Tr@nsition: 10 years of Open Access

OA anniversary

This month marks a significant milestone for Hindawi in the Open Access community. At the end of January 2007, we sold our last subscription journals, the International Mathematics Research Notices (IMRN) series, to Oxford University Press. In the following weeks, we “flipped” our two remaining subscription journals to Open Access. Since then, every article in a Hindawi journal has been freely available upon publication.

Despite the early success of BioMed Central and the growing influence of the Public Library of Science, the decision to commit to Open Access wasn’t obvious in 2007. Hindawi’s small portfolio of OA journals was growing, but IMRN remained our biggest journal and our largest source of revenue. Selling the journal meant giving up more than 25% of our revenue overnight, and placing all our bets on an unproven business model.

Hindawi was founded in May 1997. Those early years were a frustrating time to be a small, independent publisher. During that same period, publishers developed and sold the first “Big Deal” subscription bundles to academic libraries. What at first seemed like a panacea for the serials crisis transformed the relationship between publishers and libraries and shifted an increasing share of library budgets into the pockets of commercial subscription publishers.

In our first decade, Hindawi built a small portfolio of successful subscription mathematics journals. We made early progress with IMRN, but by 2007, our efforts to increase readership felt increasingly fruitless. As the cost of each Big Deal increased, we had to fight to maintain the small subscription bases we had. We were the runt of the litter: we grew, but the appetites of subscription publishers’ Big Deals grew faster.

As the Big Deals got bigger, the traditional publishers’ bargaining power grew. Any increase in library funding went straight into paying the annual price increases the big players demanded. Faced with losing a package of hundreds of major journals or cutting a few small titles to meet the increases, librarians chose the Big Deals, and not without good reason.

At Hindawi, we knew we could compete with the larger commercial publishers outside of institutional sales and marketing. We could offer a superior publishing experience focused on serving authors: a simpler submission system, a faster review process, and a more beautiful published article. We embraced new technologies that came with the transition to online publishing: CrossRef, XML, and online peer review. Although we couldn’t outcompete the big publishers’ sales networks, we felt we could beat them at author services, but none of this mattered if we couldn’t reach the right readers.

During this time many smaller publishers sold out to bigger publishers. We weren’t ready to give up, but we felt like we were letting our authors down. Despite our best efforts, for many of our journals the traditional subscription-based model only allowed us to distribute our authors’ work to a few dozen institutions.

Open Access provided the perfect solution. OA served both goals: by making the author our customer, we could focus on providing a better publishing experience rather than selling to libraries. And by providing barrier-free access to research, we could solve the readership problem at the same time. OA provided the means for a small publisher like Hindawi to invest in the publishing experience, build a better product, and compete directly with publishers hundreds of times our size.

Ten years later, we’re still an all-OA publisher, and Open Access is at another turning point in its evolution. The big publishers are looking to OA as a new source of growth, and the power of the centralized publishing oligopoly continues to increase. But Open Access is not the end game, it’s part of a transition to Open Science. Open Science delivers a world where publishing takes full advantage of the internet: instant publication and distribution, open data, transparent review, interactive manuscripts. OA publishers should lead this transition, and renew their focus on improving the publishing experience, before the big publishers do it for us.

The text and images in this blog post are by Hindawi and are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY).