"What do publishers do anyway?"

Two Elsevier publishing execs talk about the role publishers play in a world where everything’s online

By Chrysanne Lowe - February 27, 2020  10 mins
Anne Kitson and Jason Winkler
Anne Kitson, Managing Director, Cell Press and The Lancet, and Jason Winkler, Executive Publisher, Global STM Journals, talk about the role of publishers in our ever-changing world of research.

In our new Elsevier Chat,VP Chrysanne Lowe explores the role of Publisher with Jason Winkler, Executive Publisher, Global STM Journals, and Anne Kitson , Managing Director, Cell Press and The Lancet.

Anne, Jason – These days, people tend to think of publisher as an old-fashioned role. With all the technology and options available online, does anyone really need a publisher anymore?

Anne: Absolutely. Publishers are as relevant today – if not more – as they ever have been in terms of being an independent partner and supporter to the academic community. And what that means is, who else is going to help and coalesce communities, work in partnership to create new voices, new disciplines and new journals and, when needed, new products and services?

But wouldn’t at least some of this happen in the universities anyway?

Anne: The universities’ role is to do research. What we do is help them [researchers] uncover and share findings, and reach the right audiences to help them progress science. We are full-time dedicated professionals. And the kinds of assets, tools and innovation that an organization like Elsevier builds are based on what the scholarly community shows us they need.

Jason Winkler, Executive Publisher for STM Journals at Elsevier, gives an editorial board  meeting presentation.Jason: Let me give an example from my own work. Using Elsevier’s analytical tools, I work with my editors, showing them which topics correlate with citations and which do not, and I recommend practices that attract articles on certain topics or from specific institutes and labs.

Anne: We use tools like funding reports and all kinds of horizon-gazing assets, as well as our own data and tools such as SciVal and Scopus, to see where users are going and predict and future-proof, if you will, a journal community.

Can you give me an example?

Anne: Take our new launch Cell: One Earth, which is a sustainability journal. We’ve brought a community together. At the moment, there’s a lot of research being done across many disciplines – everything from geology to oceanography to water research. Bringing that together in one place really shows the corpus of knowledge and speeds up research.

The other value is assembling a powerhouse editorial board that brings together the curation and active commissioning of content. And what’s happening now is that we’re getting a huge amount of traction, people saying, ‘You know, this is really important – you’ve brought these communities together,” where, in some ways, academia can’t necessarily do that because it tends to be more siloed.

Jason: At its core, the publisher is a consultant, advising editors on strategies to grow their journal, often in terms of submissions and accepted articles, citations and downloads.

Anne: Right – it’s not a passive process.

Jason: And on a practical basis, the publisher is the primary point of contact for journal editors, editorial boards and society partners, and we’re the in-house domain experts on our respective subject areas. We’re at the center of that external and internal relationship to bring together marketing, advertising sales, business development, operations and so on: a brand manager.

A brand manager?

Jason: Yes – an advisor on how to run a journal efficiently and make that journal an attractive venue for authors. I have to be a subject expert, attending and networking at respective conferences, visiting prominent institutes specializing in those areas and, in some cases, interacting as an online brand ambassador in those communities.

Anne: Our daily lives are essentially a dialogue with the research community. There’s a tendency to label people as authors or editors, but it’s basically talking and asking, ‘What does the community need? How can we help it move forward? How can we help uncover research, collaborate and share with others across the globe?’ so we can accelerate this field and bring forth discoveries that can have societal impact.

Do we really need journals to do this when we’ve got algorithms that can effectively search across multiple disciplines?

Anne: Right, so you could just stick everything on a platform and say, “Hey user, find what you need.” First of all, the research community tell us they don’t want that. They do want signals and validation and people nailing their colors to the mast saying “I am leading a community in this field, I’m curating and selecting this content and directing this field to move it forward.” And don’t forget that the peer review process enriches the content greatly. Yes, you can put things on a platform and let people search and decide what’s important, but that’s quite an inefficient process. It takes an awfully long time, and what you find is that many people want that endorsement from a group of experts saying, ‘Ok, these are the leading-edge pieces in your field packaged up for you.’

Jason: I think that’s exactly right. We’re at a time of extreme information overload with no signs of slowing down. AI-based solutions can be very helpful, and I make use of them myself, but like with any popular streaming service these days, having multiple use cases can gum up the system. For example, when I use a music streaming app for myself but also for my young children, recommendations for what to listen to next are all over the place.

I recently sat down with a group of paediatric residents at a university hospital who told me what they need more than anything is a recommended reading list of articles curated by a trusted source. They are dealing with ward rotations and need to get up to speed quickly as they are assigned to specialty areas. I think the need for curated content is a common one, and we can help solve that.

Anne: In a way, we stick our necks out. An editor is the face of a journal. They have a responsibility and they take that very seriously. Just posting is, you know, like what’s happening on social media. There’s no ownership of fraud, or fake papers, or curation or anything. We are accountable, and we are held to account.

What’s your response to recent news about allegations that Chinese agencies may have falsified medical studies, and a few made it through to Elsevier journals?   

Anne: Well, this has always been our challenge, but we take responsibility to root it out and prevent it in the future. And now, we have an increasing number of tools and human expertise to try to identify these situations where we see malpractice. I’ll give you an example: It was actually one of our journal editors who, together with the publisher, started seeing some real commonality amongst the presentation of figures in certain papers. And that’s how we uncovered part of this paper mill that we’re seeing in China. That was identified because there was an editor and a publisher having a conversation saying, “These papers are looking a bit strange here.” And you’re right, the technology tools help us pick these things up – but actually it was really brought to light by experts getting together and collaborating.

It’s a growing problem because of the increasing pressure on science to deliver, and on researcher performance. And that increasing pressure means that malpractice is there and will continue to grow. So that makes publishers even more relevant.

So how do you measure success or failure?

Jason: There are a lot of parts to this job. We’re the guardians of our brands, measured in growth of our subscription and open access journal articles, with quality measured by citations. We develop working relationships with partners and societies. We oversee financial and operational management and maintain the health of our publications by monitoring and evaluating our editorial board member makeup in terms of gender and geographical considerations, for example.

Anne: And turning around an ailing journal where you have falling submissions, falling impact, and you have to make a decision: can this be turned around? Quite often this might mean replacing editorial leadership, and as you can imagine, our editors are distinguished. Some of them may be Nobel Prize winners, and some of them may have been in place for a very long time; but for whatever reason, the journal has fallen into neglect and that means it’s not serving the community as intended. So changing editorial leadership is very tough.

What’s the advantage of publishing with Elsevier?

Anne: Reach. I think our platforms definitely have a huge amount of penetration …

Jason: Yes, we lead in science dissemination and in particular how to reach “non-traditional” audiences, or those folks who would be interested in an article but are unaware of the research. So working on how to apply technology to help deliver the right article to the right person at the right time is exciting.

Anne: And reputation. Wherever you go, people – even those who may not be our best friends – respect Elsevier for being a very professional organization with quality content – and innovative, always trying to push the boundaries. I would also add global collaboration; we engage global science.

But there have been challenges to Elsevier’s reputation as well.

Anne: I think we’re starting to see a change in Elsevier’s reputation. I think the debate around open access is very critical in that open access doesn’t mean open science. Sticking all the content outside a paywall is not solving open science. It doesn’t necessarily speed up discovery. So I think it’s about trying to have a sophisticated debate about what we can really do here. What are the really valuable things we can do to support researchers in accelerating discovery and, in doing so, make sure their research can have societal impact. Whether that’s in sustainability or global health, the criticality of having a sensible debate that’s not fixated on open access alone is still the big challenge. We are listening and making changes ourselves, but most of all, we have to stand behind what’s good for science.

So I sense that you both like your work?

Jason: Yes, I very much like that I’m helping to drive research fields forward. I’ve had a hand in the launch of 15 new journals in my career to date, many of which are the first to cover their respective editorial scopes, establishing scientific homes for emerging research communities.

And Anne, what makes you proud to be a publisher?

Anne: [pause] Um, gosh. There are many many moments I’ve felt joy. Real joy. Actually, it might sound a bit perverse, but when I look the public resource center we’ve put out for corona virus, and what people have done at Elsevier and The Lancet in terms of maintaining our quality standards of peer review while trying to publish and get the latest findings and clinical observations to the community, I think it’s actually been incredibly powerful how hard people have been working to make that happen. To be a part of that whole orchestration – I am very proud of that.

As you well should be. Anne, Jason, thanks for the chat.

Elsevier Chats

Throughout Elsevier, we share the research community’s belief in what science can achieve. This is a series of informal chats with people at Elsevier, sharing their work-in-progress thinking on the pressing topics of today and the future.

Read more Elsevier Chats


Chrysanne Lowe
Written by

Chrysanne Lowe

Written by

Chrysanne Lowe

Chrysanne Lowe is VP of Strategic Communications and Brand at Elsevier. She has spent her career managing and communicating change in the industry. She played a hands-on role in the transformation of traditional third-party-print sales to direct institutional digital licensing for Academic Press in the 1990s. At Elsevier, she’s served on senior leadership teams in the Sales, Marketing and Product organizations. Today she is the steward of the Elsevier brand in corporate communications.

Chrysanne graduated cum laude in Communications from University of California, San Diego, and has spoken at numerous industry trade conferences on the topics of brand and industry transformation, including the Integrated Marketing Forum (IMF), The Conference Board Brand Conference, AcademyHealth, Medical Library Association, and the American Library Association; and contributed on gender and workplace to Leanin.org and Linkedin.

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