ITHAKA Sustainable Scholarship 2014 Brings Data and Process Together

On October 20–21, scholarly nonprofit organization ITHAKA held its annual Sustainable Scholarship conference at New York City’s Wyndham Hotel. The event’s theme, “At the Starting Line,” echoed the concerns of many libraries, publishers, and institutions about the demands for change driven by today’s information marketplace.
I_ISS2014On October 20–21, scholarly nonprofit organization ITHAKA held its annual Sustainable Scholarship conference at New York City’s Wyndham Hotel. The event’s theme, “At the Starting Line,” echoed the concerns of many libraries, publishers, and institutions about the demands for change driven by today’s information marketplace. The conference statement posed the scenario: “All organizations are feeling the pressure to innovate. Even in organizations with a long history of success, it requires starting anew. As you launch a new initiative, how do you assess its full and lasting potential? How can you approach it smartly—from the starting line to the finish?” ITHAKA is familiar with the imperative to look ahead; it has been working with the academic community to help it define and meet digital technology needs since 2003, when the organization was founded by Kevin Guthrie, then president of JSTOR. Since then it has continuously investigated new solutions for scholarly preservation and sustainable research. The Sustainable Scholarship conference’s mission involved not only identifying ideas and trends but being able to discern true innovation from simply change for change’s sake. Throughout the conference, moderator Bryan Alexander kept the conversation flowing and integrated questions both from the floor and Twitter.


The keynote speaker, Marty Cagan, set the conference’s tone, paraphrasing venture capitalist John Doerr: “You want missionaries, not mercenaries.” Cagan, a founding partner of Silicon Valley Product Group, used the early days of eBay as an object lesson in what he termed “gentle deployment.” He described how eBay’s user community objected so strenuously when developers replaced the site’s bright yellow background with white that they had to roll back the change. They then proceeded to alter the background color gradually, a shade at a time over several months, and not a single user complained. He went on to outline some keys to creating successful technology-powered products and services, all of which could be applied to the information world as well. He applauded the iterative process of discovery but cautioned against “falling in love” with ideas, suggesting that the initial development stage ideally should not last longer than two weeks. Cagan emphasized the value of dedicated cross-functional teams—“little startups within your organization”—and what he termed “embracing pivots”—being agile and open to the possibility that ideas may need to change shape even as they’re in progress. Above all, he advised, organizations need to create a culture of innovation in order to bring about useful change: “If you fail before discovery, that’s not failure.”


Cagan’s product-oriented philosophy was followed by two academic leaders: Keith Webster, Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) dean of libraries, and Georgia State University (GSU) president Mark Becker. Webster addressed the mission change within the CMU libraries and academic libraries at large. “The collections arms race is over,” he declared, adding that, in a networked world, libraries need to shift from being products of scholarship to being embedded within it. He challenged libraries to consider new metrics for assessment beyond gate counts and circulation. Webster applauded open access initiatives, especially open science, and called for a more systematic approach to innovation in libraries, declaring that “the notion of the librarian waiting for things to happen has had its day.” Becker spoke of implementing his goals for improvement at GSU, especially greater success for low-income students, through an orderly approach: strategic planning, setting priorities, clarifying the process, and then implementing it. Metrics were crucial to his vision as well; predictive analytics that GSU developed for student success triggered 34,000 one-on-one meetings between students and advisors in the past 12 months, improving GSU graduation rates by five percent. (Becker admitted that this required hiring more advisors but added, “If you keep students in school, they keep paying tuition.”) Speakers Larry Rudman, Willem Pieterson, and Aaron Brenner continued the theme of the value of good data. Rudman, vice president of instructional design at test prep and online education company Kaplan, Inc., discussed methods of evaluating instructional design practices, notably in e-learning environments, and studying how students measure their own academic success or failure. Pieterson, COO at Syndio Social, social network analysis consultants, talked about the importance of social network analysis and relational data in looking at the information flows within an organization, particularly in academic networks. Brenner is the coordinator of digital scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh and spoke about ways to use qualitative data for measuring library outcomes. The act of collecting data, he explained, could help influence those outcomes by positioning the library as a listener rather than a seller of services.


If the conference’s first day was about data, day two was concerned with integrating that data into the development process and moving forward. Heather Cassano, chief experience officer of Scholastic; Alex Humphreys, ITHAKA’s associate vice president of labs and new business development; Eric Johnson, director of digital access at the Folger Shakespeare Library; and the American Anthropological Association’s Ed Liebow discussed usability testing, design development, and the concept of the “lightning lab”—an intensive four-day brainstorming session. Conference guests were treated to a look at a new collaborative project between the Folger Shakespeare Library and JSTOR Labs, Understanding Shakespeare, a research tool that lets users discover JSTOR content line-by-line in Shakespeare’s plays. Jeremy Dean, director of education at annotation website Genius; Sam Molyneaux, CEO and cofounder of educational research platform Sciencescape; and Dave Zwieback, vice president of engineering at Next Big Sound and Next Big Book, providers of online music and publishing analytics, then highlighted some of their cutting-edge products and services. Genius’s annotation tools, Sciencescape’s personalized on-demand discovery, and Next Big Sound’s predictive media analysis all got high marks from an enthusiastic audience. Finally, Governors State University president Elaine Maimon; Dane Neller, chief executive officer of On Demand Books (owner of the Espresso Book Machine technology); and John Sherer, director of the University of North Carolina Press, talked about their varied experiences in information innovation, or what Maimon described as “insurmountable opportunities.” Taken as a whole, the conference offered a clear narrative about identifying what new questions can be asked and then repurposing that data for creative, sometimes unexpected solutions. The overall message was, as Sherer put it, to fear the status quo—to avoid what Dane termed the “muscle memory” of mind-set. The interesting mix of speakers contributed to a strong sense of possibility for interdisciplinary research. As Kevin Guthrie said in the conference’s opening remarks, one of the event’s primary missions was to “try to bring different worlds together…to introduce you to a world slightly different than your own.”
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