Interview with Vanessa Proudman

Open-access campaigner talks about the flood of ideas that comes to her at night and the challenges of change

December 14, 2017
Vanessa Proudman
Source: Adrienne Norman

Vanessa Proudman is the director of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) Europe, a membership organisation that advocates for open-access publishing, open science and open education. It is part of the Global Sustainability Coalition for Open Science Services, which recently made its first appeal for funding to support two tools – the Directory of Open Access Journals, which provides access to peer-reviewed articles, and Sherpa/Romeo, an online database that brings together the open-access policies of publishers worldwide. Ms Proudman owns Proud2Know, a consultancy that supports academic libraries.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1969 in Putney, London – a very green, residential, quiet area of the city – on a hot summer’s day. 

How has this shaped you?
What I love about London is the variety of cultures that call it home. I’ve been described as “quirky”, and I don’t like convention too much. Growing up, there were quite a lot of rules at home – too many for me, anyhow – but I was always questioning and exploring outside those borders.

Why is open science important?
Open science is important to give the maximum exposure to research funded by public money. It brings the taxpayer value for money. It allows the privileged to provide seamless access to their research for all, with no strings attached.

Should Mr and Mrs Bloggs care about your work?
The more every­one understands about the underlying core principles and values of “open”, the easier it will be for it to become the norm.

How do you see the future of academic publishing?
I would like to see the toxicity of the current journal publishing system made clearer to research managers and funders, who will demand more openness in the future. The monopolies of publishers need to be laid more bare. [This includes highlighting their large profit margins], in some cases of 40 per cent: money that could be better invested in research, innovation and academic services.

What are the biggest challenges that researchers will face in the coming decade?
The biggest challenge is to find a new and meaningful research assessment system that works for specific disciplinary fields: one that the international disciplinary community agrees on; a system that respects and rewards a range of outputs that demonstrate research excellence and integrity, showing significant research progress and/or impact on the research community, on industry and on society. Research leaders such as the European Research Council and international learned societies and research academies are likely to effect impactful change here.

Have you had a eureka moment?
My eureka moment was really understanding that change was not primarily about achieving the new result, but also very much about focusing on the people affected. Looking at their world rather than the world you want to create; looking first at how their world will change. It wasn’t about me doing my best – but about doing my best to understand others.

What keeps you awake at night?
Sometimes a flood of ideas comes into my head at night. What do we still need to do? Who do I need to connect with? How can we really make more impact in open science and demonstrate that? I need to tell myself literally to “stop it” – I’m not taking work to bed. I don’t actually keep a notebook at my bedside, though. I just have faith that the best ideas will resurface.

What do you do for fun?
I get an amazing energy that takes over when I do life drawing (nudes). Here, I try to turn off my thoughts and deliberations and just focus on what I see at that moment. I then explore a range of techniques to create a new visual of the model, yet true to the person (I hope).

What is your biggest regret?
It’s not me to look back and regret; there’s just no point. If something regrettable happened, it happened for a reason, to shake us out of our comfort zones. So I always try to look at those moments and consider what lessons are to be learned from that.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Take advantage of every opportunity to learn, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or get it wrong. Drink up as much knowledge as you can from the people around you.

What brings you comfort?
I find comfort in small things – the sound around me while taking a walk, or just focusing separately on what I see or feel; tuning in to a particular sense and discovering more around me. I find it in the changing landscape of water, be it the sea, a river or a stream.

Tell us about someone you admire.
Margrethe Vestager. As European competition commissioner, she has held global corporations Apple and Google to account over their tax payments on behalf of European democracies. What I love about her is that she is striving to create a better world through what she does.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Work hard, stay focused, always keep the goal in sight and how that change will improve the lives of others, but also consider the effect that that goal might have on those along the way.

What one thing would improve your working week?
If I could have all the inspirational people I get to collaborate with actually around me to engage in new thoughts and solutions – that would improve my working week.


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