Birte Twisselmann: Is there an app for that?

This year’s SSP (Society for Scholarly Publishing) annual meeting, “A Golden Opportunity,” started on Wednesday, 2 June 2010. The evening’s “networking reception” in the exhibition space was buzzing, creating great expectations for the next couple of days’ actual sessions. And although librarians, assorted publishing types, web hosts, and providers of all manner of publishing related services may on the surface perhaps conform more to the cliché of “quiet types,” the number of dynamic “mavericks” who have been shaping the US scholarly publishing landscape for quite a few years is not inconsiderable—and neither are they particularly quiet. Thursday afternoon’s session, “Lessons learnt and lessons learning,” gave a few examples of such outstanding individuals and their career paths (all of whom seem to have started out doing a fair amount of copyediting, later acquiring business skills). The take-home message? Don’t assume that there is a job in publishing that has your name on it. Keep learning, keep expanding your skills, and embrace change.

The meeting opened with a keynote address by digital librarian Brewster Kahle, who talked about his vision of “Distributed vending and lending on the internet,” for books. The idea is to move from accessing a single source from a single device to a “distributed model,” which would enable readers to find books across the web to read on whatever device they may have. Kahle’s proposed “BookServer,” a system in development by many publishers, libraries, and software developers would benefit all stakeholders (rather than merely Google, Amazon, and Apple): authors, publishers, readers, book sellers, device makers, and libraries, but mostly readers, who would be able to have “universal access to all knowledge.” On discussing this with others, we were wondering how such a “lending” model would work—surely, users would be less concerned with lending vs buying as opposed to just having access (such as Spotify, for example)?

Another session on Thursday 3 June was entitled “The rise of applications: the future of science communication?” The panel consisted of a publisher (Steve Welch from Chest) and the developer who designed the required app (SiNae Pitts from Amphetamobile), as well as an example of a scientific app not built for a commercial publisher but as part of a project mapping the stars, Google’s Keir Mierle talked about “starfield search.”

The publisher focused on which device to select (for a medical app, the iPhone/iPad were the preferred choice—and the developer pointed out that whichever device you design the app for, the initial work covers 50% of the work required to adapt it for another device), what content you want to feature (a board examination product in this case), which supplier to choose (Amphetamobile was the favourite, for a number of reasons), the business model (which everyone agreed was the most difficult consideration), the result, and lessons learnt. ACCP-SEEK has been a success, and the range of topics covered (three so far) will soon be extended. From the developer’s perspective, the pertinent questions were:

• Why build apps for medical/scientific content?
• How do publishers need to think differently about apps?
• Does your community need an app for that?
• What’s your motivation?
• Which mobile devices should the app be built for?
• Where does the content come from?
• Where to look ahead (phased approach—the product does not have to be perfect from the outset but be regarded as a work in progress)
• What about the iPad?(2 million have been sold in two months, equalling $1bn)

Fascinating stuff—and the message seems simply to be not to think that an app is ever “finished” but to keep adapting, refining, and developing it.

This first day encapsulated perfectly how the publishing landscape is ever changing—the tools, technologies, media, skills required, delivery modes, and what have you. What it seems to need above all else, however, is people with outstanding skills, talent, and curiosity, who embrace change rather than try to avoid it.

Birte Twisselmann is a web editor at the BMJ.