INTERVIEW

Creating ‘fundamental truth’

SpringerNature’s new CEO Daniel Ropers was keynote speaker at the STM Frankfurt event this month. Here, he outlines his early thoughts as a ‘newbie’ to scholarly communications

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications?

I joined Springer Nature a year ago from bol.com, which I co-founded and led for 20 years.  During my time there, the company developed from a small start-up to being the largest online retail platform for Dutch speaking consumers around the world, serving half the Dutch population with revenues of more than €2bn and delivering growth of 30 per cent p.a.

So, you may well ask why I left to move into academic publishing generally and to Springer Nature specifically?  I think this can be summed up in one word – purpose!

While I am and remain incredibly proud of bol.com and what we achieved during my time there, at the end of the day making shopping easier is really about solving a first-world problem. Thinking about my new role, I do not think there is anything more important in the world than helping to create fundamental truth. The advancement of health, wealth and happiness is accelerated through the building and sharing of knowledge and central to this is the role that Springer Nature plays, which is why I am proud and excited to be its CEO.  

We are able to take this central role because we are a leader in many fields. We are one of the largest STM publishers, home to the largest portfolio of English language journals, home to Nature, the group of journals publishing science of the highest significance, a world leader in academic book publishing by numbers, and undisputed leader in open access with one in three OA articles published globally published by Springer Nature. Springer Nature is also recognised for its process excellence, most notably production, and its progressive approach to partnering to deliver benefits to the community across all elements of the research and publishing cycle.  This made it an exciting company to come and join.

You've spent the majority of your working life in the retail sector. How will this inform your career in scholarly communications?

At bol.com we scaled quickly to become the largest online retailer in the Netherlands with revenues in excess of one billion euros and much of this success was down to an ability to change quickly and to do so again and again.

Of course a contributory factor in being able to do this does lay in the fact that it was a start-up – and by definition people who join start-ups are not risk averse and more open to change – but I feel that the lessons I learned there hold true for other organisations and are lessons that I am taking into Springer Nature, a much larger (13,000 people) and more complex (operating in over 50 countries) organisation. This is an organisation with an urgent and mission critical need to achieve and drive change in a large number of areas in the next few years inside and outside the company.

At the STM event in Frankfurt in October, you outlined your impressions of the first year in the industry. Could you revisit a few key areas for us?

As a ‘newbie’ to the industry I have over the past year been doing what all people in new roles do and that is to find out why things really are as they are. In my speech, I chose to share some early observations with the aim of starting more of a conversation around the root causes of where we are as an industry, as well as some of the emotions surrounding it. With this in mind, I said that I’d arrived with many assumption and expectations.

I thought that academic publishing, given it is a 200 year old industry, would be very, very efficient in its core editorial, author management, pre-production and production processes, and in its value delivery to customers and the wider research community, and any opportunities and challenges would be coming from the second order effect of digitization

I also thought I would be joining a world-wide science community full of ideas on how to improve the scientific process, with lots of cross-publisher and cross-stakeholder engagement to find solutions to key issues together.

I was right in some of the above, and in the fact that everyone in the community shares a strong common belief in the purpose of science. Everyone I have spoken to in the past year, publishers, scientists, policy makers, funders, institute leaders, librarians, believe in the importance of science and hold as a common objective the need to communicate it. 

But on others I was wrong. Some of the very core processes of publishing haven’t changed as much as I would have expected and, coming as I did, from a digital process business, this was surprising.

And the degree of cooperation and coordination is also significantly lower than I expected, leaving many opportunities untapped.

But most worrying is the fact that publishers are not seen as partners by some of our stakeholders, but as ‘the enemy’. This is extremely concerning given that there are many fundamental improvements that would create value for the research ecosystem and for which I can see no alternative other than for big publishers to be leading their implementation and playing a pivotal role in their delivery.

The existing business model in academic publishing is different to just about any other industry. Do you think it's sustainable, long-term?

I most certainly do and wouldn’t have joined if I thought anything else. But there are things we can and should be leading and implementing, both individually within our publishing houses and collectively as the academic publishing industry to create more value for the research ecosystem as a whole.

These include but are not limited to:

  • Helping researchers make their data, protocols and methods open and access the data sets of others. This has the potential to instigate a fundamental step change in enabling researchers to make use of existing information and build on it for the benefit of scientific advancement; 
  • Improving peer review quality and improved process to save time for all involved, including a vastly reduced time between submission and publication;
  • Driving change in the reputation and recognition models and metrics, for authors, researchers, members of our editorial boards and peer reviewers;
  • Publishing negative results and reproducibility studies at scale; and
  • Making usage easy: rather than fighting illegal use, we should create common standards and user-friendly interfaces that make it easy for every legally entitled user to search, discover, and consume the research information they need to advance discoveries.

What is the biggest challenge facing scholarly publishers over the next 10 years?

Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing scholarly publishers over the next 10 years is need to rebuild trust between the research community (authors, researchers, funders, librarians) and publishers – to win back a seat at the table.

I’ve heard the same comments made in many forms and from many constituents over the past year. Comments like ‘publishers are accused of being too profitable and charging too much’. But profit is merely how the impact of our contribution is measured, and crucially provides us with the means to invest in new products, services and tools for the benefit of the research community. Other stakeholders also enjoy ‘profit’ but this is measured differently and therefore is not as concretely visible. The ‘Big Deal’, digital content distribution, sharing tools, etc. alongside increasing the amount of content available to researchers, rising citations and exploding usage, are all testament to how publishers’ investment is resulting in increased value to the core academic process.

Another comment that I’ve heard is that publishers are viewed as the only for-profit companies in a not-for-profit space. But only one per cent of research spend in the world is spent on content licensing and getting research quality assured, published, and disseminated with the remaining 99 per cent going on (apart from salaries) other commercial companies including catering, stationary, lab equipment, office infrastructure, connectivity, and increasingly on software licenses. 

Although neither of these comments is correct, we have to acknowledge the emotion around these topics and take them seriously. 

A further sentiment I’ve picked up is the negative feeling of dependency; researchers feel they are too dependent on publishers and they don’t like that.

With so much at stake at this very last step of their research process, with usually many years of energy and scarce grant money invested, this lack of transparency in peer review and the feeling of a power imbalance is creating tension.

The fact is however that as long as there is a need for an independent party judging the work of research and as long as there is no consensus about whether these peer reviews should be transparent or not, the majority of peer reviewers will continue to be anonymous.

As these two things are true, then we must do everything we can to be as transparent as publishers as we can.

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Analysis and opinion
Analysis and opinion