This interview is with Mr. Rob Walsh, co-founder of Scholastica and its lead interaction designer. Mr. Walsh holds a BA in International Studies from the Texas A&M and an MA in Political Science from the University of Chicago (but like most entrepreneurs, now does something completely different...). Scholastica is a young start-up (just celebrated its second anniversary) based in Chicago. Founded by a group of former and current University of Chicago graduate students, it focuses on the publication process of academic journals and offers submission-managing tools for editors and authors.
Obviously, the current academic publishing system has many flaws…Can you tell us which ones Scholastica is aiming to correct?
The first main problem is inefficiency of the entire review process. Scholastica is designed to decrease both the time between submitting an article and getting a decision, as well as decreasing the time from deciding to publish an article and actually making it available to scholars. Scholastica makes it easier to manage reviewers, and we include one-click Open Access online publishing to help scholarship be available as soon as possible.
The second main problem is the need for easy-to-use and low-cost infrastructure. We’ve heard from journal editors that there are two main drawbacks across most of the software out there to run a journal: first, it is clunky to use so editors waste time doing routine actions; and second, it costs too much either in terms of dollars or time. We’ve heard about this last point from many editors who are frustrated about having to spend time managing software installations, maintenance, training, troubleshooting, etc.
A third problem Scholastica fixes is the problem of technology getting in the way of experimentation. Many editors have told us about great ideas they want to implement to improve scholarly publishing – but get frustrated when they find how much time they waste trying to make technology do what they want. Scholastica eliminates the hassle of managing technology by being a hosted solution, and we pave the way for journals to experiment through one-click features and constantly partnering with journals to add new functionality that ALL journals can utilize. We remove the silo between journals so they can learn from each other and focus on using their time for what is most important: reviewing and publishing good scholarship.
How was your system received by editors and authors? Were you met with enthusiasm, skepticism, or perhaps both?
Everyone acknowledges that academic publishing exists somewhere on the spectrum from inefficient to archaic – so scholars have been really supportive of Scholastica because it is makes a clear contribution by making it easier and more efficient to run a scholarly journal.
We speak to editors using our system every week, which has helped us develop new features (and refine old features) that editors need to make their jobs easier. Since Scholastica is a centrally hosted solution, every time Scholastica gets a new feature it’s available for everyone. Editors at smaller journals have been especially pleased to have the same quality software that a larger journal enjoys, but with pricing scaled based on their submission volume.
Authors are also happy with Scholastica, especially since journals have the ability for authors to be notified as their submission moves through the process. This means that authors are alerted when such occurrences happen as reviewers being invited to the manuscript, when reviewers accept the invitations, when reviewers are submitted, all the way to a decision being made on the manuscript.
Looking through the site, I noticed that most of the journals using Scholastica are Law Reviews journals. Did you have law journals in mind when you designed the system?
Actually, we designed Scholastica with sociology and literature and history in mind (because the founders’ graduate work was in those areas), but our goal with Scholastica has always been to provide journals of all kind the infrastructure they require to be successful. We’re excited that some of the most well known journals using Scholastica are law reviews, but Scholastica is by no means specific to law reviews: journals in disciplines ranging from the social sciences to physical sciences to humanities use Scholastica.
We have added specific functionality that was designed with law reviews in mind, but through conversations with editors of non-law reviews we have been able to adapt these features to benefit all journals. And that’s really our goal, to build functionality that helps specific academic disciplines but then make that functionality available to journals of ALL disciplines in order to promote innovation and experimentation across disciplines.
The Scholastica submission fee is pretty modest (5$ per submission for Law Review journals, 10$ for others). How do you intend to sustain the project?
It’s been widely covered in the tech and business press how the costs to run a technology company today (hosting, storage, etc.) are a fraction of what they were five or ten years ago – and Scholastica is living proof of that. Our business model is pretty simple: there is a very modest fee for each article submitted to a journal on Scholastica. That’s it.
We’re very proud of the journal diversity we have in terms of submission volume: we have journals using Scholastica that receive 20 submissions a year and journals that receive 2,000 articles submissions a year. This is possible because we have pricing that scales with submission volume, and we give journals flexibility on who pays the article submission fee (the journal, the author, the home school, the host association, etc.).
Scholastica is currently integrated with ArXiv. What made you decide to create an ArXiv plug-in, and do you intend to create more for other repositories?
That’s a good question! When Timothy Gowers mentioned Scholastica in one of his blog posts after the Cost of Knowledge campaign kicked off, we started speaking to a lot of mathematicians. We learned that they frequently have their papers on the ArXiv pre-print server and that it would be really helpful to be able to submit papers directly from the ArXiv – so we built that functionality. We also open sourced a Ruby Gem to make it easier for others to work with ArXiv – you can find the code on our GitHub.
As I said before, we’re passionate about giving scholars the infrastructure that they need to be successful in managing and disseminating new knowledge. Whenever we’re approached with functionality that benefits scholars or journals as a whole we don’t hesitate to add it to our queue.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Scholastica is only as successful as the scholars and journals that help us make it great. It’s also a living, breathing product; we’re constantly refining it and building new features in concert with the dialogue we have with our editors and authors. We’ve got lots of exciting benefits in the pipe that we can’t wait to share with the scholarly community. If any of the readers have any feedback for us or new ideas about where they think digital scholarship needs to head, please do contact us – we love talking to scholars about how to improve scholarly publishing!
I'd like to thank Mr. Walsh for the interview. Photos courtesy of Scholastica.