Fabulous at 50

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Michael Mabe reflects on a half-century for STM, and the continuing path of innovation

On 12 June 1968 a group of scientific publishers met to discuss a new academic publishing division within the International Publishers Association. It soon became clear that IPA could not really function as their home. During discussions in Frankfurt in October at the 1968 Book Fair they decided to create an independent body for scientific, technical and medical publishers called the International Group of STM Publishers, or STM for short. A year later on 7 October 1969 STM became a reality with its first AGM and by-laws; and I went up to my secondary school for the first time.

The environment of publishing 50 years ago was markedly different to today. Computers were in their infancy, innovation was about advances in offset lithography and origination, and the major disruptive technology was the photocopier. 

Yet the founders of STM were far-sighted in their recognition that their part of the publishing industry was unique in being the very first potentially global business, requiring a truly international perspective lacking in the other sectors. That foresight is confirmed every time I look at the trends in the conduct of the research that STM publishing enables: increasing collaboration, increased interaction between disciplines and between institutions in different nations, and the stratospheric rise of China as part of the global picture. 

The most significant changes of the last five decades have mostly happened in my own career span: the digitisation of publishing from 1993 to 1996; the effect that this had on our understanding of how scholars use research papers; the move to incorporate other media in addition to print; the need to enter into an evolutionary arms-race between authors’ and readers’ expectations of the digital services they needed and what was technically possible; the delivery of universal linking; the sea-change in business models; and the effects of universally available and malleable digital objects on trust, authority, business models and copyright.

There is a prevailing tendency to regard publishing as simple: simple then and even simpler now, a button on a website. 

It was false in the past and it is still false now. It is true that digitisation has revolutionised the ability to find and access material and freed us (eventually) from the constraints of the printing press, but merely to digitise and put online does not mean anyone can find it. The ease of use of online journals hides the complexity of the infrastructure that makes it all possible: the regular recoding and updating of the software for the websites on which the journals and books appear; the management of their rights; the ability to link seamlessly between articles at the click of a button. 

We take these things for granted but they were not always there: standards had to be accepted and adopted; rights infrastructures (like the collective management system) invented; organisations like CrossRef and ORCID created and supported.

STM was at the heart of many of these otherwise invisible but essential components. Early on it recognised that the solution to the photocopying challenge was to make it possible to do it legally (also the solution to modern piracy issues too): out of that recognition came the collective management system, and at the core of this IFRRO (the International Federation of Reprographic Rights Organisations), largely the child of Paul Nijhoff Asser, STM’s first Secretary General. 

When I was first a global publisher in materials science for Pergamon Press, the negotiation of linking agreements was a real pain: a complex explosion in a spaghetti factory of bilateral links for even just a few publishers and titles. All this was simplified and swept away by the creation of CrossRef, an outcome of a series of discussions at the STM Board in the late 1990s.

The tradition of seeking solutions to issues through innovation continues today. STM publishers recognise that often users find using legitimate and legal resources cumbersome and time-consuming. It is often easier to go to pirate aggregation sites even when the material you are seeking is legally available via your own institution. 

Like Paul Nijhoff Asser’s eureka moment about photocopying, his successors recognise that easy, seamless one-stop shop access has to be made available, and the outcome of that thinking is the RA21 project now in its second year with pilots forthcoming.

What does the future hold? In the short-term we will be raising our glasses at STM’s 50th Anniversary Frankfurt Meeting on 8 October to celebrate the global vision of our founders. Annually the work to see through a technology glass darkly continues at the annual STM FutureLab TechTrends brainstorm. AI is the latest idea to pop out of this process: a potential solution to issues we have yet to even conceive. That is what makes working in this field so exciting, why I feel that like Al Jolson in the The Jazz Singer (the first talkie) we can confidently assert: 'You ain’t seen nothing yet!'

Michael Mabe is chief executive officer of the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM)