Open Access promomateriaal
Open Access promomateriaal (Photo credit: biblioteekje)

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?

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Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

Alice is Director of Community Engagement & Support for ORCID, responsible for communicating the why, what, and how of ORCID for researchers and their organizations. Alice is on the Board of Directors for the Society for Scholarly Publishing and received the 2016 ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing.

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30 Thoughts on "Open Access – What’s a Learned Society To Do?"

Interesting post as the IET (parent organisation to my employer) has just announced their own OA offering – the first engineering, not for profit publisher to do so:

One point of note here is that the IET is extending/enhancing the professional society’s offering through a hybrid option on all journals and a new ‘megajournal’, both based not only on market research into demand in this area but also, and importantly, as a choice for authors.

To my mind, these could be seen as good steps to take if societies are considering OA as it’s critial form them to repesent and support their community for the long term. It really comes down to working for and with members for the best interests of the society and in pursuit of its aims, which often (and if not, perhaps should) include emphasis on societal benefits as well as both professional development and the advancement of those very professions.

  • ian Borthwick
  • Jul 12, 2012, 5:47 AM

I agree that it’s positive that learned societies are actively being consulted in the open access debate, however it’s important to note that there are currently societies that do publish open access. In fact, according to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition there are 703 open access society journals. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists 7958 journals at this moment and thus society journals make up 9% of all open access journals. While open access may not work for all societies under their current economic models, it certainly is working for some.

SPARC on open access society journals

SPARC’s list of open access society journals (be careful, it’s editable)

Directory of Open Access Journals

  • Emma Bell
  • Jul 12, 2012, 8:03 AM

To be honest, I don’t understand what the problem is. If up to 90% of the income of a learned society comes from subscription income on its journals, that is the amount they need to recoup from author fees in the OA model. If there is a massive imbalance between the number of authors willing to pay the price to publish in such journals versus the number of institutions previously willing to subscribe to them, some journals will not remain viable, and some societies will have to reinvent themselves. If they are providing value to their members, then they will find another way to become sustainable, and if not, then not. Or did I miss something??

  • Mike_F
  • Jul 12, 2012, 8:07 AM

Getting the money from authors may work okay in fields where the authors have huge grants supporting their work, but in the humanities and part of the social sciences, research often has no funding (i.e., literally $0). How exactly is a graduate student in English, already below the federal poverty line with a teaching stipend of $9000 to $12000 and no funding to support research, supposed to afford a couple thousand dollars of OA fees?

As Sandy mentions below, though, mandated OA isn’t on the table for non–hard science in the US.

  • Joel T. Luber
  • Jul 12, 2012, 10:26 AM

By the university making internal grants available to those students from the money it was going to use to subscribe to those journals. Particularly if the OA costs are set to bring in the same amount they would have got from subscriptions.

  • Nial
  • Jul 16, 2012, 1:41 AM

That’s certainly the premise on which the Finch report is based.

  • Sue Thorn
  • Jul 18, 2012, 1:48 AM

How is Gold or hybrid OA a threat to learned societies if commercial publishers are expecting to be able to publish in this mode profitably? One reason there may be little debate in the U.S. is that FRPPA affects only agencies with research budgets exceeding $100 million–which excludes the NEH. It would affect the NSF, but NSF funding only affects some parts of the social sciences–in political science, e.g., mainly American politics and IR, but not comparative or political theory. What is more worrisome about the NSF is that a bill has been proposed in Congress to prohibit NSF funding for ANY social science research. That is a much more immediate concern for the social sciences and their learned societies than OA.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Jul 12, 2012, 9:17 AM

Drop the journals, raise the membership fees. Problem solved. Pay as you go, just like OA model.

  • drugmonkey
  • Jul 12, 2012, 10:04 AM

Said like someone who has no idea how non-profits work. Membership dues are often too low to provide sustainable revenues, and publications and meetings and education have become subsidies in many organizations. Members provide a stable customer base for these other items in one way or another, so lower membership fees make sense in that regard (and also create a larger membership for political and social purposes).

Your prescription would do more harm than good.

  • Kent Anderson
  • Jul 12, 2012, 10:16 AM

Kent is absolutely correct. Membership dues in the learned society I recently retired from did not even cover the cost of serving those members, let alone support other products or services; any attempts to increase dues more than a tiny amount met with resistance (and some fear) on the part of leadership. Also, the majority of authors in the society’s journals are not members, so pay-as-you-go through dues would be ineffective and shift publication costs to the wrong segment.

  • Patricia Shaffer
  • Jul 12, 2012, 11:42 AM

Here’s a good article on why membership dues may not be a good substitute for journal revenue for supporting societies:

The key point is that journal subscriptions can come from grant funding. Society memberships or donations can not come from grants, and must instead come out of the individual scientist’s pockets.

  • David Crotty
  • Jul 16, 2012, 9:41 AM

I agree that gold/hybrid OA represents an opportunity for some societies – especially in the sciences. But it is harder to see the opportunity for most societies in the social sciences and humanities, where there is much less funding to start with, it typically doesn’t cover APCs and, as Sandy says, some of the existing funding is under threat. In addition, per Rita Gardner in The Bookseller article I mention, the average cost of publishing a humanities or social science article is £3000, much more than the average APC funding available for science articles, never mind in the social sciences – and about double the £1500-1700 used in the Finch Group’s modeling…

  • Alice Meadows
  • Jul 12, 2012, 10:22 AM

“…the average cost of publishing a humanities or social science article is £3000, much more than the average APC funding available for science articles, never mind in the social sciences – and about double the £1500-1700 used in the Finch Group’s modeling…”

Alice – Why is that? If PLoS ONE can be an extremely lucrative money spinner at $1350 per article, what are the reasons for this enormous cost of publishing in humanities or social science? I did try to access the article in The Bookseller, but it is subscription only, and my (natural sciences only) institute does not subscribe to it.

  • Mike_F
  • Jul 12, 2012, 10:38 AM

Hi Mike, this is the quote from Rita Cardner: “In humanities and social sciences the costs of journal publishing are quite high and the cost per paper is, on average, £3,000. The Finch Report has not given a set article publishing charge [APC], but have done their modelling on an average APC of £1,500–£1,700. So it is going to depend on whether universities have enough money and the extent to which they attempt to bargain down the market.” Rita was one of the society representatives on the Finch Group and I know she has done a lot of work on this issue, but I don’t personally have further details, sorry.

  • Alice Meadows
  • Jul 12, 2012, 10:46 AM

I certainly do not understand this either, Mike. I am publishing an OA journal here in my library, and my ANNUAL budget is less that $5000. In humanities fields where editors are very rarely paid, what would be involved in such costs (our editors are being paid a small stipend, thus the budget of $5000).

  • Melody McMahon
  • Jul 12, 2012, 12:03 PM

Melody, does that $5000 figure include the capital equipment, overhead, and staff time provided by the library?

  • Rick Anderson
  • Jul 12, 2012, 3:27 PM

Rick, That was somewhat untrue. Actually, the library has purchased the capital equipment (which we were going to do for another project anyway). The library has had a long-term contract with outside IT firm which covers the help we needed to get started, so again, we should factor that in but we are already paying for it. Staff time is my own and a professional copyeditor/proofreader (her pay is included in that $5000); co-editors are receiving a small stipend, something that often doesn’t happen with other humanities journals. We have factored in some for marketing. So I suppose you could cut out a bit of my office overhead–my own time is volunteered at the moment. This appears to me to be something that many libraries could do, and indeed, many are.

  • Maeve1989
  • Jul 12, 2012, 5:15 PM

That sounds all very laudable and efficient, but wouldn’t, I suspect, scale up to a journal with several thousand submissions a year and publication on one of the high-functionality online platforms.

  • Sue Thorn
  • Jul 18, 2012, 1:51 AM

There was an article by Mary Waltham published in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Scholarly Publishing under the title “The Future of Journal Publishing among Social Science and Humanities Associations” that reports the results of a Mellon-funded study of 8 flagship journals in H&SS showing that “an OA business model based only on revenue from the research article author or producer would not be sufficient to sustain these journals” and that the cost of publishing them was, surprisingly, generally higher than the cost of producing science journals.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Jul 12, 2012, 3:40 PM

One way that PLoS ONE and BioMed Central journals cut their APCs is to publish online only.

  • emmabell42
  • Jul 12, 2012, 11:02 AM

Agreed – one reason why costs are high for learned societies to publish subscription-based journals is because they often partner with or outsource their publishing services to large commercial publishers. Today it is easy for society editors to partner instead with their universities to produce OA journals with little or no overhead.

  • hjc24
  • Jul 12, 2012, 2:24 PM

Perhaps societies in the social sciences and humanities should be looking to move towards certifying articles post-publication (when articles are published in open repositories), rather than publishing their own journals, with author fees too high for their disciplines. Institutions and members could then pay fees to uncover the quality research that is discovered and certified by the society, rather than for the research that it publishes – a different way for societies to review content, post peer-review. There would likely be need for this kind of content vetting if traditional content containers were broken down, and masses of content was available in repositories, but not reviewed. Society publishers, therefore, could act as subscription agents to the collective societies’ vetting of content. This model would be unlikely to generate the same kind of revenue as traditional subscription models, but if the move to publication in OA repositories is inevitable, this would be one way in which societies could still be involved with the quality association of publication, with some revenue generated.

  • C Dean
  • Jul 12, 2012, 1:24 PM

Interestingly, I wrote a long email about this issue just yesterday to a professor at my institution. I’ll summarize my email in response to some points in the post:

“learned societies are “a critical part of the research environment,”… 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.”

I think we can all agree that the first part of the statement is true. The second half, however, gives cause for pause. Is it true that many learned societies rely on subscription income? What of member dues? And actually, I would argue that the claim that societies will “lose out significantly if OA is widely adopted” is false. If a scholarly societies’ purpose is to make money, than sure that makes sense. But isn’t the point of an Association is to represent the best interests of its members in the field, and to provide methods and means of communication (journals, listservs, conferences)? If so, migrating journals published by scholarly societies toward open access is very much a “critical part of the research environment” and that, in fact, broad, wide, open access offers greater impact of the works to the membership of the scholarly society. (See Citation Impact of Open Access).

“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.”

Again, I can agree with the first portion of the statement here. It is well known that the humanities, social sciences (and I’d include the arts) are less well-informed about the principle of open access. However, the viability of a small scholarly society is not, and will not be, entirely contingent on how the research of its members is disseminated. Societies will have to adjust to new models of “doing what they do,” but what will cause a society to grow or fold will be the support of its membership, the vision of its leadership, and the adaptations they are willing to enact as academia grows and changes. And I’d like to point out that there are some reservations about the validity of the ALPSP report that should be reinterpreted, if at least acknowledged. (See Kevin Smith’s analysis here –

“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.”

Yet again, we agree at the beginning. I’d like to raise the point that as significant as this involvement is, it should be equally as significant that the Modern Language Association, a stalwart in the humanities, very recently made the decision to alter their copyright policies for their journals, and to encourage self-archiving of articles published in their journals. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, head of MLA’s Scholarly Communications Office, make’s a point that echoes your language about the “dangers” facing the humanities specifically. She writes, “The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions…the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good; we wind up strengthening that conviction when we treat our work as private, by keeping it to ourselves. Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous.” Migrating to open access will not be without it’s speed bumps (business models, credentialing systems, etc), but the greater concern and danger is the public’s total disinterest and ability to write off small, scholarly societies as vestiges of yesteryear.

“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?”

To your final questions, I wholeheartedly say, yes and yes. But the engagement should not begin from a place of fear, which is the tone I take from your piece, but from a place of opportunity; opportunity to continue to provide high quality service to members, and also to interact openly across disciplinary and access lines. This seems like a great time to be at the head of a small scholarly society. Limited access means limited use, limited impact, and limited benefits for scholarship and for society at large.

  • Micah Vandegrift (@micahvandegrift)
  • Jul 12, 2012, 3:29 PM

You make the comment that without Open Access the public is excluded from the discussion. It is not only the general public that is excluded but retired scientists are not able to pay for access to papers that they would like to see. There are no hard cover publications and even University Libraries treat retired scientists as members of the public so we are effectively excluded from participating in our life’s work. Many so-called Abstracts are only written to entice you to pay for the privelege of reading the paper, and a number do not even provide Abstracts. The Scientific Establishments are setting themselves up as the proprietors of all knowledge scientific and telling everyone else to butt out. It is a recipe for making science irrelevant in the community. The increasing specialization discourages interdisciplinary cooperation and whilst Geoscience is multidisciplinary, specialist journals are fragmenting the scientific fraternity. Once upon a time a Geoscience Journal contained multidisiplinary papers, but they seem to be a thing of the past. Open Access should be the GOAL, but how to achieve it when Universities are requiring staff to publish a certain number of papers every few years in order to retain their positions will only lower the relevance and standard of the papers.

  • Ernie Wilson
  • Jul 16, 2012, 10:48 AM

I’m having trouble following the logic that “access” will lead to people “writing” interdisciplinary papers. Most scientists have access to all journals. Access creates no new incentive to produce interdisciplinary works.

As for retired scientists wanting to see papers, I don’t think that’s sufficient grounds for a sea-change of business models. Talk about the tail wagging the dog . . .

  • Kent Anderson
  • Jul 16, 2012, 11:14 AM

Universities have begun to open their electronic library collections to alumni, so that even if as a retiree you don’t qualify for continued access at the university that employed you, your alma mater might provide that access for you. The library pays a modest premium, like 10% to JSTOR, for adding alumni to the eligible accessers.

  • Sandy Thatcher
  • Jul 16, 2012, 12:14 PM

I presume that many societies do think a lot about OA. And most likely they think positively about OA since OA is about the promotion and spread of knowledge which is the core mission of many societies.

  • andersnorgaard
  • Jul 12, 2012, 4:47 PM

At the very least the learned societies should be looking carefully at Jeffrey Beall’s discussions on “predatory” and otherwise “broken” OA that’s spreading like wildfire, instead of blinding jumping on a bandwagon. Personally, I’ve become wary of anything touted exclusively as “OA for the sake of OA”, for example AIP’s new “Advances” journal, whose spam I cannot even manage to unsubscribe from…

  • Ivan C
  • Jul 13, 2012, 1:22 AM

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