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.”
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.