This is the ninth 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 Alison Mudditt, CEO of PLOS.
What was your route into publishing? Could you tell our readers a little about what drives you as a leader of PLOS?
Like so many of us in scholarly publishing, I had no intention of a career in scholarly publishing. In fact, it was specifically on my “careers not to pursue” list as it’s what my father did (he ran a small theological publisher). I applied for a job in the marketing department at Blackwell as a filler year before pursuing an intended PhD. But that never happened and here I am, over 30 years later.
The key throughline for me across my career is that I love engaging with scholars, scientists and the world-changing research they produce. But I also love the challenges of running a healthy organization and business. While those two elements have been a constant, the drivers for me personally have shifted through the course of my career. I’ve been served well by following interesting opportunities – such as the one to first move to the US with Taylor & Francis and then to move further west to SAGE – rather than a rigid career plan.
My motivation and work across my career has been about more than just business success, but it wasn’t until I took over leadership at the University of California Press in 2011 that I moved officially into a “mission-driven” organization. I learned a huge amount being on the inside of one of the world’s largest research universities and am most proud of the work we did to bring open access (OA) to both books and HSS fields through the launch of Luminos. OA has come a long way in the university press world since then but it was this experience that made me think more deeply about affordability and equity in OA.
I’ve always been motivated by achievement but in the second half of my career, that has shifted very much from personal achievement to that of organizational achievement and influence. As I’ve become older and hopefully wiser, I’m driven by much more by building an impactful organization. The truth is that while there’s so much good in what the scholarly publishing industry does, there’s still much that can and should be better in both what we do and how we do it. More diverse. More transparent. More open.
As a leader in academic publishing, what most excites you right now?
I believe that we’re finally at a tipping point not only for open access, but for a transformation to open research more broadly. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen global scientific collaboration on an unprecedented scale: results were shared immediately, and online sharing became the norm. It’s hard to make a moral case that other diseases or crises don’t deserve the same urgency. Support has been steadily building for years across national and international governments, agencies and funders. And now a growing voice of scientists and science organizations have joined them. Just one example: in a recent report, the International Science Council found the current system of scientific publishing to be failing in its ability to deliver on any of the core principles which affirm the record of science.
Critically, many of us are focused on how we can make the transition to open research in ways that embrace diversity and foster equity from the start. It’s been a fundamental failing of the “old” system and I’m relieved to see that an increasing number of us understand that tweaking that system just won’t do, and that more fundamental change is needed. With this comes the opportunity to rethink what gets shared and when, and how it gets both assessed and credited. It’s an incredible opportunity to build a system that better serves both science and scientists. While there are clearly systemic changes needed in the incentive and reward systems in academia, our work at PLOS demonstrates that meaningful progress can be made by pushing on elements of the current system.
How is PLOS positioned to serve the next generation of students, researchers and professionals?
PLOS has always had a strong focus on understanding and serving the needs of early career researchers (ECRs). Our internal research has consistently shown ECRs to be in the vanguard of open research but frustrated and constrained by a reward system that doesn’t match their values. This is backed up by many other studies which conclude that, as future leaders, ECRs are more optimistic and more open to new solutions.
We’ve therefore focused on “safe” and easy ways for ECRs to build more open and reproducible practices in their own research – and to receive credit for them. This includes introducing new features in established journals (for example, registered reports in PLOS Biology), implementation of the CRediT taxonomy to ensure that all authors are recognized for their specific contributions to each work, and our implementation of open peer review, where each review has a DOI and is tagged and indexed, making it easy to discover, cite and claim credit for. We’ve also focused on championing ECRs who are engaged in working towards more systemic changes through support of organizations such as PREreview.
What do you anticipate the major challenges will be for PLOS, and indeed the publishing industry, over the next five years?
I’m going to highlight two that feel particularly challenging for both PLOS and the wider industry right now.
First, the transition to future business models for open science that are globally equitable. Back when PLOS launched and focused on the biomedical sciences, charging authors a fee to publish seemed fair and reasonable. Fast forward twenty years and it’s clear that we failed to anticipate how successful APCs would become and how some publishers would exploit this space. So, we’re on a journey at PLOS to move away from APCs entirely but it feels as if much of the industry is heading in the opposite direction with a headlong rush into “transformative” agreements. I can’t see any way in which this won’t continue to disenfranchise researchers in lower- and middle-income countries and so I hope that, as an industry, we can do better.
The second issue is that of trust in the scientific record. While there are clearly broader societal trends here, those of us in the industry know that the challenges of both sloppy research and increasingly, outright fraud, manipulation, paper mills and reviewer rings are growing. We are all going to need a much stronger focus on integrity (do articles/journal adhere to both scientific and publishing norms?) and rigor (choice of experimental design, proper use of statistics, etc.). All of which is much more readily achieved through an open science framework in which data, code, methods, and peer review reports are shared openly.
What does OA mean for your business?
Quite simply, OA is and always has been our business. As one of the first fully OA publishers, PLOS has always played a different – and I’d like to think, outsize – role in the ecosystem. We’re not here to be the biggest publisher (although we do want to serve a wide range of research communities) but rather to be a catalyst, to demonstrate different and more open ways of sharing research.
As we look towards our next twenty years, our focus has expanded to the broader scope of open science. How can we continue to move beyond the constraints of print formats and lean into a new system that upholds the values of transparency, rigor and inclusion? Those principles are at the heart of everything we do, from new open science features in our journals to our new business models and global partnerships, and our development of new solutions for open science (such as our Open Science Indicators).
What publishing innovations are you most proud of?
I’m lucky to be at an organization where I’m spoiled for choice! But the work I’m most proud of personally is that which we’ve been doing to find affordable, equitable alternatives to APCs. It was a core part of my vision when I moved to PLOS. We were the vanguard of publishers who demonstrated that OA publishing could be sustainable, but we only had half the equation right. In short, we weren’t fulfilling our entire vision for an open and inclusive research ecosystem that facilitated the exchange of free and unrestricted knowledge.
Looking back nearly six years on, we’ve made significant progress. We don’t have just one institutional partnership model for all of our journals, but several that cater to the needs of the journal research communities, and the bodies who financially support researchers’ work. These include Community Action Publishing (CAP), which keeps costs low for selective journals (and was recently honored with an ALPSP award); Global Equity, which reflects regional economic differences; and our Flat Fee model that aims to make Open Access publishing easier and more accessible for researchers.
This work has been led at PLOS by the indefatigable Sara Rouhi and supported by many others across the organization. And of course, I’m grateful for the amazing support we’ve had from librarians and institutions around the world.
What is the future of hybrid/remote working at PLOS?
PLOS has emerged from the pandemic as a fully remote organization. Of course, this isn’t without challenges, but I think it’s important to remember that the old way of doing things wasn’t so great for many people. The upsides of remote work are, for the vast majority of our staff, very significant and not ones they want to give up. We also haven’t seen negative effects on productivity or how the organization operates.
That said, we’re still in this liminal space of figuring out exactly what a new, viable model of work looks like. How do we avoid the worst of remote work – Zoom fatigue, the erosion of work-life boundaries, the loneliness from lack of real social connection – and maximize its benefits? We know that in-person gatherings are still essential, so how can we be most thoughtful and deliberate about these? Personally, I think that one of the core challenges is that while we’re not in the office anymore, we’re still holding on to some of that (broken) culture. If we take this moment to really reimagine not only where we work but how we work, the opportunities are immense.
What do the next generation of academic publishing jobs look like to you?
Publishing is going to be subject to the same transformational forces as any other industry: we’ll be more digital, automated and dynamic. There will always be roles for specialists but an increasing amount will be automated, so future roles will focus on where we can add value beyond what can be done in automated ways. That suggests a range of foundational skills for all of us, some of which have been around for a long time (critical thinking, communication, teamwork) and others that are growing in importance (digital fluency, self-leadership, proficiency with new models of working).