An interview with Ian Mulvany, Chief Technology Officer at BMJ

The other week I had the opportunity to talk to Ian Mulvany about his career to date and in particular since he joined BMJ just before the Coronavirus lockdown. Ian writes a blog about publishing trends here, and is a well-know speaker in this space having worked for Nature, Mendeley (prior to acquisition), eLife and Sage Publications. Now at BMJ, we spoke of the challenges he has faced having to manage and motivate his new team while working remotely.

Our conversation around leadership styles and how Ian’s has changed over the course of his career, really resonated with me. As with most people we both started our as ambitious and highly motivated in terms of our own success. These days as a parent and being longer in the tooth the emphasis has changed and we discussed his current view of his own leadership and how this has been influenced by more recent experiences under lockdown.

Please give a quick summary of your role and career to date.

A transition from academia -> publishing -> product -> technology.

In brief I left a PhD position in 2001 (I was studying astrophysics as Columbia University), moved into academic publishing in 2002 (a production role with Springer in Heidelberg, later moving into an editorial position in their Dordrecht office). In 2007, I moved to London to work at Nature in the web publishing group, working on products like Connotea (discontinued in 2013) and Nature Network. In 2010 I took a role with Mendeley as Head of Product. In 2012, I moved to eLife where I helped to launch the journal. In 2016 I moved to SAGE (coinciding with the birth of our second child) and as of 2020 I’ve been CTO at BMJ.

The coda to my career is that I am interested in how technology can support the research process, and I’ve ended up working mainly in the publishing domain in a variety of roles.

How your leaderships style changed over the course of your career?

I have been working hard to develop a sense of equanimity, in contrast to my earlier self. I’m not great at this, but I think the payoff is worth it in terms of supporting staff, and getting to a good work / life balance. Basically getting a sense of perspective on what is really important, and what amounts to the usual noise generated by any business.

One thing I’ve had to work on is getting out of my comfort zone around giving constructive feedback. I’m also much better at understanding the cost of doing things.

How did the first year under lockdown go at BMJ and how this changed your leadership approach as a new starter?

The first three months were quite hard, and sometimes fairly isolating, especially starting a role remotely. The company was cast into a remote only world, as so many were. However the culture remained one in which people tended to get information form others, rather than from systems being in place where we could self serve the information. As a result, I had to do a lot of asking in the first few months. Over the year we also really needed to double down on support for mental health. There were two main lessons for me:

  • really model the behaviour we want to support e.g. opening up about how I was feeling about things
  • be really much more explicit about things in communication, rather than implicit.

Please contrast the past year now I assume you’re back in the office, and how this affected your team work patterns and relationships.

We are not back in the office fully yet, but have slowly started opening up the office as of the middle of October. We did a full refit to make the space working a hybrid way, and we are feeling our way into that now.

There has been a lot of a lot of ground work on preparing the company to work and think differently in the new environment. That’s involved workshops, surveying the company, and developing new operating principles. Of all of those activities, approaching this in a flexible way is the most important.

What are you proud of since starting at BMJ and what was unexpected?

  • Huge source of contentment to be working on things that are making a real difference with COVID over the last couple of years.
  • I’m really proud of the work that my teams have been delivering, and their willingness to seek continued improvement in how we work. Many of these changes are hard to implement in a remote environment.
  • Proud of being able to back some good decisions from the team, things the company has known it has wanted to address for a long time.

Any lessons learned from a technology perspective, given the distributed team across any project?

I’m in so many conversation across so many teams that I’m sometimes surprised that they don’t know as much about what each other is doing as I do. I think perhaps that’s new in a remote environment, so again I think it’s important to double down on being explicit instead of having implicit assumptions. We also need to be willing to reiterate project status or project objectives under these conditions.

Could you speculate on how the publishing landscape is changing and do you have any insights to share?

We don’t have a key platform in the same way that other industries do, so there is still huge fragmentation in terms of just the number of publishers our there. The platforms we do have such as CrossRef and orcid are non commercial; even the eLife Lens is non-commercial. So there is a puzzle there for us in the academic publishing industry. If you look at other large platforms like FaceBook, Amazon, and Apple iOS, they enable a lot of value to be built on top of them, but at the same time can occupy a malevolent presence. Our industry is not intentionally centralised and that gives good commercial freedom, but it also makes it hard to build a new ecosystem-wide tooling that can advance the state of the art.

Unfortunately, we said Mendeley was going to be that kind of platform, but it turned out not to be and Open Science faces the same structural problems. At the same time niche markets and features are slowly getting served through companies like:

  • for discovering and evaluating scientific articles via Smart Citations.
  • Publons to track your publications, citation metrics, peer reviews, and journal editing work in a single, easy-to-maintain profile.
  • Cassyni to discover, watch, run, publish and cite online academic seminars.
  • scholarly to access a truly open-access repository, publishing service, and scholarly social networking site, with large scope for members’ initiatives, without discrimination. 

I often wonder when interoperability of content will becomes an automatically included technology approach and product feature, then where is the platform that the next generation of research literature tools will be built on?

Leaving you with a question to ponder yourselves! Thank you to Ian Mulvany, CTO at BMJ for spending time talking to me about his career and insights in leadership and technology. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Kind regards, Ruth

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