INTERVIEW: Democratising science

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Christian Box of Karger Publishers reflects on 20 years in the industry and his hopes for the future of scholarly communications

Please tell us a little bit about your background and qualifications...

I've worked in the scientific publishing industry for the last 20 years. I originally studied for a degree in Molecular Biology and a Masters in Financial Management, and after graduating I started my career as an analyst.  My publishing journey took off at IOP Publishing, where I was focussed on citation, usage, and business analysis, providing me with a solid foundation across all facets of the business. Since then, I've held many roles in the commercial department including acquisitions, product development, operations, sales and marketing management and strategic development. I joined Karger three years ago, and in my current role where I'm responsible for the academic side of this business.

And how did you land in the publishing industry? 

I was working as an analyst in Bristol and saw the role advertised in the newspaper (which makes me feel slightly old!). It was an analytical job, and my background in science made it quite appealing, but I wasn't specifically targeting a role in publishing. I loved it from day one, though. I've always worked at small and mid-sized publishers, but those companies have global footprints, and I find the variety and challenge that this provides hugely enjoyable. The last 20 years in the industry have been gratifying and something I look back on with great pleasure.

How does your previous' career' with a society publisher inform your current position with a commercial organisation?

The difference is minimal for a publisher like Karger. Society publishers are probably more commercially focused than people expect, and commercial publishers are probably more science-focused than people expect. In general, it's important how you behave rather than who you are. The Karger family are hugely committed to the health sciences community, and behaving in a responsible and committed way within the community is expected by all of our team here.

What do you do at Karger? What key developments have there been at the publisher over the last few years?

My team covers the academic area of the Karger business. We are responsible for all the products and services and for working with all our academic customers worldwide. Over the last few years, we've been through quite a transformation, especially in Open Access, where we've made significant progress on the transition, and that's something we're proud of. More recently, we have been focusing on a different perspective of Open Access, which aims to improve public understanding of science and public trust in science. Open Access has helped to remove the paywall barrier for the general public, but we want to make research more understandable and engaging to a broader audience. We need to achieve this before we can consider that we’ve harnessed the full potential of OA.

Karger has recently embarked on a new Read, Publish, and Outreach initiative, after signing an agreement with Jisc. How does this work and what do you hope the new approach will achieve?

The outreach component is a recent addition to our Read and Publish agreement. In essence, it offers additional services that researchers can use to support the translation and dissemination of research to a much wider audience, including practitioners, policy makers and the general public.  Our outreach services are not limited to research published with Karger or the health sciences which creates an additional value for customers. Overall, I think everyone within the scholarly communications industry has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that we are using popular channels to explain the tangible benefits of research to the general public, ultimately increasing trust in science.

How important is it that Karger – and other commercial academic publishers – embrace the needs of other stakeholders such as the research and library community?

Every publisher needs to embrace the needs of all stakeholders within the community, but we have seen the landscape shift considerably over recent years, so you constantly need to ask yourself how well you understand the current environment. The shift has also created a number of areas of tension, and you need to try to balance all stakeholders' needs and be very aware of those areas of tension in your decision-making. 

I think it’s important to note that you won’t always get it right. Generally, our approach is to set policies that help the customers that we work with achieve institutions broader goals, but also recognise that, at a micro level, we need to have a flexible approach with individual stakeholders.

What are your wider hopes for the Open Access movement and the future of scholarly communications? If you had a time machine, where might we be 10 years down the line?

We've been a progressive publisher in the Open Access transition and tried most models out there.  Right now, it feels like the broader landscape is at a crossroads, and it's more complicated than ever to predict what the future scholarly record will look like even three to five years from now. 

My hope for 10 years from now, though, is that we feel we’ve achieved the public benefits that Open Access promises. I would love to feel that it’s positively impacted the public trust in science. We will have to get honest about it; if we assume just making scientific journal articles freely available is enough to engage the public, I fear we will have the opposite effect. So, it’s going to take a significant commitment by the whole research ecosystem, but the outcome would be the democratisation of science we all strive for.

What do you get up to in your spare time? Any interesting hobbies or pastimes you want to tell us about?

Like most people, I enjoy travelling with my family, and we do a lot of walking in Wales, where we live. One thing 20 years in publishing has given me, thanks to plenty of travelling, is a well-developed reading habit – my old English teacher would be proud!

Interview by Tim Gillett