Adam Hyde: The Art of Hacking Publishing

by Chris McGivern, 9 January 2023

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Created by Jason Hudson (CC BY 2.0)

Adam Hyde completed his Fellowship in 2018 having successfully designed practical solutions for the many issues inherent in the traditional scholarly communication process. After three years, his work with the Coko Foundation has resulted in an impressive array of open source software, platforms and collaborative methodologies, benefitting researchers, academics, and society as a whole.

He has made a tremendous amount of progress and created his own, unique space as an innovator in the academic publishing world - and beyond - while also making a valuable contribution as an engaged and committed Shuttleworth Fellow. As Adam takes his ideas further into the world, he finds himself - and his projects - in good shape. This is his story…

Adam Hyde: Background & Inspiration

Adam fell into the publishing world almost entirely by accident, but also by a gradual, unconscious design. Many moons ago, he was a radio station manager, where he picked up an interest in the opportunities afforded by the web. As an artist - focussed on sound installation - he has always been interested in the intersection between creativity and science. Throw in a continually growing appreciation for free and open source software in his formative years, and you can see how the foundations for his Shuttleworth Fellowship idea began to form.

“I was an artist for a long time, and never really stayed in the same place for long - four weeks here, six weeks there,” says Adam. “Eventually I got this three-month residency set up by an organisation called ITASK. It was a research project in Antarctica looking to set up an autonomous artist research base for collaborations between artists and scientists.

“Alongside this, I was training scientists to use open source software, and ran a few workshops and learned to create documentation. So that’s where it started. I thought there was a space for building a community around this and an opportunity to develop a toolset and social methodologies as a way to produce books more efficiently. I gave up the residency and the art stuff, and started FLOSS Manuals - I think around 2006.”

Iterating to an Idea

Adam built FLOSS Manuals from scratch with the aim of creating the biggest collection of high-quality, freely-licensed manuals for free software. It took a while to get things off the ground but, eventually, he started to attract some interest and a small community formed. Within a few years, it was thriving.

His time working on FLOSS Manuals also spawned a couple of new ideas: Booki - which would eventually become Booktype - and Book Sprints. The former was one of several open source book production platforms Adam developed, while the latter was a methodology created to produce books - from blank paper to finished product - in 3-5 days.

The following years saw Adam developing many different publishing platforms which eventually led him to San Francisco to take a job at the Public Library of Science (PLoS). He was tasked to design and build an open source workflow system to streamline manuscript submissions which, initially, he saw as a fantastic opportunity.

However, when a decision was made to close the system’s repositories - essentially making it a closed project - Adam felt it went against his commitment to opening access for science and the public good. It wasn’t long before he left PLoS, returned to his original ideas and sought out a way of funding them.

From Fan to Fellow

“It was a club of people that I already knew about,” says Adam, as he remembers back to the period before his Shuttleworth Fellowship. “I was a bit of a fanboy, actually, and I had been impressed by some of the projects, especially Arthur Attwell’s work with Paperight and Mark Horner’s with Siyavula.

“So I knew it was an amazing Foundation beforehand and it turned out to be that and more - there is no other organisation as supportive of your work.

I actually applied three times - my heart was really in it. And I’d really worked for it, too. I had been going it alone for a while and made a lot of sacrifices as a result. So when I got in… it felt like a complete validation of what I was doing.”

Adam’s Fellowship aimed to establish the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation - known as Coko - with Kristen Ratan, who he had previously worked with at PLoS. Having developed his ideas while working with technologists, the target moved towards academics in the science world.

It was a big task, but also a significant opportunity. Scientific publishing is notoriously slow, not to mention stuck in overtly traditional ways. It can take months, maybe years, for an important study to move through the system from writing the conclusion to publishing the manuscript, and society misses out - there are no benefits from inaccessible research that cannot be tested, replicated or critiqued.

Thoughts on a Fellowship

Adam’s initial Fellowship goal was to create these open, shared infrastructure, methodologies and communities to improve scholarly communication technology. Using Coko as an umbrella organisation, the idea was to develop a suite of tools and establish a community-based framework. Three years down the line, he can look back on his Fellowship with immense satisfaction, and the publishing world can consider itself shaken.

“Honestly, it’s all gone very well - it’s been a real success,” he says. “It went a lot faster and better than I could have imagined. We had a mental model of how this was going to work, and the surprising thing is, it does. We’re now recognised as trusted facilitators, and we’ve changed the context in publishing…we’re now leaders in our field.

“The money early on helped us bootstrap, but I was fairly conservative with it,” he recalls. “We had to get a developer - that was a significant cost. And then it was just paying a salary for my co-founder and myself. But over time we got more funding from other sources, and it all came together to allow us to build a relatively small team of about nine people.

“We built the book product, then got to work on the publishing product, and now there are seven systems built on PubSweet, four journal systems, two micro-publishing systems and a lot of interest from huge publishers.

“We are still building a growing community. Our whole process is collaborative - it’s not just about designing products and developing workflows, but organising a whole community and becoming trusted facilitators.”

“We had very humble beginnings, essentially just telling stories. But across all the different organisations we’ve built today, I think we have around thirty people working full-time.”

Branching Out & Making Waves

Many of our Fellows experience significant challenges in getting their ideas off the ground, let alone leaving the Foundation with a sustainable organisation. But Adam had already done much of the heavy lifting. The Fellowship offered freedom and opportunity to finally embroider a lifetime’s tapestry of ideas, innovation and pure, hard slog. Over three years, he delivered exceptional results for himself and his multiple organisations, and provided notable wins on behalf of the wider open source community.

Not only has Coko managed to break down a set of inherently problematic systems, but it has introduced new ways of thinking to academics, researchers, administrators, funders and publishers.

People involved in the scholarly publishing industry can now see how something as banal as improving a workflow can push scientific research out into the world faster. And it can help them form a better understanding of the content they produce and increase the reliability and reproducibility of academic studies. So: is the job done? Not quite…

“There is plenty of unfinished business. We’re going to set up a new lab to make things at Coko a lot easier. And the chances of making big changes in the field are improving - the scholarly publishing world is starting to change. But in the long-term? Who knows - perhaps it’s time to do something a little crazier.”

Personal Reflections

For now, Adam continues to make an impact in the publishing world. He is taking a couple of weeks off to enjoy his new home in New Zealand, complete with mountain/sea views, before heading away on a constant - but now standard - travel schedule around the world.

It’s a continuation of what he has been doing throughout his Fellowship - and for many years before. But you get the sense that this evergreen journeyman is a lot more settled these days, in more ways than one.

“It wasn’t just about the money,” he says, reflecting on his personal learning during his Fellowship years. ”With what I’m trying to do, you have to sacrifice a lot, because you do it alone. The Foundation has been so crucial in terms of support. It felt like I had allies when no one else got what I am trying to do.

“It has given me professional validation, but also emotional validation. So I feel like I’ve been through a period of emotional growth as much as professional.”

“I’ve calmed down a lot and developed a more mature outlook. Looking back at myself, I see an angry, middle-aged man that was frustrated no-one was getting what I wanted to do. I’m a completely different person now than I was at the start - I have so much more confidence.

“What astonishes me about the Foundation team is that they have to deal with a bunch of innovators. Sometimes we can be a little prickly. Sometimes we act like kids, and we’re not fully formed yet. But they take it all in their stride, and their support is still there. I will be forever appreciative.”

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