Matthew Ismail: So, why don’t you just start by giving me some account of your education, your career up until you went to Qatar. What was your background and what led you to publishing, these sorts of things?
Arend Kuester: Thank you Matt. Let me just quickly frame this interview and its purpose for a moment. I have had time to sit back and reflect on six years in Qatar which on so many levels was an extraordinary experience. It would be great if this would help the Against the Grain readership, be it librarians or publishers, to learn from this cross cultural experience – and about setting up academic publishing from scratch. Listening and working with partners is such an important thing.
Publishing is part of my DNA. I come from a family of booksellers, and I chose it as a career path after school. I’m a product of what we call in Germany the “Dual System.” That is, rather than going to university, which in Germany means you go to university for 8 to 10 or longer years–at least the time when I graduated from High School. Back then, in the early nineties, Germany did not have the BA and MA structure. I wanted to be independent quickly and did a three year apprenticeship in a publishing company in the south of Germany in Freiburg. At Herder Verlag, I went through all of the different sections within the publishing company from finance to editorial to even being in the bookshop. I really got a very well-rounded idea of what publishing is about. You also have got to go for two days a week through formal tutoring and education, so you learn basic accounting skills, you learn some negotiation skills, business skills. After that I got offered a job in a bookshop—Herder opened an academic bookshop in Munich and they asked me to set up a department for high-end computer and informatics books. Out of the blue Rowohlt a traditional trade publisher, offered me a very good job as a sales representative in Germany. In ‘95 I went for the first time to the UK, working at Chadwyck-Healey, which is now ProQuest. I started in sales selling large digital full-text databases, such as Goethe or the Patrologia Latina Database to libraries across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I had an idea that it would be interesting to do the same thing for more classic German authors so eventually I negotiated digital licenses for Schiller, Luther, Kafka, Brecht, and many other German authors. These are still sold by ProQuest – which is great to see. I went back to Germany in 2000, but at that time felt that my options were too limited there. If you work in German publishing you most likely deal with German speaking markets whereas if you work in the UK the market opens significantly. In 2003 I returned to the UK to work for the Publishers Communication Group in Oxford as Director Europe. I was responsible for market research, marketing and library sales services on behalf of major academic publishers. Five years later I got headhunted to join Bloomsbury as a Business Development Director. One of my first tasks at Bloomsbury was: How could we create a publisher in the Middle East for academic publications?
Matthew Ismail: Okay. How do you come to speak such fluent English?
Arend Kuester: Back in the eighties, my English at school was terrible and my parents were very worried. So they got me in touch with a pen friend, Tim, and we started writing letters and visited each other. When I was 16 I went to the UK for the very first time and was very shy and had to deal with five other 16 year olds at a remote farm house and nobody spoke German. I simply had to speak and learn English. Today, we are still friends. Recently when I was getting through my stuff in Qatar I came through our very first letters and we had a great laugh. He has made a living auctioning high end musical instruments, such as violins, cellos and bows, initially at Sotheby’s but went independent as “Ingles and Hayday” with great success. We frequently met when I worked for Bloomsbury in London
Matthew Ismail: Well it’s interesting that you went to Bloomsbury, which I think many people know mostly from Harry Potter, but it has a history certainly other than that. First of all what is the quick history of Bloomsbury, especially your association with it, and how did it come to be that there was talk about publishing in the Middle East?
Arend Kuester: The relationship between Bloomsbury and the Qatar Foundation started in 2008 as Qatar wanted to build a knowledge economy and prepare the country to be less dependent on income from oil and gas. They felt publishing was part of the skills they would need. So by some fortune Bloomsbury sat at the right table at the right time and developed a business plan on how to create a trade publisher for books and to support reading initiatives in the country as well. So that was really the start of the relationship in terms of their management services. Bloomsbury post-Harry Potter also has moved a lot towards investing into academic niche publishers, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. They want to become less reliant on the ups and downs of trade publishing and to be more invested in the predictable and long-term which really is academic publishing. Trade publishing needs so much luck. You can plan things slightly better in academic publishing.
Matthew Ismail: So when you came to Bloomsbury, your background was already in scholarly communication or academic publishing because you were working with ProQuest and others.
Arend Kuester: Yes.
Matthew Ismail: Were you hired then to begin with academic publishing or was it already established?
Arend Kuester: The academic publishing at Bloomsbury was already happening, particularly in social sciences. I was hired and attracted to Bloomsbury to be entrepreneurial and develop new and large-scale businesses and large-scale platforms. We worked on a couple of other topics before. Then this idea landed on my lap with the Qatar Foundation: “Oh, well, why don’t we develop an academic publisher as well as a trade publisher and start publishing journals?” And then it just sank into, “Well, actually I know a little bit about that; why don’t we just start working on it and try putting it together and see how we can do it?”
Matthew Ismail: Okay. Well, when the opportunity came with the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, were you there at the beginning before there was a Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing?
Arend Kuester: I was at the roll out stage of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, which was agreed I think about a month or two before I joined Bloomsbury. However, I was involved from the beginning at QScience, developed the initial concept, the full business plan and hired all staff.
Matthew Ismail: You know, perhaps I’ve got this backwards and we should ask what the Qatar Foundation is and how did that institution come to speak to Bloomsbury?
Arend Kuester: The Qatar Foundation aims to develop Qatar and its people. It has got various partnerships with universities: there’s Weill Cornell; there’s Texas A&M; there’s Carnegie Mellon; there’s Northwestern; there’s Georgetown; there’s Virginia Commonwealth University. All of those have got campuses in Qatar in Education City. It is the brainchild of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah who is the wife of the Emir’s father. She wants to develop the country for the time when the oil runs out.
Matthew Ismail: I think it’s interesting then that the Qatar Foundation is a development foundation and the aspect then that they were focusing on was mostly the information economy. They saw that as a foundation to build on for when the oil runs out?
Arend Kuester: Yes, they know that the information or knowledge economy is an important thing. Developing and supporting local talent and the region is a very important goal.
Matthew Ismail: Was your office when you eventually arrived in Qatar in Education City?
Arend Kuester: Yes, initially the offices were in Education City. We moved over to a tower as well because Education City more or less ran out of space.
Matthew Ismail: So, the initial placement of it in Education City would suggest that it was regarded as part of that initiative to build an educational infrastructure?
Arend Kuester: Yes.
Matthew Ismail: Okay, so when you arrived in Qatar then I assume you had already had a variety of meetings with Qatari leaders and members of the Qatar Foundation and so on? How was your leadership as the managing director of QScience–which is what I see as your initial position there at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Journals–who did you deal with in Qatar and what were their positions?
Arend Kuester: First of all, I went there because I believed in this vision and I still believe in many of the valuable goals of the ultimate leadership. You had to deal with different departments within the Foundation, researchers, scientists, and people from many different cultural backgrounds. The relationships we had were managed by Bloomsbury so I reported on a day-to-day and practical publishing basis directly to Bloomsbury – Bloomsbury managed me and I managed on their behalf. There was also a local management committee with certain people within the foundation who changed every now and then.
Matthew Ismail: So there were different levels of oversight and different levels– even in different continents–for different aspects of the position and when you wanted to implement strategies that you had worked out with your people in London you had to then go through middlemen.
Arend Kuester: And present it to the leadership in QF who will then take it to the ultimate leadership. You had to trust them that they would.
Matthew Ismail: It’s interesting then you arrived in Doha and now you’ve got this QScience project, so describe what QScience is.
Arend Kuester: What we built with QScience is an Open Access academic publisher from scratch. We chose at the time to make it open access because the investment into the sales infrastructure we would need was way beyond what was planned. I would say that was the absolutely right decision still to go open access. QScience became an open access publisher on a multitude of subjects and we built it from scratch. We didn’t have any systems, any procedures. We really had nothing when we started. From editorial policies to peer review policies, peer review systems, platform systems, brand building, articles – whatever, we really had to develop everything. For example, we needed to bring in an editorial director–which we were a very lucky, a very great one–technical platforms, outreach people, editors to try get the papers into shape.
Matthew Ismail: Were all these people you were bringing in to do that sort of work in London or were they in Doha?
Arend Kuester: No, they all worked in Doha.
Matthew Ismail: Okay.
Arend Kuester: Maybe additionally we also needed freelancers. Every publisher has to rely on freelance resources as well – wherever they are.
Matthew Ismail: Were these expats you were bringing in?
Arend Kuester: We brought in expats but we also had locals and regional people–some of them are still there–which we trained. Before we came, there was no academic publisher in that region, now there is. And we developed quite a good brand and decent connections. We managed to train some locals up into their positions, whether on the design side or the editorial side, and develop them. But you can always try to do more, and at the same time you have to develop and deliver a business, too.
Matthew Ismail: How did you decide which subjects to publish in?
Arend Kuester: That was quite simple because Qatar has a Qatar National Research Strategy. They’ve got certain subjects in the National Research Strategy and we tried to fit into that when something made relative financial sense.
Matthew Ismail: So what where the subjects?
Arend Kuester: Of course there was sustainability, there was a lot of healthcare, medical research, social sciences (translation studies), and there is sustainability, water, medical, diabetes research. And a design journal, although we never really published many things there, sadly. This is very difficult in open access. So these were roughly the subjects.
Matthew Ismail: So, the journals then that you were creating at QScience were meant not only to create an infrastructure for publishing but to contribute to the national knowledge base?
Arend Kuester: Yes. Absolutely. Well, initially we didn’t really want to create journals. We wanted to create articles and then have journals filter them. But, the article flow didn’t quite come up the way we wanted it to come up. Also very early on we felt that pushing the envelope too much would not be too good for our funders, so we had to be much more traditional and had to create journals – with Editors in Chiefs and editorial boards etc, which we then had to recruit. We also published journals on behalf of other institutions.
Matthew Ismail: Oh, you did? Okay.
Arend Kuester: Yes. We did. We had the journal with Magdi Yacoub which was associated with his Aswan Heart Center and we published it on their behalf. We also published The Qatar Medical Journal together with Hamad Hospital, which is the main hospital there. There was a journal called JEMTAC: Journal of Emergency Medicine, Trauma and Acute Care which has got those rare articles about what happens if people roll over with the all- terrain vehicles in the desert, which is a real problem. I happened to be in the trauma center once not because of myself but because my wife was in a mild road accident and I can see that they’ve got a lot of experience in that which should be published! And we also created a catch-all journal for all sorts of fields called QScience Connect, which we even forked on Github, trying to make it one of the most open access journals around. The other thing which we did was publishing conference proceedings because as you’ve been there yourself you know how much the Middle East loves conferences. But they usually don’t get documented that well. The most important thing about many conferences is that they have a press release which ends up in the local press and then people go away again. Trying to capture that material is something which we tried to do. It’s been since the Gulf SLA–we published the proceedings of the Gulf SLA– and some of the larger science conference over there. So that was just a bit of what was happening and we thought we can help capture that.
Matthew Ismail: So, how did you find authors?
Arend Kuester: That was the other interesting part. I thought that most authors initially would come from within the funding of Qatar and the Qatar Foundation. But that was not the case. Authors came from outside much easier than they came from inside Qatar. I can see that when the funder becomes the publisher and the funder needs to incentivize their researchers to publish in their journal, whether it’s E-Life or whether it’s QScience, funders sometimes indirectly incentivize publishing articles in journals with high impact factor, which in that part of the world plays an important role, right to the point that they give financial awards. They go for whatever metrics are most known, which happens to be the impact factor. And the second point is that a research place like Qatar usually attracts people who want to get on the tenure track, so they’re relatively young or midterm researchers and they just have no interest in publishing in a journal which doesn’t have an impact factor.
Matthew Ismail: Of course. And this is English-language, correct?
Arend Kuester: Absolutely. All English-language. We offered scientists help to get published by editing the articles or literally writing articles for them.
Matthew Ismail: So, did local politics intervene, especially relationships between various people in the leadership?
Arend Kuester: Well – there is always the need to find compromises. It is something I observed frequently in similar partnerships: To get in involved in these kind of projects in the Middle East purely out of financial interest will not work. You have to have strategic intent to build a lasting relationship.
Matthew Ismail: So, you have an English-language open access academic press–did you have any relationship for instance with the American University in Cairo Press or the American University in Beirut Press or for that matter with Hindawi.
Arend Kuester: We didn’t have a relationship with Hindawi. We had more direct relationships to regional funders, which would be the Saudis, of course, the UAE, or Jordan. We were not into relationships with other presses on that side. We tried to be attractive because not many other people have that sort of platform in the Middle East. We tried to service, to do service agreements, with publishers but that never came to fruition. Maybe partially also due to regional competition. And, you know, another press in the region would not necessarily want to be under QScience but would like to have their own distinct look and feel, and we worked very hard with our technical providers to enable that.
(Stay tuned – Part 2 of this great interview will be posted in a few days)