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Mission Critical: Society Publishing in an Open Access World

by | May 22, 2024 | 0 comments


By Rob Johnson, managing director at Research Consulting

With the number of independent learned society publishers in sharp decline and revenues failing to keep pace with inflation, Rob Johnson, Founder and Managing Director at Research Consulting Ltd.,   looks at what the world’s oldest journal publishers must do to remain relevant in an open access world. 

Learned societies have a long and distinguished history of scholarly publishing, dating back to the 17th century. The very first scientific journals, Journal des Sçavans in France and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in England, were founded to enable groups of researchers to share their discoveries and debates. Today, learned societies are a fixture of the publishing landscape around the world, representing a wide range of disciplines and interests, and publishing journals, books, and other outputs that serve their communities and advance their fields. Yet a recent analysis of UK learned societies by Research Consulting makes clear that society publishers’ permanence cannot be taken for granted: the number of independent society publishers in the UK has fallen by 30% since 2015 and most societies have seen their publishing revenues fail to keep pace with inflation.   

‘We’re in a challenging environment for all publishers,‘ acknowledges Graham Anderson, Head of Publishing Operations at the Royal Society. ‘But the particular challenge for society publishers is that we are quite small, and we are competing to ensure that we’re getting enough content into our journals, keeping the quality high, and disseminating it as widely as possible.’ To navigate this environment, learned society publishers need to consider how they can adapt their business models and practices to be more competitive, while staying true to their values and mission. 

A shifting paradigm

One of the most significant drivers of change for learned society publishing is the global movement towards open access (OA), which aims to make research outputs freely available online for anyone to read, reuse, and build upon. OA has been supported over many years by funders, institutions, researchers, and publishers as a way to increase the accessibility, visibility, and impact of research, and to foster a more open and collaborative culture of scholarship. However, OA also poses significant challenges for learned society publishers, who have traditionally relied on subscription revenues to sustain their publishing activities and support their other missions.

As Kathryn Spiller, Director of Publishing at Applied Microbiology International and co-chair of the Society Publishers Coalition, explains, ‘If you publish a selective journal, and it’s not got a huge output, you’re not going to see the revenues you used to see from subscriptions back in the day. There has to be some acceptance that societies have over-relied on publishing revenue and need to rethink their relationship with their journals’. According to Spiller, societies now need to diversify their sources of income and invest in their journals to make them not only platforms for publishing, but also community assets that provide training, mentoring, and networking opportunities for their members and authors. Spiller also notes that the transition to OA is not uniform across disciplines, regions, and markets, and that different types of OA models may have different implications for society publishers. 

Partnering up

In view of these pressures, many societies have chosen to partner with larger publishers to flip their journals to OA, either by charging article processing charges (APCs) to authors or by entering into transformative agreements with libraries and consortia. ‘I think partnering can be a very successful route for societies that have got to the point where they want to “flip”,’ notes Spiller. She explains that societies often work with consultants to come up with a transition strategy and then run a tender exercise to identify the most appropriate partner to deliver it. This might mean working with a commercial publisher or one of the larger university presses, but in each case, it allows societies to access global networks, specialist expertise and technical infrastructure that are unavailable in-house. Nevertheless, this approach is not without risk, such as losing control over editorial decisions, pricing, and quality standards, or seeing a decline in revenues as a result of these deals. Spiller emphasises that societies need to be fully-informed about the potential impact of partnership arrangements, which could include finding themselves locked into unfavourable terms if their journals are not commercially viable anymore.

Going it alone, together

In view of these risks, other societies have opted to retain their independence and self-publish their journals, or outsource more limited aspects of their publishing operations to partners including university presses, other societies and intermediaries. This kind of partnership can offer greater alignment with their values and identity, more flexibility and control over their strategy and branding, and automation of manual operational processes. Duncan Campbell, Executive Director, Sales & Account Management at Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), suggests that societies need to be strategic when choosing their partners. ‘Think about how much oversight you need on particular parts of the publishing function,’ he advises. ‘My advice is to ask the question, “What could we usefully outsource that can help us streamline and optimise our publishing processes?” For instance, intermediaries like CCC offer product solutions that help societies to address specific pain points in the process, such as automating article publication charges (APCs), deal modelling, managing OA agreements, and using identifiers and metadata to improve discoverability and reporting. ‘As an independent, neutral intermediary, CCC serves as a partner to help society publishers automate certain business tasks so that they can focus their limited resources on new and emerging strategic focus areas,’ explains Campbell. 

Taking the long view

Spiller also emphasises the importance of finding partners whose values align with a society’s aims and strategy, adding: ‘As a society we are very keen to work with partners that are data-driven. We want partners who can say, “We’ll do this because the data shows that this will work.”’  She sees a growing appetite for collaboration among societies, especially within the same or related disciplines. Collaborations of this kind can offer many benefits, such as increasing visibility, reach, and impact, reducing costs and risks, and creating a stronger and more unified voice for the scholarly community. The Society Publishers Coalition (SocPC), which she co-chairs, was formed in 2018 by a group of learned societies who share an ambition to see a sustainable transition to open access and felt their interests were not being represented in the conversation on how to achieve this. Recent months have also seen IOP Publishing join forces with AIP Publishing and the American Physical Society to create Purpose-Led Publishing (PLP), a new coalition “with a promise to always put purpose above profit”. 

These initiatives stand out as positive steps at a time when many societies have been forced into a defensive posture, seeking only to shore up publishing revenues and control costs. Both Anderson and Spiller take the view that societies must look to the future with confidence and move beyond maintaining the subscription model. ‘We take a longer-term view at the Royal Society’, Anderson explains, ‘And in the long term, we believe moving to open access is the right thing to do and it’s good for science’.

Positioning for a flight to quality

There is little doubt that the transition to open access poses significant challenges for learned society publishers, who face declining revenues, increased competition, and changing expectations from their communities. Yet over the last 12 months, many of the born open access publishers who achieved rapid growth in recent years have faced challenges of their own, as concerns over research integrity mount. CCC’s Campbell sees potential for a “flight to quality”, as researchers and readers become more aware and discerning of the differences and distinctions between different types of publishers and publishing models. ‘I think societies have a real opportunity that some of the other players don’t have,’ he explains. ‘They are the arbiters of quality within their particular disciplines, which can serve as a differentiator for researchers looking for the best venues in which to publish their research.’ Spiller also draws encouragement from a shift in the attitudes and preferences of younger researchers, who are less concerned about impact factors and more interested in the vision and values of the journals and publishers they choose to engage with. 

The technologies, platforms, and partnerships adopted by societies must continue to evolve, as very few can compete on scale or cost-effectiveness with the largest publishers. At a time when many researchers are questioning publishers’ motives, society publishers instead have a golden opportunity to reaffirm their mission of advancing science and scholarship. Sticking with the mission offers no guarantees over a society’s revenues but it is the only way to ensure a society’s relevance, now and into the future.


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