'Publishers need to help speed research up, not slow it down'

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Fiona Hutton

Fiona Hutton, head of STM open access publishing and executive publisher at Cambridge University Press and Assessment, looks back over her career and tells of her love of the wilderness

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications… 

I was quite young (13) when I decided I wanted to be a scientist.

I remember telling a careers advisor (I come from a small town in Scotland) that I was going to California to work at Genentech, and he looked at me as though I was from another planet… but I was very determined. I was at University studying Molecular Biology by the time I was 16. My tutor, Barklie Clements, from the MRC Virology unit at Glasgow University fostered in me a complete fascination for virology, particularly viral oncology.

By my third year, I begged a number of labs across the US to take me on as a summer student, and went on a summer placement to the James Cancer Institute at Ohio State University. I followed this with a Ph.D. at Cancer Research UK Institute for Cancer Studies in Birmingham, and then followed that with a Postdoctoral Associate position at Columbia University in NY, working in the lab that discovered Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus in AIDS patients. I always knew I completely loved science, unfortunately (after all that), just not bench-work.

What led to your move from scientific research into publishing?

During my post-doc, I was looking for a position where I could use my love of science outside of the lab. As luck would have it, I managed to secure the incredible position as Editor of Trends in Biochemical Sciences (TiBS) at Elsevier Science.

As a biochemist working in molecular virology, I don’t think I could have landed any more of a dream role, and got to travel extensively, attending lectures at scientific conferences and learning huge amounts of science. Moreover, it gave me the privilege and opportunity to discuss science at an in-depth level across a vast array of subjects in the molecular life sciences, with people that had made a huge impact on research in their field. It was a great honour to be professional editor of a journal that is held in such high regard and very fondly thought of by the community (Nobel laureates would send me their manuscripts and offer me advice at the drop of a hat). Hence, my love of publishing was born.

I moved on from that position to Wiley, to work on a range of publications, including the Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, and to commission and launch a number of the Wiley Interdisciplinary Review journals (WIREs), where my role became much more publishing orientated. I joined the Wiley Open Access Initiative in 2013 and worked with an inspirational team led by Rachel Burley to build the OA business.

Five years ago, I moved onto Cambridge University Press. The mission of the Press is focused on the transformation to Open, and my role is integral to the delivery of that vision. I could not be any luckier than to work for a mission-driven publisher that is part of the academic community I came from, and I am extremely fortunate to work with so many talented and passionate people.  The Press itself has a terrific spirit and identity.

Can you explain the thinking behind Research Directions, and what you hope it will achieve?

The Press was proactively encouraging the creation of new ideas in Open Access publishing, which led me to thinking about what would happen if I could scrub the current journal system and create it for the digital world, free of warped metrics - where it was about research and not about the journal. Funny thing for a publisher to say, but who are we, if not part of the community trying to find a better way to progress and advance research, for the benefit of humanity and the planet (and just the pure love of science and discovery)? 

We are launching Research Directions in specific interdisciplinary subject fields, where research directions are defined through a challenging range of research questions. Researchers are asked to respond to questions as they produce components of that research. The resulting published output is broken down into discrete peer reviewed parts - results, analysis, and impact - each a published and citable research item. Authors will be encouraged to upload early research outputs and other grey literature content onto our open research platform, Open Engage, as they move through their research project. Our aim is to provide an open research-publishing journey for the researcher, linking early outputs and community discussion on Open Engage, with formally peer-reviewed, indexed, citable outputs on Cambridge Core, with dynamic connections between both platforms. Participants will be able to attain proper credit for the bits they get involved in, whether that is thinking of the questions, doing the research, analysing the research, contextualising the research or just contributing to the discussion.

Question-led interrogation provides a direction for research, something not normally absorbed by journals. If questions were static, this might become a limiting approach, but our intention is that questions will be debated, discussed and iterated by the community on Open Engage, and regularly reviewed and updated by the editorial board. We (and the communities we have spoken to) believe this will make a substantial contribution to how solution focused and broad interdisciplinary fields develop, especially if the community site on Engage functions to bring different players together from a range of disparate fields to collaborate and solve problems together- problems that no one community could solve in isolation.The overall goal is to support discovery and dissemination through the research process, guided by the principles of open access and open research in order to ensure the research process is open, reproducible, and transparent

Luckily, we have some very talented commissioning editors at Cambridge University Press who have taken Research Directions out to their respective communities and secured commitment and enthusiasm from specific subject fields, turning Research Directions into a realistic publishing concept for those communities. On top of all the editorial work, we have a team of talented people at the Press working on Research Directions from multiple angles, from in-depth market research, to how to design it, how to build it, how to make it work, and how to deliver it.  Getting something like Research Directions off the ground takes a huge amount of creative thinking, knowledge and experience from a wide range of talented people.

What are your wider hopes for the scholarly communications industry over the next 10 years or so?

Scholarly communication has lagged behind other industries in throwing off the constraints of print, but it is clear we are now reaching an era of innovation and experimentation, accelerated by technology. We could not wish for a more exciting time to be in the industry and developments are limited only by current technology and our own imagination.

It is amazing to see how much publishing has moved on in the last few years, from pre-prints across a wider range of subjects, to quicker workflows, to faster routes to publication, to innovation in article format and types of publication, enhanced by ever- evolving technology.

If you exclude all the noise a researcher has to deal with, their core motivation is to move research forward, discover that next thing, solve the next problem, and make a difference. If we keep those motivations in mind when we design new systems and conceive of new publications and services, then publishers need to ask what we can do to facilitate research for the diverse range of stakeholders able to contribute to that research. How can we bring people together with the right knowledge, skills, and ideas to move research fields forward, and what tools and services can we create to help that process.

If you think about the past, putting research behind a paywall inhibits that process - I recall not being able to access research and it slowed me down. I remember repeating experiments that I later found out others had done, but not published – it slowed me down. Publishers need to help speed research up, not slow it down. Traditional journals made sense when there was nothing but print, but we are no longer limited by that factor and as a result, our ecosystem can become richer and more intuitive.

So, as a stakeholder in the research journey, we need to keep asking ourselves what makes sense for a researcher, and how can scholarly communications work as a facilitator of research, not an inhibitor. If we keep that in mind, the industry can continue to be a valuable stakeholder, at the core of fostering community, nurturing collaboration, creating valued outputs, publications, tools and services that bring the right people together at the right time to help the research community achieve great discoveries.

Finally, do you have any fascinating facts, hobbies or pastimes you want to tell us about?

I am learning the ukulele and getting joyfully addicted to strumming away. I however have all my best ideas when running or hiking, and take the opportunity to get out to the hills as much as I can (I really think I should have been a geologist). You can often find me in some remote wilderness of Scotland, attempting to bag a Munro.

Interview by Tim Gillett