How researchers get heard
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The Coming Disruption in Research Expertise

Thought balloon for your weekend: Delivering research expertise will soon be like the exercise bike Peloton.

Where I live (tony Arlington, Virginia USA), people pay premium prices to rent apartments in those buildings that make available a handful of Peloton bikes for their tenants’ use. Sad but true tale of the one percent.

The reason we should look closely at Peloton (which just filed an S-1 for an IPO “likely among the year’s biggest,” according to Bloomberg) is that its business strategy seeks to fundamentally undercut every aspect of the exercise class status quo, which maps weirdly well to the research status quo:

  • Cost: While Peloton is expensive — there’s the $2,000 bike, some gear, and a $39 monthly subscription — the costs are fixed, so it quickly becomes cheaper than a communal exercise class, for which you pay as you go. Journal costs, anyone?
  • Convenience (Space) You can use it to exercise in your home while competing with others and connecting with friends. So you don’t have to commute to and from a facility and worry about how you look. Journal access, anyone?
  • Convenience (Time) Peloton’s wide variety of classes are both live and on-demand, so you can exercise in your home whenever you want to. Research expertise is definitely not on-demand.
  • Choice and Access: You can quickly sample that variety of instructors and classes and figure out which ones are your favorites, while always having access to them — classes are infinitely scalable. That’s not true for conventional exercise classes or research expertise, which is embodied in a place and a person (the instructor, the expert).

Ben Thompson of Stratechery wrote this week that Peloton “is basically the Netflix of exercise attached to a $2,000 set-top box.” The comparison is doubly purposeful: for Thompson, Peloton has the chance to become a cornerstone mass digital disruptor like Netflix, Airbnb and Facebook:

The key breakthrough in all of these disruptive products is the digitization of something physical. Netflix digitized time, Airbnb digitized trust, Facebook digitized offline relationships, etc. In the case of Peloton, they digitized both space and time: you don’t need to go to a gym, and you don’t have to follow a set schedule. Sure, the company does not sell software, nor does it have software margins, but then neither does Netflix. Both are, though, fundamentally enabled by technology.

When researchers talk about “disrupting research,” they’re usually mean: moving to different modes of publishing research (e.g., open access); or adopting alternative models of peer review; or making data behind studies more accessible; or ensuring diversity within research teams.

Some of these disruptions are taking place digitally. But none of them fundamentally digitize the stubbornly physical aspects of delivering research expertise to non-specialist audiences:

  • Journal paywalls and launch coordination;
  • The energy and time involved in person-to-person media cultivation;
  • The temporal limitations of headline-dependent research communications (if you haven’t seen it or been Tweeted about it, odds are it doesn’t exist for you);
  • Expertise and analysis that’s embodied in individuals, which inherently limits access, instead of in readily accessible resources that can synthesize the best of what’s known.

Research today loses on cost (paywalls), convenience and access. It’s already been disrupted — by no-cost, convenient, accessible, flattering pseudoscience such as Goop, the Cleveland Clinic and Facebook anti-vax groups. And those audiences are probably not coming back.

Hypothesis: the disruptor who aggregates the best of research expertise on sets of questions that are important to the public will gain instant authority and competitive advantage over the rest of the research status quo, for those non-specialists who still care about that expertise.

And we’ll wonder why no one thought of it before.

Equity questions? You bet. Very few people can afford a Peloton. But even fewer people can afford to hire McKinsey or Bain to deliver exactly the research insights they need.

Yet to the rest of us, who want to access research expertise for the questions we have and the answers we need, right now, research says, with all its barriers in cost, inconvenience and inaccessibility: Let them eat cake.