How Kent Anderson became a watchdog over the scholarly publishing industry
His Substack newsletter holds scholarly organizations accountable.
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In 2010, Kent Anderson and his family traveled on vacation to Telluride, Colorado, a former mining town situated in the Rocky Mountains. Anderson was born in Colorado and loves visiting whenever he can. One day, Kent’s family decided to walk down to a gondola that would take them into town, and on their way there he struck up a conversation with a man who was walking in the same direction.
The man mentioned that he was a scientist, which prompted Anderson to reveal that he worked in scholarly publishing. “He asked about some details, and I mentioned I also wrote a blog about scholarly publishing,” Anderson recalled. “His eyes widened, and he said, ‘You're Kent Anderson from The Scholarly Kitchen!’” The two talked a bit more before the man went his own way. “After he left, I turned to my wife and gave her a look, like, ‘See, told you it was a big deal,’ and she said something like, ‘Don't let it go to your head.’”
Most people reading this won’t know who Anderson is, but if you work in the insular world of scholarly publishing, you almost certainly do. In 2008, he founded and ran The Scholarly Kitchen, a blog published by the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and in 2018 he launched The Geyser, a Substack newsletter that’s monetized through both paid subscriptions and consulting. Through his work at these two publications, he’s become one of the industry’s leading watchdogs, known for shining a light on unethical practices and abuses of power.
Building the Scholarly Kitchen
How did Anderson achieve this level of influence? It all started with a conversation he had in 2007. At the time, he ran product development at The New England Journal of Medicine and sat on the board for the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP). One day, the president of SSP stopped by his office. “She was concerned that SSP was falling behind the times and wasn't engaging with its members in ways that used modern technology.”
Anderson had been toying around with Wordpress software and casually suggested that he could launch a blog for the organization, an offer that she quickly agreed to. He had the blog up and running in a matter of days, and he privately committed to himself that he’d stick with it for at least a year.
The blog immediately began to generate traffic and email signups for the association, but its real tipping point came later that year when Anderson went to SSP’s annual meeting. “There were a couple of people there who I knew were excellent writers with great opinions, and so I asked them to contribute,” he said. This diverse array of voices transformed the blog into a must-read source for everyone within the industry, and by the time Anderson relinquished his editor-in-chief role five years later, the blog had been nominated for a Webby and widened SSP’s reach and influence considerably.
What made the Scholarly Kitchen so readable, according to Anderson, was its “bullshit detector.” He didn’t see his role as merely an industry promoter, but rather acted as an investigative journalist that rooted out bad behavior. In 2014, for instance, he wrote an article about how Wikipedia editors were abusing their influence to seek retribution against reporting they didn’t like; Anderson’s reporting forced the editor-in-question to reverse his deletions of several pages. A few years later, Anderson pressured the authors of a widely-cited scholarly article to admit that their research was flawed.
You may be wondering at this point why you should care about a relatively small part of the publishing industry that focuses on mostly abstruse topics. After all, the average scholarly journal article is read by very few people. But scholarly publishing has enormous influence over the mainstream media and society at large.
Consider, for example, the anti-vaxxer movement, which traces its roots to a flawed study published in The Lancet. More recently, Donald Trump and his allies used overhyped studies on hydroxychloroquine to tout it as a miracle drug that could cure Covid-19. “Scholarly publishing is a prestige economy,” said Anderson. “And so where you get published matters, in that whether you get published in the New England Journal of Medicine versus some second or third tier journal makes all the difference in the advancement of your career. And what a lot of people have found is that the prestige economy can get abused if we aren't serious about ensuring that it's actually defended and its integrity is maintained.”
Striking out on his own
In the summer of 2018, Anderson published his final few posts at the Scholarly Kitchen. By that point, it was being run by new editors and had begun to drift away from its investigative roots. Anderson was still immersed in the scholarly publishing world through a consulting business he operated, but it didn’t take him long to get the itch to begin writing again about the industry.
Later that year, he launched The Geyser, a daily Substack newsletter that describes itself as “trying to humanize the information economy.” Because of Anderson’s already-existing stature within the industry, he was able to amass a following relatively quickly. “I had people who were just supportive of hearing my voice again,” he said. “They saw that this was an outlet that could deliver things that they couldn't get elsewhere.”
The Geyser had a paid subscription offering from the get-go, and while plenty of subscriptions have come in at the individual level, Anderson has been adept at cajoling publishing companies into buying group subscriptions for multiple employees at a time. In the beginning, he priced an annual subscription at $65, but he gradually increased the figure until it reached $100 in late 2019.
Anderson told me that he puts about 40% of the content he publishes behind a paywall, but that he’ll also move articles back and forth from behind the paywall. “The walls can be used creatively,” he said. “So I'll make it free for 24 hours and tweet it out, and then I'll take it back behind the paywall. I can go back through the archive and unlock things and say, ‘Hey, this is free. Come see what I'm doing.’”
One of the biggest paid conversion drivers is simply the human ego. “Everybody likes to read about themselves,” Anderson said. He tries to write about a wide diversity of people and companies, and whenever he covers a particular publication or association for the first time, it’s not uncommon to see a sudden uptick in subscriptions. He monitors the open rate statistics pretty closely, and so he can actually see when an email is bouncing around a particular company, because it’ll experience a higher-than-average number of opens.
Occasionally, a company will try to cheat the system by signing up for a single paid subscription, and then forward every issue around the office. “I know a lot of the CEOs at the larger publishing companies and larger societies,” said Anderson. “And so when I start to see lots of opens from a single email address, I'll go to the CEO and say, ‘Hey, I've noticed that you have 45 employees who are signed up to this, but only one paid subscriber, how about we change that?’ And usually the response is, ‘yeah, you caught us. We’ve all been sharing it internally, and I’m happy to subscribe, happy to support it.’” Anderson will then offer a discount code for a group subscription.
It’s been two years since Anderson launched on Substack, and though the newsletter isn’t generating a full-time salary yet, he’s happy with the trajectory. And given all the science misinformation that’s spread over the last year, he’s convinced his work is needed now more than ever. “There is a lot of consolidation in the publishing world right now, so there are very few brain trusts relative to how many there were 20 years ago,” he said. “And so I think you need gadflies and you need informed experts who are on the outside, who look at things and say, ‘you know, that's not right.’” The world needs more bullshit detectors, in other words, and Anderson is more than happy to oblige.
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