Exile (1988 video game)
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The past 10 years or so have seen an ever-increasing move away from print toward online-only journal subscriptions and licenses. Academic and research libraries have been moving to an online-only environment for over a decade now. According to a recent EBSCO report:

Whereas 88% of [library] sales were in print-only in 1998, now print makes up only 34% of sales while electronic only sales have gone from 4% of sales in 1998 to 50% of sales today.

These numbers are based on EBSCO’s 2011 Library Collection and Budgeting Trends Survey – today’s numbers would be even higher.

So why haven’t more journals moved fully online only? One major sticking point for society-owned journals is the perceived need to continue to provide members with print copies. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  1. The Member Benefit. A free subscription to the society’s journal is for many associations the single biggest membership benefit. The conventional wisdom is that this free journal subscription is the main incentive that motivates members to renew their membership, rather than relying on their institutional library for access. Or so the argument goes. . . . But with many members in academic institutions already accessing their society journal content online via their library anyway, how much of a risk is it really to move their subscriptions fully online only? Especially since, in a digital environment, there are so many innovative ways to push content out to members – for example, branded society apps, e-alerts, and other messages all reinforce the value of the society membership. Having said that, there are some associations, such as those serving professionals (e.g., dentists, veterinarians, etc.), whose members may not be affiliated with institutions and therefore don’t have access to journal content other than as part of their society membership. Moving those society journals online only without the risk of losing members is a longer-term challenge and may be dependent on the people working in these professions developing online workflows using mobile technology.
  2. Advertising Revenues. A very real barrier to moving online only for some journals is the loss of advertising revenue, which still relies heavily on high print circulation. Scholarly society journals – which may reach tens of thousands of well-educated, well-paid decision-makers – are an attractive platform for many advertisers. For many associations, especially in the health sciences, advertising income therefore makes up a significant proportion of their overall revenues. And although online advertising in scholarly journals is growing, it doesn’t yet generate anything like the same level of income as traditional print.
  3. Inertia and Caution. Another contributing factor is inertia/conservatism, both on the part of the association and (where applicable) their publisher. Societies are understandably concerned about making any major changes to what may be, as noted above, their single biggest member benefit – an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Similarly, for many society journal publishers there is a natural caution that goes along with publishing on behalf of another organization – if their society partner isn’t actively seeking to move their members online, why should the publisher want to rock that particular boat?

Despite these challenges, there does now appear to be an increasing move toward online-only journal access for members, delivering a number of benefits to both them and their societies. These benefits include cost savings that allow for investment in new products and services for members; the ability to customize and brand journal content for members in a way that isn’t affordable – or even possible – in print; and, of course, the environmental benefits of eliminating print.

This is all very well in theory, but how easy is it in practice? In recent years, some societies have started to move their members online, including the American Chemical Society, which earlier this year introduced to its members an innovative range of online options for accessing journals and e-books, while continuing to provide members the option of receiving print copies of its newsmagazine, Chemical & Engineering News. According to Tara Pritchett, Assistant Director, Marketing, ACS Publications:

We have seen a 15% increase in the number of members using their publication benefits since we launched the new program. This increased engagement coupled with recent program survey data leads me to expect a positive effect on our member renewal rate as well.

Over the past couple of years, Wiley has worked with several society publishing partners to transition their membership to online-only. In some cases, these associations have opted to allow members to continue to receive print for an additional fee; in others, they have eliminated print altogether. In most cases, the membership was surveyed ahead of time – an obvious best practice that has really helped ensure a successful transition to online only. Of the 14 social science and humanities societies that moved away from the print journal as a member benefit in 2011-12, eight are now fully online only while six still offer members a print subscription option, but only on request. Of these six, the average number of members taking print in the first year following transition to online only is 25-30% — the lowest take up was 10% of all members, and the highest was 47%. In other words, even in the least successful example, more than half of all members accepted the move to online-only. And while we don’t typically have access to the membership renewal figures for these societies, anecdotal feedback so far indicates that there has been no additional attrition.

One of these societies was the International Studies Association, which moved subscriptions to its five journals online-only as the default for members in 2012 (members can still opt to purchase print). According to Executive Director, Tom Volgy, there were three reasons for making the shift

  1. Environmental considerations
  2. Members were “getting buried with an enormous volume of hard copy”
  3. The opportunity for substantial cost savings

The main challenges were, first: convincing members – especially older ones – that the shift would be a positive one overall; and, second: finding a way to ensure that people who stopped being members still had access to the content they had bought.  The first challenge was addressed by conducting a campaign highlighting the environmental effects of the shirt, coupled with a promise not to increase member fees if the ISA move online only; Wiley and the ISA worked together to find a solution to the second challenge. Nearly 12 months on, Tom describes the transfer as:

Very successful. We’ve had virtually no complaints, and roughly 90%+ of membership renewals are opting for the electronic option

And his advice to other societies considering going this route?

Do it!

So, is the time finally right for scholarly societies to start following in the footsteps of most academic libraries and make the move to online only? It’s beginning to feel a lot like it to me.

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Alice Meadows

Alice Meadows

I am a Co-Founder of the MoreBrains Cooperative, a scholarly communications consultancy with a focus on open research and research infrastructure. I have many years experience of both scholarly publishing (including at Blackwell Publishing and Wiley) and research infrastructure (at ORCID and, most recently, NISO, where I was Director of Community Engagement). I’m actively involved in the information community, and served as SSP President in 2021-22. I was honored to receive the SSP Distinguished Service Award in 2018, the ALPSP Award for Contribution to Scholarly Publishing in 2016, and the ISMTE Recognition Award in 2013. I’m passionate about improving trust in scholarly communications, and about addressing inequities in our community (and beyond!). Note: The opinions expressed here are my own


14 Thoughts on "Moving Scholarly Society Members Online-Only – Are We Reaching the Tipping Point?"

I am on our university’s library committee and along with the reasons you stated we still get the print versions of some journals because our librarians feel the licensing agreements are too restrictive in areas like inter-library loan. Also, surprisingly, there still is resistance to going with the digital version of journals by some faculty.

My experience is that faculty more than students prefers the print; students arrive on campus with a digital mindset but also a supercharged approach to learning in a page with hyperlinks and ready access to source review, definitions and historical background. That’s pretty wonderful.

I’m not sure I’d characterize doing print as a “cost center”. It really depends on demand, or as you note, advertising. For a journal with a large amount of print advertising, the costs of keeping a large print subscription base are well exceeded by the advertising revenue, so this is a net plus. And for those without that benefit, there’s still a tipping point where print remains a profit center. In my experience, where we’ve offered online-only subs as an option, there’s still a high enough demand for print to keep things in the black. So why switch when there’s reader demand and it ends up bringing in more funds to the society?

Also, I’ll point out this recent study, noting that:

90% of doctors read the print version of current issues of medical journals, far more than the 48% reading journals digitally. Of all doctors surveyed, 98% read current issues of journals and 44% utilize two or more platforms for reading.

Thank you for sharing the study summary, but I’m interested in more details of the study, such as the response rate, the doctors sampled (eg, age, specialty, and type of practice, and the country the survey took place in), and how the questions were asked, not to mention, is PharmaLive –the source of the study– content peer reviewed? The sentence refers to “current” issues, implying that those surveyed are reading print to keep up and may still be doing other types of reading to answer specific questions online.
The results are provocative, but this of all groups should be skeptical of results stripped of their nuance and limitations. (I haven’t decided to pay $20 to read the study, but I would be interested to know the results, if you have.)

Yeah, there was a whole article there about the study last week, but it all seems to have moved behind a paywall. As I recall, it’s just a survey, and is not peer reviewed but provides some insight nonetheless.

My company supports publishers and other educational groups who are moving their print or older-format publications to contemporary new media settings. This article is one of the best I’ve seen that captures the challenges – and the great successes – our clients are moving through! Kudos!

We are ready and willing to finish our move to e-only subscriptions and would happily divest ourselves of our remaining print only or print+online subscriptions, many of which are small society publications. However, the fact that a publisher or society offers an e-option or e-only is unworkable in many cases. If they cannot offer IP authentication, post-cancellation rights, and are not openURL compliant e-only is not an option for us. Rights to ILL are also important. A most extreme example is a recent notification we received from a small society informing us that are moving to e-only in 2013, and that the content of their publications will be distributed to members and subscribers on USB drives!

So yes, we heartily endorse moving to e-only, but it must be done in ways that are standards based and with terms that are acceptable to libraries.

The Latin American Studies Association figured out some years ago that it was costing more to print and mail copies of its flagship journal to LASA members residing in Latin America than it was receiving in dues from them, so it changed to providing the journal “open access” to everyone in Latin America, not just LASA members. LASA members in the U.S. still get print copies but can also access the journal electronically. http://lasa.international.pitt.edu/eng/larr/article-search.asp

Hi David and David, thanks for your comments. I’d be interested to know if you think there is a generational issue at play in terms of demand for print – for scholars and/or clinicians? We have certainly seen evidence of this (as Tom mentions in reference to ISA) and it’s hard to imagine that the next generation of researchers and doctors won’t be primarily reading content digitally.

I think there are a lot of different factors in play, but probably yes, older readers are likely more comfortable with print. Other factors include the field itself, both in terms of research results and in terms of the peculiarities of that group of researchers; the type of material the journal publishes (a journal like Nature, with its magazine-like first 30 pages is much more likely to be browsed/skimmed than a journal that just publishes research papers and hence more likely to have more print utility).

Also, we should probably be clear that we are talking about the printed version of the journal from the publisher, not the use of print altogether. I don’t think there are huge numbers of readers who are completely divorced from print. We still don’t have really good systems for reading and annotating/note taking on the electronic versions of papers. So even if you’re getting the online-only version of a journal, odds are you are at some point printing out a copy locally.

I’d simply note that “older” readers (I happen to be 60) look at their bookshelves and, at least some of them, see journals from 30 years ago that they can simply pick up and flip through at will. How many “subscribers” to electronic journals can trust that their subscription will be valid after a journal has folded?

Perpetual access to content is pretty much standard these days, at least for reputable journals. There are all sorts of permanent archives, things like LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, Portico, etc., that provide access to content should a journal fold.

Perpetual access for institutions is standard, as you say, David, however it I’m not sure this has yet been resolved across the board for members. It’s something that we are working on with the societies we publish for on a case by case basis. In the meantime, depending on their member demographics, societies can still continue to offer print as an option for members who want it.

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