Open access (OA) presents somewhat of a dilemma for many scholarly societies. On the one hand, it aligns directly with what is typically a core goal – the dissemination of knowledge – but on the other, it potentially threatens their financial viability and, therefore, their ability to fund other important activities, such as outreach, support for young and early career researchers, advocacy, and so on. This challenge was highlighted by the UK Finch Group in their 2013 progress report, which stated that, “The potential damage to learned societies that may result from moves to OA – by whatever route – remains a matter of great concern to the Group.” Others are less sympathetic, however. I was recently told by a US librarian that he doesn’t want to pay for societies’ “vacations” (referring to their annual meetings), and by an EC funder that “if learned societies are a casualty of the move to OA then so be it.”

Society Attitudes Towards Open Access

As a result of this dilemma, many (perhaps most?) societies have been perceived as not being as enthusiastic about OA as they perhaps should be. Up to now, there has been little real analysis of societies’ attitudes towards OA, but a recent study by TBI Communications, carried out on behalf of EDP Sciences, provides some initial data. Although small – just 33 societies responded to their survey* – it highlights some of the key issues of concern, as well as going some way towards counteracting this idea that scholarly associations are somehow anti-OA.

Some key findings include:

  • Over half the respondents (55%) had either a Strongly Positive or Positive attitude towards OA, with only 15% responding that their attitude was Negative; the remaining 30% were Neutral
  • Interestingly, the society officers surveyed believe that their members are, if anything slightly less supportive of OA than they are – 45.5% believe members are Neutral, 42% that they are Strongly Positive or Positive, and 12.1%, Negative
  • Unsurprisingly, given most scholarly societies’ reliance on publishing revenue, most saw the ability to maintain revenues from their existing publications as the single biggest issue. 82% Agreed or Strongly Agreed with the statement: “A move towards OA  will inevitably place some learned societies’ journals into financial jeopardy”. More surprising is the fact that nearly half of those who Strongly Agreed with this statement were based in the US – despite the fact that US societies are typically less dependent on journal revenue than their European counterparts
  • Other significant challenges (ranked most or second most important) included dealing with complexity of OA publishing (59.38%), competing with large OA publishers (57.57%), and complying with funder mandates (54.54%)
  • Maintaining ethical and business integrity was seen as the least significant issue, although several comments highlighted risks such as: “The perception that authors can buy their way into a journal thus compromising quality” and “The “bad apples” of predatory OA publishers and the buzz words “vanity publishing” or “pay to publish” spoil the general perception of the thriving, positive development of OA among society membership.” However, the focus group suggested that learned societies can help by providing their “stamp of quality and authority”
  • In terms of opportunities, the biggest by far – with nearly 70% Agreeing or Strongly Agreeing – was perceived to be enabling researchers in poor and developing countries to have broader access to information. Given the reach into these countries of organizations like Research4Life (launched over 10 years ago), which provides access to over 44,000 research publications in 7,700 developing world libraries, this is quite surprising. It would be interesting to know whether the societies interviewed participate in and/or are aware of these programs and, if so, whether they think they are valuable
  • Over half the respondents also felt that OA presented their organizations with opportunities for increasing inter-disciplinary access to research information and for accelerating the impact of research
  • Societies are using a variety of means to keep up-to-date with OA developments. Those whose journals are published with a publishing partner not surprisingly rely heavily on their publisher for information (over 80%), but reading industry information, following key people/resources, and participating in industry groups are all also important (The Scholarly Kitchen got several nice shout-outs too!)

Feedback from the focus group also highlighted some other OA issues and opportunities for societies, especially around advocacy, communications, collaboration, and publishing, as well as opportunities for third parties.

While many societies are “generally positive” about OA, and recognize that it’s an opportunity for their organizations, communities, and members, a substantial proportion (45%) are still either neutral (30%) or negative (15%). So what can be done to help more of them embrace OA? In my conversations with senior society executives several themes have emerged. Some, such as the importance of collaboration between societies and the need for help understanding the complexities of OA and keeping up-to-date with developments, are reflected in this study. Others ideas not reported here include: accepting the need for a flexible approach to OA – no one single approach will work for all societies any more than for all individuals or subject communities; actively involving them in the decision-making process (as the Finch Group did) – both to increase buy-in and improve decision-making; and helping educate their Boards and members about the nuances of OA and its potential impact (positive and negative) on their society’s future health and sustainability.

Publishers working with societies are already playing a role here, and perhaps can do more – but so can other members of the research community. In particular, OA advocates and funders seeking to make the research they fund more widely available stand to gain from giving societies a stronger voice, listening to what they have to say, recognizing the unique role they play in their disciplines and communities, and helping them find sustainable ways to manage the transition to OA.

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


30 Thoughts on "What Societies Really Think About Open Access"

Great post Alice. Many Societies feel they’re between a rock and a hard place. OA would allow them to better pursue their overall mission as far as disseminating knowledge, but until significant alternate streams of revenue are found to replace those that would be lost it’s a tough nut to crack.

One thing I wanted to comment on was your surprise that such a large percentage of those involved in societies view making material available to developing countries as an important opportunity. My a experience mirrors your own. In my experience most societies (and many publishers) do participate in programs which grant access to their materials for those in developing nations. They seem to do a poor job of educating both those within the Society (members and at board level) and the general public that this is something being done. Perhaps societies would benefit from a strong marketing and communication plan to get that message out.

Alice, why do you want more societies to “embrace OA”? I see APC OA as getting maybe 10% of the 2 million articles a year market, if that. People are not likely to pay for what the can get free. Delayed access along the lines of the US Public Access mandate is a different matter. Funder policy and economics are two different things, often not related.


*TA = „Toll Access”
** e.g.
“In fact, only a minority of the extant open-access journals actually charge processing fees, as first confirmed by the Kaufman-Wills Group (…) and reconfirmed in various ways subsequently. (…) Perhaps surprisingly, more than half of the subscription-based journals charge processing fees of one sort or another.”

Tomasz, you might use sentences instead of uninterpreted formulae. In particular I do not know what APC TA refers to, as the convention here is to consider APC and TA as mutually exclusive, even in hybrid journals. Then to, that many OA journals are subsidized and thus charge no APC is well known, but irrelevant to the present discussion. If you have a point to make please state it, so we can discuss it.

Where do I start? First, you need an e-commerce system for tracking and accepting payments for APCs. You need customer service and billing personnel to deal with these charges and authors who need help with them. Licensing is an enormous hairball to sort out. What sort of licenses are you going to use for articles? How will authors select them, and how will they be implemented? Most publishers have automated systems in place that do things like place a copyright line on every paper, which won’t work on a CC-BY paper. Ditto for rights management and permissions, where you’ve likely got a built-in automated system for people to request permissions for reuse which are unnecessary for many CC licenses (and which we’ve seen extremists jump on and attack as evidence of dishonesty from publishers rather than the reality of the situation which is the slow process of adapting a complex system). All of your licenses must be rewritten, all of your journal’s text on reuse and author rights must be rewritten. This usually involves lawyers and anything involving lawyers is complex and takes a long time. Likely a system wide review and update of your publishing policies will be necessary. Your website is going to have to be adapted to advertise the new OA capabilities, not to mention integrating your APC payment system. You’ll need new ways of displaying which papers are OA. You’ll need marketing efforts, etc. I could go on…

Plus multiple funder green mandates create a different set of complexities.

The CCC has just rolled out a new service via Rightslink that takes care of the whole APC process.

Thanks for the helpful summary. I was surprised that the report didn’t delve more deeply into the responses by discipline, although the sample was pretty small. Still, 75% of the respondents were in STEM fields and that’s telling.

As Peter Mandler recently noted of the HEFCE recent policy on OA for the next REF, it “reflects the reality that humanities scholarship is different from science.” I think the most important point you make here is “accepting the need for a flexible approach to OA – no one single approach will work for all societies any more than for all individuals or subject communities.”

Here is what the Society for Neuroscience thinks about OA:


“…In addition to innovative discoveries, eNeuro will feature studies that focus on negative results, failure to reproduce, tools and methods, and new theories, as well as commentaries…”

Consider in context with

“…the new online journal is expected to contribute to SfN’s long-term financial stability as revenue generated by eNeuro will allow SfN to invest…”

Or in other words, OA provides the SfN with an opportunity to join a new category of enterprises such as these –

Open access is here and will not go away. Blaming open access for loss of revenue is incorrect. Before, readers had to pay in order to read scientific articles. Open access means that readers do not need to pay… but someone has to pay – the authors. Open access articles are not free. The free access for the readers is paid by the article’s authors. Fees are not small ones, for example 1600Euros or 2000USDollars per article is not a small fee for the authors. Open access just changes who is the paying entity, from the readers side to the authors side. Open access brings money for the open access journal publisher.

I don’t think anyone is “blaming” OA, but the fact is that there is simply NO WAY for publishers to charge a reasonable OA author fee, maintain a fairly selective acceptance rate, and remain profitable. We can debate what “reasonable” fees and accept rates are, but for me the math just doesn’t add up.

As far as l know the OA publishers who exist today rely (or relied) on donations/grants etc. to get started and stay afloat until they figure out a business model which allows them to fly on their own, or they’re funded by other aspects of the organization. For some, moving to a “this is scientifically sound” type of peer review that allows the publication of a really high number of submissions equates to enough revenue. Maybe publishers could implement submission fees as well to supplement income. But I have yet to see any OA business model where a journal can maintain a truly selective accept rate, have reasonable author fees, and still operate on their own.

Also, I personally am very nervous about any journal publishing model which ties success or failure directly to the number of papers published.

I think it’s important to realize that the current author fees, high as they may seem, are subsidized by revenue from other sources such as subscription sales, and in some cases, revenue from other more profitable journals in a publisher’s stable. Take away those sources of funding and charge rates will greatly increase.

Though I will point out “Nucleic Acids Research”, a fully OA journal which has a pretty high rejection rate and a pretty high impact factor (8.278) which operates in the black. Then again, even with the selectivity, it may be something of an outlier because it still publishes a large number of articles in a crowded and well-funded field.

The asymmetry of the responses and the absence of any strongly negative responses suggests that we may be seeing a bias toward political correctness, which is a well known problem with this sort of sensitive survey. Some people are strongly against turning scholarly publishing into what they see as a vanity press.

it depends on whether you are talking sciences or humanities: in the sciences and medicine the author pay is standard and it is in the humanities where author pay remains rare to non-existent…

I do not think author pays is standard anywhere in scholarly publishing, including STM. Do you have data to the contrary? Paying page charges for extra features is not the same as author pays OA, far from it.

I think he means that in STM it is standard as the mode of delivering OA, not standard for the publishing as a whole. I would agree with this

I still do not agree because there is a lot of green delayed access in STM, probably far more than APC access. PubMed Central alone publishes over 80,000 papers and the US Public Access program will more than double that figure. Other funders are doing the same with their mandates, as are the universities. Then too, my understanding is that everything OUP publishes is on a 12 month delayed access basis and some other publishers do likewise, perhaps many others. My guess is that green OA far exceeds APC OA in STM.

Not everything we publish is publicly accessible after 12 months. The majority of our life science and medical journals and some journals in other fast moving fields follow this policy.

Any idea what percentage of the journals and/or articles you publish this amounts to? I assume it is a significant fraction, which still supports my point that delayed green access is a bigger OA player than APC OA.

But David Lipman claims that PMC is not a publisher, so how can you say PMC publishes 80,000 papers?

What is always lost in these discussions is the ‘old way’ of reasonable subscriptions pricing and modest page charges paid by authors. I was disappointed by the anonymous librarian’s very ignorant comment regarding society ‘vacations’, which was topped by the EC Funder.

Thanks for an interesting post on a topic of importance to society publishers. While the DC Principles Coalition was launched in response to calls for open access, the reality it was launched in response to public access mandates. Society publishers support public access but do not like be told how and when they should be accomplished. Most of the Coalition members were making their content freely available 12 months after publication well before the NIH Public Access Plan was introduced. In addition, as was noted above, online access was being provided to institutions in developing countries via several WHO initiatives.

The issue of open access is not the problem of lost revenue for the Society publisher. The issue is whether investigators are willing to part with their research dollars to pay for publication. It has already been shown that in an OA world, the research intensive academic institutions will provide the rest of us with free access to the scientific literature. Pharma and biotech companies will all have free access to the literature as will those in small colleges, as well as the public.

As OA interest has increased, many society publishers have added OA journals to their portfolio of journals. The American Physiological Society has partnered with The Physiological Society (UK) to produce Physiological Reports ( Many other societies have done something similar in order to respond to the needs and desires of authors.

Thanks Marty. Although some society publishers have added OA journals to their portfolio, I think it’s fair to say that at present they’re in the minority and are mostly larger scientific societies. Smaller societies that only publish one or two journals in areas which are less well funded are finding it more challenging to implement OA, which is why it’s so important for funders to understand their needs and be open to finding flexible solutions.

And yet the Latin American Studies Association has just decided to make its flagship journal, the Latin American Research Review, fully OA.

Thank you for this, Alice – very insightful. We have spent a lot of time talking about open access at our society. We have the standard author pays model in place, and because of our publishing partnership, we belong to the philanthropic initiatives you mention. Both serve valid purposes – getting the research into the hands of researchers in underfunded countries, and giving our authors options. It is an on-going conversation and we are trying to respond with flexibility and open-mindedness to our author and member communities. We continue to struggle with the numbers of “denied access” on our usage reports, and the staggering number of emerging OA mandates.

As far as broad dissemination of the research, we try to identify the research articles that would be of interest to non-specialists and report on the content in a more accessible language. We publish outreach papers and articles in our newsletter, both of which are freely accessible online. Often, we task our blog editor with translating an article into a post, which is also freely accessible. We value open access, and are in discussions about our data policies, but we also recognized the limited appeal of what we publish. A fisherman may read about the toxicity levels in his local river, but will he want to roll up his sleeves and delve into the models and statistics that provide the details of a risk assessment? Not likely. Where there IS a lot of interest in a given paper, we try to make it as accessible as possible, sometimes subsidizing the OA fees or responding to direct requests. I think there are ways to support society goals without undermining financial stability.

Comments are closed.