We have heard the first part of this story before, but it bears repeating:
Professional societies began their publishing ventures as a means for members to share their work with other like-minded individuals. Typically, members of a society paid a fee or dues, and among the benefits of membership was free or discounted access to the society’s publication. Non-members, including institutions, paid a subscription fee for the journal, which ultimately gave rise to the situation we have today, where academic libraries’ subscriptions vastly outstrip membership dues as a source of revenue for societies. When journals became digital and libraries granted remote access to authorized users, many society members stopped paying their membership dues because the journal was now available to them at no cost to them. While societies provide other benefits to members (discounted conference fees, policy work with government officials, public education), many societies today are facing a difficult problem of coming up with benefits that their members are willing to pay for. (I elaborated on this theme in a presentation for Oxford University Press last summer and published the text of that presentation on the Scholarly Kitchen.)
That’s the old face of the professional society — assemble a group of like-minded individuals and then develop a publishing program to cement their affiliation. The new face of the professional society may work in the opposite direction, beginning with publication and then forming bonds around the publishing service. Let’s extrapolate a bit from current activity in scholarly communications to see how this could develop.
The watershed event in scholarly communications in recent years was the launch and success of PLoS ONE. It is our iPhone, our Kindle: it remade the environment overnight and demands a recalculation of every organization’s strategy. Although I think PLoS ONE faces significant challenges ahead because of its unsustainably high pricing, the author-pays model it developed and mastered is being copied everywhere. There are predictions, which I don’t share, that in time all academic publishing will be modeled on PLoS ONE, but at a minimum it has to said that the author-pays model will be a significant component of scholarly communications for many years to come.
Is PLoS ONE a service for like-minded individuals? Not really. Although certain domains are more active than others (life scientists may find a home here, but Chaucer scholars are not invited), PLoS ONE is a supermarket, a “horizontal” publication serving science as a whole. This doesn’t mean that the contributors don’t share many views, but the common element of PLoS ONE is a matter of business — the Gold OA model.
Some of the organizations that are imitating PLoS ONE are doing so more vertically; they are identifying specific domains and inviting authors to submit papers (e.g., “ChemistryOpen” from John Wiley). We can imagine an environment where every discipline or subdiscipline of any size has its own author-pays service. Some of these services will be branded with the name of an established publisher or institution, some will be upstarts, and some will be labelled as “predatory” publishers because of the limitations of their peer-review practices.
How long will it be before these domain-specific author-pays services evolve into proto-professional societies? That may be part of the inspiration for PeerJ, which is set up with a membership model, but PeerJ (which, of course, is just starting out and may switch direction many times before it finds its way, as most successful start-ups do) still seems to be looking for a horizontal play, attempting to bring in material across a wide area (from the Web site: “PeerJ is a rapid, peer-reviewed, Open Access journal in the Biological and Medical Sciences”). In any event, by switching to a membership model and very low pricing (lifetime membership for $99), PeerJ is a repudiation of the strategy of PLoS ONE. As one of the founders of PeerJ, Dr. Peter Binfield, was formerly responsible for PLoS ONE, one imagines that the PLoS board is doing some hard thinking about where things are headed.
We should look for new services to come on stream that pluck the best from PLoS ONE, the ambitions of PeerJ, and the demonstrable successes of professional society publishing. Some characteristics of such a service are likely to include the following:
- A commitment to the Gold OA author-pays model of PLoS ONE, including the use of “peer-review light,” that is, a form of peer review that assesses methodology but does not speak to importance or originality.
- An incorporation of the membership model of PeerJ, in effect turning the fee associated with Gold OA into the dues for a professional society.
- The introduction of a suite of premium services designed to increase the size of payments from the new members.
- The launch of a conference business, which is likely to resemble in many respects the conference businesses now managed by hundreds of professional societies.
- A steady teasing-out of new ways to monetize the membership.
This last item points to the inherent limitation of any author-pays service — namely, whereas traditional publishers seek to monetize content, Gold OA publishers seek to monetize authors. It’s asymmetrical: there are more readers in the world than authors, even for highly specialized scholarly material. Traditional publishing spreads the cost of publication across the reader base; Gold OA spreads the cost to no one — it is borne entirely by the author or the author’s sponsor. This is why I don’t think traditional publishing is going away anytime soon, as its economic model enables greater income, which in turn can be invested in new features and more robust platforms.
Publishers working with a traditional model, whether commercial publishers or professional societies, should be thinking about the possibility of creating new domain-specific scholarly communities around open access services. It’s a strategic mistake not to explore these areas, as someone else certainly will. It is not unrealistic to imagine that many future professional societies will in fact be “owned” by commercial organizations. The key, as it always is, is management — the winner has the vision and the determination.