3 weeks ago I promoted Alison McGonagle-O’Connell to the management team. As part of our Who is Coko? series I wanted to find out more about who Alison is, her background in Publishing, and what made Alison want to leave a comfy job at a large Publishing organization to come work with us.
Adam: Alison you are now part of the Coko management team. Congratulations! What kind of leadership do you bring to the Coko community?
Alison: Thank you! I’m really honored to be part of this group.
Overall, I think that I have a transparent, friendly, and consultative leadership style. I’m always interested in feedback and the perspectives of others, and continuously readjusting the sails as appropriate.
In specific, I am working to connect Coko even more closely with the tight circle of our constituents, sometimes called “first cousins,” including publishers, and soon technology and service providers, among others. I’m also looking forward to increasing transparency around what we do, and simplifying our overall offering. We’ve received feedback that it’s been too complex, for example.
I am also excited to continue broadening the work we’ve done building a network of publishing organizations and professionals interested in the opportunities open source presents. We are well placed to educate and develop connections between those who share our values or feel inspired by our mission but may not be ready to build a platform or provide services just yet, but still want to engage.
Adam: It’s quite a trip as you joined us just 18 months ago! But before joining us you were already well established in the Scholarly Communications sector. What drove you to make the leap to Coko and is it what you expected?
Alison: I was really interested in what Coko was going to do, right from the start. From where I was sitting at the time, at Aries (which was a 30+ year old company with software that was about 20 years old, in wide adoption with a very stable user base), starting something totally new was so fascinating to me. I’d often day-dreamed about what it might have been like at Aries in the earliest days, knowing what transformational shifts bringing submission and peer review workflow online would mean for research. When I saw Coko getting set up, I thought ‘this is will change everything and it is happening now!’
The more I learned about workflow tools and technology approaches in our space, the more I heard about Open Source as the path forward. It seemed like first, an area I wanted to learn more about, and second, potentially a very sustainable way to build- together- especially in the wake of platform tools being purchased by larger commercial publishers. Inside Coko now, I love that our team is so welcoming and friendly, so it is a perfect place to ask questions and learn about Open Source, and anything else. In this regard, it is what I expected, and perhaps better.
Adam: What have you since learned about Coko that the wider publishing sector probably doesn’t get?
Alison: We are a network of seriously hard-working experts. We have a lot of fun, and we can be very informal and human, but in terms of our expertise we should not be underestimated.
I’m often in awe of the skills and deep experience of everyone who works here, both at Coko, and in the broader community. When you work with us, you’re working with all of us. Adam, you seem to have a knack for finding and convening the very best folks- across your projects, really. Fred and Julie and Julien on Paged.js are great examples.
Also, it was not initially clear, but now crystal clear, that we are not a vendor or service provider. We do not wish to be. This is a common misconception. We seek to seed an ecosystem of service providers, for example, who are skilled at hosting and providing services on PubSweet platforms, but we, ourselves, are about facilitation, events, and have a very small but mighty development team, and all of this is totally community supported.
Adam: As alluded to above you already had a lot of experience in the Scholarly Communications sector before you joined us and you seem to know everyone! What did you do in Scholarly Publishing before coming to Coko?
Alison: I came in to the industry after graduating from a small liberal arts college in the Berkshires. I was used to being heartily encouraged to explore everything, regardless of discipline, and to dig for nuance and connections deeply. This is something I’ve carried with me.
Across the last 15+ years, I’ve worked for large commercial publishers and proprietary software as a service vendors. Early on, I worked as an Editorial Assistant, a Production Editor, and in purchasing/controlling. During this time, I also completed Emerson College’s Writing, Literature and Publishing Master’s program while working at Wiley.
Once I’d become comfortable working to cut costs and save these organizations substantial amounts of money in those early roles, I became interested in bringing in revenue and in leadership. I’d heard Tracey Armstrong discuss the importance of women owning revenue. Working in sales was an excellent experience and led quite naturally to my next roles within leadership in Operations and Sales and Marketing. I have experience with both Journals and Books. Within organizations as large as Wiley and Ebsco and small as Coko, I’ve been an individual contributor and also have managed teams.
All of these experiences make what I do today not just appealing but, I think, possible. Even in organizations with siloed teams, I found myself working beyond what was immediately in front of me because I followed what interested me and wasn’t afraid to challenge “the way we do it here.” That attitude enabled me to work on the things I wanted to work on regardless of job description or role definition. It would be very difficult for me to perform a singular function, or even a similar set of limited functions, every single day. I enjoy collaborating and experimenting, so working in a very dynamic and fast paced environment wearing many hats is for me.
Since departing Wiley in 2013, I’ve slowly worked my way to smaller and smaller organizations (Ebsco, Aries, Coko) which means that I’ve also held roles that are less and less rigidly defined, and have afforded me more and more room for creativity!
Adam: You also passionately dedicate yourself to a number of very interesting and important projects in Schol Comms including CRediT and Peer Review Week. What drives you to contribute to these and other projects in this space?
Alison: I jump at the opportunity to catalyze projects and join initiatives that have potential to create real and positive change in our space. CRediT is an example. CRediT is meaningfully increasing transparency by urging the replacement of notions of “authorship” with “contributorship” and making recognition very specific and persistent. Still, there’s not yet been any dedicated resource to drive adoption or raise awareness in a consistent way. Getting involved as a volunteer has been an incredible learning experience for me, and also I’ve met many inspiring industry colleagues and felt lucky to be a part of the project.
Peer Review Week is fun, too, because it’s all about keeping the conversation going, and driving lots of rich discussion around key issues related to peer review. It doesn’t seem so long ago that peer review was thought of (around publishing houses) as a tradition, sure, but as a workflow process, kind of rote and, well, boring.
Today, everyone wants to be in Peer Review workflow! And, also, there are so many variants of what “peer review workflow” even means! It’s a fascinating and quickly evolving space, and this group coalesces to really celebrate and promote that more broadly for one week each year.
Adam: What about this industry is urgent and important to you?
Alison: I think the answer to this question would be different at different points in my career, but you’ve asked today, so I’ll answer for today: what we, as an industry, do seems, all at once, responsible to the past, as well as to and for the future.
If publisher workflows are significantly slowed by the tools available to manage workflow – whether due to their business models or their technological approaches, or both- then progress is blocked. This is why I love initiatives and organizations that are innovating continuously.
Adam: Meanwhile over at Coko over the last 18 months you’ve done a lot of community management for Editoria. What do you love most about Editoria and where is it headed?
Alison: I love Editoria for what it is – the most sophisticated books production workflow innovation out there and a community of amazing, interesting, kind, inclusive people. These aren’t even separate things. Editoria is being developed by Coko, but all the ideas are from the community, and that is what makes it different from everything else, and also what makes it great!
I’m very excited about where Editoria is headed. It’s all moving really fast! We’ll be holding our third Community Meeting in December. We’re exploring new exciting partnerships. We have real community involvement happening regularly in work groups and via feature proposals. And we’ll be seeing our first service provider coming online imminently. I love that it’s all been so organic yet has real sustained momentum!
Adam: I’ve seen you in action with the Editoria community and you are a very skilled community manager. Community facilitation is probably one of the hardest and most under-rated jobs around. What advice would you pass on to others wishing to excel in this role?
Alison: Thanks. I think it’s an often misunderstood job. It is quite possible that even I was conflating it with Marketing and Communications when I first came onboard. ‘Real’ community management isn’t about that at all. Instead, it’s about connecting people, empowering them, and deploying the network to itself for its own benefit.
You asked what advice I’d give, and I think it is actually some advice that you’d given me early on, which was to be inside the community. You can’t control it, lead it, direct it. To really participate in community and keep it healthy, it’s been essential to get inside and work to keep everyone equal, feeling heard, sharing decisions and creating solutions to shared problems together.
Adam: What is the most difficult aspect of being a community manager that most people don’t understand?
Alison: I think it’s the context shifts you help bring about: from participating in hierarchical leadership processes to understanding real community dynamics and best practices, and from participating in proprietary “user community” to real Community.
I’m still newer to this than you, Adam, or Jure, but it seems Open Source community management is all about fostering goodwill and tapping into intrinsic motivations versus having a mandate to, however kindly, tell others what to do. I’ve learned so much about this over the last 18 months, and it’s actually changed the way I approach volunteer work within our space and also within some of the volunteering I do in my personal life. As you’ve suggested, the best leadership of this style is kind of invisible.
Adam: Lastly, what’s your vision for Coko’s future?
Alison: Coko as the ‘mothership’ for an infinite number of community-led Open Source platforms that redefine publishing workflows. Coko as a network connecting forward thinking people and interesting, transformative projects. Coko as a trusted resource and an ally that publishers can rely on once they’ve decided that they are ready to embrace and maximize the opportunities at hand.
Also, maybe it’s not just publishers. For example, we’ve received legitimate interest from government types. Seeing the PubSweet framework and derived Coko tools – built in the communities- have broader application beyond their original use cases is awesome!