Annette Thomas, of Clarivate Analytics, reflects on a long and varied career in scholarly communications
Could you tell us a little about your background and previous career?
I grew up in Maryland, which is close to Washington DC, and in a small town in Germany. German was my first language. I still speak it regularly. My father was an African-American military officer and my mother was German. Interracial marriages were very unusual in the mid-Sixties – not everyone nor everywhere were welcoming. So I learned early to take nothing for granted, be self-reliant and challenge the status quo.
I have always loved science – the way it is precise, fact-based, and yet an endless series of questions, open to interpretation. I attended one of the first ‘magnet’ public high schools in the US focused on science and technology, just next to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.
By age 16 I was working as a research assistant in a laboratory at the US Department of Agriculture. I went on to earn an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and biophysics from Harvard, before completing a doctoral degree in cell biology at Yale.
After finishing my doctoral work, I began exploring opportunities that would use my scientific training, but in a more expansive context than as a post doc academic. I had no idea where it would lead, but within weeks I was sitting in Nature’s London office as an assistant editor. My job: determine which cell biology manuscripts to publish and which to reject.
This was daunting, exciting and incredibly important. Nature only publishes about seven per cent of manuscripts submitted, so deciding what would and wouldn’t get published was a painstaking task. I learned the importance and complexity of peer review, and I was and am humbled that researchers give their time and intellect so generously to support their peers and the scientific communication process.
I learned the importance of being ‘close to the customer’. I spent significant time visiting researchers in their labs, attending conferences and speaking with (and listening to) leaders in the field and the up-and-coming scientists, identifying emerging trends on the research horizon. I learned the nuts and bolts of scientific publishing from the ground up with a wonderfully collegial, passionate and dedicated group of associates.
I went on to be the launch editor of Nature Cell Biology, redefining the boundaries of the cell biology field. I created the concept and strategy for and launched the Nature Reviews series of journals, which have become some of the most highly cited journals in the world. I went on to be appointed managing director of Nature Publishing Group, then chief executive of Macmillan Publishers, followed by chief executive of Macmillan Science and Education; steering Nature for more than 15 years. During that time Nature was transformed from a handful of scientific, print-based magazines to a global, highly regarded, digitally-focused research information group.
While at Macmillan, the group expanded globally (especially in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America) and the business diversified. As an early supporter of open access, I developed Nature’s open access approach; including creating a separate, open access-dedicated business division, accelerating growth in Nature Communications, Scientific Reports and the Nature Partner Journals programme.
In 2010, I set up Digital Science to harness the power of data and technology-enabled tools to improve workflows and outcomes for researchers, institutions, funders and publishers.
I oversaw the transition of the Macmillan businesses into Springer Nature when the firm was created, following the merger between Macmillan and Springer in 2015. As chief scientific officer and global head of Springer Nature’s research business, I set the strategic roadmap for the new company before leaving the group in 2016.
I always seek a truly customer-centric approach to developing a holistic and sustainable business strategy. And in searching for new ways to serve the researcher, I was able to push the boundaries of what it meant to be a scientific publisher.
After high-profile positions at Macmillan and Springer Nature what attracted you to Clarivate Analytics?
I joined Clarivate Analytics because of its people, products and heritage, combined with its ability to act quickly and decisively. Clarivate has the prestige and reputation, the reach and scale, and as a newly independent company, it now has the will and ambition to harness the energy and commitment of everyone across the organisation to help researchers accelerate the pace of discovery. This is what motivates me. No other organisation is positioned as well to succeed.
Clarivate Analytics has built some of the most well-known and highly regarded brands and products, including Web of Science, Journal Impact Factor, EndNote and ScholarOne.
These products were the first movers in ‘big data’, research analytics and research workflow tools. Clarivate traces its roots back to the Institute for Scientific Information, established by Eugene Garfield in the 1960s, alongside the Science Citation Index, the genesis of Web of Science.
Since that time, the organisation has created tremendous reach and scale. For example, Web of Science is used in over 7,000 institutions worldwide. The power of data services and driving research excellence through data-driven analysis is built into the DNA of the Clarivate employees, and their products have been at the cutting edge of the digital marketplace from the very beginning. ‘Big data’ is no longer the future, ‘big data’ is now and the enthusiasm, passion and dedication in the company are palpable and the potential is limitless.
When the leaders of Clarivate approached me about joining the board earlier this year, I did not hesitate. Over the last few months, working with both the board and the executive team, it became clear that there was a great fit in terms of our shared vision. There is focus and ability for entrepreneurship and for executing on developing services that will truly add value to the researcher lifecycle in a global and networked society. It is an exciting opportunity to find new ways to make the research process more
effective and efficient for individual researchers, as well as funders, publishers, academic institutions and government agencies worldwide.
What have been the most profound developments in scholarly communication during your career?
After 25 years there have been quite a few, mostly technology-driven, but I will highlight three.
First, there has been a steady increase in research funding globally, which when combined with technology advances, has driven not only an increase in research output, but the research process has become more global, collaborative and interdisciplinary. Research has become more integrated and more holistic in its approach: laboratories can no longer focus narrowly on one question or one technique. The effect on scholarly communication is that researchers find it more difficult to stay abreast of all the research in their field, in part because more is being published, but also because the definition of a field is more fluid and expansive than before.
Next is the transition from print to digital, which has had an enormous impact on how research is distributed and communicated. Between 2000 and 2010 many journals pivoted to a digital institutional-based distribution model, dramatically increasing the reach and availability of content. The physical distribution of content had been a key USP for publishers, but with digital distribution, barriers were lowered, and funders have encouraged, supported and even mandated open access author- or funder-pays business models. Open access has become an established part of the scholarly communication ecosystem, along with ‘mega-journals’ such as PLOS One and Scientific Reports. Journals are now rarely read cover to cover. Articles are identified via search engines and the journal brand has become an indicator of trust and reputation within its community.
Finally, the editorial and publishing workflow has become more transparent, more measureable and more fragmented. There are increasing numbers of workflow solutions and tools for discovery, assessment, analysis, publishing, writing and outreach, and customers’ expectations are high – mirroring their experiences with tools in their lives as consumers. The challenge is in establishing trust, sustainability and interoperability in a rapidly evolving market. What hasn’t changed is the pressure for researchers to ‘publish or perish’ and that peer review remains the cornerstone of the scholarly validation and publishing process.
What opportunities for change do you see within scientific publishing and the wider research community over the next few years?
There are so many opportunities for change, but I will focus on two topics:
First, the publishing process will continue to evolve. Peer review will not only occur pre-publication as it happens now (in most cases), but increasingly post-publication, on open platforms, supported, and in some cases driven by funders. Different disciplines from STM to HSS will change in different ways and at their own speeds, but over time the rigid concept of what it means to publish scholarly work will broaden and become more fluid and more encompassing.
Second, the assessment of scholarly research will evolve and along with this, how reputation and impact is measured will become more sophisticated and holistic. Just as Garfield pioneered citation indexing to unearth the connections between articles and to create a network of ideas, machine learning and AI will be used to mine a broader and more diverse set of data to capture a more holistic and truly representative measure of past impact and to predict emerging discoveries and future impact. Being able to capture and track research output in its totality, not just the journal research article, but also datasets, theses presentations, even informal discussions, will become essential.
What is clear is that researchers, funders and governments are driving much of the change, and guaranteeing trust and a track record of neutrality is essential. It is also clear that however the scholarly communication landscape changes, peer review will remain key.
With Clarivate, I see the opportunity to combine its world-leading products like Web of Science, EndNote and Scholar One, with new offerings, like the recently acquired peer-review platform, Publons, to support researchers, funders, publishers and academic institutions to do this.