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Publishers attend their annual Rave

Yet again Rave Technologies assembled an impressive cast of speakers for their annual publishing event (London, October 2017). Despite the event being managed by a vendor, Rave resists any attempt to turn it into a corporate showcase.

This year the theme was broadly based around innovation, specifically digital innovation – you could ask if there is any innovation that is not digital, these days, but of that more below.

The innovation theme was central to Max Gabriel’s keynote address, which used the automobile industry as an exemplar of how the changing economy and digital innovation has caused a fundamental shift in business from supply to demand. Whereas car manufacturers once worked with a limited range of suppliers and were forced to accept the terms on which goods were supplied, today’s car manufacturers have a plethora of supplies and can dictate how and when to adjust that supply to meet demand patterns. Another analogy charted the development of printing to the latest developments – not technology at all, but printing on demand.

Although you could argue that the monopolistic aspirations of suppliers such as UBER and AirBNB constitute a less welcome development of this trend back to the supplier, as a description of the market today, Max Gabriel’s talk was highly relevant.

The theme of innovation was picked up by Ian Mulvany of Sage Publishing, who described his experience of running an innovation unit within a publisher. His description of a self-contained innovation unit was nicely complemented by Andrew Vorster, who described innovation, somewhat idealistically, as best positioned within the entire organisation. This presentation was idealistic, in fact evangelical, since while innovation should take place across al organisations, in my experience the average worker in an organisation does not find inovation desirable or comfortable.

In between these presentation, there were talks about aspects of using lean development and lean thinking, not just for software development but across the entire corporation.

Chris Marker of the IET gave a detailed presentation of the use of AI in creating metadata for the abstracting and indexing service Inspec. An elaborate combination of machine learning (RDF) and rules are used to tag all Inspec content to create several independent indexes. What he didn’t mention was that all the elaborate attention being dedicated to this content is done only the abstract, not the full text, simply because Inspec will not have the rights to use the full text, so the results achieved will be less than ideal.

Perhaps it would be nit-picking, but going back to Max Gabriel’s keynote presentation, was this an example of demand-driven innovation? Although the presentation listed as one of the results of the project as having all the data in RDF, it was not clearly stated what could be done with this RDF.

No end user asks to see RDF. The demonsttation at the end of the presentation of “Inspec Plus” showed a graphical  display with papers linked to authors and topics, and authors shown by geographical region  – fine, but what user has asked for such a feature as a visual display?

For me, the most valuable takeaways were as follows:

  • More digital transformation happens as a result of consumer demand than becuase of new products being developed (you would like to think that new proeducts were always the result of consumer demand, but sadly not);
  • The way that data is drviving disruption, whether by sensors in cars, or by implication by capturing academic user usage (although sadly this frequently does not happen, since Google owns the bulk of the traffic)
  • An excellent exmaple of a simple implementation of AI, without even designinig an interface. To assist checks on rogue landlords in London, a machine tool identifies potentially fradulent activity. The output is simply a list of addresses, which the human agent then investigates manually. Given they can only check a small number of landlords in their working day, this enables them to use their time far more effectively.
  • How some small organisations have great difficulty implementing any AI in their publishing because the cost of entry is so high.
  • How lean processes (such as creating a prototype and testing it within two weeks) can transform businesses
  • Repeatedly, publishers stated how they were looking to add value to the publishing process.
  • publishers working in a world where instead of “content is king”, the user is the king,


And, finally to rturn to the question asked above, was there any innovation talked about that was not digital? Yes, and from the most unexpected source. Paul Shannon, head of technology at eLife. He admitted to using Jira to track bugs, but stated his preference was for sticky notes on the wall. If you want to change it from three columns to four, he said, you can do it easily! Here was a full-time technology professional celebrating pencil and paper. Quite remarkable.