Just over a week ago Paul Peters, the CEO of Hindawi penned a post on Hindawi’s blog laying out the reasons for their decision to terminate their membership of the STM Association. You can read the full text of it here.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I know Paul Peters, several members of the Hindawi senior staff, and most of the STM Association’s employees.
The decision to leave the STM Association comes at an interesting time for Hindawi. Over the past year, they’ve been scaling up their operations in London. They’ve hired a UK-based management team, and recently begun to hire editorial community managers, a move which will likely strengthen their relationship with academia as they continue to develop what is increasingly looking like a viable and scalable alternative editorial model.
It’s fair to say that at one point, some academics viewed Hindawi with suspicion. As a startup open access (OA) publisher based in the global south, some people made unfair assumptions about their motivations and business practices. Over time, these suspicions have been shown to be unfounded and that’s in no small part due to the work that Peters himself has done engaging directly with academia and with the publishing industry.
Like many of us in the publishing industry that are trying to drive change, Peters has involved himself with various trade organizations. He’s a founding member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association (OASPA), he’s on the Crossref board and most importantly here, he’s a former member of the STM Association board.
For an advocate of change, the reasons for getting involved in community projects and trade organizations are many. For a start, it raises your profile in the industry. When people work with you, they get to know who you are and what you stand for. This is particularly important if you occasionally say things that people don’t necessarily want to hear.
Perhaps more importantly, being involved in committees, groups, and boards gives you a seat at the table. As somebody said to me just recently. Being involved in the STM industry is a bit like being in the UN. It may be difficult to make big differences quickly because there are a lot of opinions and voices, but if you’re not in the room at all, nobody can hear you.
What makes Hindawi’s leaving significant is precisely Peters’ previous level of involvement. There is a temptation to think that he has tried to engage with the STM Association, found them inflexible and difficult to influence, and decided his time is better spent elsewhere. In his own words, he wrote this in last weeks blog post
This decision has come as a result of STM’s overwhelming focus on protecting business models of the past, rather than facilitating new models that Hindawi believes are both inevitable and necessary in order for scholarly publishers to continue contributing towards the dissemination of scholarly research in the years to come.
Fairly strong words, I think you’ll agree, coming from a former board member.
I’ve not sat on the board of the STM Association, but I have had a lot of involvement with them. I know most of their staff fairly well and have contributed to several of their committees including the Standards and Technology Executive Committee. In my experience, the STM Association has taken a fairly neutral role with respect to technological and business model innovation. They’re not an advocacy organization in either direction, but rather one that works through consensus, albeit with a structure that by design gives greater say to larger companies.
I’ve generally found that once I’ve been able to demonstrate that an idea has some traction, I’ve often been offered the platform to make my case to the members of the Association. Through the STM, I’ve found platforms to advocate for the needs of early career researchers, emerging markets, alternative metrics, data sharing, and a number of progressive ideas.
On the other hand, I sympathize with Hindawi’s position here. The consensus in the scholarly publishing community can be very conservative and hard to change. It’s a big ship to steer and it sometimes takes longer than it should do for good ideas to get accepted as such. Part of the problem is that some of the larger organizations in the industry struggle with their relationship with their customers, with frustration and misunderstanding on both sides of that divide. Under those conditions, it’s sometimes difficult for companies to update their understanding of the needs of their customers.
I spoke with both Peters and Matt McKay of the STM Association this week. McKay sent me to following statement, on behalf of STM:
STM expresses sadness that Hindawi has chosen to end its membership with the Association. STM represents over 140 members, which combined publish most of the OA content in the world. Our members operate a wide variety of business models, both traditional and new — each having its place in an industry which offers both diversity and choice. Of course, we welcome continued engagement with Hindawi, as we do with everyone working towards the common goal of the dissemination of the results of science. STM CEO Michael Mabe looks forward to working together with Hindawi CEO Paul Peters, representing OASPA, on the European Commission Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP), where all parties present seek to enable positive and sustainable OA policies as well as the best possible outcomes for Gold OA Publishers.
When I spoke with him personally, he seemed mostly saddened and disappointed that STM had lost a member. He told me that he would urge any members with concerns about the direction of the association to have a conversation with the board. When I put this to Peters, he pointed out that he had spoken to senior staff at STM early this year to explain Hindawi’s reasons for leaving. Interpreting this, it seems that by last year, Hindawi felt that its needs and the direction of STM had diversified to the point where Hindawi felt that it was time to move on and the decision had already been made.
Perhaps Hindawi have become frustrated with having to make the same arguments about the need for a transition to OA over and over again. Clearly, they’re looking for an organization that will provide greater support for new ideas and act independently as a force for change in the industry, rather than simply a neutral platform. Hindawi see OASPA and Crossref as just such organizations. Alternatively, perhaps Hindawi now see that their reputation and level of recognition has grown to the point where they can act as more of an independent advocacy force, as PLOS do. Either way, this move doesn’t signal a scaling back of Hindawi’s outreach and advocacy efforts.
In many ways, the move to leave makes sense for Hindawi. The STM Association is just not the correct venue at this point, to do what Hindawi wants to do. Thanks to Peters’ hard work in establishing the Hindawi brand, they are now in a much stronger position to advocate and lead either independently, or through organizations like OASPA and Crossref. Hindawi’s announcement should be seen less as a snub towards the STM Association, but more the sign of an evolving company carving out an independent position in a changing marketplace.