Riding the wave of innovation

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Sam Herbert

Sam Herbert, co-founder of 67 Bricks, casts his eye over the industry – and tells of his early love of surfing

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

I was born in Iran, where my father was a hydrogeologist, but we moved back to the UK when I was two. 

I love sport and was a good all-rounder as a kid; competing at county and regional levels at squash, football, tennis, badminton. In my late teens, I got into surfing and chased waves all around the world – El Salvador, Indonesia, New Zealand.  

But I’ve always loved tech and gaming; I’m intrigued by what you can and can’t do with software. In my mid-teens, I joined an international peer counselling organisation. It taught me a great deal: how important empathy is; that listening to people and hearing backstory is so important; and that when people are behaving oddly there is always a good reason. 

After graduating, in physics and digital electronics at Swansea, I worked client side running digital applications at Cancer Research UK, and supplier side at Digitas, PWC and Marketing Net. It was at the latter where I met Inigo Surguy (67 Bricks co-founder), who has the best technical mind I have ever worked with. We realised we had great complementary skills and we started 67 Bricks. 

Your company has been going great guns in the last few years. Tell us about that…

The shift from traditional publisher to digital product company has been a long time coming in scholarly publishing. 

Our early clients talked to us about how the value hidden in their content was going to waste back in 2007. They could see that a massive shift was coming in terms of the world going digital, and that simply providing access to long-form content was not a sustainable business model. But nothing happens fast in the sector, and it's only now, accelerated by COVID-19, that publishers are really starting to transform away from the traditional books and journals business models and diversify.  

How do you do that? You go back to that valuable raw content and data, combine it with your user needs and build new products with it. Luckily for us, traditional platform vendors have not wanted to work with and understand the complexities of each publisher's unique content, data and users. This has left a gap for companies like 67 Bricks, who aren’t afraid to get into the nitty gritty of a publisher's specific data challenges.  

As the realisation that digital transformation wasn’t going away has hit, that space has grown and the value we deliver to the client has soared. Building new modern digital platforms and capabilities for Emerald and De Gruyter were turning points for the business. Everyone knows each other and word of good work gets about.

What is the biggest issue facing the scholarly communications industry at the moment?

I think it is two things; organisations deciding where they truly add value in the scholarly eco-system as we move into a digital age, and accepting that they need to quicken their pace when it comes to change.  

Lots of the valuable services publishers used to provide are now something that anyone with good technology capabilities can do. Google Scholar and SciHub have levelled the playing field further.  With this value in transition, publishers need to go back to the drawing board. 

But it doesn’t all need to be shiny and brand new, sometimes it is about extending the products you already have or making basic things work better. For example, most publisher’s online search functions still offer bad user experiences.  This is often because they haven’t really understood their specific researcher's expectations and needs, and where the actual value lies in the content. They need to use these insights to develop a tailored search experience. If you can get that right, imagine the digital products publishers could provide with the complex, scientific facts and information!

As for a change in pace…we live in a digital world now and tech advances fast. Scholarly has to catch up and stay agile. Users and competitors will continue to disrupt the market and dictate the change if they don’t.

How do you see the industry landscape shifting over the next 10 years?

Publishers have some soul-searching to do. I expect to see organisations having to undo a lot of the work and mindset that got them to where they are today. They need to unpick the past and this traditional mindset and then use the best of what makes them valuable to unlock their digital future. Things like peer review, for example, is something really valuable that only the publisher can bring.  

So how do you optimise that? I think we will also see some rebranding and restructuring as more publishers become content technology and product companies. As part of that, the sector is likely to welcome new people too, possibly with a non-publishing, more digital background, to shake things up and bring a blast of fresh air.

Are the days of the traditional academic publisher numbered?

If they don’t move and figure out what's valuable to their user now, then yes. Revenues for some traditional services are flatlining or reducing – and that cannot continue indefinitely without some firms going under. Open access (OA) is having a major impact too and undermines many publishers core business models, subscriptions etc. The big players such as Wiley and Elsevier won’t disappear for a while yet; but I think we can expect plenty of mergers, acquisitions and new ventures while they try things out.

There are still opportunities for those medium players who are willing to commit to change; a company like British Medical Journal with all of that rich healthcare content and user knowledge can offer valuable products to users and keep (and grow) their market. But publishers who don’t pivot quickly are at risk. 

Any final interesting facts you want to tell us about?

I heard an interesting fact about the automotive sector recently, which is known for its commitment to innovation.  Global sales of electric cars at present are just 2.6 per cent. But Mercedez-Benz has committed 100 per cent of its R&D expenditure to electric. Why? It can see where the future is going and it doesn’t want to be left behind.   

Interview by Tim Gillett