising and re-revising, different standards for formatting, for COI, etc. – MECA and other tools for manuscript transfer help address this.

Interview by Tim Gillett