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Interview


Building the next generation


John Sack, founding director of HighWire Press, describes some key moments during his time in the industry


Tell us a little about your background and qualifications... As part of my graduate work in English at Stanford University, I spent some time as an instructor and researcher. At one point I was doing a research project on modern poetry, when a public service librarian duplicated three days of my work scrabbling through the card catalogue by turning to a computer terminal and typing maybe two or three commands into a named “BALLOTS” (the most elaborate acronym I’ve encountered: Bibliographic Automation of Large-Library Operations on a Time-sharing System). I saw the benefits of what was then


called ‘library automation’ but was really the glimmer of what would become online library catalogues and, ultimately, comprehensive search engines that were able to search full text. At that point I became a lot more interested in what computers could do for researchers than I was in my own research! I then became the first grad student in English that the computer centre ever hired. I started learning how to program and explain text and bibliographic databases right away. After that, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Being at Stanford University in the early/mid-1980s – as Silicon Valley was going through its first ‘hockey stick’ growth phase, as Steve Jobs sold the first Macintoshes on campus, and as network-connected laser printers meant that you could print out a book or article rather than going to the library to read or photocopy it – meant that researchers, publishers, administrators and faculties were increasingly open to rethinking what was physical vs. digital. The game was on! One of my first successes was working


16 Research Information August/September 2018


with a highly talented and motivated team of experts to develop Stanford University’s first online library catalogue. The system anticipated Google with its ‘one box’ search, Amazon with its connection between the library and the bookstore, and allowed you to browse the stacks virtually.


How and why did HighWire come about? In the mid-1990s I began to work with Mike Keller, the co-founder of HighWire, who had recently become the head of Stanford University’s libraries. Many library leaders were worrying about ‘the serials crisis’ in which journal prices were climbing faster


“Drilling down to specifics, I would say the aggregation search engine was an important development”


than library budgets. Mike wanted to do something about it, and thought web- based journals might be part of a solution. We built the next generation of scholarly


communication, centred around the way researchers used information to communicate. Our collaborators were scholarly societies, which owned some of the strongest journals in the world. With HighWire they would have a community- based platform owned by the academy, which these societies could drive into the future according to their needs as readers, researchers and editors. To accomplish this, we worked with the


leadership of the Journal of Biological Chemistry – which was then one of the highest-volume and most-cited journals in the world – and the Human Computer Interface group in the Stanford Computer Science department, to design what would eventually be the dominant paradigm for delivering web-based scholarly articles, issues and journals.


What has been the most important development during your time in the scholarly communications industry? Since I started my time in scholarly communication in the early 1990s, the industry went through great change. It goes without saying that the development of the Web has made the biggest impact and revolutionised the industry. However, drilling down to specifics, I would say the aggregation search engine was an important development. At first it was PubMed in the life sciences, but now particularly Google and Google Scholar, as they have been essential to providing researchers a more efficient way to discover information. IP-based authentication, as much as


we love and hate it, was an essential early development in getting information moved to people, rather than moving people to the library for information. In addition, open access has been significant, as it has opened access to information and content online, from anywhere. Multiple access paths, such as CASA


and RA21, which complement each other, have created an environment of legal resources that can be easily accessed online. Just as the music industry has the likes of Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music complementing each other to create a smooth user experience,


@researchinfo | www.researchinformation.info


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