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Magazines > Information Today > March 2013

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Information Today

Vol. 30 No. 3 — March 2013

Mobed: Elsevierís Next Steps
by Barbara Brynko

Ron MobedRon Mobed is no stranger to technology. Early in his career as a petroleum engineer at Schlumberger Ltd., Mobed worked with a Nokia modem that ferried data to him in London from offshore oil rigs in the North Sea. Often, critical data had to be analyzed overnight and delivered to the oil companies the next morning.

“The data was sent to a massive computing center that only had half the power that my iPad has today,” says Mobed. And although the times—and the technology—certainly have changed, his foray into processing data from the offshore oil rigs turned out to be the start of a lifelong understanding of information systems and the value of creating workable solutions for customers.

Years later, Mobed continues to explore the role that data plays across a number of industry sectors. As the new CEO of Elsevier B.V., Mobed is quick to draw applications and examples from his own background: his technical knowledgebase acquired at Schlumberger, from information services at IHS, from the academic and professional divisions at Cengage Learning, and from the science and technology businesses at Elsevier. Having such a seasoned executive at the helm of the 130-year-old STM publishing company is destined to shape the way Elsevier responds to the needs of the evolving world of technical information in the years to come.

The energetic U.K. native keeps a tight schedule, jetting from London to Philadelphia to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and points in between. He’s likely to spend time with board members in Europe or with delegates at committee meetings in the U.S. to find out what is going on across the company’s divisions and talk shop “about the broader perspective of what Reed Elsevier is trying to do with different professional communities,” he says.

Mobed originally joined Elsevier in April 2011 to direct the science and technology group and to oversee the interests of research professionals. In August 2012, when he became CEO of Elsevier, he began to look at Elsevier as a whole.

“We found that there are several distinct communities we service,” says Mobed, pointing to four key groups: those interested in health education (nurses and associated health professionals who are in school or continuing education); researchers, especially academic/government-funded researchers (involved in fundamental research in physics, chemistry, astronomy, or medicine); research and engineering professionals in the corporate world who are involved in R&D; and clinical practitioners in hospitals and clinics who are working with patients. The common thread running through all of these groups is the customer experience.

“We fundamentally believe that if we have a deep understanding of customer needs in those specific professional domains and bring in our horizontal expertise in high-quality content, in digital delivery platforms, in analytical tools, or even in some kind of digital services, we can design information solutions that really add value to those specific needs in those specific communities,” says Mobed.

Mobed is the first to credit the Elsevier team with helping him outline a vision and initiate a game plan. “In a way, it was a revelation when I joined the company about just how much deep domain knowledge there really was about the communities we serve,” he says. The Elsevier staff comprises a wealth of collective experience with researchers in mathematics, biochemistry, geology, and other disciplines who know the ins and outs of research firsthand.

“When we’re talking to [Elsevier staff members] or when they are talking to researchers or librarians, they have a very deep understanding of the problems the researchers are trying to solve and the issues around the environment in which they work,” says Mobed. And when Elsevier’s longtime publishing expertise meets that understanding of the research environment, the resulting products provide unique insights into the research landscape. “We’re respecting the uniqueness and the integrity of the research work,” he says, while ensuring the quality control, efficiency, and timeliness of that content for researchers.

Clarity of Mission

“Our mission is very clear,” says Mobed. “We’re here to help researchers and health professionals do their work, either by making them more productive so they can see more patients in a day, do more research in a year, make better decisions, or arrive at a diagnosis or prescribe a treatment plan that wouldn’t have otherwise been made.” Building information solutions that combine Elsevier’s high-quality content and today’s technology can “open up the utility in that information to make it very specific and targeted to people’s needs,” he says.

“We take in over 1 million journal submissions a year that result in 350,000 published articles,” says Mobed, “and each one of them is a unique work by one or often several researchers who spend an average of two years per work … so our domain expertise is really important.” And the bar continues to be raised in the research community. With research information getting more complex, more digital, and more interconnected, new domain skills are needed in computational linguistics, taxonomies, ontologies, and information technology to handle the sheer volume of Big Data.

We’re all witnesses to the shift in how the health and research communities went from using static to more dynamic information, says Mobed. The second wave of that transformation comes when the massive growth of data is released via digital technologies, he says. Once the static information becomes digital, it can be repurposed, parsed, combined, and used to create derivative data. As new data streams are unleashed, their volume grows exponentially, creating a tsunami of information that can overpower users if companies don’t find a way to make the content relevant and usable.

“The tools that we are developing now [for the health and research communities] are targeted much more around making sense of the information,” says Mobed. Users can download data, but they have to consider what they ultimately want to do with it. “You might read 70 papers a year,” he says, “but how much utility did you get from those 70?” He approaches the question from all angles: Were all 70 of them useful? Did you get what you needed out of the papers or did you actually need to see the underlying data? Would you have appreciated a conversation with the researchers who wrote the paper or know who they collaborated with when they wrote the paper? Do you want to know where their funding came from?

These are questions that can’t be answered in a static way; customers want practical, relevant information they can interact with quickly. For example, the Q&As are even more critical in health: Is a prescribed medical treatment plan used in a cutting-edge teaching hospital in Boston, or is it slightly out-of-date? And as a patient, you want to know that you have the best surgeon using the most up-to-date protocols. A patient can’t afford to wait until a physician searches through a textbook for the proper diagnosis or requests patient notes from a hospital that may take days to arrive.

“You need to know this, you need to know this now, it has to be complete, it has to be reliable, it has to be accurate, it has to be factual,” says Mobed. These aren’t challenges that are only facing researchers in the U.S.; researchers around the world share these problems. Geriatric health research is no longer a narrow subject reserved for a few researchers huddled in a small room somewhere in Nottingham, he says. “They need big solutions, and that’s where we come into the picture.”

A View From the Top

After Mobed stepped into his new role, he was instrumental in integrating Elsevier’s two business units (researchers and health practitioners) into a traditional business structure with a CEO at the top. He saw similarities in the fundamental nature of both customer bases and in what researchers and practitioners wanted. So he sat down with the management team and contemplated the next steps.

Mobed admits that his first months as CEO were an education. He needed to get up-to-speed quickly with the products, services, businesses, and customer needs, so he rolled up his sleeves and spent time doing just that. At the end of 2012, he visited The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and listened to the concerns of health practitioners and information specialists. Better yet, he saw how the information systems were actually being used in practice.

Innovation and the customer experience continue to be themes weaving their way through Elsevier’s businesses. What skills and services Elsevier doesn’t have in-house are usually only an acquisition away. A case in point is Elsevier’s recent acquisition of Knovel, Inc. in January. Knovel, which is now part of Elsevier’s customer segment, has long given engineers ready access to content on Knovel’s interactive platform, a brand that will continue to serve its niche market. Likewise, the pharma and biotech group at Elsevier is pushing targeted technology-driven information systems to researchers and practitioners to improve drug discovery; higher-education institutions, such as University College London with its world-renowned experts in the field of neuroscience, are using Elsevier’s qualitative and quantitative data to evaluate the competitive academic landscape. And rumor has it that Elsevier is one of several suitors involved in acquisition talks with Mendeley, a popular social network platform for academic/research collaboration, a topic Mobed chose not to discuss at this time.

When Mobed first started working as a petroleum engineer in the oil industry, researchers had limited understanding of the underlying geologic strata, which was often calculated by making inferences from sparse data. He remembers that the success rate for drilling exploration wells was low, about 1 in 10 in the mid-1980s. But digital technology made it possible to essentially take CAT scans of the subsetters, assemble 3D images, and analyze computing technology applications to calculate the location of possible oil reserves. The emergence of this technology had a profound impact on the success rate, which went from 1 in 10 to 1 in 3, he says. He has long been a proponent of drawing analogies from different domains and in tackling a problem from different angles for better outcomes.

A Question of Balance

People often find themselves on an information continuum these days, often getting too much or not enough information. Mobed sees librarians as keys to managing that tension, and academic librarians, in particular, can help attract researchers to their facilities by creating the best-of-breed information systems for discovering research collaboration, grant funding, or open access journals.

Open access is certainly not a new concept, especially for Elsevier, which has its own collections that range from Open Access Journals to Open Archive to Green Open Access (for self-archiving). Mobed notes that most of the world has a combination of information that is created and distributed on a broadcast model (the author pays to give access) or a subscription model (the user pays to get access).

“By and large, an equilibrium takes place,” says Mobed, “and in the end, as long as an information solution is sufficiently important to the people who use it, then there is going to be value in that information solution.” The business model for who pays and how becomes secondary to the fact that these high-end information solutions can be created, he says. Researchers depend on high-quality information, so it’s important that whatever model is used works to preserve quality and doesn’t get in the way, he says.

“Elsevier started off in the subscription model, not because it was an Elsevier invention,” says Mobed. “It was the way in which the community wanted the research information to be distributed.” In Elsevier’s advisory role, he sees the company putting its best foot forward and making sure the process is done right.

And that is Mobed’s philosophy going forward. “It’s been about a year since the decision to boycott Elsevier first started,” says Mobed. “We felt it was very important for us to know what was going on and to listen to what people were saying.” After much corporate soul-searching and investigation, Elsevier came to the realization that “there were a number of things that we could be doing differently,” he says. Some of the criticism had merit, he admits, and those concerns were addressed quickly; other complaints were just misunderstandings. One-on-one conversations with customers helped ease the tension and open the lines of communication, he says.

Mobed wants to clear the air about the boycott. “We don’t like the idea that researchers don’t think we’re doing a good job, and we want to fix it,” he says. “The long-term effect is how to make the value that Elsevier delivers back into the research world commensurate with their needs,” he says, using the digital distribution platform for articles in ScienceDirect or designing an interactive format for ejournals as prime examples.

“When you think about Elsevier being around 130 years as a leader in the many communities we serve, there’s almost an obligation for us to lead the way, to push the boundaries, and to bring solutions to our customers,” says Mobed. As ideas in the research communities evolve, he sees Elsevier balancing its role between serving and advising. “Service doesn’t just mean doing what you’re told,” he says. “It means advising on the art of the possible. And I see Elsevier being very, very well-positioned to do both.”

The Boycott Revisited

In January 2012, mathematician Tim Gowers set up an online petition to boycott Elsevier (aka, the Cost of Knowledge boycott). His reason? To protest the publishing company’s business practices, especially on three major points: Elsevier’s “exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals,” bundling journals (some of which libraries don’t want) in order to cut costs for libraries while Elsevier “makes huge profits,” and supporting policies such as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) that can “restrict the free exchange of information.” As of press time, 13,251 researchers had already signed the petition: “The key to all these issues,” according to the petition, “is the right of authors to achieve easily-accessible distribution of their work, which is designed to pressure Elsevier into changing how it operates.”

On Jan. 28, 2013, Gowers posted this update on his website:

The Elsevier Boycott: Where Do We Now Stand?

In the first few months after the boycott started, the number of signatories grew very rapidly. The growth is now much slower, but this was to be expected: given that, for understandable reasons, no editorial boards of Elsevier journals were ready to take the drastic step of leaving Elsevier, it was inevitable that further progress would depend on the creation of new publication models, which takes time and work, much of it not in the public eye. We are very pleasantly surprised by how much progress of this kind there has already been, with the setting up of Forum of Mathematics, a major new open-access journal, and the recent announcement of the Episciences Project, a new platform for overlay journals. We are also pleased by the rapid progress made by the wider Open Access movement over the last year.

In one respect the boycott has been an unqualified success: it has helped to raise awareness of the concerns we have about academic publishing. This, we believe, will make it easier for new publishing initiatives to succeed, and we strongly encourage further experimentation. We believe that commercial publishers could in principle play a valuable role in the future of mathematical publishing, but we would prefer to see publishers as “service providers”: that is, mathematicians would control journals, publishers would provide services that mathematicians deemed necessary, and prices would be kept competitive since mathematicians would have the option of obtaining these services elsewhere.

We welcome the moves that Elsevier made last year in the months that followed the start of the boycott: the dropping of support for the Research Works Act, the fact that back issues for many journals have now been made available, a clear statement that authors can post preprints on the arXiv that take into account comments by referees, and some small price reductions. However, the fundamental problems remain. Elsevier still has a stranglehold over many of our libraries as a result of Big Deals (a.k.a. bundling) and this continues to do real damage, such as forcing them to cancel subscriptions to more independent journals and to reduce their spending on books. There has also been no improvement in transparency: it as hard as ever to know what libraries are paying for Big Deals. We therefore plan to continue boycotting Elsevier and encourage others to do the same. …

We are well aware that the problems mentioned above are not confined to Elsevier. We believe that the boycott has been more successful as a result of focusing attention on Elsevier, but the problem is a wider one, and many of us privately try to avoid the other big commercial publishers. …

We acknowledge that there are differing opinions about what an ideal publishing system would be like. In particular, the issue of article processing charges is a divisive one: some mathematicians are strongly opposed to them, while others think that there is no realistic alternative. We do not take a collective position on this, but we would point out that the debate is by no means confined to mathematicians: it has been going on in the Open Access community for many years. …

Barbara Brynko is the editor-in-chief of Information Today and the editorial director of the Info Pros Group at Information Today, Inc. Send your comments about this article to
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