Annette Thomas interview: Cut out the middle man and bring science straight to the masses

The James Ashton Interview: The system of peer review that has traditionally controlled the publication of academic research is under threat – from the Macmillan boss and her campaign for open access to data

When Annette Thomas joined Nature magazine fresh from Yale she swore she wouldn’t stay longer than a year.

“I mean it was grim, you know,” she says, picking her way through a fruit salad. “It was this really 1960s office block and we had bits of carpet stuck together with electrical tape. I had no desk for weeks. When you are a scientist and you think of Nature it is almost like you think it would be the Disneyland castle on the hill.”

Despite early impressions, 21 years later she is still there, no longer an assistant editor selecting the best cell biology and neuroscience manuscripts, but now running the company, Macmillan Science and Education, that at its heart has the 145-year old Nature title.

Perhaps more surprising is that the scientific publishing industry is still going as strongly as Thomas. The internet meant it should have been bypassed by computer-friendly professors long ago. Instead of submitting their latest research for consideration in Nature or The Lancet, scientists could mail it out directly or go to an “open access” website that charges a small administrative fee instead of a hefty library subscription.

“I think in the early days of open access there was a lot of emotion and heat and even religion in the whole debate,” says Thomas, 49, a force of nature of Afro-American and German parentage. It cooled down as publishers such as Macmillan and Reed Elsevier – whose peer reviewing of research has traditionally given it credence – launched into open access too. This week Thomas plans to open things up a little more, talking about the “progressive attitude” of her team, adding that her staff “strongly believe it’s the right thing to do for the furthering of science and our understanding of the world around us”.

In black top and jacket, blue jeans, sparkly black pumps and with a handful of rings, it is hard to place her as scientist, journalist or the boss as she leads me around Macmillan’s new King’s Cross offices.

Thomas isn’t just exploring new business models for the firm, whose flagship title has scored publishing firsts on the DNA structure, nuclear fission, the ozone hole and the human genome. She is just as interested in the benefits of open plan as open access for the firm, once chaired by the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, whose grandfather founded it, and whose book publishing interests are overseen from New York.

Her staff have been relocated to London from Oxford and Basingstoke to create a 1,600-strong campus across several buildings. Macmillan’s has been a quieter move than the arrival of Central St Martins, Google and the Francis Crick Institute to the area, but a big contributor all the same to London’s new brainy quarter.

One of the company’s buildings, an old wine warehouse, is still being redeveloped, while another, a Grade 2-listed stable block, has been carefully made over, preserving the shallow steps the horses clopped up on their way to pulling the local omnibus. A nod to history is quite enough, though. Elsewhere, there are interactive smartboards flashing away and open-plan – or as she calls it, “neighbourhood” – working, a new experience for many of her staff, whom she wants to apply technology to science.

When Macmillan first came to King’s Cross, Thomas took some convincing. In those days, behind the railway station lay the red-light district. Staff took cabs home for safety and, as leader of the journalists’ trade union, Thomas had to press hard to get a decent canteen as the price for working somewhere so down-at-heel.

Her love of science has been much more consistent, inherited from her father, who was one of America’s first black pharmacists and worked for the Food and Drug Administration. To her mother, she attributes a shell of resilience. When Thomas was being bullied in the early days of high school, “She said to me: ‘Don’t let others define who you are, always define yourself’. That was really great advice.”

Her parents met when her father was doing national service in Germany and her mother returned to the States where they married. Thomas was raised in Maryland.

“If you know that area, it is like many things in the States, you have these contrasts so close to each other. One county that sits north of DC, Montgomery, was the third richest, whereas I grew up in the third-poorest county.”

Despite her background, she got a place in a new “magnet” school that specialised in science and maths, where the Google co-founder Sergey Brin would study a decade later. It leant heavily on three nearby institutions: Nasa, the US Department of Agriculture’s research centre and the National Institutes of Health, on whose board Thomas has sat.

“We had really great access to real-life scientists and researchers which we made a lot of use of. That, combined with my father’s interest in science, was kind of where I got my first scientific inclinations. In fact he set up the family subscription to (the Macmillan title) Scientific American.”

She majored in biochemistry and biophysics at Harvard and pressed on with a PhD at Yale even though most of her course mates went to medical school. Her neuroscience research found similarities between the transmission of signals from the brain and what happens in the gut that leads to diabetes. But two years in, she knew she could not be persuaded to commit to a career in research.

“It was more because of the need to specialise in such a narrow area. I could see my strengths were probably more broad than that,” she says. After finishing her PhD, a job at Nature brought Thomas to London, even though she admits it was a leap into the unknown.

“If you asked a scientist what an editor did they just had no idea and I had no idea. It just sounded like it would be quite cool.”

When she arrived, Macmillan was still owned by the founding family, “very British”, the peer reviewing of research was done with index cards not on computer and the turnover of staff was high. There were no women with children working there. “We were just fodder for the cannon,” she shrugs. However, something clicked among the young team of editors.

“You could feel right from the beginning that you could have an impact on something so important as the communication of science research.” Once again, Thomas developed a clear idea that the path she was on was not necessarily the one she wanted to follow.

“I realised that my aspiration was not to be editor-in-chief of Nature – which is obviously a fantastic job – it was more to be on the business development side of the group, to really blend science and entrepreneurship together.”

Thomas stepped up to run the Nature group in 2000, which was by now owned by the family-controlled German publisher Holtzbrinck. A bigger opportunity came in 2007, when her mentor Richard Charkin was poached by Bloomsbury. Thomas was swiftly elevated to become chief executive, before the 2012 reorganisation saw her take control of science and education globally.

Open access keeps gaining more fans. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation proclaimed recently that from next year it would only fund research that is released in full and for free. Getting the model right matters. Britain accounts for 1 per cent of the world’s population, but probably 10 per cent of its research output. Beyond the sharing of articles, Thomas is focused on how researchers can share data, which explains why Macmillan has invested in start-ups such as Figshare and Readcube.

“Scientists have better tools to share their personal photographs or to collect their music than they do to actually share and access data,” she says. Maybe not for much longer.

Annette Thomas: The CV

Education: Studied at Eleanor Roosevelt Science and Technology High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, received a first from Harvard in biochemistry and a PhD in cell biology from Yale.

Career so far: Joined Macmillan in 1993 as an assistant editor at Nature magazine, becoming managing director of Nature Publishing Group in 2000. Made chief executive in 2007, taking control of its science and education businesses globally after a group reorganisation in 2012.

Personal: Lives in Cambridge and married to a scientist husband. They have four children: a daughter aged 19 who has “totally neglected her scientific roots” by studying history at Oxford, and three sons aged 17, 10 and eight. Relaxes by taking all of her annual leave and insists her staff do the same.