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.