Sowing seeds for future needs

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Eric Merkel-Sobotta

Eric Merkel-Sobotta discusses the APE conference, the Berlin Institute for Scholarly Publishing, and a great love of horticulture

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

I’ve worked in communications for several publishers since 2002 but also worked in public affairs for trade associations and other industries. I have lived, studied, and worked in Washington DC, Berlin, Brussels and Amsterdam. 

I have a BA in political science from the George Washington University in Washington, DC, and an MA in European studies from the University of Leuven in Belgium. 

In 2020 I joined Taylor & Francis Group where I’m the chief communications officer, working from home in Berlin with a team based all over the world. In 2020 I also became the managing director of the Berlin Institute for Scholarly Publishing (BISP), which is a part-time activity for me. 

How did the Berlin Institute for Scholarly Publishing come about, and what is its purpose?

BISP came about in discussions with Arnoud de Kemp, who founded the APE Conference 16 years ago years ago. Since I’m a big fan of the conference and a cheerleader for Berlin, Arnoud asked me in 2018 if I would be interested in helping determine options for the future of the conference beyond a simple sale. 

My work at my previous job at De Gruyter brought me in touch with the Walter de Gruyter Foundation (which is independent of the publishing house). The Foundation was looking to do more in bringing stakeholders together within the research ecosystem. Discussions with funders, publishers and universities revealed that all of these groups were interested in supporting open and honest exchange, and the not-for-profit BISP was then registered by the Walter de Gruyter Foundation. 

In addition to running the logistics of the APE Conference (Arnoud runs the programme committee), it will focus on developing a series of seminars and training courses for early career professionals in research, publishing and funding. In the long term, we hope that this will contribute to a more constructive dialogue between those three stakeholder groups and that it will lead to increased interconnectivity of the three groups in the shorter term. 

How was the APE 2021 event? What were the main themes discussed?

The program content – which has always been excellent – was especially so this year with the very current central theme of ‘trust’. There were outstanding contributions on open access within the context of selectivity, collaboration, and also with respect to the Global South. There was an excellent session on climate and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, very engaging sessions on preprints and peer review as well as data rounded out the programme, for which more than 700 participants registered.

Is the digital/virtual format likely to be continued in coming years?

I certainly hope not! The APE has always been about seeing people and reconnecting with peers at the very beginning of the year (despite the often appalling weather in Berlin in January). 

This year, we missed the serendipity of bumping into people during the breaks, lunches and dinner and the opportunity for networking. The dinners are legendary and nothing virtual could ever come close, so it is very unlikely that we would choose to be virtual only going forward. Of course, we will closely investigate how virtual elements could be used to broaden attendance, both geographically and by target group going forward.

What is the biggest issue facing the European academic publishing industry in the next few years?

Even after we return to some form of post-Covid normalcy, it will not be anything like pre-Covid times. 

Work will be more flexible and we will travel less and it will be harder to meet and establish meaningful and lasting networks. Universities will be different and more virtual. This means that opportunities to meet must be as valuable as possible. 

This year’s APE Conference theme sums up what I think the biggest issue is: trust and how to establish and maintain it among the main stakeholders in the ecosystem – and not being in the same room makes it harder. Academia is changing, the role of the library is changing. Funders are increasingly keen to determine wider policy. 

Publishers collectively sometimes struggle to clearly and simply articulate what publishing will look like in the future and what new roles publishers will play. We must ensure that the dialogues do not slip into stridency.

Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

My main interest has to be food – not just eating and cooking, but also growing vegetables, nutrition (the science, not the rules…), soil health, ‘ugly vegetables’ and food production chains. I love gardening and anything to do with plants. I also read quite a bit – contemporary fiction mostly. I’m also mad keen on architecture, photography, design and maps. I’m also a big fan of all things Japanese.

Interview by Tim Gillett