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Alison Mudditt

CEO, Public Library of Science (PLOS)

Alison MuddittPlease tell us a bit about yourself (e.g. hometown, current locale, course of study).

I’ve lived in the US for 21 years, 17 of those in California and at this point, I’m happy to consider myself Californian. My husband and I both became US citizens a couple of years ago, but we also retain our British citizenship. I have a degree of ambivalence about this shared identity that was described poignantly by Harvard professor James Woods in a LRB essay a few years ago:

What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived.” 

But I have no regrets and love my life in California, where we split time between our home in southern California (where my husband is a professor) and the Bay Area where I work. I spent my entire childhood in Exeter before attending university in Bath and graduating with a degree in French and Russian. I also hold an MBA, which I completed while I was working at Blackwell.

Describe some of your current responsibilities, and what type of organization you belong to.

I joined the Public Library of Science (PLOS) as CEO last summer. One of the things I’ve always loved about publishing are the incredibly smart people we get to work with – PLOS has that, but also a remarkable level of passion and energy for our mission that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. I think that’s rooted in the revolutionary vision of our founders, and now that they have all moved out of a direct role in the organization, I see part of my job as ensuring we don’t lose that spirit as we continue to develop and grow.

As CEO, my role is focused on charting the future direction and success of the organization. PLOS is only 17 years old but already combines some of the scrappiness of a start-up with the challenges of a larger operating organization. One of the advantages of coming into an organization fresh is the ability to see things from a different perspective, and so I’ve already started to make some changes. The most important and demanding part of my job is developing a strategy for PLOS that’s worthy of our legacy to date as an early innovator in open access and the founder of the first megajournal. The landscape is now very different in both good and not-so-good ways, and there are far more opportunities for us to partner with others who share similar values and goals. I’m also spending a fair amount of time on operational improvements and organizational culture. In the early stages of an organization’s life cycle you can get away with less attention here, but PLOS is now at a point where it needs a greater degree of discipline and focus. How to pull all of this together without losing the essential character of PLOS is what’s both exciting and challenging.

What was your first scholarly publishing role? How did you get that job? What path led to your current position?

My very first job in scholarly publishing was as a Publicity Assistant at Blackwell Publishers in Oxford (long before they merged with Blackwell Science and were acquired by Wiley). In fact, I began my career there exactly 30 years ago in June 1988! As I approached graduation, I’d been pursuing various jobs in marketing and had an offer from ICI to work in their Russian petrochemicals division. I applied for the role at Blackwell after seeing it in The Guardian media pages – thinking that I had much greater affinity for books than petrochemicals – and much to my surprise, was offered it. I also remember questioning my salary offer – given that I’d been offered close to £17,000 at ICI, I honestly thought that the Blackwell offer of £6,150 was missing a digit! But it’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

In terms of my current position, both my experience of running large scholarly publishing programs at both SAGE and then University of California Press, along with a growing commitment to open access, set me up for this role. I was approached by the recruiter PLOS had retained after my name emerged from recommendations they received from industry advisors. There’s a good lesson here about networking: I’ve always made time to provide advice to recruiters and to those who approached me for advice or connections. It’s not only a good way to pay it forward, but in this tightly connected industry you never know what it might lead to.

If there was a pivotal moment or key person in your career development, please describe briefly.

It’s hard to think of one key person, as I’ve been lucky to have a number of great mentors. Early in my career I learned a huge amount from my boss at Blackwell, Philip Carpenter (then Editorial Director). Philip combined a real passion for the scholarship itself with strong business acumen and genuine integrity, and those are values I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my career. In the first half of my career I spent much of my time as an acquisitions editor in psychology, and ironically some of my closest friends – and the people I learned most from – were my competitors at other companies. I suspect that our authors found it a little weird at times, but there was a real bond created by the fact that we deeply respected each other and shared the same challenges.

More recently while I was at UC Press, I experienced the enormous benefits of having a great coach. I took over a pretty challenging situation which necessitated a range of tough decisions, and it was the first time that I’d been in the top job. It’s easy to underestimate not only how lonely that can feel at times, but also how hard it is to work through challenges without honest feedback and a strong thought partner. Whatever stage you’re at in your career, we all need those things to remain self-aware and build endurance. Gail taught me the importance of empathy and authenticity – those core leadership competencies are ones that ultimately enable us to influence, inspire and help others achieve their goals. And they take both patience and practice.

What tools, web sites and organizations do you find most valuable for your career development?

Of course, I read the Scholarly Kitchen daily – although there are often things I disagree with, it’s smart and thought-provoking. I also like the LSE Impact Blog – that has a wider range of writers and voices that I find valuable. In terms of meetings, SSP is always good not only for the program but also for the great networking. Over recent years, I’ve been trying to stretch myself to go conferences and events beyond scholarly publishing – it’s very easy to get stuck in our own echo chamber. I’ve been focusing on areas that matter to me personally as well as professionally – I got a lot out of the annual conference at Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation and am hoping to get to the Outsell Women’s Conference next month.

What do you wish you knew more about?

There’s not just one thing – I always wish I had more time to read and have far too many unread books piled up that I dream of getting to someday. But if I really had time to learn…I’d be off to Paris to get my pastry diploma at Le Cordon Bleu.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in scholarly communications?

My main advice is to stay open to opportunities and not be too scripted about your next steps. Pretty much all of my opportunities have happened with some degree of serendipity: my decision to move from marketing to acquisitions and my decision to move to the US among them. I’ve tried to operate more with a good understanding of what’s important to me at any given point – understanding that this shifts over time – rather than a rigid map or concern about what will look good on my resume. That seems to have worked out well for my career, but also for the meaning I derive from what I do.