The death of the learned societies?

News | door Sicco de Knecht
12 juni 2019 | With open access Plan S approaching, learned society journals are expected to fall in hard times. But what do we know about the business of co-publishing with commercial parties?

“Plan S is a crusade against the learned societies!” In a furious exchange of ideas last November, physicist and member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences Detlef Lohse (University of Twente) berated the initiators behind Plan S. Their ‘crusade’ for open and immediate access had made them ignorant to the importance of learned societies.

Learned societies are the membership based (generally non-profit) organisations where scientists of a country or specific field come together. They organise conferences, many have committees on scientific practice and policy advice and most learned societies hav at least one journal, but often (many) more. Many of these journals are subscription based, making them ‘non-compliant’ with the funder guidelines on open access, as set out in Plan S.

“For the learned societies the aim is to publish work of scientists for scientists,” Lohse claimed, in contrast to the interests of ‘commercial’ journals. “Commercial publishers have another aim, they want to make money. They squeeze as much money out of the community as possible, to distribute this to their shareholders.” In the eye of Lohse and many of his colleagues the society journals were treated unreasonably harsh by Plan S.

The main lifeline of learned societies

His words hit home with the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW), as can be read in their later response to Plan S. “In many fields of science the journals of learned societies are the leading publications. They are run on the basis of a renowned and highly functional peer review system, which is crucial for maintaining scientific norms in their field of science.”

Not only are the society journals important to their respective field of science, they often are the main lifeline of the societies themselves. Interestingly the Royal Academy not only acknowledges this, it also indicates that it condones the practice of using paywalls specifically for learned societies. “The subscription fees of society journals are generally regarded as reasonable and any potential profits are used to benefit the field and science itself.”

It might be tempting to believe the statement above that fees are fair. Indeed, individual subscription rates to for example Physical Review Letters (American Physical Society) can be as low as $65 (online) or a larger if the size of a publication is considerably larger such as $235 for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But it isn’t always as easy to assess subscription rates, since many subscriptions – also to learned society journals – are tied up in bundles.

Also the statement that potential profits are used to benefit science seems legitimate, but what exactly do we really know about the business model of learned societies and their journals? To answer these and other questions ScienceGuide spoke with editors and publishers deeply involved with the business of learned societies, and asked them about the value of learned society journals, and what they know about the underlying business model.

“Reckless and ill-conceived”

Gert-Jan van Ommen is professor emeritus at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and is and has been the editor in chief of the European Journal of Human Genetics for 23 years, the official journal of the European Society of Human Genetics. The journal is published by Nature (Springer Nature) on behalf of the society.

Van Ommen starts out to say that he is totally on board with open access, “but Plan S is reckless and ill-conceived.” He concurs with many of his colleagues that the open access plan hits learned societies unreasonably hard, especially hard when one regards the added value. “We contribute to science and society in a myriad of ways. For example through our many committees for public and professional policy.”

“In a day and age that there is this much development in terms of new findings and technologies around human genetics we need learned societies more than ever.” By outlawing the subscription model, Plan S basically cuts off the society from the majority of its funding. “In general it’s safe to say that half of our revenue comes from the journal, and the other half is from our yearly conference.”

Asked about the incomes from memberships to the learned society he estimates this at a modest part of the total revenue stream. “Perhaps in the order of 10-20 percent. If the income from the journal would drop significantly, we’d need a major increase in our membership fee. A lot of members are early professionals, who don’t have the means to pay for this. Many would cancel their membership, leading to lost power of the society. Then, in fact, the field would fall apart”.

“I don’t want to be on the payroll of Nature”

Van Ommen performs his duties at the journal, which amount to a couple of hours to more than a day a week, but is not paid by SpringerNature. “I don’t want to be on the payroll of Nature. That would imply that I ‘work’ for them, and I don’t see it that way. This way there are no financial interests and I’m free to criticize Nature whenever I feel the urge.”

The editorial assistants who help him out with the day-to-day work, nomenclature control and social media strategy are is employed at the LUMC for a total of 1 fte. The funding for these positions comes from the publisher.

Similarly to his own situation there is no compensation for section editors, peer reviewers or the editorial board. Reward comes in more subtle forms. “We’ve recently decided to publish the names of all our peer reviewers once a year, as an acknowledgement to their contribution. Also, on occasion I’ve given the section editors an Amazon gift certificate, which they were very happy with.”

Van Ommen is positive about the collaboration between the journal and the publisher. “My counterpart at Nature is always willing to think about how to further improve the journal, also if this means investing in it.” Recently the contract between the learned society and the publisher was renewed. The contract agreement is based on the profit made on the journal and additionally Nature has agreed to a significant contribution for to work on new innovations.

For his part Van Ommen is content with the way things are organised as they are. “The section editors and me can put our primary focus on the scientific content, whilst the publisher takes care of typesetting, distribution and such.”

Seeking the help of a platform

A similar line of reasoning moved the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) to seek out the commercial publisher Elsevier as their partner for a newly launched journal. Former president of the Royal Academy and current president of the (ISSCR) Hans Clevers was involved in the negotiations with the publisher on launching the open access journal Stem Cell Reports.

“The ease that the electronic platforms of the publishers provide, combined with the impact of their distribution network is enormous. It’s nearly impossible to compete with their level of sophistication.” Acquiring or developing the publishing and distribution platform(s) themselves would have required an unreasonable effort on behalf of the ISSCR.

“We were looking for a way to grow the potential of the society, and now we can do this by using part of the revenue stream of the journal. So, we struck a clear and fair deal on the compensation the society gets,” Clevers continues to explain that the yearly number of articles determines the revenue for the learned society. The revenue is expected to be in the magnitude of several hundred thousand euro’s a year. “To negotiate a deal like this you have to be tough, but in the end the society provides the content and reputation of the journal.”

The history of learned societies

This attitude towards what is often referred to as ‘co-publishing’ is widespread amongst learned societies. In an 2017 paper called Untangling Academic Publishing the authors provide a historical perspective on academic publishing in which the learned societies play a central role.

"To negotiate a deal like this you have to be tough, but in the end the society provides the content and reputation of the journal"
Hans Clevers

Learned societies (or sometimes scholarly societies) first formed in the 17th century and brought together the – at the time limited number of – academics in a country or field of study. From 18th century onwards societies started to print periodicals that were distributed for free (gratis) by these ‘mission-oriented parties’. Printing generally depended on the “generosity of a sponsor. At various times, this role has been assumed by royal or aristocratic patrons, government departments, learned societies and universities.”

It was only in the post World War II era that commercialisation of publishing kicked in. In their initial strategy commercial publishers, most of them based in Britain or the Netherlands, focused on publishing detailed primary research papers themselves by setting up dozens of new research journals. They then started selling these subscriptions to institutions worldwide, by making English the new universal language of science.

These developments “significantly affected” the strategies of learned societies the authors state. “During the 1950s and 1960s, mission-driven publishers forces on the modest goals of trying to break-even, but by the 1990s, income-generation was increasingly seen as the goal […]” The parties that once were the generous sponsors had started to run out of funds.

An opportunity for commercial publishers

Simultaneously scientific publishing became a much more complicated matter, not only due to it’s sheer volume. New technologies, but also the importance of maintaining the impact factor of a journal became a daily matter that required effort. Work that academics, as Van Ommen and Clevers describe, weren’t willing or able to do themselves, or want to oversee others doing.

All of this provided a perfect opportunity for commercial publishers to either co-opt or completely take over these society journals. In 2004 a survey by the Association Learned & Professional Society Publishers found an estimated half of the learned society journals, especially the smaller ones, were run by third party commercial publishers. A 2013 also found that most of the learned societies have little information about how their income is derived.

To both Van Ommen and Clevers the financial benefit to the learned society is clear, but neither one knows exactly how much the commercial publisher get out of the deal. Van Ommen: “Apart from the profit margin on the journal they do not have to disclose such information. They are a publicly traded company.” Clevers’ reasoning is similar: “we were clear on what would be a good deal for us, and they took it.”

Academics aren’t interested in the numbers

Robert Fletcher (Wageningen University) is editor in chief at the Elsevier journal GeoForum and a vocal proponent of open access and more transparency in the publishing sector. He finds the fact that not many people involve themselves with the financial aspect of publishing understandable. “It all happens on a voluntary basis and everyone is fine with that, because we all feel we are contributing to a public good.”

“Most of us are academics and we aren’t interested in the numbers. Too many numbers make our eyes roll back in our heads.” In combination with the ready-made digital solutions the nitty gritty details of peer reviewing, typesetting and DOI’s can seem like a fair offer. “And if you then tell a learned society that they can use the surplus for their own activities it seems like a fair deal.”

During a prolonged period of negotiations with the publisher Fletcher and his colleagues started to review the deal they made critically. “We wanted to re-examine the cost of publishing in view of our positive stance on open access. Only then we found out how difficult it is to get a thorough grip on the business end of the journal. For example we were told that it was impossible to ascertain the exact revenue because the journal is mostly part of larger bundles of subscriptions.”

In this specific case the journal is owned by the publisher, Fletcher explains. “That means that in the end it is up to the publisher to decide how to organise the business end of things.” To Fletcher’s understanding the stance of learned society journals could be described as follows: “Scholarly societies don’t want to deal with the backend of publishing. That’s why they started getting in these agreements in the first place.”

Fletcher is somewhat baffled by the fact that learned societies don’t know about the full picture behind the business model of co-publishing. “It seems like people don’t necessarily need to know this but I think we should know!” Even though a deal might seem fair from the point of view of the learned society, there’s more to consider he says. “When you step back and look at it in aggregate, then you start to realise who pays for all of this. The fact of the matter is that most of it is public money…”

Fletcher also doesn’t believe that the open access Plan S is the one-cure remedy for the current situation. “The only reason this problem of paywalls is coming to a head right now is because university funding has dropped so low that we have to talk about it.” That is as he states his ‘cynical’ approach to the matter as he acknowledges that many people involved in the open access movement are doing so on ethical grounds. “To be completely frank, apparently up until now universities were fine with giving huge amounts of money to commercial publishers. So one had to wonder to what extent the open access movement running on ethical grounds or financial grounds.”

Lots of variation in financial arrangements

In the wake of Plan S several attempts have been made to find out more about the business model behind learned society journals. Over the course of writing this article ScienceGuide spoke with society members, editors and publishers to learn more about the concrete form of the agreements, and the financial arrangements, which varied wildly.

Whereas some societies with small journals with several articles a year get £70.000 in royalties, others with numerous journals and a large membership can get up to $4.000.000 a year. Although there are societies that publish their journals on their own accord, the majority co-publish with a commercial editor.

To get to get a picture on the financial aspects of societies, scholarly publication specialist Bianca Kramer’s (University of Utrecht Library) ‘crowd sourced’ attempt provides a comprehensive overview of the organisational structure and finance from the point of view of the societies. Since most societies are non-profits and are accountable to their members, there is a certain degree of transparency on costs in their annual report. “Based on the rough comparison of income and expense the vast majority of the societies makes a considerable gross margin on publishing.” She notes that this is the most accessible and simultaneously most fallible way to ascertain ‘profit’ in this case.

“To start, most or all of these societies are non-profit, which means that by definition we cannot call it a profit.” Kramer doesn’t necessarily doubt that the any margin is reinvested in the society, but it is still a revenue derived from publishing activities. “Also, these numbers are incomplete because for example personnel costs are not always included in publishing costs. In general, costs may be allocated differently by different societies, making comparisons harder.”

Extra costs not without a consequence

The fact that there are extra costs is not without consequence, but they rarely boil down to purely financial costs. When they do, institutions are often unwilling to pay for them sociologist Rene Bekkers (Vrije Universiteit) explains from his own experience. “At one time I applied for the position of editor in chief of a journal co-published with Springer and I was asked how much my university was willing to pay them. You can guess what the answer was when I asked them what they were willing to pay me.”

In this case the question was posed by the board of the learned society, not the publisher. “A society board needs to set and publish a budget, and the time academics spend on it has to be part of it. This question basically boiled down to what my university was willing to pay for the time I’d be putting into the journal.” He notes that most of these deals are outside of the scope of the publisher. “Their contracts are generally based on the number of issues and articles, not on the time academics put in.”

Transparency key conditional for compliance to Plan S

Although the level of detail in the annual reports of learned societies is too low to get a good estimate on costs and benefit, Kramer is positively surprised by the level of transparency. “If you’d want to have an overview like this for most commercial publishers you’d have a very hard time.” She points out that under Plan S journals are urged to be even more transparent on the way in which costs are derived. “Hopefully we’ll get an even better insight into the cost model of publishers.”

In the revised implementation of Plan S transparency is still a key conditional for compliance. In a previous interview with ScienceGuide president of the Dutch research funder NWO Stan Gielen indicated that in order to comply with the Plan S requirements journals would have to be upfront on how their APC is compiled. “We’re not going to require full transparency from every journal, but if an APC is ludicrously high, we’ll definitely ask questions about their business model.”

We just have to face the fact that the transition is not free"
Robert Fletcher

Learned societies will have to come up with a convincing rationale behind their business model as well. Under the revised Plan S there is a grace period in which they can make the transition to full open access and a valid business model. “In the end we’re moving away from a model in which research funders are de facto subsidising learned societies through subscriptions, whilst also paying royal APC’s.” Clearly then the members of cOAlition S – in contrast to the Royal Academy – do not regard using the margin as a ‘profit’ that learned societies to the benefit of their members and respective field as “reasonable”.

The transition is not free

Evaluating the current business model of most learned societies on a macro-economic level one has to conclude that a considerable sum of public funds is used to fund learned societies. But only after commercial publishers take their share of the ‘the profits’. Academics are intentionally left in the dark on the business model on the publisher’s side, whilst simultaneously boasting a great deal for themselves.

What is unclear however, is whether in the end a system in which learned societies would take up the tasks now performed by their commercial counterparts would save (public) money. Are learned societies up to the task?

Looking back in history one might be tempted to conclude that the most cost effective solution for science itself would be to revert tot the ‘generosity’ model. A system in which learned societies are sponsored by governments, institutions or university libraries in order to maintain their platforms and/or publish their periodicals. This would simultaneously put the intellectual ownership back with the creator.

In a way Fletcher welcomes the intentions of Plan S but is sceptical about its feasibility. “We just have to face the fact that the transition is not free, and might even cost money. It cost a lot to publish a journal well.” In essence what research institutes would have to decide is to stop spending their money on subscriptions and become outlets themselves again.

“If all scientists started to boycott paywalled journals as of this moment, the few compliant journals they could send their articles to would be paralysed.” The only way the plan will work is if there is a substantial investment in new journals. “But I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm for that right now.”


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