Putting authors and content centre-stage

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Alison Shaw, chief executive at Bristol University Press, talks about her early career and her hopes for the future

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications? 

I was going to be a dancer, not a publisher, until I was injured aged 19 and had to find a new path. I stumbled into a humanities degree, where I found not only a love of learning but also of multi-disciplinary approaches and ideas. I immersed myself in literature, art history and cultural studies and it was here that my political and social awareness grew.

My first job was aged 11 (illegal now!) and I never stopped working – kennel cleaner, probation service administrator, children’s nanny, even working offshore on a North Sea oil vessel. I had more than 20 temporary jobs during school and university and in retrospect these were vital in understanding how people’s opportunities are affected by their backgrounds – from the rarefied London art galleries to the bleak conditions of the factory shop floor – and the social and political consequences of that.

My first publishing job was marketing assistant at Bloomsbury shortly after they launched; a privileged time to learn from very talented people. These were the harsh Thatcher years and I railed against the many social injustices at that time and so I jumped at the opportunity to join the University of Bristol and build an imprint to disseminate research on social problems. To help deepen my understanding I did an MSc in gender and social policy at the same time.  

In 1996 I established Policy Press, a not-for-profit publisher with a social, as well as scholarly, mission. We wanted our work to have an impact beyond academia – our aim was to ‘publish research to inform policy’, which resonated with authors.    

From small beginnings Policy Press developed into an international publisher with a reputation for high-quality social science monographs, course books, journals, policy and practice products and scholarly trade.  Winning the Independent Scholarly and Professional Publisher of the Year in 2016, as we celebrated our 20th birthday, was a highlight, recognising the efforts of our fantastic, committed team. 

That same year we established Bristol University Press (BUP), enabling a wider range of discipline coverage, authorship and global reach. Policy Press became an imprint and retained its strong social justice ethos, publishing radical work that challenges the status quo.  

What is happening at Bristol University Press?

We are in a period of rapid growth aiming to establish BUP as a significant publisher of world-class scholarship, with Policy Press concentrating on tackling social problems – which is where its reputation lies. Our focus is on global social challenges, from the advancement of ideas through to policy and practice implementation, and we aim to inspire social change.  

With investment from the university to establish BUP, our team has grown from 19 to 35 in two years and we have been very fortunate in attracting outstanding staff who support our aims.

New book and journal lists are being developed across the social science disciplines for BUP, with Policy Press focusing on its social policy and applied specialisms. I am really excited about the range of products on the horizon from leading global scholars and non-traditional voices: ground-breaking monograph series and journals; photo documentary and topical scholarly trade books are among the mix.   

We are not a ‘pile them high’ kind of publisher and quality of content, service and products is hardwired in our organisational DNA. As a not-for-profit university press (UP) our authors come first, and we are embedded in the community we serve. We love to push scholarly boundaries by encouraging emerging sub-fields, multi/trans-disciplinary work and developing the ideas of early career researchers and new voices. As a university department, we support Bristol’s core strategies of global research, teaching excellence and making a positive impact. 

University presses seem to be on the rise. What has led to this? 

The social contract between publishers and academia is under severe strain. The commercial imperative of some large presses seems at odds with HEIs’ financial pressures, in the context of the fallout from the 2008 financial crash, austerity and marketisation policies. Research output being in the hands of commercial presses, who are felt to be extracting IP and revenue for shareholder profit, has encouraged a resurgence in researchers and funders wanting to regain control of research outputs, which has contributed to the push for open access (OA).

UPs share a mission with their host institutions, and we put our authors and their content, not profit, centre-stage. We offer a level of author service which more closely aligns with academic expectations.  

I think three other factors are at play: the increased emphasis on research impact; satisfying the needs of the ‘student customer’ with cost-effective educational resources; and universities competing in a market-led environment, where their brand recognition is increasingly important.

These factors have all added to universities’ interest in establishing their own presses, be that new or traditional models.

The number of UK UPs is expanding and there is a thriving community of ‘traditional’ UPs from Oxford and Cambridge, to the mid-sized Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and Wales, and the US-based presses, Princeton, Yale and Harvard with more establishing UK offices now.  In 2017 there were 19 ‘new’ UPs, according to JISC, with nine planned. These are academic-led, library-led and OA publishers funded by their institutions such as Goldsmiths, Huddersfield, UCL and Westminster.  

The UP sector is very collaborative and supportive. Traditional publishers have been placed in opposition to the new OA ones by some, which I feel is unhelpful. Traditional publishers also offer a wide range of sustainable and high-quality OA options, plus innovative solutions such as LUP’s Modern Languages Open – or our own OA ‘shorts’, produced rapidly to influence policy in real time. We can learn from each other; Megan Taylor, of University of Huddersfield Press, and myself will be doing a joint presentation at UKSG this year. 

What is the biggest challenge facing the scholarly communications industry?

We should be concerned about the push to one-size-fits-all scholarly communication, both in relation to academic incentives and esteem, and to how we assess quality and value at a time of over-publication and predatory publishing.  

The culture of trophy publication, where scholars strive to publish certain kinds of publications – notably highly cited papers in high impact journals – to gain prestige, promotions and grants is reductive, and does not fit with the notion of public good. This publishing form also does not suit all disciplines. Plan S and the UKRI OA mandates are policies where HSS disciplines are having to defend their preferred publishing models against a seemingly STM-focused policy.  

The original ISI and Science Citation Index were not designed to be applied in this way, and I have never understood why academia accepted how this blunt tool steered their communication choices. Metrics and altmetrics have advanced and DORA and the idea of ‘responsible metrics’ will hopefully start to change how research is evaluated and published, as well as challenging the notion that academic excellence is tied so closely to particular types of publication. 

At BUP we start with content, then think about format, audience and impact. This could be a monograph or journal article written in the scholarly style, or it could be an accessible book with accompanying free content or professional guidance. This is not just about valuing different formats, but publishing a diverse range of voices and writing styles, like the personal testimonies we publish which powerfully demonstrates the reality of social problems. As a UP, our work has a rigorous two and often three-stage peer review process, so librarians and researchers can be confident in the quality, regardless of the format.  

Going back, academics published in the way they felt best-suited their audience – a report; specialist journal; pamphlet or trade book, and even in STEM subjects, researchers supported their disciplinary society journals where they engaged with their community. If we broadened the definition of ‘quality’ and instead focused on the usefulness of the output for the chosen audience, we could perhaps decouple rigid publication-type expectations from the recognition and esteem of scholars.  

Fast-forward 20 years. What will be the state of the industry at that point? 

Given the speed of technological transformation, I feel my crystal ball may not be much use! Yet I am certain that we will still be doing what publishers have done for hundreds of years: acquiring, developing, designing, producing, marketing, distributing and preserving content. 

I imagine that research publishing will diverge. There will be large-scale, open, global, digital solutions for research findings and all supplementary project material that can be accessed through a multitude of tools, probably managed by communities of scholarly associations, funders and government bodies.  

Other outputs will be produced by information analytics companies, commercial scholarly and university presses. Books will live on! Everyone loves a story, and research often has a powerful story to tell, be that in a journalistic piece, a virtual reality world, or a beautifully written book.  
Equality of access to high-quality research findings will be vital if we are to address the global social challenges that we face. Traditional English language dominance will be challenged with the rise of local language publishing in China, India, South America, Africa and other LICs. 

Automated translation, open publishing systems and transformed discoverability mechanisms will democratise scholarly endeavour and bring a diversity of voices, methods and approaches. 

AI and machine learning will undoubtedly transform the scholarly communications ecosystem but we need to be aware of the risks, as technology is developing faster than our ability to manage it. There is an imperative to ensure that scholarship remains untainted by the data manipulation we have seen in our political sphere and that automated quality review mechanisms are appropriate.  

We established BUP to outlive us for decades (hopefully centuries) to come. Hopefully The Press will still be addressing global social challenges, igniting debate and inspiring social and cultural change, in whatever form scholars and students, journalists and social commentators, policy makers and the public want to access it.