Interview: Suzanne Kettley

The CEO of Canadian Science Publishing is set to retire, but is still looking ahead

Interview: Suzanne Kettley

Suzanne Kettley, CEO of Canadian Science Publishing, has a rather atypical background for a CEO. Her father was a postal worker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who raised four children on his own in Dartmouth, a town Kettley says was “just across the bridge” from Halifax. Kettley was the youngest of the four, and the only one to attend university. The idea to pursue university was due to the influence of her friends, who she says “were far more academically inclined than me, by the way.”

Starting at Dalhousie University and finishing her honours BSc in biology and physical geography at Carleton University, Kettley graduated without a clear career path. While working a summer job with a geologist who was preparing an article for submission to a journal, she discovered a job opening at the National Research Council (NRC) for a proofreader, which led her to NRC Research Journals, the predecessor of Canadian Science Publishing.

Now, after 33 years, Kettley is planning to retire this summer. I wanted to take this opportunity to get her perspectives on publishing issues that hit close to home in Canada (predatory publishing) and that look different in that nation (open access).

Q: Thirty-three years is a long time to stay with one organization. What has kept you engaged so long?

Kettley: Lots has changed, which is probably why I’m still here, but the basis of what I loved about my job has not, and that was the opportunity to assist and converse with some of Canada’s best research scientists who serve as our editors, authors, and Board members. In what other profession would I have had the opportunity to shake the hand of two Nobel Prize winners? It really is about the people you meet along the way, and among those are the extremely talented employees of CSP.

Among the myriad of things that keeps me busy these days is my work with the Canadian Association of Learned Journals (or CALJ). I’ve been on their board for the past five years, and have developed a deep appreciation for the Canadian publishing landscape.

I’ll also put a plug in for Toastmasters. I joined in 2018 to up my presentation skills and soon discovered that it’s sooo much more than that. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to develop leadership skills or just to hear tips on combating the fear of public speaking.

Q: CSP had an interesting evolution, from the National Research Council to an independent non-profit. Can you walk us through what led to this? Did this change give CSP something it didn’t have before? Was it beneficial?

Kettley: We transitioned from Canada’s NRC back in 2010 after a federal government program review was conducted, and the decision was made to cut the budget of Canada’s national science library (CISTI), of which we were a part. Because we were a cost recovery unit, we were identified as able to successfully function outside the government as a not-for-profit organization. My predecessor Cam Macdonald took on the challenge and initiated the process of an “employee-led spinoff”.

People often think that because of that legacy we continue to receive funds from the government, but that’s not the case. We did receive an initial injection of seed funding to cover start-up costs, but we have been completely independent since 2010 and rely solely on the sale of our goods and services to sustain our organization.

There were mixed feelings for the employees at the time, for sure, moving out from the security of the government safety net, and we lost a couple of key programs — we decided to discontinue our Monograph Publishing Program because it was not covering its costs (as the Manager of that program, that was a difficult thing for me to leave behind), and we had to give up funding from a federal government program provided to ensure our journals were freely available to all Canadians. Luckily, through our successful negotiations with the federal and provincial buying consortia, researchers at the science-based universities and federal departments across Canada maintained access to our journals throughout the transition.

When the transition first took place there was concern from librarians and researchers of the impact on Canada’s suite of STM journals and that we would need to increase our list prices to survive. In fact, with the loss of government overhead costs, we were able to maintain our not-for-profit pricing and have continued to this day to focus on the needs of our clients rather than making a large profit.

And, you are right, there were new opportunities that awaited us as an independent not-for-profit.

What we gained was an ability to be more innovative and agile, and an independence from the bureaucracy of the government. We’ve been able to focus on making business decisions that made sense to us as a publisher and not as a government department, which are not necessarily one in the same.

Since we privatized, we’ve acquired or launched an additional nine journal titles, including three open access journals (FACETS, Arctic Science, and Anthropocene Coasts), and we have a thriving communications department, which is free to communicate topical science findings without seeking approval from government officials (check out our blog).

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention our Board of Directors (currently chaired by Janet Halliwell), which is part of our governance structure as a not-for-profit, and who provide essential oversight, strategic guidance, connections, and insights. We’ve been extremely privileged to attract esteemed individuals to our Board, all of whom volunteer their time for the love of a healthy scholarly publishing ecosystem in Canada.

Q: How would you describe the Canadian scholarly publishing market in general? What’s its future look like, from your perspective?

Kettley: I’ll focus on journals rather than books. I would describe our scholarly publishing journal community as heterogenous in regard to business models, funding, and even workflows. One common thread is that the vast majority of journals in Canada are not-for-profit. We have hundreds of independent scholarly journals, which I would describe as community focussed; however, we have only a handful of publishers that publish more than one title (CSP, University of Toronto Press, CISP (run out of Simon Fraser), and more recently JMIR Publications come to mind). There is nothing to the scale of the “Big 5” scholarly journal publishers.

Canada has been innovative in ensuring there are services and platforms for the small journals that have limited access to funds. OJS, which is part of the Public Knowledge Project (PKP), and Coalition offer solutions for those who don’t work with a traditional publisher.

In regard to funding, there is an obvious separation between science/medical and SSH journals. The science and medical journal markets have evolved separately from SSH journals in the sense that the former rely on mainstream business models (subscription or APC), whereas a subset of the SSH journals rely at least in part on support from one of our three federal funding agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). This government funding, which is earmarked for journals, has been lauded by many and seen as progressive, but it does have some shortfalls, like having finite resources for the program and journals having to reapply for funding every three years. The funding provided is not intended to completely cover all production costs, but it is significant for journals in receipt of those funds.

A particular concern for them is the lack of a long-term planning horizon, for fear that requirements for the funding will change or they won’t be successful in future application rounds. CSP is not eligible for this program because we publish scientific journals; we run very much like other publishers in the world, with the vast majority of our revenues coming from subscriptions.

Another thread that runs through the Canadian journal landscape is the balancing act we play between having our national identity and serving the global research community. Many of us offer to publish in either of our two official languages (English or French), while simultaneously meeting the standards and expectations of an international market.

We are at a point of inflection in the publishing industry. At the national level, Canadian journals are critical for our country in that they provide a venue for regionally or linguistically important research, but the level of revenue we need to ensure we maintain our technical innovations and compete with larger publishing entities on an international stage is at risk. Just like other publishers in other countries, our Canadian journals are concerned about institutional library budgets being eroded and subscription revenues decreasing. Libraries are often the first budget that is cut when a university sees a loss of funding. Despite the growth in the number of research articles being produced and a federal government that advocates for research and open science, until now I’ve not seen evidence that there is the political will to financially contribute to the support of the national portfolio of research journals or a recognition of the true cost of high-quality scholarly publishing in a digital age.

Anyone in the publishing space knows how important it is that content be integrated with databases, discoverable, and accessible, and that we have funds to continue to innovate. That means following international standards, having robust XML and permanent identifiers, and keeping current with the changes in information technology so that authors are well-served. Of course, all of this costs money, and we’re in a period when library funds (our main source of revenue) are in decline.

At the same time, there is recognition of Canadian innovation in publishing. A few years ago CALJ agreed to join forces with the journal Scholarly and Research Communication to hold an annual “Journal Innovation Award” competition. So far, winners have included the Toronto Journal of Theology for its use of video introductions, Canadian Literature for its CanLit Guide, and FACETS for its innovative platform.

If I could deliver one message to our government and research institutions, it would be that journal publishing, and in particular Open Access, should be considered as part of a national research infrastructure, a continuum of the research process, and funded as such. If as a country we are committed to funding research — and Canada produces more than 2% of global research outputs — then our government needs to consider what’s at stake if revenues to maintain high-quality publishing dry up.

I wish I had a crystal ball to determine the future, but I would urge Canadian stakeholders who value scholarly publications to come together with a common voice to discuss the sustainability issues around journals (and books). Only if this happens will we be successful in securing funding from Canadian sources.

Q: Canada has a smaller market that’s funded differently than others, especially larger market baskets like the US and EU. Can you explain what this means when it comes to strategic options for CSP and others in the market?

Kettley: This is an interesting question, one many national publishers who are considering moving to an APC-funded OA business model are grappling with. Our subscription journals publish substantially more articles that come from Canadian authors than any other geographic region (about 40%), but the vast majority of their revenue comes from international sources because our journals are valued and read worldwide. The question is how to switch from that model to OA and have the journals remain viable. If our journals suddenly flipped from subscription to OA using an APC model, we know that many of our authors could not afford to pay. They’ve told us as much. Even if we tried to move to OA through a transformative model (agreements with university libraries), we would need Canadian institutions to increase their payments several fold to pay for all the Canadian content we publish. It is improbable that they could afford that.

Another option would be to charge Canadian universities what they are paying now but for a transformative agreement, but if we did that, more than 40% of our content would be OA and we’d risk losing international subscribers and that revenue. The journals would likely not survive it, either. For that reason, we are looking to enter into transformative agreements with international institutions to offset this risk. That will take longer, and it unfortunately means we can’t enter into a transformative OA agreement with our Canadian institutions first before looking elsewhere.

Q: FACETS was a major launch for CSP, which from what I understand has led to related changes in design, format, and technology. What’s the story?

Kettley: When we built FACETS and designed its website, we wanted to create a journal that wasn’t based on the normal paradigms of journal publishing. We were looking for a venue that supported OA publishing and could adapt quickly to the evolution of scientific research, one where new and emerging fields could be easily added without having to develop and set up a new journal. We of course looked at existing multidisciplinary journals, but we weren’t aiming to have a megajournal, which are based on volume of published material and tend to accept articles as long as the science is sound. Our editorial board and stakeholder groups felt strongly that the pillars of our other CSP journals — rigorous peer review and accepting only articles that add to the current body of scientific knowledge — needed to be maintained for FACETS.

FACETS is not only multidisciplinary; it’s also interdisciplinary. Major scientific advances are expected to be at the intersection of different fields, yet interdisciplinary scientists often find it difficult to find a journal that suits their work. It was important to us that FACETS provide a home for that content. The journal is unique in that it has an integrative science section, which we included because of a recommendation from one of our early focus groups, who felt there was a general need in the scientific literature for that capacity. That section creates a space for papers that are at the intersection of science and other areas; for example, science and society, science and policy, science communication.

FACETS also provides authors with unique options of article types that provide flexibility in terms of format and structure — in addition to research articles, it also accepts reviews, communications, notes, perspectives, editorials, and science applications forum papers. The journal tends to attract content that could be of more general interest, and we scan submissions for their applicability for a plain-language summary. Here’s a recent example.

There is also an important partnership in place for FACETS. The Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada adopted the journal as their official journal a few years ago. That has brought our two organizations closer and presented us the opportunity to work together on different initiatives; for example, FACETS has aggregated some of the outputs of the Royal Society Taskforce on COVID-19.

On the platform itself, because of the multidisciplinarity of FACETS, you won’t see published issues; papers are loaded as they are ready, and the content is aggregated by subject area or collections. The journal was conceptualized about the same time we signed DORA, and therefore our requirements included displaying article-level metrics (downloads, citations, Altmetric mentions).

We learned a lot from the development of the FACETS’ web site, and used that knowledge for the recent relaunch of our broader journal web site. The new web site has adopted the same principle of displaying article-level data and includes a “pill” (which contains metadata about the article and authors); we will soon be including a data availability statement with our articles; that, too, happened first with FACETS.

We do like to check with the community to ensure we’re in step with their expectations, and our current web design was created from intensive user experience testing. I should mention that we use Atypon to host our journal content.

Q: The past year had to be a challenge, with Covid-19, no travel, and a bad downstairs neighbor. Were there particular challenges you had to meet? What has it been like?

Kettley: In some senses we didn’t feel the full effect of Covid-19, at least not from a working standpoint. We had just instituted Microsoft Teams two weeks before the pandemic was declared because most of our employees do work from home 2-5 days per week, and we wanted a unified communication tool to facilitate those flexible working conditions.

The biggest adjustment was for me, who before the pandemic had insisted on working at the office five days/week (only two of us did that). I had no home office a year ago but luckily I have tech-savvy kids, and we were able to set up a home office for me over a weekend.

Having said that, I worry about the ability for employees, editorial teams, and researchers to work from home when support systems aren’t in place; I’m not sure how it’s been with our “bad downstairs neighbours,” but we’ve been undergoing periodic school shutdowns in some areas of Canada. Let’s just say that I do not envy anyone who is managing a full-time job and family responsibilities right now. Hopefully the vaccines will allow the schools to stay open and that will cease to be such a concern.

I think we all thought this would be a short-term situation, but now that we’re entering month 11, we can all agree it’s a bit tedious. But we have coped, and it’s become quite obvious to me that there are some benefits to being forced to do things remotely. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the corridor conversations at conferences, but my employees are benefitting from having more accessibility to industry webinars that have replaced those conferences. Whereas before we would have sent 1-2 people to an in-person conference, now anyone who is interested can tune in.

Q: Canada became a major part of the OMICS story, and you were quoted as calling it “a bloody mess.” What’s the situation like now? Is the Canadian market still vulnerable to disreputable publishers?

Kettley: I remember a few years ago communicating with a couple of individuals who, like me, were concerned with the rise of predatory publishers, and we were monitoring the web site of an association magazine publisher in Toronto after one of their employees went to a journalist, worried that new owners of her company were adopting some shady editorial practices. Just through sheer luck we clicked a link on their web site and the wireframe showed. It was enough to establish that an organization known to be predatory had created the web site and was building a library of new open access titles. That was a wake up call for us — that predatory publishing had reached a new level and had physically infiltrated Canada.

In terms of OMICS, I know one of our local journalists, Tom Spears, had fun fabricating nonsense articles to send to their journals and those of other predatory publishers; everything got accepted; even articles about flying pigs. And he didn’t stop there, he even ventured into submitting “science” videos. He used the pen name Yosemite Sam, and no one questioned him on it. On one level what he was doing was absurdly funny, but, in fact, the results of Tom’s sting operation were used during the US Federal Trade Commission case against OMICS to show they did not conduct peer review.

Predatory publishers are still appropriating the Canadian brand (which to me says a lot about the value of having a Canadian brand), but I’ve not recently heard of any corporate takeovers of legitimate companies, and Tom (Dr. Sam) retired from journalism last year. We do have a Canadian researcher who is also worried about the existence of predatory publishing. Kudos to the Ottawa Health Research Institute for taking the issue seriously. David Moher, who heads up their Journalology group, has conducted research on the topic and is worried that predatory journals aren’t just targeting the unsuspecting; they’re also being used knowingly by researchers who are eager to get their work into a journal because of the publish-or-perish mindset.

A couple of years ago the Journalology team convened a working group, in which CSP participated (Michael Donaldson, the Manager of our OA Program), to define what predatory means. This was important to tackle, since we often see the discussion veer off into whether certain for-profit publishers should be considered predatory. The working group’s recommendations were published in Nature and, as they note, consensus on that definition provides “a reference point for research into their prevalence and influence, and would help in crafting coherent interventions”.

Q: You guided CSP through a lot of changes, and are now headed into retirement. Are there any accomplishments you think you’ll recall years from now as particularly important? Anything you left undone that you’d like to see your successor tackle?

Kettley: The launch of FACETS will be a pivotal point for journal publishing in Canada, and I expect I’ll look back at that accomplishment with great pride. I had hoped that before I retired we would have been able to adopt a sustainable OA business model that didn’t rely on APCs (which create yet another unequal playing field). Of course we’ve made great progress, but it is a complex challenge and one that can’t be done overnight. I trust, however, that my successor will find a way to convert all of our journals to fully OA in the next five years.

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