Today, we talk to Dr. Amy Brand, Director and Publisher of the MIT Press, one of the largest university presses in North America, publishing books and journals across science, technology, art, and design. Amy received her doctorate in cognitive science from MIT and held a number of positions in scholarly communications, higher education, and information access at MIT, Digital Science, Crossref, and Harvard University, before returning to the MIT Press as Director in 2015. She serves on boards of several publishing and media organizations, and was executive producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary Picture a Scientist, a film that portrays gender inequality in science. Some of her awards include the MIT Laya Wiesner Community Award, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award, and the Award for Meritorious Achievement issued by the Council of Science Editors.

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

Amy BrandI started my career as a research scientist, studying cognition and language development. To this day, I remain fascinated by how human beings process information and absorb new knowledge, which of course relates directly to the field of academic publishing.

I did my doctoral work at MIT, and then a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania. I was acutely aware at the time of the challenges facing women in science, and how much harder the successful women around me were working for the same level of recognition and career advancement as their male colleagues. It was pretty tough to locate women’s restrooms at MIT in the 1980s, which sent a strong signal.

Anyway, after a few years post-PhD, I also realized that I was more drawn to the broad debates within my field — questions like, “how innately programmed is human language” — than to teaching and experimental research. And so I pivoted on a whim to academic publishing. I don’t recall facing many barriers in making this move. In fact, I found the publishing world had much less gender bias than the world of academic science did at the time. In publishing, after all, we work to get the voices of others out into the world, not our own. The challenges around diversity in the publishing industry remain much more centered on race than gender.

My first publishing job was with Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. I immediately felt I had found my métier. I also knew that I really wanted to be doing this work – as an acquisitions editor in the fields I had studied — back at MIT. I was able to find my way back after a few years, and I stayed in book acquisitions at the MIT Press for several years. I was also involved in some early forays into digital publishing at the MIT Press, which eventually made me want to shift into publishing technology and infrastructure full-time. I moved to Crossref in 2001 to work on business and product development, then to Harvard in 2008 to help launch the Office of Scholarly Communications. I then became Assistant Provost for Faculty Appointments and Information there, working mainly on promotion and tenure. I left Harvard in 2013 to oversee the US offices of Digital Science. Although I loved working at Digital Science and maintain some close connections there, I couldn’t resist the invitation to return to the MIT Press as Director in 2015. Having experience in several parts of the research ecosystem helps when it comes to running a university press.

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

Publishing done well is such a collaborative undertaking. As a leader, I’m driven to support that teamwork and that excellence. I see myself as much more of an architect and catalyst than a top-down leader. What’s most important is helping others feel ownership over their own work while developing an open, agile mindset about the future of publishing and the rapid pace of change.

To me personally, this job feels like working in a candy shop of big ideas. It is also work that supports free expression at a time when that freedom is challenged, and the making of beautiful physical objects. At the same time, it is work that involves tackling complex problems every day, which keeps my mind humming. Looking at the accelerating transformation now in how people access knowledge, I’m very driven to protect the academy’s place in publishing high-quality, verifiable content.

Access to trustworthy information has never been more critical than it is right now. We should all be concerned about the growing commercial strangleholds, whether it’s large journal publishers or AI companies in Silicon Valley, and concerned about profit incentives that are not aligned with quality and factfulness.

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

The ideas and the topics that we publish at the MIT Press are exciting to me – they spark my imagination — and that kind of engagement is truly self-renewing. But right now, I would have to say I’m most excited to see the open access conversation becoming less polarized and more practical. The focus today is less on the moral justification for open knowledge and more on how we make high quality publishing accessible and affordable in sustainable ways. It’s affirming to our mission when established editorial boards decide to jump ship, as many have, leaving one of the commercial houses in order to start new journals with the MIT Press because they recognize the quality of our work and our commitment to the real purpose of scholarly and scientific publishing.

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? 

Change in academic publishing is ongoing, but it clearly hastened during the pandemic. AI will accelerate it even further. What comes to mind is a New Yorker cartoon of last year with the sketch of a toothpaste tube and the line “AI: All the hard-won knowledge and wisdom of humanity, now in a squeezable paste.” People are reading less and searching more. Although I may not agree with all the arguments, there is a good chance that using copyrighted works as LLM training data will ultimately be deemed fair use. This could have a devastating impact on incentives to create – whether we’re talking about nonfiction writing or the visual arts.

But on a more positive note, it does make business models that rely on subsidy, or other payment for open publishing, less vulnerable than paywalled models. I’d like to think the inevitable explosion of fraudulent and low value content will ultimately highlight the value of what  good academic publishers contribute and produce. I’d also like to think that we’ll ultimately be able to use AI to build even more trust and transparency into academic publishing, and maybe even to compensate for our own biases and cognitive limitations in understanding and decision making.

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

At the MIT Press, we’ve always balanced our focus on excellence in what we publish with an emphasis on experimentation in how we publish. We live at the intersections of science, technology, art, and design. We are one of the world’s leading publishers in artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example. We place extremely high value on book design, as a longtime leader in art and architecture publishing. It is part of the culture of the MIT Press, like MIT itself, to keep experimenting with publishing technologies and business models. I think we best serve the next generation of learners and researchers by continuing that dual mission, while remaining agile enough to pivot as the needs of our audiences and authors evolve. Open access has been a large part of our success here, and so have our community publishing service offerings to support non-traditional content types such as topical case studies and rapid review overlay for preprints.

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

There are obviously many challenges facing the larger publishing world. Numerous information and entertainment channels compete for our attention. Generative AI is changing basic reading and writing behavior, and the ways in which people interact with knowledge more generally. Filter bubbles are driving readers to a shrinking constellation of interests and options, reducing the long tail in book publishing. On the journals side, there’s a real threat to society and university press journals now from commercial consolidation and open access economics that incentivize quantity over quality. Educating academic leadership about these dynamics, and about the importance of investing in academy owned publishing, remains its own challenge. But I remain optimistic that awareness of the value of good academic publishing will grow.

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

Open access models shift the publisher relationship with researchers and academic institutions. When a researcher pays to publish a journal article, they effectively become a customer that you market publishing services to. Libraries that support an open books program are institutional partners, not subscription customers per se. We’ve been doing open publishing for a long time at the MIT Press, with books, journals, and other homegrown open projects. So, we are well positioned — better than many other university presses — for the trend towards open publishing. Another key factor for us is our new open knowledge endowment, seeded by the Arcadia Fund, to support these efforts in perpetuity. As the funds from this endowment continue to grow from year to year, they will provide the cushion that allows us to take risks with new models, such as Diamond OA books and journals. We’ve already made strong headway in both areas.

What publishing innovations are you most proud of?

The MIT Press team has a lot to celebrate. The Press has long had a well-earned reputation for anticipating and creatively reimagining the role of publishing within the research enterprise. I’m very proud of Rapid Reviews Covid-19 in partnership with UC Berkeley, which has recently expanded into RR:Infectious Disease, with generous support from the Gates Foundation. Our OA initiatives like Direct to Open are drastically expanding access to academic monographs, and it has been heartening to see other presses follow suit. We also continue to focus on diverse perspectives, such as our Grant Program for Diverse Voices that launched in 2021 to support underrepresented voices in the arts, humanities, and sciences. Perhaps more unusual for a university press, our dedicated imprints for children in partnership with Candlewick — MIT Kids Press for children and MITeens Press for young adults — are reaching a new generation of readers.

What is the future of office/hybrid/remote working at MIT Press?

Our approach to hybrid work is entirely self-directed. We have great office space in the heart of Kendall Square Cambridge, right near public transportation. Our offices downsized significantly during the pandemic but we’re now effectively on the MIT campus, whereas previously we were about a mile away. We’ve hired many remote employees, and several of our team members have chosen to move further away in the last few years. Our people can decide to come in or work from home as they see fit. There are occasional all-staff meetings where in-person attendance is encouraged but never mandatory. Old folks like me miss traditional office culture but most of the team is much happier having this flexibility and greater work-life balance.

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

This isn’t the future — this is now. We’re already seeing jobs in editorial, production, and design transform from insourced hands-on work into project management roles that coordinate outsourced work. We’re already generating meeting summaries from the transcripts of Zoom recordings, and using generative AI for first drafts of marketing copy and book cover designs. Down the road, we’ll have more tools and agents to make the workflows of publishing more efficient. Perhaps more profoundly, I suspect that academic publishing as a business will continue to evolve from producing and selling books and journals towards providing a suite of services to support research communication in increasingly flexible ways.

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

My workdays are so varied that it is tough to say. But what I love about this job is, first and foremost, working with fabulous, talented colleagues. I also love that I keep learning — learning about new research, learning about people, learning about leadership. As I have said to my three young-adult kids about designing their own work lives, stay curious and make choices that expand your mind and your daily experiences. The rest will figure itself out. Finding your calling is not always easy, but if you embrace lifelong learning, accept change, and explore many different pathways, you’ll keep growing. That’s the goal.

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.