'In esteemed company'

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Ann Michael looks back on a varied career encompassing nine different industries

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications … 

Before finding scholarly communications, I worked in nine different industries including information management, strategy and management consulting, software development, banking, and telecommunications. 

I was introduced to this community in 2000 when I began working for Wolters Kluwer Health. I started there as the Director, Project Management and when I left, I was Executive Director, Electronic Strategy and Product Development. 

After my time with Wolters Kluwer I founded the strategic consultancy Delta Think. Consulting allowed me to work with many different types of organisations across the scholarly communications ecosystem. Early on it was mostly societies and commercial publishers, but in the last few years this has broadened to include libraries, consortia, funders, and technology companies.

Last year I started at PLOS as chief digital officer. After more than a decade of consulting and recently completing my second MS (in business analytics and data science), I wanted to make a different kind of impact. I wanted full ownership of the issues I had spent the last decade wrestling with on behalf of clients. 

What has been the most important development in scholarly communications during your career?

In my 20 years in the industry, there have been so many developments. If I focus on publishing, most everyone has moved from a print paradigm to a digital perspective. What is most important about that is it allowed us to change the way we think about what we do, who we serve, and how we can best serve them. It also enabled us to become more flexible, mentally and operationally.

The digital paradigm brought with it the ability to iterate quickly and to better understand and respond to the needs of the customer. In the print world, there was no iteration – you had to get it 100 per cent correct because once your content was printed that was it! Once we went digital, we could not only correct our content, but we could experiment with how it was presented, we could get data that showed us how people used it (and the features we had built around it), and we could learn what worked and what didn’t work. We could think about what 'it' was and start to move beyond the article to considering other research artefacts like code, data, algorithms, protocols, etc.

The move to digital broke us free from the many limitations of print and allowed us to think more broadly. It enabled us to iterate but with iteration came change, at an increasingly faster rate. So, the move to digital ultimately forced us to learn how to anticipate and manage change more effectively. 

What is the industry's most pressing need now?  

We could talk about the changes in the scholarly ecosystem, the advancements in AI and machine learning, the rise of data and all of the insights and products it will enable, the increasingly present voice of funders and libraries, increased nationalism and how that might impact how we work together globally, and even climate change or coronavirus and how our world and our work might change in response. 

But, at the end of the day, the most important thing we can do is actively listen, be collaborative, and get more and more comfortable with change—whatever form it may take.

What do you think will be the key developments in scholarly communications over the next decade?  

Well for one, my hope is that we start to see cleaner more consistently accessible data about our industry and more cooperation on the part of different players in the ecosystem to make data available.

Related to (and to some degree dependent on) that, I believe we’ll see more extensive and expert use of data in operations, product and/or artefact development, research, and governance, even by organisations that don’t have data teams or data scientists on staff. 

This will be due in part to increasingly available tools and technologies that make data more accessible and easier to work with. It will also be due to earlier moving or well-funded players demonstrating key questions and use cases that smaller players will leverage. A large part of the issue we have leveraging data today is that we can’t always formulate good questions (i.e., questions, that when investigated, yield actionable insights).

To be clear, my statements are not solely related to publishers, but to all players in the industry. Libraries will understand usage and value associated with research, publishing, and reading activities. Funders will have increased understanding of the impact their funding dollars have on society. Researchers will publish more of their work at different stages and in different forms and all of that activity will yield information on how the process truly works, how to best leverage it, and how to effectively communicate it. 

Is there a 'key moment' that stands out from your personal time in scholarly communications?

Most of my key moments have been when I’ve been in the presence of physician and scientist editors and researchers. That’s when I get to reaffirm why we do what we do and why it matters. 

One year on my birthday I was having dinner with a group of astrophysicists. The leader of the group apologised that I was spending my birthday with them (and she bought me a present!). Meanwhile, I had just texted my husband telling him that it was so exciting to spend my birthday with a group of domestic and international world-class astrophysicists. It was one of my favourite birthdays ever. 

The next week I had dinner with a group of microbiologists! It’s a privilege to be a part of such esteemed company. 

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

This is always the hardest question for me to answer because I don’t really have hobbies.  I love to spend time with my family, especially my daughter’s two small children. They are so young and curious – I love watching them figure out how the world works.  

I also enjoy my two cats (Ziggy & Jones, named for David Bowie) and my chameleon (Bertie, named for King George VI). They are fascinating and diverse creatures (I include my grandsons in that!). They approach their worlds so differently and help me to explore different perspectives.

We recently ran an Ask The Chefs question on the Scholarly Kitchen about how we stay relevant or continue to refine our skills. What I realised is that my real pastime is continuing to learn and grow because what I do is also what I love. 

• Interview by Tim Gillett