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December 2011

Business and Social Media

For today’s post, here are a few articles on social media.

The first one, “Decoding Social Media” in the November/December 2011 issue of Technology Review, explains how discovering patterns in tweets will affect TV, ads and even politics. An example of “social-media analytics firm that attempts to track comments on shows and ads”, including comparing amount of tweets with Nielsen ratings, is Bluefin Labs. While traditional surveys only represent respondents’ opinion at specific times, social-media data can be analyzed continuously, which represents a fascinating opportunity for start-ups.

This has piqued the interest not only of TV companies such as CBS, but also of conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble, which oversees brands such as Tide, Duracell and Pringles. The journalist comments: “While Procter & Gamble carefully vets ads with consumers before airing them, it has never known whether the same viewers would respond differently to an ad depending on what show surrounded it.” Bluefin Labs hopes to elucidate precisely that sort of issue. This would allow the placement of TV ads to be tailored to viewers’ responses, similarly to what is happening to online ads today. Other companies tracking social-media conversations include:

  • Radian6, (from their website: "[Radian6's] social media listening, tracking, monitoring and engagement tools allow organizations to successfully employ a social media strategy and understand the impact the Social Graph and Social CRM have on their success." They also say that half of all Fortune 100 companies use their software.)
  • General Sentiment, (they seem good too, but I found Radian6's website more compelling.) 
  • Sysomos, (also offers a demo video on its website, has more details than General Sentiment on what it is offering customers, states on its website that customers include Microsoft, Coca-Cola, IBM and Reebok.)
  • Converseon, ("an award-winning, full-service social media agency that helps brands harness the power of social to meet business objectives." Was founded in 2001, long before Facebook, Twitter or even Myspace existed.)
  • Trendrr, (Catchy slogan: "Unlock the true potential of the real-time web", also the only site with a "We're hiring" banner prominently displayed on top, but a little light on the discussion of its products' features, which can be said of many other sites above. Hence, it is hard to determine what distinguishes these companies from each other.)

The TR article really focuses on Bluefin, which is headquartered in the Kendall Square section of Cambridge, MA near MIT. The company was co-founded by MIT professor Deb Roy, currently on leave from the famed Media Lab, and his former doctoral student Michael Fleischman. (Among many things, the article provides a great background story on how analyzing TV-related social media came about for the company.) Today, Bluefin’s clients include Pepsi, Mars, Comcast, CBS, Fox Sports, A+E Networks and about ten others. Its business model hinges on selling subscriptions to its custom analytics, generated by uploading raw TV data obtained from their data center to Amazon’s cloud computing service. (This also seems to be the business model of the companies listed above.)

Bluefin generates two key metrics based on all the social-media responses: response level and response share, which refer to the number of tweets or public Facebook posts on a given TV show and the share of these tweets compared to the total volume of TV-related tweets and public FB posts. Much remains to be done to extract as much information as possible from this social-media goldmine, maybe generating one day the social-media equivalent to the Nielsen ratings.

Another interesting article is “What’s your social media strategy?” in the July-August 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review. It reveals that companies’ social media strategies can be divided into four groups: the “predictive practitioner” (connecting with customers to ask them what feature they’d like to see included in a new product, for instance), the “creative experimenter” (listening to customers on Facebook and Twitter in a less scripted way than the predictive practitioner), the “social media champion” (involves joint efforts of various functions at a company, for instance asking customers with large social-media following to discuss their experiences with a new car) and the “social media transformer” (allowing large-scale interactions extending to external stakeholders).

The HBR special report on “Social Media and the New Rules of Branding” in the December 2010 issue was particularly fascinating. It consisted of four articles:

  1. Branding in the digital age”, which builds upon the fact that “customers today connect with brands in fundamentally new ways” and the “funnel metaphor” of buying (first researching many brands, then fewer and fewer until only one is left) has been replaced by a “consumer decision journey.” As a result, marketers now have to “target stages [rather than allocating across media] in the decision journey”, taking into consideration when customers are best influenced. The article has convincing examples and also discusses new roles for marketing.
  2. Reputation warfare”, about small-scale antagonists targeting the business of a larger company. Advice includes “empower your team to help tell your organization’s side of the story” and “find sympathetic third parties to serve as “force multipliers”.
  3. Why you need a new-media ringmaster”: here, “ringmaster” refers to “a new type of executive who has digital savvy and is skilled at coordinating a variety of marketing and customer-facing activities.”
  4. The one thing you must get right when building a brand”, which is “deliver[ing] on four basics: offering and communicating a clear customer promise; building trust by delivering on it; continually improving the promise; and innovating beyond the familiar.”

But my favorite article of the lot remains the Technology Review one. Extracting insights from the enormous, shapeless mass of tweets and Facebook posts is one more reason the field of analytics has a bright future ahead.

This will be my last post for 2011. Look for a new post on January 9, 2012. Happy New Year!    

On Scientific Publishing

Here are links to a few articles on scientific publishing, especially related to problems or misconduct, that appeared in The Economist over the past year or so. This is obviously not an exhaustive discussion of the topic. I also wrote about an ethics scandal at Duke in May 2008; the reader might find a January 2007 article in Nature about recent cases of academic misconduct particularly interesting. One of those cases is described at length in the 2009 book "Plastic fantastic: How the biggest fraud in physics shook the scientific world."

Let's start with an August 2010 article about Harvard researcher Mark Hauser ("Monkey business?"), "who made his name probing the evolutionary origins of morality, [and] is suspected of having committed the closest thing academia has to a deadly sin: cheating." The issues are described in a New York Times article as pertaining to "data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results."

While both The Economist and the NYT took pains of upholding Hauser's presumption of innocence from deliberate wrong-doing at the time, The Chronicle of Higher Education painted a darker portrait: "An internal document... tells the story of how research assistants became convinced that the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification." Hauser resigned from Harvard in July 2011, about a year after being found solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct.

An array of errors” (September 10, 2011) focuses on the work by Duke University researchers, who reported in 2006 that they were able to “predict which chemotherapy would be most effective for an individual patient suffering from lung, breast or ovarian cancer” using a technique based on gene expression, which seemed to hold tremendous potential for the field of personalized medicine.

Unfortunately, a team of researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston quickly ran in trouble as they attempted to replicate the results. They also realized that the paper was riddled with formatting errors, for instance in the tables, for instance.

The Duke University team decided to nonetheless launch clinical trials based on their work.  Another researcher at the National Cancer Institute expressed concerns about the work, and Duke launched an internal investigation but the review committee, having “access only to material supplied by the researchers themselves,” did not find any problem and the clinical trials resumed.

But “in July 2010, matters unraveled when the Cancer Letter reported that Dr [Anil] Potti [of Duke University] had lied in numerous documents and grant applications,” for instance lying about having been a Rhodes Scholar in Australia. This led to Potti’s resignation from Duke, the end of the clinical trials, and the retraction of several prominent papers. A committee was formed at Duke to investigate what went wrong.

The most interesting part of the article, I found, was the description of the academic journals’ reaction: “journals that had readily published Dr Potti’s papers were reluctant to publish [a scientist’s] letters critical of the work.” The article also touches upon Duke’s being slow to deal with potential conflicts of interest by the researchers, and the fact that “peer review… relies on the goodwill of workers in the field, who have jobs of their own and frequently cannot spend the time needed to check other people’s papers in a suitably thorough manner.”

An editorial in Nature Cell Biology was written with Potti's case in mind, but extends to scientific misconduct in general. Sadly, it takes the easy way out, by stating that "Although journals can do much to promote integrity and transparency in the practise and presentation of research... it is not our mission to police the research community." This lack of responsiveness seems unfortunately in line with the paragraph I quote above.

The topic of “Scientists behaving badly” (October 9, 2010) is about a Chinese scientist and a blogger who publishes claims of scientific allegations on his website, some that “undoubtedly… shine a light on the often-murky business of Chinese science” while others “are anonymous and lack specifics.” While the article is on the specific and long-running feud between a urologist and a self-proclaimed “science cop”, with one casting doubts on the validity of the other's research results, it can also be viewed as a call for an independent expert committee investigating allegations of misconduct in China.

Here is the quote that most caught my attention: “Measured by the number of published papers, China is the second most productive scientific nation on Earth. Incidents like this, though, call into question how trustworthy that productivity is.”

This provides a great transition into the third article, “Climbing Mount Publishable” (November 13, 2010), subtitled: “The old scientific powers are starting to lose their grip.” Quick summary: “In 1990 [North America, Europe and Japan] carried out more than 95% of the world’s research and development. By 2007 that figure was 76%.” Elsewhere in the article, we learn that “America’s share of world publications, at 28% in 2007, is slipping. In 2002 it was 31%.” The article also discusses metrics regarding gross domestic expenditure on R&D, share of national wealth spent on R&D, number of researchers and share of world patents.

Because countries view R&D output as a measure of their intellectual capital and prowess, the risk of plagiarism from researchers pressured for ever-more output is real. I wrote about this in a recent post on impact factors. In particular: "The following [excerpt of an article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed] caught my attention: "In China, scientists get cash bonuses for publishing in high-impact journals, and graduate students in physics at some universities must place at least two articles in journals with a combined impact factor of 4 to get their Ph.D.’s." Is putting so much pressure on scientists really a good idea? Maybe such high stakes explain some egregious cases of plagiarism over the past few years, such as the one Prof Alice Agogino of UC Berkeley was recently a victim of. You can find her paper (from 2004) here, and the other paper (from 2007) there."

I do not know why those two researchers decided to do this, but as developing countries pressure their scientists to excel on the international stage as a way of demonstrating the value of their education and the brainpower of their citizens, it has to be tempting for scientists struggling to come up with ideas to just take someone else’s paper and publish it elsewhere under their own name, hoping not to get found out. This also discredits the hard-working researchers of the same country who are actually putting in time and effort to come up with innovative ideas.

It is therefore very important for journals to take an aggressive stance toward plagiarism. All articles identified as plagiarizing others’ papers (in Agogino’s case the paper is word for word hers from beginning to end, except that there are other people’s names on top, so it is a very clear-cut situation) should have a highly visible mention added online that this paper has been found to be a plagiarization of another paper (leaving out the issue of who among the authors plagiarized the paper and who just marveled at his co-author’s sudden perfect mastery of English). Maybe that would make would-be plagiarizers think twice before they act.   

Finally, “Of goats and headaches” (May 28, 2011) discusses the very lucrative field of academic publishing. The focus is on academic journals, whose business model involves getting university libraries to pay for very expensive subscriptions with little information as to whether these journals are useful or often consulted, since the librarians are not the primary consumers. As a reminder, academic journals get their articles for nothing (authors receive no royalties) and reviewers review for free. A few journals such as the Journal of Economic Dynamic and Control actually charge a submission fee of $100 for authors hoping to be published in their pages.

Personally, I feel that my institution’s subscriptions to the journals I consult online have been useful (my favorite journal is Interfaces), but I wonder how many journals are rarely browsed; besides, there are only a few journals I consult regularly and I can find many pre-prints available for free download on researchers' websites. A mechanism to rein in subscription prices would certainly be useful. This would start by having librarians share the price of subscriptions with researchers so that researchers can help them decide which subscriptions are simply not worth it and which ones should be kept. In addition, librarians should track how many times a given journal is accessed online to gauge its usefulness.

But what I dislike the most about academic publishing is the business of textbooks. Professors, whose royalty rates - according to one of my former colleagues - “aren’t going to make anyone rich”, write the whole textbook by themselves. There is simply no editorial help in the way a book of fiction or nonfiction would be revised by an editor with a keen eye. The marketing around textbooks is minimal – frankly, the emails and newsletters I receive about new textbooks vaguely related to my area of expertise feel a lot like spam.  And for that, publishing houses charge upward of $100 (often closer to $200) and change editions every few years to limit the market for used textbooks.

In France we paid the cost of the photocopies for a course packet put together by the professor. Showing up in the United States and learning how much money we were expected to spend on books definitely came as a culture shock. (Campus bookstores add a sizable premium for the privilege of putting all the books in one convenient location too.) It should come as no surprise that I do not require textbooks for my courses. But, in contrast with the cases mentioned earlier in this post, the practice of the academic publishing business is completely legal.

IBM and Philanthropy

June marked the 100th anniversary of IBM. Here is what The Economist had to say about Big Blue’s longevity: “IBM’s secret is that it is built an idea that transcends any particular product or technology. Its strategy is to package technology for use by businesses… Building a company around an idea, rather than a specific technology, makes it easier to adapt when industry platform shifts occur.” Based on this idea, the weekly argues that Apple, Amazon and Facebook are well-positioned to reach the 100-year mark, while Dell, Cisco and Microsoft are in a more precarious situation.

A detailed analysis of IBM’s longevity is provided in the briefing in the same issue. It is hard to fathom now, but IBM’s business started with punch cards in the late 19th century. The business has witnessed three significant platform shifts so far:

  1. in the late 1940s, “when electronic “calculating machines” and magnetic tapes came along”,
  2. “from costly mainframes to “distributed” computing systems in the late 1980s,
  3. much more recently, to computing as a service performed in data centers and delivered over the network (cloud computing).

IBM has become focused on services (its services arm employs more than half its workforce of over 425,000) and less hierarchical. It also endeavors to make “the output of its 3,000-strong research division… relevant to its business” and “ditch[es] businesses that are about to become commoditized” to keep its profit margins high. But in the end it is clear that the main ingredient of IBM’s success is its “human platform”, built upon “close relationships between customers and supplier”.

In a provocative article, The Economist also compares IBM to the Carnegie Corporation (which also turned 100 in June) and asks: “Has the multinational business or universal philanthropy done more for society?” Or, echoing Sam Palmisano in a new book celebrating IBM’s birthday: “One simple way to assess the impact of any organization is to answer the question: how is the world different because it existed?” You might argue this question applies to people too, and the article indeed compares Andrew Carnegie with Thomas Watson Sr, who ran IBM for four decades. The Economist’s verdict – read the full article for interesting historical facts – is that “in the first 50 years, the impact of the Carnegie Corporation on society dwarfed that of IBM… in their second 50 years the two institutions’ impact has arguably been reversed.” The article also raises the question of the appropriate maximum age for a foundation: is 100 too old? As an example, “the Gates Foundation will have to be wound down 50 years after the second of Bill and Melinda Gates dies.”

Bill Gates, mentioned in passing as “the Andrew Carnegie of today, [who] is busily giving away the fortune he earned in business”, is also the focus of another Economist article, that one from June 2010, about his attempt with Warren Buffett to convince other billionaires to take the “giving pledge”, “promising to donate 50% or more of their wealth.” As of mid-2010, 4 other tycoons had followed Gates’s and Buffett’s lead. By The Economist’s calculations, “half of the total net worth of the American billionaires on the 2009 Forbes 400 list is over $600 billion.”

Returning to IBM, an October 2010 article from, you guessed it, The Economist again, describes its impressive track record in corporate volunteering through the IBM Corporate Service Corps, which is portrayed as a “corporate version of the Peace Corps” and is supposed to involve 500 IBMers a year, albeit for much shorter engagements than the Peace Corps. Those activities also help IBM polish its brand name and maintain good relationships with key actors in foreign markets. Companies that have followed IBM’s lead include Novartis, Dow Corning and FedEx.   

For more information on IBM, I recommend Lou Gerstner’s book, “Who said elephants can’t dance?