Despite its academic roots, scholarly publishing is not immune from cliché—and calling for “outside of the box” thinking is one of the worst offenders. Funny enough, according to Wikipedia, management consultants are to blame for this particular phrase (we’re sorry). Apparently, the term comes from a “nine dots” puzzle that could only be solved by unconventional thinking. Instead of connecting the puzzle’s dots via a standard box, the solution called for use of an unusual shape—for the solver to quite literally “think outside of the box.”

We talk frequently in scholarly publishing about being innovative and searching for new ways of doing things—new revenue streams, unique distribution models, and technologies that push research forward.  And yet, perhaps unsurprising in an industry with origins in the 17th century, change can be slow. Moreover, we are often consciously or subconsciously tied to systems of the past: for example, many born-digital journals are still paginated like print publications. Why? Among structural reasons (i.e., older publishing systems may require it) is also a human one: readers are used to numeric page numbers.

So how do we move beyond merely talking about being innovative and actually broaden our thinking to solve our current puzzles? As an industry, we are facing challenges that are not likely to be cracked by traditional methods or usual ways of doing things. Our approach has to be broadened to account for new possibilities in our processes, partners, and products. We should consider:

  • Innovative approaches—Are you assessing all possible options or just those you or your peers have used in the past? For example, reviews of publishing workflows often focus heavily on historical practices. In a rapidly changing environment, it’s important to ensure that past behavior isn’t the sole determinant of future strategy. Adopting processes which surface and explore innovative new ideas alongside industry “norms” ensures a balanced approach to problem-solving.
  • Unlikely partners—Are you looking for a vendor or a partner? If the latter, why are you only considering the former?  For example, when thinking about platform or peer review systems, are you looking beyond traditional options? There are a growing number of open source technology providers, society publishing collaborations, and community-owned infrastructure initiatives. Consideration of non-traditional partners may result in a more well-rounded evaluation and yield new insights on organizational priorities in the process.
  • Creation vs. collaboration—Are you intent on creating something independently, or does it make more sense to collaborate? For example, when considering a new journal launch in an already crowded field, you might weigh the merits of a jointly or community-sponsored journal instead. Despite limited resources and mission-alignment, organizations often default to siloed creations versus shared endeavors. The same may be true within our organizations as well. By breaking down internal siloes, we can bring the full focus and energy of the organization to bear on challenges and opportunities. We are always stronger together.

What puzzles are you facing that might be addressed by unconventional thinking?