Today, we talk to Niko Pfund of Oxford University Press (OUP). Niko Pfund is the Academic Publisher and President of Oxford University Press, USA.  He began his career at Oxford in 1987 as an editorial assistant before moving to New York University Press in 1990, where he was an editor and then editor in chief and eventually director in 1996.  He returned to Oxford in 2000 in the role of publisher and is responsible for the Press’s scholarly research and reference publishing across the humanities, social sciences, science, law, and medicine. A past President of the Association of University Presses, he serves on a number of boards, including those of the Institute for Global Affairs and the literary magazine The Common.

What was your route into publishing? What barriers did you have to overcome?

I graduated from a liberal arts college with a B.A. in English in 1987 and needed a job. Like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, I was aware of a lot of things I didn’t want to do (including moving back in with my parents — love them though I do — in a Northern Virginia suburb), less so what I did want to do. This was at a time when career counselling offices focused primarily on finance, business, law, etc., so I riffled my way through the file roster of recent alums, looking for people who looked like they did interesting work. A recently promoted editor at OUP was looking for an assistant, so I applied and drove down for an interview during spring break in my friend’s half-ton Chevy pickup, having never been to New York City before. We hit it off (both the OUP editor and me, and the city and me), and I started at Oxford a couple months after college.

Despite the fact that publishing flew well below the radar of career counseling offices when I graduated from college, I cannot claim to have faced any genuine barriers.

Could you tell our readers a little about what drives you as a leader of OUP?

Publishing is a rewarding profession. It is important to me to demonstrate in practice to colleagues, especially to those new to OUP or the industry, just how fulfilling a career in the publishing professions can be. I have an intrinsic belief in the importance of institutions like university presses, and how we must continuously embrace change to fulfil our mission.

I’m regularly struck by the difference in expectations that entry-level employees of Oxford have of its administration these days relative to when I first started. Back then, I had no idea how the Press was performing, nor did it occur to me to wonder, and, really, no one told me much of anything or felt any obligation to do so. It was very much a “nose-down-and-do-your- job” environment. The current approach is far preferable to past eras where most employees were in the dark, and research, such as Edelman’s Trust Barometer, confirms that people want more transparency. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — this progress, I sometimes worry that the degree of transparency we now practice can also fuel unproductive anxiety, given the uncertainties that abound in any media industry at present.

So, what drives me is not only all the usual things that centrally motivate most research publishers — publishing important scholarship while working alongside some of the most stimulating, multi-faceted, well-intentioned, and distinctive people I’ve ever met (both authors and colleagues) — but trying to strike a balance between keeping people informed, instilling in them a productive sense of urgency, and alleviating any unproductive anxiety or fretting. So basically a professional version of the serenity prayer. Given all the issues that fuel uncertainty these days, from fragmenting sales models to competition by non-traditional actors, that’s harder than it might sound.

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

My entire professional life has revolved around the role of the “validator” in all its forms, be that peer review, the authority of a publishing imprimatur, or the kind of “surprising validator” that can break through extreme partisanship. In an age when we have a world of information at our fingertips, the question of how we assess what is genuine and true (as opposed to demagogic or deliberately misleading) hinges increasingly on the agent of that information. And the trust and integrity associated with a given imprint is fundamental in this regard.

We of course all rely on validators of some sort to decide what we spend time on and choose to believe, whether it’s a literary critic’s recommendations or the masthead of a leading journal. For example, Nick Thompson, the CEO of The Atlantic, regularly sends out a newsletter that represents almost a perfect Venn-diagram overlap with my interests (geopolitics, media, technology, running, unusual and compelling stories).

Our pressing curiosity about how Large Language Models (LLMs) conjure their answers (and our nervous bemusement at their hallucinations) speaks to the fundamental need for us to understand where stuff comes from. That phrase seems to me the connective thread between a great many things currently churning around in our world: AI anxieties, the replication crisis, the current weaponization of plagiarism, deep fakes, etc.

In the near to mid future, I suspect we’ll enter an age of hybridity during which peer review evolves to incorporate AI functionalities much the way in which AI will supplement or bolster many human inputs and outputs. We rightfully scrutinize the perils and failings of the peer review system, but I would argue that it remains the best means of validation for now (“the worst possible system other than all other systems”). I’m most excited about the potential of AI to reduce drudgery and admin, enliven the work experience, and help us with our mission of seeking out and disseminating the objective truth.

AI is all around us, be it in publishing workflows, or in the promise and potential threats of LLMs. How do you see AI affecting your publishing life, and the communities you serve?

There’s every reason to believe that researchers and authors and students and writers are already using AI in all kinds of ways that are not visible or evident.  As with many technology-driven advances, there will be more and more clear water between those who are curious and experimental and those who are threatened and retentive. And in turn you’ll quickly see a productivity divide, which is why I think it’s so important for us to experiment widely.

AI will radically change our work lives, if not in the next few years than certainly within the next decade. Will platforms still matter? Will usage? How will we assess the impact of our publications? How important is genuine human contact relative to a facsimile thereof? Many people prefer a human navigator to touchscreen options, but then there’s the airline app that notifies you of a flight change by sending you a notification that not only informs you of the change but invites you to choose from several options for alternative routes — in effect alerting you to the existence of a problem by offering a solution — and you simply choose one and the app does the rest. Most people will take that fix over even a very friendly and efficient airline representative. So, I think we’ll quickly find that a theoretical insistence on human engagement withers once we’re presented with effective alternative technologies.

But, as with the engineering of complex copyediting tools, this will follow a gradualist path, whereby human beings will continue to serve as navigators for the most complicated or nuanced tasks. The New Yorker profile of Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge highlights how every company in the content generation sector is going to have to make hard and important decisions about when to sell and when to license, and when it’s possible to do both, or else end up, as he put it, “roadkill.” And, looking further ahead, once AI becomes genuinely generative, and able to create original insights and connections, as my colleague Casper Grathwohl says, all bets are off.

I also think it’s entirely consistent to be both excited and mildly terrified about the ramifications of AI, especially given the checkered history of governmental regulation of new technology and the fact that AI’s pace of development is fuelled by that most catalytic of forces, the profit motive.

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

That’s really three questions in one, given the different, if overlapping, answers for each of those three constituencies. Happily, OUP has a very diversified publishing portfolio which caters to all three. (In a recent week, our top-selling books were the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon, which gives you a sense of our range.)

A visual metaphor for research publishers might be an hourglass: on the top half is the raw content, and on the bottom-half are our audiences. We reside in the middle of that hourglass, and what we do there varies, from journals to online services to books, based upon whom we’re looking to reach and what is required of us. For literary fiction publishing, a press’s USP is fairly self-evident (editorial, promotional, general advocacy), but research publishers will need to continually rethink where and how they genuinely add value, what sorts of services and enhancements are being offered in that hourglass center.

One service we will almost certainly need to ramp up is translational. What are the needs and preoccupations of researchers, professionals, and students? I suspect “publishing” takes up a small amount of space, relative to teaching, research, continued professional education, classwork, administration, mentorship, etc., in the obligations of all three of these groups. For the foreseeable future, especially as the publishing industry evolves, this translational role that publishers play in explaining what happens in that hourglass thorax and how our constituents can be most successful in their interactions with publishers, whether as author or customers, is going to be even more critical.

What do you anticipate the major challenges will be for OUP, and indeed the publishing industry, over the next five years?

For the research publishing sector, the answer is necessarily multi-faceted:

  • AI, in all its manifestations (which also present a lot of opportunities)
  • the ongoing transition away from print to digital and from ownership to access (and from access to ownership);
  • the multitude of new sales models that are in part mandated (Read and Publish, Inclusive Access, OA, etc.) but also now being challenged;
  • the explosion of fakery in forms only now taking shape
  • and finally, something that affects organizations across the board these days, especially those with offices in many countries, namely the bedevilling Gordian-knot implementation of new technology systems intended to simplify and unify legacy systems.

As Open Access/Public Access mandates evolve across all forms of content, what does this all mean for your business?

The best way to answer this briefly is to refer readers to the Scholarly Kitchen post distilling the recent Ithaka report on “the second digital transformation,” which highlights the transition from providing products to services, the rapid transitions around AI (the pace of which defy stocktaking overviews such as this), and the by-now expected prognostication about greater industry consolidation.

What publishing innovations are you most proud of?

My personal pride lies less in specific innovations, per se, and more in projects we’ve brought to light, whether those are high-impact books or online services like Oxford Bibliographies Online or Oxford Scholarly Editions Online or Oxford Research Encyclopaedias, although OUP’s early adoption of print-on-demand (POD) back in the day also comes to mind. And my pride in these is necessarily vicarious since in every case, there are people far more directly responsible for them than I.

What is the future of office/hybrid/remote working at OUP USA?

We’ve taken a gradualist approach to date, strongly encouraging people to come in for a few days a week, and I think that’s largely worked. I think most people benefit in a variety of ways, whether socially or in terms of engagement or just as a change of pace, from being in the presence of their co-workers and that’s been borne out in our American offices. I personally find the predictability of working at home exhausting. I need stimulus and surprise and community, and, while I’m not necessarily broadly representative, I also know I’m not alone in this respect.

During the downslope period of the pandemic, we held several “new joiners” days during which we basically imported people who had joined the Press in the previous couple of years to New York and scheduled a series of events, from in-office sessions to dinner and a Broadway play. The reactions and feedback to these events cemented my belief that the in-between spaces of work life — the glancing encounters, the spontaneous conversations over coffee, the vita activa — are critical to a sense of belonging and purpose.

What does the next generation of academic publishing jobs look like to you? How will publishing jobs evolve in an AI ecosystem?

I touched on some of this in my answers above so I’ll keep this brief. I suspect that industry-wide there will be a major reconfiguration of what certain jobs entail and that our decision-making will be more data-driven than ever.  There’s Arthur C. Clarke’s adage, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.”  I’m acutely conscious, now more than ever, of the importance of labor and service and of purpose to a life well-lived and to any professional community, so we’ll need to move forward thoughtfully with all of this in mind.

If you were to pick one part of your daily job as your favorite, what would it be?

Currently the most enjoyable part of my everyday is interacting in an unstructured, incidental way with colleagues in our new fully open-plan office. I’ve never been an open-plan zealot and I think that companies can sometimes overemphasize positive aspects of open-plan design when in fact a lot of the rationale is around cost. And so too with OUP USA, which previously occupied six large floors each almost the size of a city block and now occupies less space than a single floor in our old building. But I’ve been genuinely surprised, after decades of sitting in an office, by how much I, and others, benefit from just bumping into people. And how much more quickly — and gratifyingly — one can get some things done in person vs. email or Teams/Zoom.

If I were to change the word preceding “job” from “daily” to “weekly” in the question, I’d point to our books editorial board meetings, where a group of skilled professionals from multiple functions come together to debate what we publish, and how, in a spirited, constructive way. I find these meetings, defined as they are by a “marketplace of ideas” vibe, as compelling as I ever have.  I’d also point to our jacket design meetings which are fun for me since I can appreciate good design precisely because I myself am so incapable of creating it.

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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