'Stop thinking in terms of print'

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IntechOpen's new CEO Anke Beck talks about her early inspirations, and of 20 years working in academic publishing

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications...

Growing up in North Hessia near the university town of Göttingen I knew that I wanted to explore the world. It is a lovely area, but it felt small, and I remember a crucial conversation age 14 with my best friend on the bus home from school in which we both confessed we needed to make life more interesting by expanding our horizons. True to our earlier promise, when we finished school she went to study in Moscow and I went south, to Namibia, where I worked on a horse breeding farm in the middle of nowhere. I later got involved with a charity who built schools and supported education. I started teaching and was confronted by multilingualism. I was fascinated by the languages around me and spoken in my classroom and read everything I could find about the various languages in the region. I was hooked but did not realise at this point that this would become an academic and professional fascination for me.  

When I went back to Germany I formally studied languages and linguistics combined with International Politics and then got a scholarship to study at SOAS in London. SOAS was the epicentre of everything I was interested in at the time, and provided vast inspiration, and through a collaboration with one of their partner institutes I returned to Germany to do my PhD. From there dived into the world of academia, and through academic publishing. 

I think I understood quickly that researchers, deeply in love with their subject yet short on time, needed contextualisation of their research as it was within a wider research field. I loved to organise this, and often made suggestions to peers about content that could be transformed into interesting publications. I received positive responses from colleagues and fellow researchers when I suggested topics which I thought deserved to be written about. Maybe it was this talent for curation that attracted Mouton de Gruyter, the publisher of my dreams! After all, they’d published the big shots in my field, Chomsky, Roman Jakobson and Bourdieu. 

I worked with very committed academics and equally committed colleagues who only finished working when the work was done; though it was never done. Initially my focus was on a couple of subject areas but in the end, I oversaw the whole of the Humanities and STEM program. In my years there I headed up the editorial side of the US office and we later expanded our publishing programmes into China and Asia. We grew through many mergers and acquisitions and by partnering with University Presses.  When I started, de Gruyter was strong, yet limited in program and reach and we transformed it into an internationally respected publisher with output the academic world referred to. When people began talking about open access I was immediately fascinated: this was what scholars always wanted: research at their fingertips, no boundaries, no limitations: free access to what was important to scholars. Endless access to content. I knew that the model risked cutting into traditional revenue streams but there was no other way. OA makes so much sense in the academic world and it reflects what scholars want, though there are things I want to improve upon. 

After 20 years in academic publishing, what attracted you to join IntechOpen this year?

There are many things. Intech Open is an intrinsically digital company, free of the shackles of print and the mindset of print publishing. It is an agile company with committed and focused staff. We know that authors want service and convenience and we offer exactly that. During the publishing process, an editor or author will liaise with one author service manager for many months and build a strong relationship and that appealed to me too.  

The company was built by scientists for scientists and want to level the playing field for the publication of scientific research and make it available for all. This isn’t simply a slogan, I have watched them from afar and felt admiration for this small and agile publisher that kept scientists at the forefront of what it did. IntechOpen is close to academics and constantly improves services to support academia; they listen carefully to the needs of their authors and implement changes quickly. 

I also believe that it is a tech savvy company, that is small enough to adapt fast to a changing market, and I feel strongly there are things we can develop together that will serve our authors even more. Though I should say that 2 million downloads a year and nearly 600,000 visitors to the research each month is an awful lot which shows the relevance of what is already done and what a trusted player they have already proved to be. I wanted to be part of that agile team and to contribute to grow the company with my knowledge and experience about both academia and publishing. 

What has been the most important development during your time in scholarly communications?

In my time, I’ve seen vast change in scholarly communications and most of that has been centred around the internet. This changed the reading behaviour and communication in academia, as elsewhere, forever – and there is no turning back. Subjects that would have never encountered each other can now be pulled together in a digital way and everyone stands to benefit. Interdisciplinary research has become more of a fact-based interaction between two or more disciplines and technology makes it all happen. I believe that there has never been a more interesting time for scholars and these developments thrill me, though we need mindsets to move beyond how things have been to see the possibilities. 

As publishers, our role is to curate this, pull the threads together and to make it digestible. Just as galleries curate and contextualise art, we provide this service for research and academia. As they move forward, powered by new and increasingly digital ways of working, we need to support and provide tools to interpret the exponential explosion of knowledge. 

What do you consider to be the scientific community’s most pressing need in terms of academic publishing?

The world needs to stop thinking in terms of print. Content is packaged as if it were appearing in print issues even though it never gets printed, because of the way libraries and funders are bound into the acquisition of knowledge. At IntechOpen we will do our best to strengthen individual academics and not be constrained by the thinking of the past. 

Funding also needs to change. It is too segregated and should be more cohesive, encouraging cross border and cross disciplinary connections. Knowledge does not need a passport. Funders, whether private or governmental, should think more globally. Funding provided to academics for open access publishing is often subject to restrictions. Knowledge Unlatched is a good example of a company which tries to bridge the gaps of the national funding boundaries for open access. It collects money from libraries on an international level to either enable open access publications or to “unlatch” academic content previously stuck behind paywalls to make it accessible. We are just starting a three-year project with them. Watch this space...

Looking ahead another 20 years, what do you think will be the key developments in the industry?

We are already seeing more emphasis on individual researchers and their outputs. Whether through the use of alternative and article-based metrics rather than journal focused ones or in the way that technology allows us to package knowledge. Academics can already interact with single figures, or datasets, as well as with single articles or chapters rather than the whole package as we have created it and I believe in the future that publishers will move further into curating knowledge in this way. 

Judging developments of the industry on a much broader basis I think that publishing will develop even further and faster into a digital service industry. What publishers do and sell may look completely different compared to now and IntechOpen will keep up with digital developments and work hand in hand with academics to ensure we meet their needs. 

Interview by Tim Gillett