This is the seventh post in a new series of perspectives from some of Publishing’s leaders across the non-profit and profit sectors of our industry. How did these leaders get into publishing? What excites them? What is their vision for the future of publishing, and indeed for the business and careers of all those working at their organization? We rarely gain these insights so we are excited to give voice to some of the key leaders in the academic publishing world.

Today, we talk to Charles Watkinson, Associate University Librarian for Publishing at the University of Michigan and Director of the University of Michigan Press.  Charles is the 2022-2023 president of the Association of University Presses.

What was your route into publishing? What drives you as a leader of Michigan?

Honestly, it’s hard to get any job after an archaeology degree. Drifting, I joined Oxbow Books, a specialist academic mailorder bookseller in Oxford. My father, Anthony, is a scholarly publisher, and his work has always inspired me. After a few years, I moved to Connecticut to run Oxbow’s American distribution warehouse. 

My career as a publisher started when the American School of Classical Studies at Athens hired me out of the warehouse as their director of publications. After meeting my American wife, Heather, on an archaeological dig in Albania, I moved to Purdue University to be close to her. Several happy years as director of Purdue University Press led me (with my wonderful wife, children, and cats) to the University of Michigan. So I’ve been a publisher embedded in research universities for over a decade.

As context, both Purdue and Michigan have merged a university press and library into a single administrative unit, the pattern for over one-third of university presses. The 2007 “University Publishing in a Digital Age” report recommended that “presses and libraries should work together to build publishing environments and develop skill sets that enable the creation and dissemination of innovative types of scholarly products and tools.” This opportunity to embed with scholars in a kind of “applied laboratory” focused on maximizing the impact of research drives me. I’m so grateful to have had colleagues and mentors willing to invest their expertise and money in that shared vision.

As a leader in academic publishing, what excites you most right now?

What excites me most is the sheer variety of “digital stuff” today’s researchers want to share and the challenge this poses for publishers and librarians to apply our traditional skills in new ways. This cornucopia of content will not advance knowledge unless it is discoverable, accessible, preservable, and reusable. Publishers and librarians have never been more relevant or needed. 

Think about the outputs of an archaeological project like the Michigan excavations at Gabii. They include hundreds of GIS and 3D models, thousands of images, multiple artifact and context databases, and pages of hyperlinked interpretations. Print alone has never been an ideal medium for archaeological publication, even less so today. Scholars can make more sense of the past if publishers who understand their work (like those at award-winning BAR Publishing, a Fulcrum client) can develop and structure the discipline’s outputs.

Reconceptualizing the format of publications brings up intriguing questions about their purpose and meaning. What counts as part of the “scholarly record” and why? Who have we historically allowed to create, read, and reuse scholarship, and whom have we excluded? Where have publishers been complicit in designing structures that exclude important voices (for example, in archaeology, those of Indigenous communities)? How can we rebuild processes and systems to be more inclusive? Applying a new lens to an everyday activity always creates insights. The current focus on bringing previously marginalized identities to the fore is inspiring, if often uncomfortable, for many people in our very White, gender-unequal, and quite ableist industry.

How is Michigan positioned to serve the next generation of students, researchers, and professionals?

The Publishing division of the University of Michigan Library (also known as Michigan Publishing) brings together the University of Michigan Press (UMP), Michigan Publishing Services (MPS), and Deep Blue Repository and Research Services (DBRRDS). In a single day, UMP may be working with an independent humanities scholar writing their first book, MPS helping the director of a U-M center compiling conference proceedings, and DBRRDS assisting an engineering grad student in publishing a dataset from grant-funded research in ways that enable its reuse. The magic happens when staff in the three units share their expertise with each other and create links between outputs. We aim not to duplicate efforts. For example, we don’t hesitate to refer authors to other publishers/repositories if those are a better fit.

In developing services, our philosophy is “first of a kind, not one of a kind.” A good example is the Fulcrum publishing platform, developed with support from the Mellon Foundation and now self-sustaining. Fulcrum shares an open-source backend with the Deep Blue data repository. That means every type of output is a first-class publication: A Fulcrum-hosted monograph with integrated multimedia gets the same stewardship commitment that Deep Blue applies to health sciences research data. And the creator of a research dataset gets the same rich metrics (e.g., citations, altmetrics, downloads) that we would deliver to a monograph author.

Because we make student dissertations available through Deep Blue and publish several student research journals, we know that embedded multimedia is a core medium of academic expression for the next generation of researchers. That’s led the Library to build more capacity for accessibility remediation and preservation of audio and moving images. We also work on educating researchers in accessibility and digital preservation best practices up front as they develop their publications so these works need less remediation later. Like much of what we do as a non-profit, we hope this intervention will make life easier for other publishers and libraries.

What are the major challenges for Michigan and the publishing industry over the next five years?

Bringing the lens of equity, justice, inclusion, and belonging to the industry forces us to rethink many assumptions and processes. In the words of the late, great US social activist John Lewis, it encourages information professionals to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” 

Our compelling work for at least the next five years is to remove the barriers that inhibit individuals working outside higher education institutions from sharing their scholarly outputs and building on those of others. Over the last year, I’ve served on the ACLS Commission on Fostering and Sustaining Diverse Digital Scholarship. The practical questions coming up are fascinating. For example, if you have created an oral history of your community and want to curate and publish an audio work, where can you deposit a citable version? Even obtaining a DOI to get the work discovered, cited, and credited remains challenging for unaffiliated authors.

Like most equity work, the challenge of rethinking our publishing processes and workflows through another lens will benefit us all. Every time I enlarge the font on my ebook reader to comfort my aging eyes, I thank the accessibility advocates behind the EPUB3 standard. And before I met with a diverse group of colleagues on the ACLS Commission, and I started engaging with this perspective on our work, I’d never appreciated how many publishing practices are exclusionary. To address our challenges, we need a much more diverse workforce in publishing, bringing new intersections of race, gender, dis/ability, and social background to identify and re-engineer hidden structures of power and exclusion.

What does Open Access/Public Access mean for your business?

I think we’re at the “so now what” stage of open access (OA). With a critical mass of freely-available, reusable literature and data, what tangible benefits can publishers offer society? And how should publishers format and distribute the outputs of open scholarship to turn free access into valuable access? With this question in mind, we’re doing several things at Michigan: expanding discovery networks (e.g., creating best practices for research data through the Data Curation Network, delivering OA books to public libraries via the Palace project, highlighting quality certification via the DOAB PRISM service), making sure our platforms and content are accessible (staying current with Benetech Certified Global Accessible audits, making monographs available as audiobooks through the Google Text-to-Speech program) and scoping open source integrations with partners that complement Fulcrum’s functionality (working with Mellon and the Big Collection initiative to integrate Fulcrum, Manifold, and Humanities Commons, and integrating Fulcrum repository functionality into the Janeway journals platform). 

We’re also focused on how to measure and communicate the greater reach and engagement OA enables. We’re working with Curtin University to refine a publicly-accessible Books Analytics Dashboard and partnering with Jisc and Lyrasis to expand US participation in IRUS repository statistics. The IP Registry is developing a product with us to identify the institutional use of OA books, and we’re supporting the OAeBU project to build a trusted framework for publishers to exchange OA usage metrics. We recorded at least 12 million Total Item Requests in 2022 for Michigan Publishing publications. But that’s a meaningless number unless put in context.

Authors should never be required to pay to publish open works. Let’s try and avoid perpetuating or creating a new inequity of access. The Fund to Mission program, supported by our parent institution and more than 100 libraries, enables this for U-M Press. We also partner with a consortium of over 50 liberal arts colleges to run Lever Press as a truly diamond open-access book publisher. The capacity to do such work is building. I particularly credit Lyrasis Open Programs, the BTAA Big Collection academy-led publishing program, the American Council of Learned Societies Publishing Initiatives, the S2O community of practice, and the Open Access Books Network.

While I’ve been fortunate to experience many fields of publishing, I especially care about university presses. As 2022-2023 president of the Association of University Presses, I want to ensure that the smaller organizations that comprise most of the Association’s 160-strong international membership can, if they wish to, sustainably transition their specialist academic publishing programs to engage with a global move to open scholarship. Together the network of university presses provides a vital infrastructure of support for humanities scholars

I worry that larger publishers with better resources to handle complexities like transformative agreements are sucking away the resources to support open-access books and journals. Small, independent publishers (barely for-profit, if commercial) face similar challenges to university presses. We must ensure that funder and library policies don’t accidentally erase the bibliodiversity that independent and institutional presses have brought to their regions and disciplines for decades. I am particularly excited by the potential that Path to Open (JSTOR) and the Open Book Collective, and Opening the Future (COPIM) programs have to level the playing field for smaller academic book publishers.

In general, we need to be wary of seeing OA through the lens of cost-saving or treating publishing as solely a service. By reducing professional labor costs through scale and outsourcing, publishing books (or journals) becomes less expensive. Lower prices may be attractive to the funder, but at what cost to a fragile scholarly ecosystem already full of contingent jobs? If we expect scholars or service providers to take on the work currently done by in-house acquisitions or production editors, we will lose experts who play a crucial role in advancing knowledge.

What publishing innovations are you most proud of?

While I love exploring the rich media essays in Vidding: A History or the interactive visualizations of La Princesse de Clèves by Lafayette, the underpinnings of the Fulcrum platform rather than the innovation it enables make me proudest. Fulcrum exists “to make digital scholarship safe for humanists” by packaging innovative work to ensure longevity, stability, and credit for its authors. The exciting bits are the accessibility statement, the preservation commitment, and the constantly updated, openly licensed repository of code. In a shifting scholarly communication environment too often characterized by unresolved links, orphaned works, and disappearing websites, the true innovation of Fulcrum lies in bringing the standards and values to digital publishing that have served books so well for 570 years while minimally constraining the ambitions of scholars.

What is the future of hybrid/remote working at Michigan?

It’s a great question. I’m not sure. Most of the 50 staff of Michigan Publishing are still working remotely. It keeps icing and snowing until May in Ann Arbor, and we can’t take lovely warm cats into the office (@Cats of AUPresses), so working from home most of the week is the current preference. But we miss seeing each other, and misunderstandings previously handled by a kind word in the corridor can balloon without human connection. We can also struggle to connect our mission across departments when remote. So, as the weather gets warmer, we hope to assemble more. There’s no point in returning to the office just to create a “Zoom jail,” with no more personal interaction than we would get from home. We need to recognize the different types of work teams do and adjust schedules accordingly — keeping an eye on job equity while acknowledging the demands of different roles. 

What does the next generation of academic publishing jobs look like to you?

 They look fun, exciting, challenging, and creative. The shared SSP, AUPresses, and ALPSP Task Force on Career Progression that I co-chair will continue to work in 2023 on aggregating and analyzing thousands of publishing position descriptions. We’re learning that the skills publishing employers value are highly transferable between different roles. An openness to learning new things and an aptitude for organization remain critical. Having been inspired by my ex-colleague Lanell White, I particularly appreciate the skills that product management frameworks like that of the Pragmatic Institute bring.  

The fluidity of our industry opens the door to careers that can jump functional tracks and move between scholarly communication fields (from scholar to publisher to librarian to vendor and back — and sometimes components of all at the same time). A field with such dynamism needs diverse skills and outlooks. As managers, we need to explain the opportunities a career in publishing offers clearly and with less jargon. We must reach out more broadly when hiring, actively mitigate bias in recruitment and retention, and support advancement and fulfillment at all career stages (recognizing that staff will sometimes need to change employers to achieve that). Ultimately, the choices we make as publishers still signal what content matters. Whatever kind of organization we work in, publishers remain vital gatekeepers to trusted knowledge, and we need colleagues who sincerely appreciate the increasing diversity of society to ensure those gates are always open to new voices.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


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