Today, we talk to Dr. Susan King, Executive Director of Rockefeller University Press (RUP). Susan joined RUP in June 2015 from the American Chemical Society, where she served as Senior Vice President, Journals Publishing Group for 8 years, after over 15 years at John Wiley & Sons in various editorial, marketing, and management roles. Susan received her PhD in immunology from the University of Glasgow. Susan serves on the board of directors of the Stichting OA Switchboard — the OA Switchboard is a mission-driven, community-led initiative designed to simplify the sharing of information between stakeholders about open-access publications throughout the whole publication journey. Previously, Susan served as the chair of the board of directors of CHORUS.

Susan also serves on the American Physical Society Committee on Scientific Publications and has served as the Vice-Chair of the Scientific Publishing Committee of the American Heart Association.

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

Susan KingFortuitously, before the end of my 3-year postdoc, Academic Press advertised for a Commissioning Editor covering Immunology. While I thoroughly enjoyed research, the struggle for funding, and the under-representation of women in science was giving me pause. I knew little of publishing, but brought my PhD in immunology to the position at Academic Press. Thanks to Dr. Alan Johnstone, my postdoc supervisor, I had some publishing experience beyond writing and peer-reviewing journal articles, namely, freelance abstracting of journal articles, and scripting videos teaching immunology which included animation and filmed microscopy to explain key concepts.

I thought at that time that moving from the bench to an entry-level position at Academic Press might be a stepping stone away from science. I’ve never moved on from scientific publishing — the exhilaration over what I may be able to contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge never left me. I reckon I got to the side of the river I wanted to be on!

I’ve worked in both corporate (Academic Press and Wiley) and non-profit settings (American Chemical Society and Rockefeller University Press). I also experienced a cultural shift, moving from corporate to non-profit publishing. At ACS, we were spared from quarterly forecasts of costs and revenues. This bean-counting exercise, so necessary in the corporate world, was replaced with meetings with many ACS committees, equally as time-consuming but professionally more rewarding, ensuring consensus and securing support across the organization for all publishing initiatives including new journal launches.

I have some shared experience with Holden Thorp in how “….colleagues at [the] journals treated disrespectfully by authors, reviewers, and readers who consider running a research lab as somehow more meaningful than anything else in science”, but for the most part, I see strong collaboration and mutual respect between researchers and publishing staff.

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

The opportunity to harness technology to expedite and enrich the dissemination of groundbreaking research.

I started in publishing when print was the only distribution format we had. I recall sitting in Academic Press in London sympathizing with researchers and students at universities in Australia and Asia who received print copies of issues two weeks after their colleagues in the UK. We’ve come a long way! Still there is more to be done, and I’m captivated by what AI will bring.

I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with smart technologists at every place I’ve worked. At RUP, I’m especially proud of the richness of our metadata tagging including how it feeds and supports the OA Switchboard to simplify the sharing of information between stakeholders about open access publications throughout the whole publication journey, and RUP’s robust, efficient, and expeditious workflows across all our operations.

The talent of the RUP staff. Their commitment to the publication of novel research findings that advance scientific understanding to the benefit of humanity. Their embrace of technology. Their exceptional author service. And their collegiality and mutual support, made even stronger during COVID lockdown.

The support from, and opportunity to contribute to, Rockefeller University, the world’s leading biomedical research university.

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

What has always excited me! The realization of opportunities to advance all aspects of scientific publishing, including reproducibility, rigor, service, efficiency, and representation, that comes when you have smart, dedicated, committed people “in the room.” Vendors and service providers are also stepping up with innovations that improve the way we can connect with authors, reviewers, and readers alike, enhance the accessibility and dissemination of scientific knowledge, and ensure a more engaging and efficient experience for all. Our commitment to leveraging cutting-edge technologies (indeed, we often have many pilot projects running!) underscores our dedication to advancing scientific communication and reinforces our position as a leader in the field, so these are exciting times.

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?

At RUP it’s galvanized cross-department collaboration and forward thinking. Our AI taskforce will share their recommendations later this spring.

The promise of AI excites me. An example is the opportunity to harness AI to increase the integrity of published images by screening for duplications across all published articles not just within a manuscript, building on the pioneering work by Mike Rosner in establishing image screening as a prerequisite for editorial acceptance at RUP.

I think context will become even more important. “What’s the source of this Information?” “Who’s communicating it?” Growing up in Scotland in the 1980s, frequent rainy Sundays were spent with the family reading all the Sunday newspapers. There were so many more newspaper publishers then. I learned quickly that different newspapers reported differently. A valuable life lesson, thanks to Mum and Dad!

Also, I think AI will reinforce the importance of provenance. For instance, returning to the publication of microscopy and other images. Alison North, Research Associate Professor and Senior Director BioImaging Resource Center, Rockefeller University is one of the many contributors who have developed and published “Community-developed checklists for publishing images and image analyses” which speaks to the importance of experimental metadata. Robust metadata will help us comprehend and navigate all of the knowledge and information that we search out and all that is presented to us.

The reward system that comes with “publish or perish” will continue to incentivize bad actors who, with AI, will have more ways to fake research. The upside will be the ascendance of the brand and reputation of editorially selective journals embedded in the research community that do not compromise editorial rigor for scale.

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

RUP is a department of RU. We are embedded in the research community there. RUP staff members have joined us from postdoctoral positions at RU. We listen and learn from our research colleagues to be well-positioned to serve the advancement of early career researchers and their engagement in peer review and appointed editorial positions.

RUP journals have been privileged by the editorial service and contributions of RU faculty for over a century. Currently, eleven RU faculty serve as Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM) and Journal of Cell Biology (JCB) editors. Eight make editorial decisions on manuscripts, and additionally, three, Jean-Laurent Casanova, Elaine Fuchs, and Michel Nussenzweig serve in leadership positions.

Our journals are committed to the advancement of early career researchers and their engagement in peer review and appointed editorial position, e.g., JEM Associate Editors, JCB Early Career Advisory Board, Journal of General Physiology (JGP) Junior Faculty Network Cohort. RU post-docs volunteer for JCB and JEM, contributing to the editorial process and peer-review management and gaining exposure to all aspects of the publishing process. Past volunteers now serve as Scientific Editors at RUP and Nature journals.

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

Editorially selective journals that publish novel research where editorial decisions and policies are driven by scientists who actively contribute to their fields increasingly compete with journals established to reward shareholders and take funds out of scientific research. Large publishers have leveraged their scale to reduce costs.

While it seems the big might get bigger, I’m optimistic that not-for-profit journals will thrive. Technology rises all boats. Not-for-profit journals are embedded in the communities they serve, our allegiance is to the community not shareholders.

Collaboration across like-minded organizations brings smart, dedicated, committed people “into the room,” as evidenced by the success of Life Science Alliance, which RUP copublishes with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and EMBO Press. The partnership prospects with like-minded organizations are exciting! One of the newest examples being the “Purpose-Led Publishing” Coalition, I extend kudos to those organizations for similarly planting their flag, and I look forward to following their success.

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

RUP is a department of Rockefeller University whose faculty receive over $150 million annually in government and private grants and contracts. The Rockefeller University has a long-standing collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a member of cOAlition S. RUP Open Access/Public Access policies have always been and will always be aligned with funders.

“Evolve” is an excellent choice of verb as funders continue to develop and refine OA policies and requirements of awardees. It seemed that funders haven’t always had good records of what and where their awardees have published. I’m proud of the work of CHORUS in catalyzing the use of funder IDs in helping funders get a better grip on this.

I’m grateful for the experience and insights into funders and governmental agencies gleaned from my past service on the board of directors of CHORUS and committees of the Association of American Publishers. I left research without ever having secured research funding and had only interacted with the research and library communities for most of my publishing career before taking on this voluntary work. For me, talking to funders was like reading a different Sunday newspaper! It was an education. I encourage readers to seize the opportunities to volunteer, contribute, and learn!

What publishing innovations are you most proud of?

Contributing to the advancement of journals where editorial decisions and policies are driven by scientists who actively contribute to their field.

Launching Life Science Alliance with EMBO and CSHL. Beginning the successful expansion of the ACS journal portfolio. Digitizing the archive of Wiley journals freed up library shelves and librarian’s time, made older research accessible (making it easier to stand on the shoulders of giants) and plugged a financial hole at that time that came when a large subscription agency went into receivership.

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

Flexible Hybrid. Teams meet weekly in person/zoom. We’re productive and happy. We get to be with our dependents, collaborate with colleagues, and deliver our service to the research community without dropping a beat.

Supported by The Rockefeller University Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’s Microgrant Program we’ve made and are making excursions to culturally enriching museums to foster camaraderie, collegiality, and well-being, contribute to our increased feelings of connectedness and belonging, and cultivate awareness and appreciation of the history and culture of the authors, reviewers, and editors who publish in and contribute to RUP journals.

COVID was a game changer. The silver lining from the early challenging time of the pandemic is that we learned a better, more productive, and humane way of working.

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

No change to our collective commitment to communicating novel research, with better tools to deliver on our commitment. Less drudgery, more consistent rigor across what we do, more fulfilling work in service of the research community.

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

The times when I am on Zoom or in a room with smart, dedicated, committed people working through something to make it better. And when I read the research published in RUP journals, then I relish how far scientific understanding has advanced since my days on the bench in the late 1990s, to the benefit of humanity, and I stand in awe of human intellect and possibility.

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.