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PLOS are looking for a new CEO

Tue Jan 10, 2017

1977 Words
Posted In: plos, publishing, management, leadership, open-access

So I hear that PLOS are looking for a new CEO. They are making the process fairly open, so if you are interested you can read more here.

I got to thinking about some of the challenges and opportunities facing PLOS over the weekend. Over the years I’ve gotten to know a lot of PLOS folk, and I think it’s an amazing organisation. It has proved the viability of open access, and their business model is being copied by a lot of other publishers. At the same time they have had a fairly high frequency of turn over of senior staff in the last couple of years. So what are the likely challenges that a new CEO will face, and what should they do about them? (Time for some armchair CEO’ing).

The condensed view of PLOS’s mission that they want to to accelerate progress in science and medicine. At the heart of their mission is the belief that knowledge is a pubic good, and leading on from that, that the means for transmitting that knowledge should also be a public good (specifically research papers).

It was founded in 2001 by three visionaries, and it was configured to be a transformational organisation that could catalyse radical change in the way that knowledge is created and disseminated, initially in particular in contrast to the subscription model for distributing scholarly content.

Since launching PLOS has found massive success with the introduction of PLOS one, currently the largest journal in the world. That rapid growth led to a period of significant scaling and adjustment for the organisation, where it had to keep running at full pace in order to stay just about on top of the flood of manuscripts that were coming its way. This also created a big revenue driver for the organisation that has led to PLOS one being the engine that drives the rest of the PLOS.

So now we have the strategic crux facing any incoming CEO. The organisation has an obligation to be radical in it’s approach to further it’s mission, but at the same time the engine that drives the organisation operates as such scale that changes to the way it works introduce systemic risks to the whole organisation. You also have to factor in that the basic business model of PLOS one is non defensible, and market share is being eroded by new entrants, in particular Nature Communications, so it is likely that no changes also represents a risky strategy.

So what to do?

There are probably many routes to take, and there are certainly a large number of ongoing activities that PLOS is engaged in as part of the natural practice of any organisation. I think the following perspectives might have some bearing on where to go. As with any advice, it’s much easier to throw ideas across the wall when you don’t have any responsibility for them, but I’m going to do it anyway in the full awareness that much of what I say below might not actually be useful at all.

Changing PLOS does not change scientists

PLOS has shown that Open Access can succeed, and it’s existence has been critical to confirm the desire of researchers who want to research conducted as an open enterprise. That has allowed those researchers to advocate for something real, rather than something imagined. However, there remain a large number of researchers for whom the constraints of the rewards system they operate under outweigh any interest they may have in open science. I think it is important to recognise that no matter what changes PLOS introduces, those changes on their own will not be sufficient to change the behaviour of all (or even of a majority) of researchers. Being able to show plausible alternatives to the existing system is important, but it is also important to continue to work closely with other key actors in the ecosystem to try to advance systemic change. What that tells me is that the bets that PLOS ought to take on to create change do have to be weighed against their likelihood to affect all researchers, and the risks they introduce to the current business model of PLOS.

On the other hand you do want to progressively make it possible for people to be more open in how they conduct science. We talked a lot at eLife about supporting good behaviours, and you could imagine using pricing or speed mechanisms as a way of driving that change (e.g. lower costs for publishing articles that have been placed on a preprint server, for instance). One does have to be careful with pricing in academic circles as usually costs to publication are rarely a factor in the decision of an academic around where to publish, but generally I’m in favour of providing potentially different routes through a product to different users, and making the routes that promote the behaviours I support be easier/cheaper. (Github do this brilliantly by make open code repositories free to host, and only making you pay if you want to keep your code private).

How do you balance risk?

One of the things that is consistent in innovation is that we mostly don’t know what is going to succeed. I expect that the success of PLOS one probably took PLOS by surprise. It was a small change to an existing process, but it had a dramatic effect on the organisation.

It seems to me that what you want to do is to have a fair number of bets in play. If we accept that we mostly won’t know what is going to succeed in the first place, then the key thing is to have a sufficient number of bets in place that you get coverage over the landscape of possibilities, and you iterate and iterate and iterate on the ones that start working well, and you have the resolve to close down the ones that are either making no progress or are getting stuck in local minima.

Product Horizons

I like the idea of creating a portfolio of product ideas around the three horizons principle. There are lots of ways of determining if your bets are paying off. One of the things that I think PLOS needs to do is to ensure that at least a certain minimum of it’s financial base is being directed towards this level of innovation.

I don’t think that is a problem at all for the organisation in terms of creating tools like ALM and their new submissions and peer review system, but I’m not clear on whether they have being doing this strategically across all of the bases where they want to have an impact. That’s not an easy thing to do, balancing ongoing work, new ideas, being disciplined to move on, being disciplined enough to keep going with the realisation that real success sometimes takes you by surprise.

PLOS may need diversification

As I referred to above, the business model of PLOS, as it’s currently configured, is not easily defensible. Many other publishers have created open access journals with publishing criteria based on solidity of the science rather than impact. The Nature branded version of this is now attracting a huge number of papers (one imagines driven by the brand overflow from the main Nature titles). This speaks to me that there is some value in looking at diversifying the revenue streams that PLOS generates. This could be around further services to authors, to funders or to other actors in the current scholarly ecosystem. Here are three ways to potentially look at the market.

One; what will the future flow of research papers look like, how does one capture an increasing share of that? Will increased efficiencies of time to publication, and improved services around the manuscript be sufficient, how might the peer review system be modified to make authors happier.

Two; ask how will funding flow to support data and code publishing, will there be funding for creating new systems for assessment? Can any services that benefit PLOS be extended to benefit others in the same way?

Three; if you are creating platforms and systems that can be flexible and support the existing scale of PLOS, what might the marginal investment be to extend those platforms so that others could use them (societies, small groups of academics that want to self-publish, national bodies or organisations from emerging research markets).

The key here is not to suggest that PLOS has to change for it’s own sake, but rather to be clear about exploring these kinds of options strategically. It might be that you can create streams of revenue that make innovation be self-supporting, it might be that you hit on a way to upend the APC model. These efforts could be seen as investment in case the existing driver of revenue continues to come under increasing pressure in the future.

Ultimately you want to build a sustainable engine for innovation.

Who does all of the work?

In the end all of the work is done by real people, and the key thing any new CEO is going to have to do is to bring a clarity of purpose, and to support the staff who are in the thick of things. What I’ve seen cause the most dissatisfaction in staff (aside from micromanagement - a plague on the houses of all micro-mangers), is a lack of ability to ship. This usually comes down to one of two causes, either priorities chance too quickly, or unrealistic deadlines are set that lead to the introduction of technical debt, that causes delays in shipping. It’s key to try to identify bottlenecks in the organisation, and (as contradictory as it might sound) to try to create slack in people’s schedules to allow for true creative work to happen.

If everyone is going open access why should PLOS exist, has it now succeeded in some way?

Given that almost all new journal launches are now open access journal launches, has PLOS effectively won? Could the existing PLOS as it exists essentially go away? I think within one area of how we get to an open research ecosystem that might actually be true, however that only speaks to access to the published literature. Open science requires so much more than that. It needs transparency around review, efficiency in getting results into the hands of those who need them, data and code that are actionable and reusable, a funding system that abandons it’s search for the chimera of impact, an authoring system that is immediately interoperable with how we read on the web today.

So what to do with PLOS as it’s currently configured? I see the current PLOS, with it’s success, as being an opportunity to generate the revenues to continue to explore and innovate in these other areas, but I think that the current system should be protected to ensure that this is possible.

In the end of the day, what does a CEO do?

I can’t remember where I read it now, but one post from a few years back struck me as quite insightful. It said that a CEO has three jobs:

  • make sure the lights stay on
  • set the vision for the organisation
  • ensure that the best people are being hired, and supported

PLOS is in a great position at the moment. It has a business model that is working right now, and is operating at a scale that gives any incoming CEO a good bit of room to work with. It’s a truly vision led organisation, whose ultimate goal is one that can benefit all of society. It has great great people working for it.

I don’t think that the job is in anyway going to be a gimme, but it’s got to be one of the most interesting challenges out there in the publishing / open science landscape at the moment.