A mandate to take risks

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eLife’s head of technology Paul Shannon reflects on a career encompassing programming, music technology, and scholarly communications

Tell us a little about your background and career…

Despite wanting to pursue a career in computing, I started out in the legal industry, as a Law Costs Draftsman, because it was 2003 and the 'dotcom bubble' had just burst, so no-one was hiring, and all other IT Teams were overstaffed with people hired to combat the millennium bug. I eventually started out in technology through a support role, testing mobile games on old Nokia phones, before impressing the team enough with my programming skills and embarking on a career as a software developer.

I worked in car finance and insurance as a software engineer – transforming the way the team worked by adopting lean and agile practices. We did this when it wasn’t such a widely used methodology, so I soon gained a reputation at various conferences for sharing our honest and sometimes fraught experiences. This helped me move to London and join 7digital, working as a software engineer in a fast-growing team in the world of digital music. I then moved into leadership and strategy as VP of Technology, concentrating on adapting and growing our team while remaining reactive to the shifting landscape of digital music and radio platforms.

I moved to eLife in September 2016 as I wanted to use my skills and experience in an organisation with an appealing and interesting purpose. eLife seemed like a great choice as everyone here loves to experiment and they’re really open to new ideas – I like to try out new techniques, continually looking to improve the way I work, and the team is always interested to join in.

How does your experience in the music industry translate to scholarly communications?

The music industry is very similar to scholarly communications because we both spend our time taking a skilled specialist’s work and making it available, discoverable and well presented on the web. The industries have similar problems too, like thinking about access to content and how best to provide a great user experience across multiple devices. Pipelines of content is a common theme, with details provided in XML (the commonly used JATS from scholarly publishing has an equivalent called DDEX in the music supply chain) and whole teams dedicated to ensuring new content gets to the right place in a timely way.

It’s the focus on flow of content that I think allowed me to use my existing skills in scholarly communication early on; identifying bottlenecks and using the Theory of Constraints to analyse flow. Leadership of software teams translates very well between industries too, and both music and scholarly communication need quality software – all experience that I’d gained throughout my career.

Music is also a very innovative industry with small start-ups disrupting the status quo – I was lucky enough to work with Spotify and Shazam in their very early days and saw how a small group of dedicated people can change a large, existing industry. I see similarities in this regard at eLife. There are also similar movements challenging existing business models in music, such as community and creator-owned streaming services (resonate.is and supapass.com) and artist-led groups exploring new technologies like blockchain (the Featured Artists Coalition).

What are the aims and ethos behind eLife?

eLife has a clear mission that we have painted on our wall, so you have to pass it every day on the way into the office. That really helps everyone stay well aligned, and it’s great to work with such an enthusiastic set of people that are all working towards the same goal, despite having such diverse and interesting backgrounds. The mission, like eLife, was developed with the needs of science at its heart. We aim to help all scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science. This has been achieved through the publication of eLife’s journal but more recently also by creating, experimenting with and openly sharing software to encourage those responsible behaviours. Continuum, the publishing platform that powers our journal, is open source and we code in the open on any new projects we start. We’ve recently been collaborating on submission and peer-review software which is even more open, as decision making, discussion and design are all done collaboratively in the open too.

It’s this openness that underpins the ethos at eLife: whether that’s open science, open-access publishing, open data or open source – we’re working towards our mission and trying to influence the scholarly communications industry in a positive way.

Can a non-profit organisation such as eLife provide serious competition to the big, for-profit operators?

eLife was started by biomedical funders to experiment and develop new approaches to improve how research is communicated. We have a mandate to try new ideas and take risks. I think this puts eLife in a very strong position to be able to prototype or test hypotheses in areas where others don’t feel they could. I’ve also found it easier to collaborate as a non-profit, forming communities with like-minded organisations to develop software and solve problems together. Having a number of non-profits that can be open with their ideas and share their time and people has huge promise for the industry.

Non-profits often work with service providers to offer the results of our efforts to organisations that couldn’t normally afford expensive proprietary software systems. I expect non-profits to be a more disruptive force as the landscape changes, and the communities they help foster will provide the real competition to those larger operators, as smaller organisations take control of their own future direction with more choice emerging.

What are your industry predictions for the next 10 years?

We will soon stop telling computers what to do and start asking them, by helping them learn. Many people talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning, and I’ve seen some impressive examples in scholarly communications, but nothing that’s as groundbreaking as other industries (reusable rocket ships, self-driving cars and so on). As computing power becomes cheaper and data more prevalent, I’d like to see people augment their existing roles with intelligent computer systems so that all aspects of scholarly communication can happen more quickly, from submission, through peer review, to publishing and discovery.

I expect the smaller players will continue to disrupt, but their influence will grow as their ability to move quickly and respond to change will outpace larger organisations. Basic publishing infrastructure will become commoditised (much like computing has with cloud services, and electricity had before it) and organisations will start to create new types of value from content and from the services that they provide. This will lead to the forming of more collaborations where resources and processes can be shared and all organisations differentiating themselves by the particular quality they bring to the research information ecosystem.