“Publishing isn't just a single stepping stone”

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Sophie Goldsworthy met Tim Gillett to discuss all things scholarly, the forthcoming Oxford Intersections series, and her love of landscape photography

Tell us a little bit about your background and qualifications…

I’ve been at Oxford University Press since 1995. Publishing was what I always wanted to do – but opportunities were quite limited and there was a recession on when I graduated. Also, I didn't know anyone in publishing!

I had a degree in English literature – which, as you know, isn't exactly a scarce commodity in the industry. So I taught myself desktop publishing and editing skills, and set up a freelance editorial business. I’d leaf through the local paper every Friday looking at job adverts – picking up contacts, building a network and pitching to people. Among other things I copy-edited a neuroscience journal, I wrote distance-learning manuals for the brewing industry, I typeset history novels for a vanity press – all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. Eventually I got a 20-hour, six-month contract at OUP, which I enjoyed very much, and some 28 years later, I'm still there – so they really need to police their short-term contracts a bit more rigorously!

What do you do at Oxford University Press?

I'm the Director of Content Strategy and Acquisition. What that actually means is that I lead the global research books acquisitions team – as well as leading on content strategy. We've got about 80 editors across the UK, the US and India, and I'm trying to figure out how our commissioning can be better and more closely associated to what our customers and authors actually need from us.

Many of our readers are also our content creators – so that puts us in an interesting place. We're working to better align what we do with the evolving content needs of the university sector, so we are constantly looking at trends in disciplinary research and information consumption. I think that in the past we sometimes assumed that anything that made it through our rigorous assessment and peer review would work – but there are so many competing forces out there, and there's so much content coming from every direction at all times, that we need to be a little bit more nuanced as we look at the programme as a whole.

We're also trying to get closer to the market to think about use cases – to figure out what sits where, in terms of offering a portfolio of content to people that meets different needs at different stages of their research journeys. We're also looking at how we can better amplify the scholarly work that we're publishing, and the impact that it's having. We talk to authors about how they can promote their own content online, or build community around their work. Publishing isn't just a single stepping-stone, you can’t just publish work and sit back and wait for the world to respond to it. It’s embedded in the to and fro of scholarly communications.

OUP has recently announced the launch of Oxford Intersections. How does the interdisciplinary approach work, and what do you hope the series will achieve? How were the journal subject areas chosen?

There’s a lot of really interesting work happening in interdisciplinary spaces – and a lot of funding seems to be going in that direction too, so there's a certain sort of liveliness around it. We've historically taken a traditional approach to publishing – with an expert editor who is a really deep subject matter expert on each list. But these siloed tranches of publishing don't speak to each other so much; they may have bits of interdisciplinarity around the edges, but there's less meaningful integration between areas.

As you start to think more about your content being freed, as it were, from the confines of a book and flowing into a content portfolio, it makes more sense to build that richness in from the outset rather than it coming together through happenstance. With Oxford Intersections, we wanted to move past our existing disciplinary silos and build something that would sit across the top of the full range of subjects – as a deeply interconnected web of content.

We are looking to launch 30-plus Intersections across a five-year period. It’s very early days but we wanted to start talking about it now to make sure that we’re bringing in different authors, building different review networks, and amplifying different voices from the start.

Our aim is to is build meaningful content around multiple pressing global topics. So we have racism, AI, social media, borders, and food security in our first batch – areas that we don't think any individual discipline can quite do justice to. We also want to reflect the increasing desire of researchers to have an impact outside the academy, so we're aiming for an audience that includes journalists, think-tanks, policy-makers and decision-makers, and will be working with all those groups to ensure Intersections works well for them.

How would you describe university presses’ place within the overall scholarly communications industry – and in particular OUP?

The university presses inhabit a really important space because we're so close to the university environment. It helps us focus on amplifying the voices that commercial publishers might not seek to amplify – and content types that aren't necessarily a priority elsewhere. It also allows us to bring sustained intellectual rigour to a range of complicated subject areas.

For us, mission is critically important. OUP’s people really care about being part of a business they feel prioritises giving something back to the scholarly community. And that's the core thing for us. We exist to publish high-quality, authoritative scholarship, and to take it to the widest possible readership, and we do this really well. But our surplus also goes back into scholarship, it goes back to the University, and we take a lot of guidance from the university itself through the committee of Delegates to the Press, senior members of the University who have ultimate responsibility for publishing approval, whose meetings are chaired by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

You’ve been at OUP a long time – what have been the biggest developments you’ve seen during that?

Throughout my time at OUP we’ve seen evolution of the perception of the value that a university press should bring through its curation and development of projects. We’ve invested a lot of time in our responses to open access - one of the most significant changes over the time that I've been in publishing, even if it has only impacted books to a relatively low level to date. 

The move to greater diversity and inclusion is a good and important shift, and one which we are consciously focussing on and always trying to do better at. Then there’s AI, which you probably know more about than I do! I’m sure this will change the game very significantly; university libraries are still going to want good and authoritative content on which their researchers and students can rely – but we also know that many users simply want the quickest and the easiest route to information. To find something good enough rather than the perfect source. The advent of AI makes this a particularly interesting challenge!

Stepping forward 10 years, in an ideal world what developments would you like to see within the research ecosystem? 

This is a difficult one – we see so many things spiralling off in different directions.

Equity of opportunity feels particularly important to me. However much we talk about the amplification of underrepresented voices there are inbuilt obstacles everywhere. For example, many of the universities whose scholars we publish don’t yet have a highly diversified body of researchers, meaning there’s an inordinate load on a on a small selection of people. This is changing all the time, of course, and I believe that a more level playing field will be achieved.

Some of the OA pilots and initiatives coming through also mean that a researcher needn’t be at an institution with deep reserves to fund Open Access, and in some cases needn’t be affiliated to an academic institution at all, but still see their work published and made widely available online, and this will make it easier for less well represented voices to make it through.

You are clearly a busy person professionally, but do you have any interesting hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

Photography has always been the most important thing for me outside work – family aside, of course! This might sound slightly weird, but I feel that the only time I can really breathe is when I'm out on my own, camera in hand. It’s a very contemplative space where you have to marry the setting and the light and find that perfect juxtaposition. I don’t want to sound too bucolic – but it’s such a thrill to be walking through the countryside, seeing a particular scene and thinking: “There's a really good photo over there and I just have to go and make it.”. You know, that is the only time I truly get to park everything else. There’s something very important about that.