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Fighting on Three Fronts — A Presentation to the Council of Scientific Society Presidents


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Recently, I was asked to participate in a panel for the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP). I am including the slides of that presentation at the bottom of this post, and will summarize the presentation below.

Among the various concerns of professional societies today are the new mandates for open access (OA); competition in the traditional marketplace with large, established commercial publishers; and what could be called “the enemy within,” a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the rhetoric of the Cold War, in that enemy is the problem of governance — namely, how professional societies are run and whether that mode of operation is suitable to the environment in which they must work today.

As publishers plot their strategy concerning the new OA mandates, they need to determine whether the mandates will hurt them or help them. The first thing to bear in mind is that these mandates differ in many respects. There are now mandates from universities, from philanthropic funding organizations, and from government agencies. The terms of these mandates differ; some are Green OA, some are Gold OA, and some permit embargoes for a limited time, while others do not. Before a publisher can put together a plan, it’s necessary to do the homework. How many articles published over the past 10 years would have been affected had these mandates existed during that period? What are the requirements, if any, for the deposit of copies of articles into public repositories?

Some publishers may quickly conclude that the obvious course of action may be to convert a traditional publication into a Gold OA one. Not so fast. Besides the fact that many traditional journals support services that Gold OA publications often do not (e.g., extensive editorial work on manuscripts from non-native-English speakers), there is a huge revenue gap between the average article published in the traditional manner and the evolving standards for Gold OA fees. Andrew Odlyzko asserts that the average article earns $5,000 in revenue. While I suspect that Odlyzko overstates the case, even if he is off by 20%, there is still a big drop to get to the cost for publishing an article at PLoS ONE ($1,350). Publishers that make this switch are likely to experience a sharp fall-off in revenue, which in turn will mean less funding for such programs as outreach and early-career professional development. There is a very large cost to the new developments in OA publishing, and professional societies are likely to bear the brunt of it.

The current focus on the new OA mandates are distracting many people from the second front of the battle, namely, the powerful competition coming from the largest commercial publishers. While these organizations are often simply cast in the role of evil villain, the fact is that these companies got where they are today because they are very good at what they do. Among their accomplishments is the development of a method of marketing — the sale of aggregations — which enables libraries to reduce the cost of administration for building collections. As a consequence of this, the largest publishers tend to dominate the selection process for library acquisitions, leaving few crumbs for the smaller publishers, including professional societies. Over the next few years, it is unlikely that this trend will be reversed, nor is there much probability that libraries will somehow find new budget dollars to acquire more materials from small publishers. The professional societies need to look beyond the library budget for revenue streams if they are going to maintain the vibrancy of their publishing programs.

The third front is governance and management. During flush times, a society may not need the sharpest rules for management, as it can muddle through even if its leadership thinks of its publishing operations as a backwater. But these are not flush times; the current environment is characterized by disruptive change and pressure on traditional business models. In order to meet the requirements of the marketplace, as even not-for-profit organizations must, professional societies are going to have to study how they make decisions and whether they have the right protocols in place to be competitive. This is going to involve some soul-searching, which may stress some aspects of the organization’s makeup and collegiality. It is a property of governance that when it is a problem, that one problem tends to dominate everything, as poor governance interferes with an organization’s decision-making process.

The slides above provide more detail. I was joined on this panel by Mark Mandelbaum of ACSESS and Susan Skomal of BioOne. Their case studies provided much to ponder for the attendees. I wish to thank John Downing, President of ASLO, for arranging this panel and inviting me to participate.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.


4 thoughts on “Fighting on Three Fronts — A Presentation to the Council of Scientific Society Presidents

  1. “The professional societies need to look beyond the library budget for revenue streams if they are going to maintain the vibrancy of their publishing programs.” And at the same time, Individuals are a decreasing source of revenue. Any suggestions on where they should look?

    Posted by ballco | May 1, 2013, 10:06 am
  2. One possible solution is to copublish with a large commercial publisher and add your journals to the big packages they offer. Another is to develop small meetings around hot topics.

    Posted by Lois Smith | May 1, 2013, 10:55 am
    • I’ll point out that there are alternatives, including partnering with a large non-commercial, not-for-profit publisher that can offer similar benefits (conflict of interest statement: I work for such a publisher, Oxford University Press).

      Posted by David Crotty | May 1, 2013, 11:58 am
      • Yes, certainly, I should have mentioned that as well. Nonprofits well understand nonprofit priorities and concerns.

        Posted by Lois Smith | May 1, 2013, 7:50 pm

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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