An integral part of ORCID’s history
Julie Petro: Hi Chris! Welcome to ORCID. Though technically you already have quite a long history with us…
Chris Shillum: That’s right! I was in meetings about ORCID before ORCID existed. So yes, my association with ORCID dates back to the very beginning. ORCID originally spun out from an idea that was discussed at CrossRef. But they realized they needed a different group of stakeholders to move forward, so there were a group of us that got together at a meeting in London. We cooked up the idea of ORCID, and it went from there.
JP: So you were part of the group that actually founded ORCID?
CS: Effectively, yes. One of many—Howard Ratner, then at Nature Publishing and Dave Kochalko at Thomson Reuters were key instigators, and Crossref kindly loaned most of Geoff Bilder’s (Crossref’s Director of Technology and Research) time to start building the system.
JP: What interested you about the ORCID Executive Director position specifically?
CS: I think it was just one of the jobs that when it came up, I couldn’t not apply. I’ve been fortunate in my career to direct various aspects of platform infrastructure for Elsevier, where I spent much of my career. I’ve also spent lots of time working in collaborative environments with other stakeholders to make these shared pieces of infrastructure happen. Not only do I really enjoy that, but I think it is an important and meaningful contribution to the world of scholarly communication.
I’ve also developed a fondness over the years for non-profit infrastructure initiatives, and I’m excited about the chance to move from working in a very large organization to working with a smaller, more entrepreneurial and mission-driven team with more flexibility to try out things a little more easily, and hopefully, to make an impact. For most of this year, I’ve been on a team of one, working for myself as an independent consultant, and have really appreciated the kind of flexibility that provided. But I also missed working with a team, so joining ORCID and working with a small but very dedicated and talented team where we can make decisions and solve problems together is certainly going to be different and a challenge I’ll enjoy.
ORCID at a turning point
JP: How do you see ORCID evolving under your leadership?
CS: I think in some ways the organization is at a turning point. It’s on a more stable financial footing since meeting break-even last year, although we have to be very wary of that and keep an eye on it with the COVID situation to see how that’s going to impact our financial position. I think we’ve also reached a critical mass in terms of size at 35 people which means it’s not quite the small start-up that it was. Not everyone can be in all the meetings anymore, or be consulted on all the decisions.
For any company that focuses on knowledge or information work to succeed, everybody in the organization has to be empowered to make good decisions. We want everyone to be autonomous and apply their own skills, experiences, and techniques while working together as a team toward a common set of goals. So I think adding a little bit more structure in terms of prioritization and measurement is really going to help everyone be successful as we grow. We want just enough process so people feel that it helps them and works for them, but not so much it becomes cumbersome or hampers creativity and productivity.
JP: What do you think you’ll focus on first?
CS: I think I’ll mostly be listening for awhile! Coming from being a Board member who got involved for two or three days, two or three times a year, it will be very different to be living and working with the organization on a day-to-day basis. So I think the most important thing for me is to listen both to the team so I can understand what the challenges and the opportunities are but to also listen to the members and researchers so I can understand what they think is working, what’s not working, and what can be improved. I’d love to know more, so I think that’s going to be my initial focus for the first few months.
I have a great opportunity to meet the team with our virtual offsite coinciding with my first day, but I definitely want to establish a program of talking to as many members as possible, as many consortia as possible to understand what they think they’re getting out of ORCID, what they think they could get, what they’d like to see us focus on and prioritize.
JP: Do you have any one-year, or five-year plan highlights you’d like to share?
CS: [laughs] We need to figure that out together as a team, don’t we? Generally, we want to reach the point where we’re hearing from researchers, “I can’t do without ORCID. It helps me in so many different ways. It’s an essential part of my life, and it’s something I love to use.”
Right now I think we’re at the point where people understand the potential of ORCID. They understand what it could do for them. The members understand what it could do for them, but I’m not sure we’ve made that value as clear as we can make it.
So in addition to continuing our emphasis on trust, transparency, community-driven approach, and researcher-centricity, I want to start looking at how we communicate the value we deliver to all of our stakeholder groups so that their investment in ORCID—whether it’s their investment of time when a researcher creates or updates their record, or it’s an investment of money when an organization supports ORCID as a member—really pays off in terms of helping them achieve their objectives either as an individual or as an organization. I think there’s huge potential for that, and we have the right pieces in place. We just have to figure out what the priorities are and get it done.
JP: I’d agree we have the right pieces in place; this year we’ve spent a lot of time discussing what our next steps could be to help researchers maximize the value of their ORCID records.
CS: That’s absolutely the heart of what I’d like to focus on here; to really crystallize ORCID’s value from the researcher’s point of view. It’s understanding the way researchers and end users interact with ORCID and making those pathways easier. It’s a challenge to balance researcher control and privacy with ease of use. I think at the moment we ask a lot of researchers in terms of the effort they have to go through to manage and maintain their ORCIDs, and we should just make that easier. But we have to do that without compromising privacy and the ability for researchers to completely control their record. It’s a challenge for product management, but I think the team is up to it if we focus on it in the right way.
Strength in collaborations
JP: How do you see open scholarly infrastructure developing in the next few years?
CS: There are a number of fairly well-established open scholarly infrastructure organizations such as Crossref, ORCID, and DataCite, and we definitely need to look at how we can work more effectively together to deliver what I might call joined-up capabilities and joined-up experiences to our mutual users and members. So I think that’s one thing I’d like to see developed. But there are also lots of gaps.
We know that there’s huge interest in enabling scholars to represent their work in ways that are challenging because there still aren’t identifiers for every kind of research output, and there aren’t good taxonomies of every kind of contribution that research has made. I don’t necessarily think it’s ORCID’s role to take all of that on, but we can work with our fellow scholarly infrastructure initiatives to lay the path for other groups to come along and benefit from our collective experience.
JP: You mentioned it’s not in ORCID’s remit to take on all the different sorts of identifiers, so how do you see ORCID relating to these other industry groups and stakeholders?
CS: A lot of this comes down to the stakeholders we bring to the table. So where we can contribute is that we have strong relationships with research organizations, with funding bodies, that some of the other organizations don’t necessarily have, so in some ways I see us as a convener of our community in those broader discussions.
Similarly, although we have publisher stakeholders, there are other organizations that have stronger foundations with the publishers. I think part of the reason we’ve ended up with several different scholarly infrastructure organizations is they have different stakeholder groups, and I think that makes sense from a governance point of view, but then figuring out how to come together and bring the views of our stakeholders into broader discussions is also a way we can add value, representing what we know about what our members want more broadly beyond what we directly deliver to them.
The first wave of change in scholarly communications
JP: Can you talk a little bit about your career history?
CS: By the time we started working on ORCID, I’d been working at Elsevier for about 15 years. I started my career there as a desk editor; copyediting and proofreading engineering journals. But pretty quickly I was asked to join some of the early electronic publishing programs. When I first joined, everything was still done on paper. On my first day, I was issued my copy editing tools—a red pen, a green pen, and a pencil! But pretty soon, within about two years, they were looking at putting content online, and I was lucky enough to be asked to join what became the ScienceDirect project. So I spent the first part of my career as the first product manager on ScienceDirect, where I had to get all of the content online. I stayed in that world for quite a long time, initially focused mostly on content management systems, and then later moved into other areas such as search and APIs and access management.
My original focus on and interest in content management led me to get involved in CrossRef as part of the technical working group. Later, I was asked to join the Board. Because of a combination of both of those things—the content management work and working with CrossRef—I became the go-to person in Elsevier for persistent identifiers. It was a natural extension then for me to start to get engaged in ORCID as well when that discussion got off the ground.
JP: You were the go-to person for persistent identifiers at Elsevier, was that a new concept for Elsevier at that time?
CS: Yes. I think what I would call some of the traditional identifiers, such as ISBN and ISSN, have been used in publishing for many years. But the concept of more granular identifiers for units of things, like DOIs for articles, surfaced early on in the move to online publishing.
The initial problem that everyone was trying to solve was how to make their references link up with each other, given that the fundamental nature of scholarly communications and of journal articles is that they cite each other. Users naturally expected that when the content went online, they should be able to follow those links and see the articles at the other end.
At first, publishers were trying to make bilateral linking arrangements with each other, but pretty soon, everybody realized that this wasn’t going to scale. We also knew that journals had a habit of moving around between publishers over time, so the idea was generated for a centralized database of all of the articles which would have both the ability to resolve those reference citations, so it needed to have the metadata, and the ability then to link to the resulting content using something that always worked—or always worked as much as it was practical to guarantee it. So this idea of the persistent identifier that could then be redirected to the current location of the article on any publisher’s website was born, and that became the DOI system.
JP: What kind of perspectives do you think you’ve gained from your experience working in a very large organization like Elsevier?
CS: Large environments like that are a tremendous training ground; you have exposure to a lot of different people, ideas, techniques. Some of the things I really valued at Elsevier were getting training in the latest product management practices and having exposure to some really first class technologists who are always challenging and thinking about the best ways to apply the latest practices.
I was fortunate enough to be involved in many innovative initiatives at Elsevier, such as running an early big data project, and being part of moving systems to cloud-based infrastructure, so I feel I have a lot of tools in my tool bag from my years of experience there that I can introduce to ORCID that will enable us to work better and smarter by applying some of these techniques. I think it’s quite hard when you’re at a small organization to take the time to figure out what’s going on in the broader world and introduce some of those new ideas.
Community-led from the beginning
JP: What was it that made you decide you wanted to serve on the ORCID Board in the beginning?
CS: I was actually in ORCID’s early leadership group before ORCID was incorporated as an entity and before an official Board was appointed. After that initial meeting in London where we got together and thought about having a similar system to CrossRef but for researchers, we realized we needed a group of people that would collaborate and figure out how to make that happen, so we effectively self-selected ourselves to bootstrap the effort.
Of course, persistent identifiers were always something I was interested in given my experience with CrossRef, and I was actually also on the board of the International DOI Foundation at some point. But also, by nature and training I am an engineer at heart. I am always frustrated when systems don’t work together properly as they should. A theme that runs throughout my career is trying to solve problems that can only be solved collaboratively in order to make things better for users. So ORCID was something that both because of the subject matter (persistent identifiers) and my interest in collaborative efforts to start to build what we now call scholarly infrastructure, it was something I was happy to get involved in.
JP: So ORCID was collaborative and community-led right from the beginning.
CS: Exactly. There’s a class of problems in scholarly communication that can only be solved collaboratively and openly. Prior to ORCID there were already a number of other systems that attempted to assign identifiers to researchers. For example there was Researcher ID from what was at the time Thompson-Reuters (that later became Clarivate), Scopus assigned Author IDs. But pretty soon people realized that for a person-identifier system to be useful, it has to have close to universal buy-in.
The only way to garner enough trust to get this level of participation was to have an open, non-profit, transparently-governed, community-driven effort. Some of the people who had tried proprietary solutions realized they weren’t going to get enough buy-in with that model, and in fact, Thomson Reuters kindly donated their Researcher ID code which went on to form the foundation of the initial ORCID system.
JP: Can you talk a little more about the types of problems in scholarly communications that can only be solved collaboratively?
CS: I think they’re almost like natural monopolies where for them to be of maximum use, you only really want one of them. Identifier systems are an example; to some extent, standards are another example. Because it’s most useful if everybody agrees to the same thing. And the only way to really achieve that is through developing a solution that everyone feels comfortable with and understands how it works and what it can do for them. This leads to the transparency requirement, where community members feel they understand the decision-making process and have an ability to influence it if they want to, which leads to a community-driven governance model.
The difference between the DOI system and ORCID—one of the reasons ORCID became separate from CrossRef—is the realization that when you were talking about publications, then a system run and governed by publishers made sense, but when you’re talking about researchers, there are a lot more stakeholders involved. There are researchers themselves, there are research institutions, and pretty clearly the funders have an interest in this as well. So ORCID needed a much broader, multi-stakeholder approach to governance to be successful, which is why it ended up being a separate organization.
A wide range of governing experience
JP: Not only were you involved on the ORCID Board, you’ve served on the Boards of a number of organizations that collaborate closely with ORCID and are involved with a number of other initiatives that relate to the work of scholarly infrastructure. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with these?
CS: Right now I’m still on the Board of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) who very kindly allowed me to continue serving when I left Elsevier. A lot of what I’ve done in the past five or so years reflects what I was doing most recently in my day job at Elsevier—driving initiatives focused on improving access to scholarly information. We already knew pre-COVID with the shift of people working at home and traveling that access was one of the major sources of frustration for researchers when they were not working on campus.
So I was involved in a set of very early discussions which led to the RA21 recommendations, and then in turn to SeamlessAccess, which is all about applying modern authentication technology to ease the problems researchers face with access to resources that their institutions have provided for them. This has a close tie-in with ORCID and CrossRef because it’s ultimately about getting some of these barriers out of the way so researchers can focus on doing the research without having to struggle with systems that aren’t joined up properly. Most recently, I’ve been working on an initiative called GetFTR which is about improving the user journey between all manner of tools and content discovery systems and authoritative published content.
I guess some people might say that these problems will diminish with the move to Open Access, but if you look at SeamlessAccess, it’s about improving access to many kinds of resources that researchers need and their institutions have to vouch that they should have access to, like shared research infrastructure and research collaboration tools. We know from researchers themselves that they really appreciate a lot less hassle dealing with usernames and passwords and access control, for all kinds of resources. So that’s really what SeamlessAccess is all about. It’s not done yet, but we’ve made some good progress in starting to solve that problem and make it easier.
Ready for the second wave of change in scholarly communications
JP: In your view, what have been the most exciting developments you’ve seen in scholarly communications throughout your career?
CS: I think I was very lucky early in my career to see that initial transformation from print to online. I remember when I was in University, if I wanted any literature, it was a question of trudging up the hill to the library. Often, if the material was in the library, folks would be photocopying it. And if it wasn’t in, I was filling in interlibrary loan requests and waiting multiple days. And I think that initial wave of putting all the content online was really transformative. The way researchers access information, the ability to gain access, to access any content from the comfort of your own office, your own desk, your own home. I think it’s made a huge difference and has hopefully been a huge timesaver and has enabled researchers to spend less time trying to gain access to the information they need to do their research and more time getting on to the business of research.
Now I think we’re in a second wave of transformation. I think the first wave was just changing the way the content is distributed—from physical distribution to online distribution. Now I think we’re seeing a huge diversity of new tools that are out there that will save time in different ways by helping researchers sift through the vast quantity of information that’s coming their way, by generating a lot of fresh insights and knowledge about how research is being done, how researchers are doing, how institutions are doing; directly drawing insights out of the literature. I think it’s still early days, but the ability to unlock the latent knowledge inherent in all connections between the literature which is too difficult for people to analyze is the next exciting wave, and we’re just starting to scratch the surface.
Celebrating successes and milestones
JP: In a way that almost mirrors ORCID’s trajectory of this first wave of a lot of researchers or contributors getting an ORCID iD. First it was 100,000 ORCID iDs, then five million iDs, and now we’re coming up on 10 million iDs. And we’ve been shifting our focus toward metrics that dig into and describe how userful the ORCID record actually is—how people are using their records, how people are integrating their records with other systems and all that. So it seems like ORCID is on a second wave, too.
CS: Right, and I think we’re only just starting to unlock that value and understand what ORCID can do and how it can help researchers—particularly how it helps them save time. Because I think what researchers want to do is research. They don’t want to spend time searching for literature, and they also don’t want to spend time managing their profiles in multiple systems and duplicating the same data about what they’ve contributed to science or the humanities which is what they have to do today. So I think for researchers, one of the promises is to save a lot of time and hassle, and I hope that’s something we’re going to do together as a team, is really figure out how to unlock that power.
JP: You’ve been with ORCID for its entire existence, and we’ve had quite a journey. What was your most memorable ORCID milestone?
CS: I think there have been a few. I remember being at the initial launch meeting in Berlin where we were going to unveil the system officially—after it had been in development for two years—and I remember that ORCID’s first Technical Director, Laura Paglione, was on the phone during the meeting trying to get the hosting provider to increase the server capacity because she realized the amount of interest we were getting on the fly was more than we could cope with at that time, so that was quite exciting.
I also remember the one millionth ORCID. I had a bet with Geoff Bilder that it would take much longer than what we thought to get to that. I remember thinking that because we’d taken the approach to ask researchers to manage their own ORCIDs and to essentially be responsible for creating them, it would take us much longer to get to critical mass as we did. I was quite excited to lose that bet!
But I think the most difficult and most satisfying milestone which kind of coincided with when I left the Board was when ORCID finally got to sustainability and financial break-even. The most challenging thing over the past decade has been finding a model that enabled us to provide a vast majority of ORCID services freely and openly, yet with enough support to sustain the organization. It’s so easy to underestimate just how difficult that is in the world of open infrastructure, and it was a great achievement for everyone—for the team, for founding Executive Director Laure Haak, and the Board to eventually get to that point after almost 10 years.
Moving forward with openness, trust, transparency
JP: Which of ORCID’s goals, tenets, values, principles most inspire you?
CS: When I think about the fact that ORCID didn’t exist 10 years ago, what is so impressive to me is that we were able to earn the trust of so many different stakeholders—that there are now over 1,100 members and nearly 10M researchers with ORCID is huge!
The principles that were established very early on—openness, trust, transparency, putting the researcher at the center of ORCID and taking privacy very seriously—have been critical to building that trust over the years. Without that set of principles and without that trust from our stakeholders, ORCID wouldn’t exist, so it’s incredibly important to me that we maintain our commitment to those principles—especially keeping researchers at the heart of everything we do because without them, we don’t have any reason to be.
JP: Thank you so much for your time, Chris! I’ve enjoyed getting to know your history and your vision for ORCID. Is there anything else you want to share with the community?
CS: Thanks! It’s a huge privilege to get to work at an organization like ORCID, and a huge trust that the community gives us, particularly considering how we manage personal, sensitive data.
So, I actually have a final ask for the community: Please talk to us. Give us feedback. Reach out to me. We want to hear what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, what we can do better. It’s the most valuable thing we can get is open, honest feedback from the community. So my takeaway message is: Let us know how we’re doing.