Awards and rewards

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Emerald Publishing CEO Vicky Williams looks back on her career and makes some predictions for the future of academic publishing

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications

I originally come from Hull in East Yorkshire, proudly state-school educated, and one of the first in my family to go to university. I mention this because I think there’s sometimes a misconception that academic publishing is for the privileged and privately educated; I hope we can start to dispel that myth! I was fortunate to study at Cambridge University, where I majored in English and History.

I honestly left education without a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Many of my friends had studied law or medicine, and had very clear next steps. I wasn’t so sure – English and History prepare you for everything and nothing! I worked in academic bookselling for a short while, when a job in the editorial team at Emerald came up (I’d moved back to Yorkshire by this time). So I started there as an editorial assistant, and my love for academic publishing began. The size and growth story of Emerald meant that I had the opportunity to move around the business a lot – from publishing roles, to new product launches, to marketing, to business development. I joined the Emerald board in 2011, and after a four-year secondment to head up a newly-acquired business for Emerald in Bristol, was privileged to take over as CEO in January 2018. It’s an industry and a business I feel truly passionate about; I love my job every day in spite of the usual highs and lows.

During my tenure, Emerald has also sponsored me to do an MA in international business, which as an arts graduate, I found massively useful. We operate globally, and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively in all of my roles at Emerald, so gaining a theoretical as well as practical understanding of International business practices helped a great deal.

Emerald Publishing has won several industry awards recently. Tell us about them, and why you think Emerald has been so successful.

After success last year at the Nibbies as Academic, Educational and Professional Publisher of the Year, we started this year by winning the inaugural Open Athens User Experience Award, which recognised our platform innovation. We then recently won both Academic and Professional Publisher of the Year and Independent Publisher of the Year at the Independent Publishers Guild Awards. It’s a huge honour to be recognised externally – it really validates what we’re doing, and the efforts of our teams globally, as well as our brilliant editors and authors. Winning the Open Athens Award only six months after we’d launched our new platform was actually a shock! We’d made the decision to move to an in-house platform some time ago, and it was a long road to bring this to fruition with the help of our partners, 67 Bricks. We were recognised in this award for our user-centric approach – developing the new platform in collaboration with the user, and ensuring that the user experience was at the centre of all of our decisions.

With the IPG Awards, again we really weren’t expecting it, but the judges comments on the innovation across our content programme, our open research strategy, our platform, and our diversity principles were wonderful to see. I hope we’ve been successful because we’re challenging ourselves and the industry to be different and do better. There’s a lot of change ahead for us all, and we need to be part of that change. Our size and independence really helps here – our independence in particular is an anchor, and allows us to move unencumbered.

What is the biggest challenge for academic publishers at the moment?

I think there’s so much change to contend with, and it’s happening at different paces across different disciplines and geographies. That means it’s really difficult to make a wholesale shift, and you’re supporting multiple products and business models in parallel. That’s a costly challenge for any business, but academic publishers are doing that against a backdrop of mistrust. The ‘brand’ of the scholarly publisher has been heavily tarnished over time, and that’s something we need to collectively re-build and solve. We need trust in the market to be able to serve the market properly. A big part of this lies in transparency and authenticity. 

How do you see the scholarly communications landscape changing in the next decade?

I think we’ll see a wholesale shift to open in the next decade, hopefully supported by different business models to reflect a range of disciplines and geographies, as well as both funded and unfunded research. There has been strong emphasis on the contribution that research makes to society in recent years, supported by the shift to open, as well as initiatives such as the Declaration on Research Assessment, and a focus on how research is supporting progress against the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This needs greater global collaboration as well as a shift away from traditional metrics and incentives. Progress here is at early stages, with some institutions and organisations leading the charge. I’d love to see us making joint progress in all of these areas over the next decade.

Part of this also has to be how we challenge and change the existing channels and formats of scholarly communication. The journal article and the book chapter remain the default, despite the fact that there are already a whole host of other ways in which to communicate. Academic publishing needs to think far more consumer-first and digital-first. If we want to help our authors reach new audiences, this has to be a big part of the mix. This means publishing in different formats and recognising the value of those formats – for example, videos, podcasts, policy briefs, blog posts.

Another shift I hope to see is that we fully represent the geographies and communities we serve. Access to scholarly literature is just one piece of this. We need to remove participation barriers as well as access barriers. We need to be representing diverse voices. We need to find new channels for different types of research to be seen and heard.

How will the relationship between publishers and other players (librarians and authors) change?

I think it’s already changing. There are a whole host of actors in the research ecosystem, and we need relationships with them all. This is where close community connection really comes into play – so that as a publisher, you are embedded in the community and can co-create solutions with that community. The relationships therefore extend beyond the librarian and beyond the author (both still absolutely pivotal), to the research office, to funders, to industry and to the public. If research is to make a difference in the real world, the publisher role should be to aid connections through ensuring we are providing the right communication and dissemination channels. I hope as a result, the ecosystem becomes far more collaborative and joined-up.


Any interesting facts, pastimes or hobbies that you want to tell us about? 

Lockdown seems to have ground many of those to a halt! I usually love to spend time at the theatre, the cinema, at comedy gigs and at music gigs. I’m also an avid reader and art gallery fanatic. Apart from the reading, and a few virtual events, all of that is a bit on hold at the moment. I moved house just before lockdown, and have a garden for the first time, so I’m also trying to understand what to do with that!

Interview by Tim Gillett