Interview: Mark Carden, R2R Conference

How a growing conference came to be, dodged Covid-19, and sees the future

Mark Carden started his career working in technology project management, mostly in banking and insurance. About 25 years ago, he “accidentally” joined a library technology company, which got him into the world of academic content delivery. He spent many years selling content and technology to libraries and publishers. In 2013, he joined Mosaic Search & Selection as a headhunter, where he’s currently focused on recruiting for mid-senior roles in academic publishing.

In 2016, he chaired the first Researcher-to-Reader (R2R) Conference — more on this below. He was able to hold the 2020 event, and it became perhaps the last large scholarly communications meeting pre-Covid-19. As such, I wanted to ask him about how this affects his plans for next year, whether timing provided advantages or disadvantages, and more.


Q: How does the recruitment part of your life meld with the conference part?

Carden: I’m really enjoying this work, especially being part of one of the very few really ethical and capable firms in what can be a less than saintly profession.  Recruitment is the full-time “day job” that pays the bills, but I am somehow also managing to put about 1,000 hours a year into the R2R Conference, completely unpaid so far.

The Researcher to Reader Conference – BMA House, London – 24-25 ...

Q: Take us through how the R2R Conference started.

Carden: Researcher-to-Reader grew phoenix-like from the ashes of the Association of Subscription Agents (ASA) Conference.

The ASA had run a conference for several years, and I was a speaker in 2008, while selling e-books at Ingram. The new Secretary General Nawin Gupta persuaded me to become chairman of the Conference Planning Committee in 2012, and we worked, together with ASA Chairman Peter Lawson, to transform the conference from being about subscription agents, to being hosted by subscription agents, but about intermediaries of all kinds.  

In 2015, the ASA disbanded, partly as a consequence of the September 2014 collapse of Swets, one of the two big subscription agents. While the 2015 event took place as usual, it looked like the end for the conference. But the departing ASA Committee persuaded me to take over responsibility for the event in the summer of 2015. I announced a planning committee in July 2015 and launched our 2016 programme in November.

The new Researcher-to-Reader name seemed a very natural choice, given the evolving mission of the ASA Conference. I had already been writing to potential speakers about the “academic supply chain from researcher to reader” as early as October 2014. Our logo, comprising a circle of arrows, shows that we are exploring a broadly linear supply chain, but one in which the researchers and the readers are essentially the same people.

Q: You take some care to ensure that the R2R Conference is described as a “scholarly communication conference,” and not as a “publishing conference.” Why?

Carden: The key to R2R is that it is a place for positive and practical discussion amongst all those involved in getting academic content from the author to the reader. This includes all the intermediaries in this supply chain; not just publishers but also librarians, reviewers, distributors, technologists, and many others. Some would call this whole process “publishing,” and in a sense this is a conference about the end-to-end publishing process. But others view “publishing” in a narrower sense, perhaps just the part that publishing companies do, and thus we risk excluding some areas like library-delivered discovery services. It is also troubling that some people feel that publishing companies are not positive contributors to this process, questioning their motives, practices, and revenue-seeking. So, in our determination to be inclusive, we have opted for the rather cumbersome “scholarly communication” label.

More important than the words we use is our strong commitment to ensuring that the speakers and delegates represent all parts of this landscape, so that we can have a really effective and productive conversation. It is vital that we all try to understand each other and work together. A particular challenge is getting researchers into the room, since it turns out that most researchers are not overly interested in the “nuts and bolts” of the scholarly communications process, even though they have huge insights to bring to the conversation. They can be further put off by being told (whether by OA activists or publishing traditionalists) that R2R is a “publishing” conference. We work hard to attract researchers, with deep discounts, active invitations, and by encouraging publishers and librarians to invite editors and authors to participate.

Q: How has the R2R Conference evolved over the years?

Carden: The fundamentals of R2R have not changed from the principles that we were experimenting with at the end of the ASA era. We have always been committed to hosting a productive conversation across the whole of the scholarly communications supply chain. We have also always preferred practical, experiential, and data-driven discussions over politically-motivated, evangelical, or sales-oriented presentations.

Our workshops have been a crucial part of this from the start, as these are not “breakout talks” but truly collaborative conversations where delegates gather in smaller groups to wrestle with a practical issue, guided by facilitators. Over the five years of R2R, these workshops have become even more effective and rewarding, I believe, because we give a lot of attention to selecting interesting topics and, frankly, even more attention to ensuring that the facilitators are well-prepared and really skilled at engaging all the delegates in the process. It was the 2020 R2R where for the first time a workshop was rated “Great” by all the participants who responded to our survey — an outstanding outcome, especially for mainly UK respondents, who are notoriously tough!

Our conversational approach has evolved to include a formal debate (in 2019 and 2020), the brainchild of advisory board member Rick Anderson, who conceives and chairs these exciting sessions. We aim to move delegates’ perceptions by the power of the arguments (and we track this), which is so much better than just lecturing a passive audience.

We have evolved over the years to become more cross-sectorial, more international, and more diverse; increasing participation by researchers, growing non-UK participation, and ensuring we hear from under-represented demographics. We have always worked hard to ensure that women have a strong voice in R2R, and we are increasingly hearing from researchers, librarians, and publishers in Africa and Asia.

Our delegate registrations are growing consistently too, and we are approaching the point of limiting our participant numbers quite soon, in order to keep the event intimate and collegiate. But the virus drama of 2020 (and perhaps 2021) may have an impact on that.

Q: The 2020 R2R Conference was the last major live conference before Covid-19-related meeting cancellations took everything off the slate. Did you have a feeling that things were about to change? Were there any early indications that something was brewing?

Carden: We were extraordinarily lucky with the timing of R2R in 2020. During the conference (on February 24-25), there was almost no mention of the virus or suggestion that people might have had doubts about gathering for the event. Yet only one week later, on 4 March, the London Book Fair (scheduled for 10-12 March) was cancelled. I think this tells us a lot about how quickly the situation was changing over those last few days in February and in early March, with the UK finally banning public gatherings from 17 March.

I think few people in Western Europe (apart, perhaps, from some in Italy) would have had real virus-related concerns as the conference opened, although checking back through social media, I see that one of my friends (in Australia) bought three months’ supply of food that day, and another (in the France) bought 100 face masks.

Personally, I was not concerned, before or during the event, which seems a bit strange with hindsight. I went on a short holiday to Edinburgh immediately after the conference, even though I had developed flu-like symptoms within an hour of the concluding session (not an unusual occurrence for an event manager, I’m told). Yet by 4 March the UK Government was advising against hand-shaking, and most people were bumping elbows at the last large public gathering I attended, on 7 March. 

Q: The conferencing business is risky. What kinds of risk mitigation were you able to establish before Covid-19?

Carden: Running a conference is not just risky, but it also seems quite terrifying; you have loads of work and cost up front, including paying for an expensive venue, but delegates tend to commit to attending very late. The first year of the R2R Conference (on 13-14 February 2016) we had just 80 registered delegates in mid-January, and I was seriously contemplating cancellation, but a month later, when the conference took place, we had doubled our numbers and beaten our expectations.

But now we are confident in the attractiveness of our programmes, and people have learned that we are consistently good. Delegates book earlier, reassured by our generous cancellation terms. For 2020, about half our delegates had registered and paid by Christmas — although 10% still left it until the final week to book!

So the main risks for us now are something happening to the venue, or some kind of external factor like Covid-19 or the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.  Before the virus, we had very little mitigation of these risks in place, other than some defensive cancellation language in our delegate and sponsor contracts. We do have some insurance, but it is not affordable to insure against cancellation of the whole event.

Q: What do you think will change going forward? Given your timing relative to planning for 2021, did this give you an advantage in any way? What kind of R2R Conference do you think we’ll see?

Carden: Just as we were lucky with our 2020 timing, we are also in a good position to plan ahead with the next R2R, about 8½ months away. But in some ways this is unhelpful, given the great uncertainties ahead. Many events that were scheduled for Spring 2020 were just swiftly cancelled, or became hastily-conceived webinars, but for events further in the future there will be an expectation of a slick solution to a problem that is still unfolding, in a world that is highly unpredictable. Firefighting is in some ways easier than long-range planning!

Key to the appeal and effectiveness of R2R is the sense that the delegates are participating in a conversation, not attending a broadcast, so the interactive, collaborative, face-to-face nature of the event is very important. I am optimistic that by February 2021 many people will be both able and very willing to gather together again — I have written about this in Research Information — and so we are aiming to have the conference in February 2021 as normal. But we do have to consider the possibility that the whole event cannot take place physically, or that some people will be unwilling or unable to attend in person. It is also concerning that we probably won’t know where we stand when registrations open in October, and that any cancellation decision, if it happened, might be made at very short notice. So we are making “hybrid conference” plans, aiming for a physical event, but planning an online offering as well. The online offering may turn out to be a replacement for the physical event, or just persist as an alternative way to participate, depending on how things turn out. We have four months to figure out the proposition, and then about three more to put it into practice!

R2R already has some “online” presence and experience, with very active live tweeting of the event, the ability for remote followers to ask questions, a remote presentation in 2020, and with video recordings being available on YouTube after the Conference. We have in the past considered other online options, including the possibility of offering live-streamed participation for remote delegates. I have also been touting a crazy idea (for about 10 years) of having a single conference take place across multiple locations simultaneously, pulled together through video technology — I don’t mean multiple sequential or simultaneous conferences; I mean one integrated event that is delivered pretty seamlessly across multiple locations. I think we will need to put some of this in place for 2021, and it will be particularly challenging to ensure that remote delegates can feel that they are getting the full “R2R experience,” including workshop conversations, the ability to participate in Q&As, and maybe even getting value from the networking breaks.

Whatever the technical, social, commercial, or medical challenges for 2021 or beyond, we are developing robustly, confident in the value we provide, and aiming to be ready for whatever is coming our way.

Q: The R2R brand seems to have also gained prominence as the conference has grown. Are you contemplating any non-conference extensions to help growth?

Carden: R2R does seem to be getting some recognition now, after five years of successful events, although it is surprising how long it can take for a conference to get established in people’s minds, and for a brand to create a reputation. We are particularly proud of how delegates feel about the usefulness of the event, with survey responses regularly showing 93-99% of respondents agreeing that the conference was relevant to them professionally and a valuable use of their time. These sentiments were even more positive in the 2020 feedback, with the percentage “strongly” agreeing on relevance growing from 40% to 63% and on value from 32% to 56%.

I have always wanted R2R to have some persistence outside its two-day event, and some of our workshops have resulted in further activity beyond the conference. We also very much see our past delegates not as ephemeral “customers” but as enduring members of the R2R community. Indeed, about 40% of our 2019 and 2020 delegates had attended a previous R2R, so we have a nice balance of familiar faces and newcomers. We would certainly like to extend our engagement with the R2R community further, and this will probably be accelerated as the Covid-19 difficulties encourage us to make more online contact with people. We are discussing with a couple of potential technology partners how to make this work, but the key will be active editorial curation and enthusiastic community participation.

Another potential area of growth is to find ways to serve our sponsors better, without compromising the event itself. I don’t really want to offer an exhibit — I shunned those when I was a salesman, so I can hardly promote the idea now — and we try hard to resist sponsor “pitches,” which would dilute our programme, but I’m wondering about having a half-day “sponsor showcase” on the day before the conference, where delegates can come along early and learn about new products and services.

We are also very open to suggestions for other activities that would be valuable to our community. But we do have to be a little cautious about what R2R takes on. We have a great team working on the conference, with a brilliant and hard-working Advisory Board, and very efficient event administration by The Events Hub, but R2R is not some huge corporation or society, and we want to be both ambitious and careful in what we take on, as we head into our next five years.