As director and publisher of the MIT Press, Amy Brand presides over one of the largest university presses in the world — publishing more than 350 books and 40 journals each year on subjects ranging from machine learning to contemporary artists, and even children’s books. Marking its 60th anniversary this month, the nonprofit MIT Press has been under her command since 2015.
“I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world because I’m living in this realm of exciting ideas and discoveries,” Brand said. “I’m getting to walk and work with such brilliant and amazing people at the press, but also in general. Authors who are passionate about what they do and passionate about the potential for knowledge.”
During her tenure, Brand has doubled down on publishing more titles by and about women and people of color. She also helped reopen the university’s Kendall Square bookstore and launched its new children’s section. And she’s brought a commitment to open access publishing: a major part of her mission at the Press, she said, is to get more research out into the world equitably and openly.
Brand is a pioneer in the fight for open access models in academia, that make research results — like data and papers published in academic journals — widely and publicly available online. In the 1990s while working at Harvard, she helped launch the school’s open access initiative — Harvard was the first US university to have “a formal faculty commitment to making research open,” she said.
“The stakes are high in a world that is quite literally on fire, when we need research advances to be shared quickly and openly to solve dire global problems,” Brand wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Times Higher Education. When the war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Brand made a collection of the MIT Press’s Ukraine-related publications available to “help inform and educate at this critical time.”
“Under Amy’s leadership, the Press has greatly increased the proportion of books that we publish open-access each year,” said David Kaiser, chair of the MIT Press’s editorial board. “In fact, even as the total number of new books that the Press publishes each year has grown to more than 300 per year — among the largest number for any university press — Amy has also led the way in growing the proportion of these new books that are made available via open-access publishing, now approaching one-quarter of the new books we publish each year.”
That’s a sizable jump from 2021 when about 9 percent of its new releases were open-access, according to MIT Press figures.
Over the years, though, as academic content has moved online, tension has grown between what’s possible in the digital space, and publishers’ business models, Brand noted.
“A key focus of the [MIT] Press is how we can make open access sustainable across all the scholarly things that we publish,” Brand said. “The more openly and equitably we can distribute research, the greater the potential for a positive impact.”
The equity piece is especially important, Brand said. “The way in which universities and research enterprises acquire academic content creates a lot of inequities to who has access to that research,” Brand said. “Research libraries traditionally purchase academic books and journals in print or pay to subscribe to them in digital form. Only individuals affiliated with those institutions — faculty, students, other researchers — have access to the content purchased by those institutions, leaving unaffiliated scholars and individuals without ready access and disadvantaging less wealthy regions and universities.”
“Ultimately,” Brand continued, “if you’re a scholar and an author, you want your research to have an impact on future researchers, potentially on policy, and potentially on the media. And so we work to create models to make that happen more fluidly and openly, and really reduce the inequities.”
One way the press has encouraged diversity is by offering scholarships to authors of color through partnership grants and funding. The Press’s Fund for Diverse Voices launched in 2019, and the Press announced a new grant program, supported by foundation partners, as part of its 60th anniversary celebration. The grants are designed to help “authors who might have not otherwise had the opportunity to write a book,” Brand said. “Whether it’s time off they need to write the book, or support with marketing, or support with editing ... we have a dedicated fund for this.”
Kevin Bethune is one author who benefited from the Fund for Diverse Voices. His book “Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation,” explores “how design provides a unique angle on problem-solving.” In it, Bethune, one of the designers behind Nike’s Air Jordans, describes his journey as a Black professional navigating corporate America.
“The MIT Press was my dream publisher,” said Bethune, who especially appreciated the Press’s handling of its anonymous peer review process. His personal narrative “shook a fraction of the reviewers,” he said, by questioning “some of the pedagogies that have been long-standing in the ivory towers of design. The MIT Press didn’t balk. They encouraged me to figure out how I wanted to respond to the feedback, and they supported me as I journeyed toward the final manuscript.”
Beyond her work at the Press, Brand is also an award-winning producer. She executive-produced the 2020 Netflix documentary “Picture a Scientist,” which featured leading female scientists chronicling the inequities they’ve faced in their careers, bringing to light gender bias women and minority groups face in the science fields. The film opens at MIT in 1999, when 16 tenured women scientists collected enough data to prove they were being treated unfairly, prompting then-MIT president Charles M. Vest to admit it publicly.
“For a major university to say that in public was a very big deal,” Brand said. “I wanted to tell that story ... it goes on to talk about bias more generally and what to do about it.”
As the Press marks its 60th year, amid pandemic-era challenges like paper and labor shortages, Brand intends to keep focusing on the diversity of its authors and keep pushing for open access to research.
“The work at the Press can have a positive impact on the world at a time like this,” Brand said. “It keeps my brain sizzling. It’s exciting.”