Following the publication of the UK Finch Group’s report on expanding access to research publications, there has been another flurry of debate about open access (OA). Interestingly, this has included a couple of interesting letters in the Times Higher Education from the Academy of Social Sciences and the Society for Higher Education, as well as an article in The Bookseller on “Learned Societies: OA Risks.” All make a similar point – that learned societies are “a critical part of the research environment,” to quote Cary Cooper (Academy of Social Sciences) and, since many if not most learned societies rely largely on subscription income from their journals (up to 90% in some cases), they stand to lose out significantly if OA is widely adopted. They are understandably worried about the future sustainability of their organizations and the knock-on effect on the subject research communities they support and foster.
The Finch Group’s report itself, in fact, makes the same point, as did Bob Campbell in his comments to the media at the launch; and, unlike some other recent committees and surveys on the topic, learned societies were represented in the Finch Group, albeit at the insistence of the scholarly publishing representatives. Nevertheless, there has been little if any coverage of the impact on learned societies of a wholesale move to OA.
So why aren’t learned societies fighting harder to make their voice heard in the OA debate? Certainly, the bigger associations (AIP, IOP, ACS, RSC, etc.) understand the issues and are actively engaged in the public debate, as are industry groups such as PSP, STM, and ALPSP. But numerous smaller societies – especially those in the humanities and social sciences – seem much less well-informed about the impending expansion of OA and the potential impact on their future viability, despite the fact that, as the recent ALPSP library survey showed, a move to OA is likely to result in many journals being canceled – especially in those very disciplines.
Several factors are likely at work here. First, in some academic disciplines there is a tension between what a society’s members want and what the society officers know is necessary to keep their organization afloat. This is especially the case in the life sciences, and it makes it very difficult for the society’s leaders to raise concerns publicly about OA. Conversely, some societies – and their members – don’t think OA is relevant to their subject community, so don’t feel the need to engage with it. Second, there is at best a lack of understanding, and at worst a lack of interest by some government officials in the valuable role learned societies play in the research ecosystem. Many assume that OA is supported by all researchers and academics – and, by implication, their subject communities, including societies – when this is not necessarily the case. Third, learned societies have historically depended on their industry organizations and/or publishers to represent their needs to government – but, with governments taking an increasing interest in scholarly publishing and, in particular, OA, shouldn’t societies be making their case directly as well?
There has definitely been some progress in the last year or two. The participation of learned societies in the Finch Group was significant, particularly in highlighting the dangers of OA for the social science and humanities communities. A number of societies responded to recent surveys on access to research articles, such as those conducted by the EC and OSTP (although the numbers are still pretty low compared with the responses from libraries – in the OSTP survey, for example, societies comprised 13% of responses compared with libraries at 45%). There is also some evidence of collaboration between societies to engage with and, where appropriate, mobilize around these issues. For example, in January, a group of around 35 senior UK society officials met in London specifically to discuss the impact of OA on learned societies.
But could – and should – societies be doing more to engage in the debate about OA? And, just as importantly, should they be working to educate and engage with their members about it?