Communication

Scholarly Kitchen Interview: Ziyad Marar on Academic Publishing’s Future

April 3, 2023 996

This post is part of The Scholarly Kitchen series, Chefs de Cuisine, of perspectives from publishing leaders across the non-profit and profit sectors of the scholarly publishing industry. How did these leaders get into publishing? What excites them? What is their vision for the future of publishing, and indeed for the business and careers of all those working at their organization? We rarely gain these insights so we are excited to give voice to some of the key leaders in the academic publishing world.

Today, we talk to Ziyad Marar, president of global publishing at Sage, and author of Happiness ParadoxIntimacy, and most recently, Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood. Ziyad is also a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. (Sage is the parent of Social Science Space.)

What was your route into publishing? Could you tell our readers a little about what drives you as a leader of Sage?

I remember how I got my lucky break with unusual vividness. After graduating from Exeter University with a degree in psychology, I decided publishing might be the right industry for me. I thought, as it turned out correctly, that it was full of lovely, clever people doing interesting, important work. However, my enthusiasm took a beating over the following eight months as I wrote application after application without success.

I had written to over a hundred publishers and was ignored or rejected by them all, except for a single interview for a job I didn’t get. Talking to my (Jordanian) father, he said, with a shrug, that the problem was my first name and that I should switch to my middle name, Paul. I was shocked at the suggestion, but pretty desperate by then, so I swallowed my pride and did so. Paul did far better than Ziyad had done. He made seven applications and got four interviews.

I still remember sitting in an interview room waiting to be collected after finishing up an exercise on a children’s encyclopaedia. The interviewer came in and said, ‘We’re ready for you now Paul.’ It took me a while to realize he was talking to me, before red-faced and flustering I stood up.

Anyway, Paul was offered the job. At the same time I received an offer from Sage. But because they were the sole publishers who’d given me an interview in the first batch of 100 applications I had reapplied under my first name, assuming they would have me on file.

Faced with two offers I encountered, in retrospect, a sliding-doors moment. We know there are many twists and turns that shape a life, but this was one concrete decision I remember that propelled me on a trajectory. Paul (my hypothetical alter-ego) went on to work at Kingfisher books and I went to work for Sage, as Ziyad.

What drives me? Here I am nearly 34 years later, and what drives me now is still what enthused me at the beginning, three things in particular:

  1. Extraordinary people both within Sage and across the industry;
  2. Extraordinarily important work – amplifying the work of researchers and teachers being all the more vital in a sea of disinformation and division; and
  3. A collective pursuit of commercial success that guarantees the continuation of our project.

As a leader in academic publishing, what most excites you right now?

I’ve just come back from the third, in person, Social Science FOO Camp, an unconference weekend hosted at Meta headquarters in Silicon Valley. We bring together 250 people – academics, writers, policymakers and technologists – to discuss and debate ways social science can use data and technology to enhance their understanding of, and impact on, human behavior and culture. Themes range widely — technologically enabled explorations of culture wars, conspiracy theories, the nature of autocracies, AI-enabled care in aging populations, the promise and dangers of ChatGPT were just some examples.

This post by Robert Harington originally appeared at The Scholarly Kitchen, the blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and is reposted by permission. It was published under the headline, “Chefs de Cuisine: Perspectives from Publishing’s Top Table — Ziyad Marar”.

This was one glimpse into the ways research and teaching might be reconfigured in the digital age. Across our company I watch my colleagues tackle old questions – how to generate good research, how to teach and learn well — in new ways and am excited to see the forms of publishing that will result.

How is Sage positioned to serve the next generation of students, researchers and professionals?

Among the bigger publishers, we have a distinctive role to play in relation to social and behavioral science. Our STEM publishing is very significant, fast growing, and generates important research, but I’d claim that our place in relation to social science is unique. One size does not fit all when it comes to doing research and teaching in these fields, and I feel we are well-placed to offer expert guidance to our authors, editors, societies, and customers (librarians and students alike) in navigating new terrain to achieve their goals — not least because social science is often shoe-horned into models more suitable for STM and consequently their vital work is often undervalued.

But more generally across HSS and STM, I feel we benefit from being privately owned. And now, with our independence guaranteed since Sara Miller McCune (our founder and owner) has passed control of Sage to a trust, this gives us the freedom to think long-term, to work closely with our stakeholders, and to engage in activities that serve our mission without always requiring an obvious commercial return. Thanks to Sara, we have no one else, but them, to impress.

What do you anticipate the major challenges will be for Sage, and indeed the publishing industry, over the next five years?

I’m surprised to find myself saying this, but I think it’s to do with developing a culture to be proud of in years to come. I thought I’d have said something about the headwinds to come in the global marketplace, but increasingly I see these as opportunities to innovate. Good challenges! The harder one is to create a workplace environment that is more diverse, inclusive, welcoming, aspirational, connected, trustworthy, effective, and inspiring. In the post-pandemic era to come, I feel this is where we, at Sage at least, are up against the deepest challenges. A key priority for us is around steering the changes that will enrich our culture.

What does open access (OA) / public access (PA) mean for your business?

It’s a slowish but profound reconfiguration of the research landscape. As William Gibson, the cyberpunk novelist, once put it, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”  When it comes to gold OA, there are parts of well-funded STM publishing that have gone OA already and the rest just should follow. And we are accelerating toward OA in this respect. But with social science (and the humanities), it’s a more complex story, and one that my colleagues and I don’t tire of telling. For instance, the National Science Foundation in the US has an annual budget of $9.8 billion, while the Social and Behavioral Science Directorate gets $285 million of that, and yet the measly political science budget of around $18 million is routinely targeted by US politicians as a ‘waste of taxpayers’ dollars. You can imagine what that does for a model based primarily on APCs [article processing charges]!

Since it is not one size fits all, I feel we need to take a lead in differentiating the OA future by subject domain. Engineering and sociology need different things to flourish. It is true to say that the growth of national and consortial transformative agreements can give us a way to transition across all subject domains, but I suspect this will still — as the deals are renewed and assessed by the biomedical model — be challenging for social science research for reasons that lead to them being under-valued more generally.

What publishing innovations are you most proud of?

Sage ones? Technology from SageSage CatalystSage OpenSage VideoSage Research MethodsSage Business CasesSage VantageSage SkillsSage Campus, I could go on! And of course, throughout our history a host of journals and books that have established critical voices into the mainstream of social science research — a tradition established long ago by Sara herself with breakthrough and prescient titles like The Journal of Black Studies and The Handbook of Qualitative Research. A tradition we have maintained for subsequent decades and are committed to continuing for decades to come.

What is the future of hybrid/remote working at Sage?

We are at the flexible end of the spectrum for now, and have a range of approaches across our offices around the world. Each is making its own decisions based on local culture and geography. In London, we are introducing an expectation of 20 percent of time in the office. The future will be guided, in my view, by what best helps us create the healthy culture I mentioned above under challenges. But let’s not deny what we’ve learned about just how productive we can be remotely. It’s just that the texture of ‘how it feels’ to be at Sage is, I worry, what gets thinner in screenland.

What do the next generation of academic publishing jobs look like to you?

It’s already obvious how much we need the skills to place technology at the heart of everything we do. This trend will continue and will create a wide array of publishing roles. And it will change existing roles too. The recent release of GPT4 is already showing how profoundly we need to reconceive our work. Future publishers will need to be AI whisperers and prompt engineers if they are to be more productive and competitive. And, I’d add, it’s equally important that we publishers update our self-image and embrace new ways of working if we want to compete for new recruits. And we need to do so with brio and confidence; a quality often missing in the careful and thoughtful world of academic publishing. We’ve launched our refreshed brand in that spirit.

But alongside all that, we will still need the core skills that enable good publishing to happen. I once was asked to answer the question ‘what is a publisher?’ to which I answered ‘by finding, filtering, shaping, curating, certifying, editing, promoting, disseminating, and rewarding ideas, a scholarly publisher helps convert them into cultural products that enable their transmission from the minds of writers and editors into the minds of readers seeking knowledge and understanding.’ I still think that’s what we do – building bridges to knowledge, in short – and believe we will always need people who have the skills and passion to enable that project, even as the way we do it changes profoundly.

Robert M. Harington is associate executive director, publishing at the American Mathematical Society. Harington holds a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Oxford, and a first-class honors degree in chemistry from the University of London.

View all posts by Robert Harington

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