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Robert Harington

Publisher, American Institute of Physics

Robert HaringtonFirst, tell us a bit about yourself (hometown, current locale, family, hobbies, community involvement?). What is there to know about Robert Harington?

First and foremost comes my family, my adorable kids Hugo (8) and Georgie (5) and the kid I married 23 years ago, Pamela. Back then, we were graduate students at Oxford University, she an American philosopher and me a nerdy NMR biochemist who had a love of Ma Baker’s pies for lunch. I played tennis and cricket, sang in a barber shop quartet called the Rum Babas, and occasionally appeared in the lab. I got my doctorate at the end of 1989, the big question being what next. For me, writing my thesis and bringing together all the aspects of the field was the most enjoyable part of doing the doctorate. Without selling myself to the Management Consultants and banks on the one hand, and fighting for post-doc positions on the other, I could see myself as an editor – a science publisher – so that is what happened.

A couple of entry jobs led to my first role as a life sciences commissioning editor in books for Edward Arnold. This was a great job – one that only lasted a fairly short time, as many of us were laid off when we became Hodder-Headline. Luckily Cambridge University Press bought the life sciences book list and took me on as well. That was a wonderful job, working with wonderful people and really in many ways, began my international experience. On the one hand, America always beckoned, as I was married to an American. On the other hand, there was this huge opportunity it seemed for publishers in the USA. My career took me over to the USA, working my way up the East coast and moving from Books to Journals. I worked at John Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, then Wiley, Academic Press, Blackwell Publishing and then Wiley again as they took over Blackwell to become Wiley-Blackwell. All the while, I grew in experience and length of title, ending up at Blackwell with a title needing an extra-large card and deserving the highest quality embossed card stock.

Then along came the recession and two years of consulting, playing tennis and looking after the kids. Indeed, if anyone gave you the opportunity to take two years to be with your young children and then get an even better job, you would do it right? Well, in a way that is what happened and I am now happily ensconced at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) as a Publisher.

Describe some of your responsibilities, and how you or your organization fit into the scholarly communications web.

At AIP we are reengineering the way we do publishing. We are moving away from our traditional role as a provider of publishing services to many partners and moving on to serving the needs of our Member Societies, some key partners, and AIP’s own journals. Our mission is to serve the global community of physicists and those in related disciplines. We were founded in 1931 and indeed are governed by our Member Societies, many of whom are robust publishers in their own right.

My role is to help shape and manage AIP’s publishing, working with my great colleagues to make this happen on all fronts of publishing for our Member societies, and partners and working closely with the publisher of our own content. To me this is about working with content regardless of form. Be it a journal, book, conference proceeding or other, in the end the direct relationship between publisher and scientist is what is key to us. How may we best help scientists author their work? How may we save them time in their day, helping point them to critical information with time-saving tools? How may we curate information in a world where we are surrounded by so much data, making it so much more difficult to find what is needed or for serendipitous discovery.

What career path led to your current position?

As noted above, I was Life Sciences Commissioning Editor at Edward Arnold, then at Cambridge University Press, and then Science Editor at John Hopkins University Press. At Wiley I was a Senior Editor of Books and Journals in the Life Sciences in New York. At Academic Press I was Publisher of the Life Sciences group. Elsevier took over Academic Press and at that point I was for a short time Director of Market Development Life Sciences. I then moved to Blackwell where I ended up as EVP and Global Publishing Director for science journals based out of Boston. After doing consulting for the New England Journal of Medicine, Gale, and the American Institute of Physics (AIP), I went to work as Publisher for Partnerships at AIP. I am still there.

Where do you see scholarly communications heading, and what new directions interest you most?

In many ways the world of print has disappeared already, and it is our relationship with all our stakeholders, be they the scientists, societies, institutions, libraries and corporations, that are now defined through the Web from computer to tablet to the cloud. In my view, our future lies not just in what we do as publishers in the USA, Europe, or BRIC countries. It is about the scientists who are spread all around the globe who are connected by their science.

What are some of the surprises/obstacles that you’ve encountered during your career?

From a career perspective, I am not sure that I predicted quite the pace of change that we have seen in our industry and what that has meant for mergers and consolidation in the industry. In many ways I have been lucky and have embraced change, always moving to something even more exciting. For me this is about opportunity, but it is also true to say that publishing is under significant pressure as the traditional business models are being rapidly eroded. These are exciting times; one where publishers, authors and readers have much to think about together – a time of great opportunity.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in scholarly communications? What new roles or opportunities do you see emerging in the field?

A career in publishing is all about embracing opportunity. If you can be innovative, and practical in a world changing on all fronts with the inherent uncertainty involved, then this is the job for you. You have to be able to look at a glass as being half full, not half empty. Then it is a question of being able to translate—translating innovation, science, relationships and culture into practical business sense—this is the role of a publisher.

Profiled October 2011