Championing the case of smaller publishers

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Ian Russell, the new CEO of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP)

In recent years the profile of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) has been raised significantly by the energetic work of Sally Morris, who has just finished in her role as its chief executive. Since she announced her retirement, many people have been saying that she will be a hard act to follow.

Ian Russell is the man who has to step into those shoes and carry on the good work. He has been a publisher for the last 15 years, initially at the Institute of Physics Publishing and latterly as head of publishing for the Royal Society. Although daunted at the prospect of following someone who made as big an impact as Morris, he relishes the challenge and cannot wait to get started on 1 October.

Driving change

His track record has been in driving though change in organisations with a strong history, but which needed to modernise to face new challenges. This has included experimenting with open access at the Royal Society as well as introducing a more commercial focus. Learned bodies may have a not-for-profit tax status but very few could continue their activities if they didn’t generate a surplus from publishing which could be applied to other areas of their work.

Sally Morris believes that Russell is an excellent choice to succeed her. ‘He has considerable experience of learned publishing and he speaks with great authority and presence,’ she said. ‘He is also very bright and good fun. He has a sound management background and a clear understanding and scholarly-friendly attitude to what is going on and what it means to publishers.’

She believes that part of the reason he was chosen was to give a younger face to ALPSP. ‘It gives a positive signal to have a chief executive in the middle of his career. It shows that we are engaging with the younger generation of publishers as well as the older generation,’ she explained. ‘His contacts span a much wider age-range and that will help in bringing on the next generation of publishers with all the skills and information they could need.’

She thinks that his diplomatic skills will help too. ‘At the Royal Society he navigated a very difficult path between what the membership think and what the publishing division think, particularly with issues such as open access,’ she commented. ‘The Royal Society deals with very distinguished people and I think the solution it has come up with – to experiment to see if it works or not – is extremely diplomatic. Scientists learn by experimenting.’

Russell was born and brought up in Bath, in the south west of England. His mother and father both worked for a local engineering factory; his mother was a draftswoman and his father was in sales. He was quite sporty as a child, playing rugby and then basketball and representing the south west of England in a junior basketball team. Academically his big interests were chemistry and astronomy, although in his final years at school he found physics more interesting than chemistry.

After school he went on to Southampton University where, luckily for him, a joint physics and astronomy course was just being started. He enjoyed the astronomy more than any other part of the course and even got the chance to do field work at an observatory in Tenerife, which he loved. ‘We got to do some work with real astronomers,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately I was never going to get the grades to go on and do observational astronomy because it’s just too tough, and that was the only thing I really wanted to do in physics. I suppose I could have worked harder,’ he added.

Gaining commercial skills

Since astronomy did not seem to be an option he lined up a job at BAe Space Systems after university. Unfortunately this happened to be at a time when the defence industry was not doing well, the cold war had ended and the latest round of wars was yet to start, so the job fell through. Eventually, however, he got a place on a management training course with the local Co-operative Retail Society.

He said: ‘I just took the job as a temporary thing for Christmas but I have to say they were fantastic. They put me on their management course, which was pretty good. It was very much on-the-job. I was running a furniture department selling tables and sofas. I thought it was the worst thing in the world at the time but it really gave me exposure to the real world, dealing with real customers and real issues at a tender age. I did a lot of training courses there that stood me in good stead. When I joined the Institute of Physics Publishing (IoPP) a couple of years later, I found I was a little different from the other people there.’

He had been looking for something with a scientific flavour, and was considering either publishing or the patent agency business when the job at IoPP came up. He started as an assistant editor but gradually moved up the ranks.

He said: ‘My experience at the Co-op made me much more commercially-focused than my peers at IoPP. Having front-line experience of dealing with customers really helped.’

His time at IoPP was one of great change, most notably in the technology. ‘When I joined it was pre-web. We had email because of JANET but nobody else I knew had it,’ he pointed out. He introduced one of the first electronic submission systems while still on the editorial side. In 1999 he was promoted to assistant director, looking after the management of all 40 of the company’s journals.

‘It was a good place to work because it was at the forefront of what was going on in terms of electronic publishing. We were one of the first organisations to start reference linking. Like a lot of organisations, the IoPP got a bit fixated on creating new features for its e-content delivery. With the benefit of hindsight, that was not money well spent. We were a relatively small publisher and it was becoming clear that academics were not going to publishers’ websites for content, they were coming through other routes. A lot of the electronic bells and whistles were there to develop a relationship with the end-user and they just didn’t fly.’

By 2004 he felt it was time to move on and the position of head of publishing at the Royal Society came up. He was delighted to get the chance to work at such a prestigious organisation as head of publications. At IoPP he had introduced many changes to the way the company operated to make it more customer-focused. He believed there was a great opportunity to make an equally significant impact at the Royal Society. But, of course, learned societies are controlled by their members and are not commercial publishers.

‘When I got there, the journals department just dealt with things as they came through the door and didn’t go out and try and influence the contributions. The journals were exceptionally strong in the 1960s and 70s but had been left behind. It started journal publishing in 1665 and that history makes it a bit cautious,’ he said. ‘Its fellows are very eminent and are more involved in the running of the society than members would be at the IoPP.’ These factors meant the society was a little slow to act on its publishing programme.

Shaking things up

‘I put in place a new organisational structure and changed people’s roles to get the journals out there and getting this fantastic brand better known. There were many misunderstandings about the society’s journals amongst academics. People thought you had to be a fellow or be introduced by a fellow before you could submit manuscripts but that is not true,’ he said.

‘The society’s journals are very broad and had missed out on huge areas because they were reliant on the interests of various editors. This meant that nobody was really mining new areas, and commercial publishers were gobbling up new opportunities. And they would get the seminal paper in a particular subject but there would be no follow up.

All this was to be shaken up, though, with Russell’s arrival. ‘We looked at the strengths of the existing journals and pro-actively sought out the influential academics and introduced them to the journals. In the short time I was there it was already pretty successful,’ he said.

And the executive team there were very supportive and backed this support up with hard cash. ‘They were prepared to accept a reduced surplus for a few years so I could really invest and take on some new people to do the editorial development activities,’ he explained. ‘We also added a few more people to make sure we were delivering first-class customer service.’

The pressures of commuting

Russell was commuting every day from Bristol to central London, which added four hours to every working day. At first he just saw this as the price he had to pay for working for a prestigious organisation based in London, but eventually it started to wear him down. He had looked for a new family home that would give him some chance of a life outside of work but because of the pressures of the property market around London was unable to find anything suitable.

He decided that this could not continue and in early 2006 gave in his notice with the intention of setting up his own consultancy, based at home. ‘The Royal Society was a fantastic place to work, and I really enjoyed my two years there, but it really couldn’t carry on. I was already heavily involved in the APLSP and I knew it very well. I contacted Sally Morris just to tell her what I was doing and she suggested that I apply for her job, which I had no idea was coming up. Hers were huge boots to fill so it was quite daunting. But I was looking for a bit of a change and this seemed to fit.’

Looking ahead to new challenges

He is very excited by his new job, representing the interests of more than 300 publishers who, between them, produce about 10,000 journals – reckoned to be about 40 per cent of the world’s output of journals. ‘It is important that we represent the interests of the smaller publishers and maybe do things that the smaller publishers cannot do themselves to make sure they are not disadvantaged and are competitive as things change.’

So what sort of things will he be tackling in his new job? ‘There are clearly issues that need to be addressed, like open access. This is seen by some as a threat to the traditional business models of publishers but I think it’s a shame that publishers have been labelled as being very conservative and unwilling to change. Many of the technology changes that have happened over the last 10 years have been driven by publishers,’ he pointed out. ‘I will be working as part of the APLSP to try and change some of those perceptions. I think that not-for-profit publishers are going to be well-placed to take advantage of changes, as long as they are well supported. They will need workforces that are better informed, better trained and better understood. They also need to be well represented so they are not isolated and are able to deal with a changing industry. If that is not the case, the commercial publishers will come in and steal a march on the not-for-profit sector again.’

His priorities for his first days at the APLSP are to make sure that he is able to continue the work of his predecessor in getting the association known and also getting the views of the not-for-profit sector heard in the publishing world. He has already gained plenty of media experience, mostly from being a soccer pundit on his local BBC radio station where he is always called in to give the fan’s perspective when they are discussing his football team, Bristol Rovers.

He said: ‘I want people to understand that not-for-profit publishers are different. Sally has really put the APLSP on the map and I believe its membership has trebled while she has been there. She has got the association a seat at the most important table and it is now being consulted on all the major issues. If I can do anything close to the standard that Sally managed then I will be very happy.’

John Murphy

Curriculum Vitae

1988- 1991 University of Southampton, BSc Hons in Physics with Astronomy

1991- 1993 CRS Limited, Graduate Management Training Scheme in retail sector
1993- 2004 IOP Publishing, initially an assistant editor, became assistant director, journals in 1999
2004 – 2006 The Royal Society, head of publishing