Elsevier Chats: Paul Foeckler on innovation

Elsevier’s VP of Product Excellence and Mendeley co-founder talks about partnering with the community to create “a more personalized world of research”

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In the second of our Elsevier Chats, Content Director Ian Evans interviews Paul Foeckler, Mendeley co-founder and VP of Product Excellence at Elsevier.

Paul, we’re talking about innovation today and especially what it means for the research community. We hear the term a lot, but what exactly drives the need for innovation for researchers and research managers?

The world’s changing quickly, partly because of the transformation that comes with new digital services. For example, researchers have a lot of information at their fingertips, more than ever before. That opens up a lot of opportunities for expanding the scope of their knowledge, and what they can draw on to do their work, but it also creates a new need: with all this information available, we can help them by providing better tools to manage that flow of information, manage their research and stay on top of their field.

A lot of companies talk about being “leaders in innovation.” But in your view, is “leading” really the key component of innovation?

In my opinion, companies which have to state that they are “leaders in innovation” are normally not very innovative. Otherwise people would recognize that on their own. In fact, I think in our domain, it’s more important to emphasize being a partner. Through partnerships, we can create an even playing field since everyone will have access to the same information. Whoever innovates and iterates on top of it the fastest, wins. If a business doesn’t do that – if it claims some sort of leadership position without being a partner in our domain – then it’s not beneficial for the customers and users, who will only get a fraction of what they might be interested in.

So, when you talk about being able to solve the new needs that come from, for example, much more information, you can only be aware of that if you’re partnering with the community and listening to how their world has changed?

Yes, I’d really emphasize that in order to deliver an innovation that benefits your users, you have to be a partner to that community as a whole. And not just in a one-off sense – it has to be sustained. The world changes quickly, and so every industry has to innovate on a much faster cadence than before. That’s true everywhere, not just in research and publishing and database solutions.

It’s no longer a case of doing some market research every five years …

Right. In the past, you could innovate once and then essentially capture all the value from that innovation over the course of years or decades, in some cases. That sort of rhythm has shortened massively, so the expectation from the research community, and from ourselves, is that we need to innovate at a much faster pace. That’s what people need from us because, as I say their world is changing. I think maybe as an industry, and within Elsevier, we haven’t always been good at continuous innovation.

Is continuous innovation a slightly different concept to innovation? The faster cadence you describe sounds like something different.

Yes. Elsevier has a history of innovation – Scopus being the first online citation database is one example, and the company was on the forefront of digital delivery even back in the days of CD-ROMS – but the continuous innovation our customers need and expect is a different thing. Today, we’re getting better at listening, moving more quickly and – through that partnership mentality I mentioned – focusing on the things that will make a difference to the people.

You were one of the founding members of Mendeley, which has been a part of Elsevier for some time. Mendeley was a start-up with a reputation for that kind of continuous innovation. As you allude to, Elsevier, as a 140-year old business, was part of an industry where the pace was once very different. What gives Elsevier the right to claim its place in the current culture of innovation?

Through strategic and deliberate acquisitions of businesses like Mendeley, Elsevier is changing its culture. Look, we have a responsibility to innovate. We’re one of the biggest players in this field. We’re facilitating the way in which people publish their work, and how they improve their work. And I think we can do better. We have a responsibility to be better at what we do. Something like 16 percent of the world’s research output is going through our journals. If we do a better job in making that process faster, by accelerating peer review, taking the burden out of some of the editorial workflows, or submission workflows, and helping people better use the information that gets published – if we do a better job at all that, then actually the whole world will benefit from that. So we are stepping up to our responsibility to do better.

What does “doing better” look like?

Well, we have a lot of things we can draw from as we look for ways to adapt to customer needs and provide them with the tools and services that will help them achieve great things. We have a wealth of information. We have a network of products and platforms, we have many millions of users interacting with one or many of our services. We are in a perfect position to create a better-than-ever, more personalized world of research.

Can you give an example of that?

So here’s something close to my heart that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. We’re facilitating certain researcher workflows, from submission to peer review, to publication, to distribution, right? If we were to provide the right tools for researchers to manage some of these steps themselves, (then) instead of facilitating the whole process, we would give ownership back to the community – we would be more of a platform which facilitates direct interactions between researchers. That, in turn, opens new ways of improving work, new ways of sharing work, and new ways of publishing work. It would improve the whole lifecycle of research. That’s something we could offer to the whole industry, not just restricted to Elsevier.

That sounds like a big step. You mentioned that it was essential to work in partnership with the research community so that any innovation benefits users and customers. How do you get to the situation you describe in way that supports the way researchers work – and just makes them happy?

It’s a constant process of small experiments. What we don’t do is lock ourselves away for a year and then emerge with what we decided the right solution is. It’s about partnership, as I say. So we’ll test our way to into a new way of doing things so we’re always responding to what the community needs and likes.

What does that look like to the users?

It shows up as very small experiments on a very regular basis. So adding new modules and features to existing products that a small fraction of the community will see and use, to begin with. Based on their interactions with those modules, we can start to establish whether this is something people like and find useful. With that feedback, we can build the right service that gets us to the next stage in this journey.

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Paul. I just have one last thing I want to ask, and that’s, “What’s your favorite part of all this?”

For me, it’s seeing everyone come together to solve a problem which makes a difference. Elsevier has to build on a culture of collaboration. We identify challenges or needs that the community has through user research, and then collaboratively with people from product, UX and engineering, we address that problem together. At the end of it, you come up with something that makes a real difference for people and ideally the world. Elsevier has a great purpose – that’s what I love!

Quick question for you

Which terms do you most associate with Elsevier? (check all that apply)

Data and analytics
Research platforms
Technology
Decision support tools
Publishing
Books and journals
Scientific articles
Healthcare content

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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