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students every day. But we weren’t
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It is the world’s largest journals
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The Bookseller features Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed


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The Bookseller (http://www.thebookseller.com), the leading business magazine for the book industry, profiles Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed, who talks about changes in the company's communication strategy; the role of technology in digital content, and open access.

Free access to the article is provided courtesy of The Bookseller.

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The Bookseller features Elsevier CEO Ron Mobed

  1. 1. 08 interview ELSEVIER 14.03.14 www.thebookseller.com students every day. But we weren’t really able to share what we learned from that across the entire company, so we needed new systems.”The company also ramped up Elsevier Connect, which directs users to its various social media platforms across its many disciplines. Has it worked? Has Elsevier won hearts and minds?“We are getting a lot of positive anecdotal response of people saying Elsevier has changed, which is nice, but the funny thing is I don‘t think we have changed our business. We’ve just become better at communicating what we do.” SIZE MATTERS In academic, education and professional publishing, size— particularly when success can be dependent on delivering digital platforms and worldwide tech projects—matters. Elsevier has it in spades. Parent Reed Elsevier released its full-year 2013 results at the end of February, with Mobed’s Elsevier business generating revenues of £2.13bn and operating profits of £826m, up 3% and 6% respectively. (Overall, Reed Elsevier’s turnover and operating profit was £6.1bn and £1.7bn.) Elsevier is Reed Elsevier’s biggest division, worth 35% of the overall group’s sales and 46% of its profit. Listen and lead The London-born boss of the world’s second biggest publisher talks lessons learned and being a steward for tech and content £2.13bn Elsevier’s 2013 revenue £826m Elsevier’s operating profit, 2013 175m Full text journal article downloads in 2003 through Elsevier ScienceDirect BY tom tivnan I t was not an absolute deal- breaker, but one of the conditions of Elsevier’s acquisition of London-based digital start-up Mendeley last year was that Elsevier boss Ron Mobed would meet with Mendeley staff to explain the ins and outs of the deal—while wearing a Mendeley T-shirt. Mobed was game (and got a free T-shirt out of it), and the episode— in which the often suited-and- booted c.e.o. of what is effectively the world’s second-biggest publisher enthusiastically addressed hipster Clerkenwell digerati— neatly sums up part of Elsevier’s communication strategy under Mobed: more direct engagement with its customers and community. The strategy, Mobed freely admits, came out of lessons learned from The Cost of Knowledge, a 2012 boycott of Elsevier by researchers who objected to the what they said was the high cost of the STM giant’s journals. The controversy raged, and Elsevier had difficulty responding and participating in the debate, partly because of its corporate structure. “We didn’t have many avenues to engage with the community except in formal ways,”Mobed says.“So our responses were very standoffish. We were indulging in corporate-speak and most of the conversation was taking place without us. I thought we had to get on top of this. Elsevier as a company has always been a little bit low-profile, a bit modest about the things it does. It is a virtue, but taken to extremes it can be counterproductive.” Mobed tackled this internally: “Our staff obviously have personal contacts with academics, researchers, practitioners and key facts
  2. 2. 09interview ELSEVIER 14.03.14 www.thebookseller.com It is the world’s largest journals publisher with over 2,000 peer- reviewed titles (second-placed Springer has the equivalent number of titles, but it generates far less income; Elsevier’s journals operating profit is roughly akin to Springer’s journals revenue). A whopping 72% of Elsevier’s revenue comes from digital products. For geographical spread, Elsevier’s bread and butter is still in the developed world, with 68% of its 2013 revenues coming from Europe (30%) and North America (38%). The company is seeing gains in the predictable growth markets— China, Brazil, India, etc—partially because more research is coming out of these territories. Mobed says: “This is not new, but what is much more visible is the sheer scale— with no slowdown. There is massive growth, yet the percentage of growth rates is still very high.” engineering success The digital share will undoubtedly rise in coming years as Elsevier continues to experiment with more ways of delivering content digitally. Perhaps it is just as well that Mobed’s career has been largely in the technology sector. The Londoner studied engineering at Cambridge and worked for petroleum company Schlumberger, and various energy and tech firms for over 20 years, before moving to Cengage in 2009 to head its Academic & Professional Group. He joined Elsevier in 2011 to lead the science and technology divisions, before getting the top job a year later. Does his non-publishing background help? He pauses and chuckles slightly.“Well, you’ll have to ask other people and publishers that. But my career has been mostly about thinking how to get high- quality content in different formats to the end user, which is not that much different from what I do now.” Recent acquisitions point to Elsevier’s ongoing digital intent. Mendeley—which was bought for a rumoured £45m last April—is a part referencing platform, part social media site. When the deal was announced there was some trepidation and dissent among users, but that has largely gone away, primarily because Elsevier has kept the Mendeley team and business intact.“We know it will work if we let Mendeley keep on being Mendeley, but give it the support of a larger organisation.”So far, so good; Mendeley surpassed 2.5 million users last autumn and Mobed says numbers are“strong and on target”. Other tech deals in the past two years include the purchases of Knovel, a web-based search tool for engineers; Atira, whose main product is research management software Pure; and Quosa, a company that develops research productivity software. And there has been huge investment in Elsevier’s own-grown platforms, such as ScienceDirect. However, Mobed is quick to point out that Elsevier is not just a tech company.“This is a content business: the acquisition and production of content, the curation “Taking our cue from the Finch Report, a couple of years ago we saw that our Gold [author pays] Open Access programme was slightly lower than the world average, so we aimed in the next few years to accelerate, to move ahead to proportionally. We don’t want to be massively ahead of the industry in our OA programmes; we don’t want to be massively behind either. We know that OA models can succeed but if they are implemented poorly, they can have quite detrimental consequences. We can tell when we talk about this to our smaller society groupings; they are keenly aware that research ecosystems are delicate. When you make a change over here, you have to think that doesn’t have an impact over there, which can be damaging. We want to make OA work. But we feel obligated to point out where the pitfalls might be so we can steer away from those. Sometimes people say we are motivated by self-interest, and I can fully understand why people might think that. But because we are staffed by researchers in the main, and we have been in the business of serving science for over 130 years and we want to be in business for another 130 years, we have to think about the interesst of the community. When we make these interventions, we do it for science. mobed on open access 46% Percentage of Reed Elsevier’s operating profit generated by Elsevier, 2013 72% Percentage of Elsevier’s revenue that came from digital ventures, 2013 23% Percentage of Elsevier’s “electronic” journals revenue, 2003 700m Full text journal article downloads in 2013 through Elsevier ScienceDirect ‘‘ of the content, the dissemination of content. In the past 20 years, Elsevier has been at the forefront of technological advances, and we need to be, because that’s what researchers and practitioners need: more useful ways to access, analyse and search content. If I’m the steward of anything, it is managing that combination of tech and content.” More than once Mobed underlines that Elsevier has been in this game a while—2014 is its 134th anniversary—and with that history and the company’s scale there are added obligations.“There is an expectation that we serve our customers, engage with the research community, and give them what they want, but there is also a responsibility incumbent on us that we help pave the way.” Part of paving the way is the fact that the development and dissemination of new technology has a wide-ranging effect on the way research is going—the platforms and search engines that lead users to the right content— “but it’s also our expertise; we have hundreds of former researchers and practitioners who work for Elsevier. They didn’t join us for the love of Elsevier—though I hope they do now—but because they want to improve science,”says Mobed.“Yes, we need to listen to our partners; we also need to lead.” In the past 20 years, Elsevier has been at the forefront of technological advances, and we need to be, because that’s what researchers and practitioners need