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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Environmental considerations
- Members were “getting buried with an enormous volume of hard copy”
- 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?
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.