Spirit, mission and community

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Mandy Hill

We met Mandy Hill, Managing Director, Academic Publishing, at Cambridge University Press & Assessment, to discuss the wider scholarly communications ecosystem

Could you outline what you see as university presses’ place in the scholarly communications ecosystem?

One of my favourite quotes comes from a former boss; I’ve used it many, many times. He said: “Other publishers publish in order to make money. We make money in order to publish.”

I’ve always liked that as a way to summarise how university presses work. We do a lot of things that are very similar to commercial publishers, but at our heart, there’s something fundamentally different about our motivations. We are publishers. That’s our expertise; that’s our background; that’s our training – but our spirit, mission and motivation is all about the academic community. When I think about everything that’s going on in the communities we serve, one thing I really am keen to develop is for universities to see us as a resource. We are there for them – and not just as an external service. 

It strikes me that there are often polarised views in the world of scholarly communications. I’d like to think that sometimes – not always – we can be a voice of pragmatism that says ‘yes, we can understand both sides of the equation’. Of course, there are things that need to change radically – but we all need to work together. I try to be positive about things, and I want to believe that we can have a foot in both camps, so to speak, in a constructive and useful way.

Do you think other players in the industry – librarians, for example – look on university presses in a kinder light than they do commercial publishers?

Sometimes! I think they do in theory, but in practice they have their own constraints and needs – and this comes back to how much we have in common with our commercial counterparts. They still need to negotiate with us. They’re trying to make their budgets spread as far as they possibly can.

So yes, I believe they do think of us differently, but I wouldn’t go as far as ‘more kindly’, which I think is the word you used. They hold us to a higher standard, and rightly so.

They expect us to have higher quality and not make compromises that others might – but sometimes we are involved in conversations that they might find more difficult with commercial operators. Sometimes, for example, in conversations around the open movement, it feels like publishers are in one place and librarians in a very different place. That feels like something of a wasted opportunity.

As a well-known university press, could you outline some of Cambridge University Press’s specific core aims in terms of mission and ethos?

Our Cambridge Open Equity Initiative represents a plan to ensure that ‘open’ doesn’t just mean for readers – it means ‘open’ for authors as well. Of course, we need to be transparent that there are real costs associated with publishing articles; there is a difference between giving free readership to readers in developing countries and providing free publishing. And, of course, budgets in richer countries remain the same, even if you were to subsidise the publishing of more content from the Global South.

We need to be able to have open conversations to say we believe that all publishing is valuable, and that we are committed to the transition to open. We don’t have the levels of profitability to soak up losses; we – and the whole industry – need to do this in a fair, equitable and sustainable way.

One of the advantages we have as a university press is that we don’t have to be accountable to shareholders. Clearly, we have to be financially sustainable and there are expectations [from the University of Cambridge] around that, but it’s a much easier conversation to have because of the balance we have between mission and money.

How much contact do you have with the University itself?

Being a department of the University of Cambridge informs both what we do and how we do it. For example, I meet with colleagues from Cambridge University library every couple of months at least, but sometimes it’s every couple of weeks, and a while back it seemed I was meeting them every couple of days. We have a really good relationship. 

However, that doesn’t mean we’re aligned on everything; it means that we’re able to go into a room and say, ‘right, we’ve got the same boss, we’re coming at it from this perspective, how can we use that to think creatively about what Cambridge needs from us as a joint effort?’ And then: ‘Okay, if we can do that together, is there any context here for scholarly communications outside of Cambridge?’.

We first met about nine years ago, shortly after you moved to Cambridge. What have been the biggest developments within academic publishing since then?

Not much has happened really in that time, has it? It’s all been a bit quiet!

Seriously, though, Plan S is obviously one of the big developments. Opinions were mixed, but what it did was make us look in the mirror and think: ‘What are we going to do to really speed this process up?’ It has certainly created more traction in the move to open. I don’t believe in everything cOAlition S says and does, and there are lots of things that I would like to have been done in a different way, but the fundamental impetus for change has been really successful.

Of course, we have to mention Covid – which has been horrific in many ways. But if you look at it from a ‘non-people’ point of view, it has actually had some useful impact such as the ways of hybrid working, and the acceleration around the digital higher education space – there have been some really interesting developments there.

The other big thing that has happened is the proliferation of conversations – and the openness of those conversations – around climate and around equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging (EDIB). These subjects have risen to the fore and are no longer something that might have once been tagged onto the bottom of an agenda.

People are actually now taking accountability and thinking about what, both personally and organisationally, we need to do. That feels like a huge leap forward. Nine years ago, people were certainly aware of equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging (or any version of those words), but the world and industry have moved on. Most of us have really engaged in thinking through what our own position is, and what we want and need to do. And that feels like a massive development.

What about Cambridge University Press? What have been the highlights for you?

Recently we held an event to mark the launch of our series of Cambridge Prisms journals – a new series of remarkable interdisciplinary publications that tackle some of the biggest subjects facing humanity. Interdisciplinarity has been something that, for as long as I can remember, journal publishers have talked about. With Prisms, we’ve actually found a way to make it happen. It was lovely to be reminded how excited I still am by our publishing. It’s why we’re here.

We continue to have so much amazing publishing going on, and I am surrounded by people who are just brilliant at commissioning, creating, and developing. There was also the Cambridge Elements programme. When I started here, that had been talked about for a while and I saw it being brought to fruition. It’s been a fantastic success.

Hitting our target of 50% open access articles last year was a great milestone – we’re not just talking about open access anymore, we’re doing it. We’ve come from way behind the pack in terms of open access and we’re now right at the front. We’re doing the really tough miles on this; we’ve got the metaphorical machete and we’re lopping down the trees in the way, trying to find a path through. Obviously, we are replanting responsibly and not treading on any endangered species as we go!

Joking apart, I feel a real sense of optimism – not just blind optimism about the shift to open access, because there are many challenges ahead of us – but internally at Cambridge and externally there is a real sense that we are going to make this work.

Finally, what changes would you like to see in the world of scholarly communications over the next few years?

One of the big concerns I have, if that’s the right word, is that stakeholders often continue to be in quite different and distinct camps. Thinking specifically around the shift to open, you’ve got funders, you’ve got librarians, you’ve got publishers, you’ve got researchers – and, sometimes more often than is helpful, people are throwing things around and saying: ‘Well, they need to sort that out before we can sort this out.’

If we’re really going to make the big leaps forward, it’s not just about flipping to open access or changing a journal from one model to another. We need to really think about the opportunities beyond open access, or digital communications generally, or the impact of the reward and recognition and models on author behaviour – we need to get out of those silos and have really engaged conversations.

If we’re going to see the changes that I think most of us want, there will have to be more collaboration across the stakeholder groups. Coming back to where we started in this interview, I think university presses are in an ideal brokering position and can play a full part in those conversations. I am really proud of what we have achieved to date and am looking forward to building on this momentum to support academics to get the most out of the transition to open access. 

Interview by Tim Gillett