JOHN R. "TRIP" ADLER III '06 (PHYSICS) BROKE TRADITION BUT STILL ENDED UP ON TOP.
The Harvard entrepreneur actually stuck it out long enough to earn his sheepskin before launching the start-up Scribd.
Through the online-publishing, social-networking site (www.scribd.com), Adler aims to “put every piece of content online.” It’s both a recipe for expanding access and a vision that could completely reinvent publishing.
With newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and publishers like Simon and Schuster already lined up, Adler may have found the magic way to go from free to fee without missing a beat.
What do you think about the movement towards open access in scholarship? Is Scribd involved in any aspect of open-access publishing?
Open access is absolutely the right direction for scholarship. The added transparency should dramatically speed the rate of research. While there are a few immediately apparent problems with open access, it's nothing that can't be fixed with technology over time.
I hope that Scribd has become a significant force in the open access movement. It's really at the core of the company: anyone can publish their research (or book, essay, presentation, whatever) and open their work up to the world for discussion. Think of it as a book club for scholarly works, for example, but with 50 million members instead of five.
You've mentioned that you started Scribd after you had a conversation with your father (an academic) about the trials of publishing academic papers. Can you go into a bit more detail about that?
Scribd was originally inspired three years ago by a conversation I had with my dad, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University. At the time, he was encountering a lot of barriers to publishing one of his papers in a medical journal. The elite peer review and glacial pace was frustrating, and he realized that what he really wanted was to make his paper accessible to as many people as possible and as quickly as possible.
My co-founder Jared Friedman, who was a junior at Harvard at the time, and I saw an opportunity to build a website to help people like my dad share his paper with his fellow doctors around the world. The service caught on like wildfire and we quickly realized that there was incredible demand, not only for research but for pretty much any kind of written material. Today, academic works, which we define broadly to include dissertations and even high school term papers, remains the largest and one of the fastest growing content categories on Scribd.
- Launched in March 2007
- HQ located in San Francisco
- Tens of millions of readers every month
- 10 million documents published
- 35 billion words
- 5 million Scribd document reader embeds
- 90 different languages supported
Eventually, my dad's paper was published in a traditional journal, about 2 years after it was written and first published on Scribd, where it's been read thousands of times. Since then, he's started a new company called Peeremed, which is using Scribd's publishing technology to open up the peer review process in the medical journal space.
If universities end up supporting the costs of publishing for their faculty (directly or indirectly through the grants process) ... might that be a model for other organizations? In the end, are people really going to pay for "narrow" content (such as specialized scholarly research), or will that need to be subsidized or paid for in some other way?
If you're searching for something very specific and you can't find it anywhere else except in one book written by a random professor in Croatia, then you'll pay whatever it costs to read it. The trick is to bring the two parties together. That's where the incredible efficiency of the Internet comes in -- there's no printing or distribution costs, your work is discoverable by search engines and now there's this incredibly powerful social recommendation engine on sites like Scribd, Twitter and Facebook.
In this scenario, it's the narrow content that performs better than the mass consumption stuff, which is highly profitable in only a very small percentage of cases.
One of the value-added processes in academic publishing is peer review (as well as copyediting, help with figures, and so on). In a "free" universe, are you worried about the erosion of these sorts of quality controls? What are some ways of insuring such processes remain robust?
Peer review is essential in academic publishing, and in the long run, it will primarily take place in an open, online environment. Although still in its infancy, peer review is happening on Scribd, for example, through comments, ratings and recommendations. Right now, we call it "crowd sourcing," or the collective actions of the community as the ultimate deciding factor in what's good and what's bad.
While Scribd is just scratching the surface of what's possible with peer review, we encourage other sites - like my dad's company Peeremed - to build on top of Scribd's platform and help further this effort.
How might a social-network approach to publishing enhance, say, academic scholarship?
Scribd is essentially the world’s largest social network for information seekers, people who love to read and anyone who has anything to share through the written word. Our largest user group is students, teachers and professors, so we have a lot of experience in this area.
Most of what Scribd offers can be applied nicely to academic publishing. For instance, author profiles give personal information, cite credentials, and make it easier to communicate with the author of a particular work. Our system of allowing individuals to subscribe to each other and keep track of each other's scholarship through a feed is a great way to keep up with interesting work that's happening around the world.
Papers can be updated at any time so that they are current and relevant and these changes can be communicated through the feed, while commenting and rating by other community members are great tools for determining the quality of works.
In light of the changing nature of libraries, do you think a place like Harvard needs to rethink its mission? Meaning, should universities move from housing knowledge to directly distributing it (like the original role that university presses played).
I'm not sure what Harvard's mission is these days but I am a big fan of open access to information. Very few institutions have as much hard- or impossible-to-find-elsewhere works as Harvard. Now more than ever, the tools exist to distribute this original source material to whoever wants it and without the limitations of physical location. They can give it away for free, charge for access or even sell advertising against it.
In addition, as the availability of information continues to explode, there will be even more of a premium placed on trusted sources of that knowledge; social networks are popular because people trust the advice of their friends. Trusted brands like Harvard and The New York Times, for example, have an opportunity to play this friend role on a much larger scale. That's why we'll be launching verified profiles and why we recently launched the branded Scribd document reader, which we'll be making available to universities soon.
Do you consider yourself a publisher? A repackager? A distributor?
Scribd is not a publisher in the traditional sense; we don't screen and we don't edit, but we do offer marketing (built into the product) and distribution. As long as you comply with our guidelines, we welcome everyone and the entire breadth of "written works" (which sometimes includes only illustrations or maps). Some people refer to us as the "YouTube for the written word" or "the literati's social network."
We call ourselves a social publishing company. Scribd maximizes the power of the web to bring readers and creators of written content together, regardless of where (on or off of Scribd.com) or how (e.g., web, mobile, print) they want to share and consume that content. We believe this is the future of publishing.
What is a good book worth? How bankable is knowledge? How do you put a price on it?
I believe those answers will always be subjective for the most part. What is an undeniable trend, however, is the move toward free as a model. More authors, publishers and retailers will reduce the price of books and other written works. Some will be offered completely free in lieu of other revenue sources like advertising, subscriptions, endorsements. Is this sustainable and definitive? I'm not sure. But there's a lot of experimentation going on right now, which clearly underscores the need and desire to find alternatives.
In five to 10 years, will there still be a role for journals like Science and Nature? What happens to the notion of an editor or a space-limited publication when everything and anything is available at your fingertips?
I believe there will always be a role for serious academic journals. But what people think of as a "journal" will likely change dramatically; the limitations of physical space in the print publication, for example, is irrelevant on the web because the cost of hosting, publishing and distributing research is practically zero. The peer review process can include a global community of academics who share videos, participate in real-time discussions, collaborate on longitudinal studies and mash up findings with maps, census data, etc. The role of the editor will change, obviously, but as I touched on earlier, trusted sources of knowledge will always be valued.
E-reading is still in its infancy — and right now is a parallel technology. In the tradition of the classic question, "Why don't we have flying cars?" ... why doesn't everyone have an e-reader by now? Will books become like radio (i.e. still around, but as one channel among many to receive information).
Radio is a great analogy, I would agree with that. Right now, though, e-readers are prohibitively expensive for most people and designed for one use, which is reading books. They won't go really mainstream until prices come down and/or they offer a lot more functionality that people want. At that point, e-readers will move beyond just books to become mobile reading, content discovery and media consumption devices but with exceptional user experience; the device that more closely fits this description today is the iPhone. Scribd’s goal is to make content sharable and consumable in whatever way people want, including on various mobile platforms and even in print.
My guess is that there will be some demand for print books for a long time, although they'll increasingly be produced using print-on-demand technology. Today's generation of readers are equally, if not more, comfortable reading on their computers and mobile phones as they are reading a print book. If you think about it, there really have been only a handful of major developments in publishing and reading in the history of mankind - cave drawings, invention of written language, the printing press, the Internet. I believe we're experiencing another pivotal moment in this history. It's exciting to be a part of it.