Microbiology is a growing field, nevertheless, a shrinking proportion of papers are being published in society-sponsored journals, a recent analysis of PubMed records reveals.

An editorial, “Support Science by Publishing in Scientific Society Journals,” was published recently in the journal, mBio, by Pat Schloss, chair of the journals board for the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Arturo Casadevall, Editor in Chief of mBio (an ASM journal), and Mark Johnston, the Editor in Chief of Genetics, from the Genetics Society of America (GSA).

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While microbiologists have always published in broader disciplinary journals, the authors of this editorial are concerned with the wider scale effect this trend will exert on the cultural fabric of science. Societies have traditionally played roles that extend far beyond publishing journals, such as organizing conferences, supporting young researchers, educating the public, and advocacy. Because scientific societies depend heavily on publication revenue to support these roles, a decline in their journals puts these efforts at risk.

What is causing the decline in society journal publishing? Schloss and colleagues attribute the combined effects of high-impact “glam journals” and mega journals, both of which are drawing authors (and their papers) away from society journals.

While the authors present new data, they vent several complaints about scientific publishing. It reads as if they are blaming commercial publishers for their success.

At one point, Schloss and others begin to develop an argument that publisher brand matters a lot to scientific authors, yet shy away from providing any concrete solutions for improving the society journal brand. They write:

Just as the prefixes “Nature” and “Cell” seem to bring gravitas to many journal titles for some scientists and represent implied signals for authors and readers about the quality of the papers that they publish, journals published by professional scientific societies should carry the same authority. After all, they have a long tradition of authoritative leadership and management and are edited by some of the most accomplished scientists in their fields. Professional societies provide legitimacy to the journals they publish. When an author submits a paper to a scientific society journal, or when someone reads a paper published in a scientific society journal, they can be assured that the journal is legitimate and has a decades-long track record of quality.

Paradoxically, the ASM is the largest publisher of papers in microbiology, yet none of its journals convey the brand of its society. Ditto for the Genetics Society of America journals. And, as for “decades-long track record of quality,” mBio and G3 began publication in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Brands are important in science, not only for those within a discipline — who understand the implied status of titles within their field — but to non-specialists who are involved in making funding, promotion, and tenure decisions. Without a clear, unambiguous brand, those reading a CV may be unable to distinguish the Journal of Bacteriology (published by the ASM), from Bacteriology Journal, a title published by Science Alert in Dubai. This is why brands matter.

The editorial provides no roadmap for fellow society editors and publishers other than a dire warning of what may eventually come to pass.

From the editorial, it would be easy to argue that societies need to emulate what Nature, Science, The Lancet, JAMA, EMBO, PLOS, BioMed Central and many others have done, that is, to create an unambiguous publishing brand. This is easier said than done. If your brand is not strong and easily recognizable, extending it to other journals doesn’t provide much benefit. Changing titles is also a costly and time-consuming process, creates confusion among readers, librarians, subscription fulfillment agencies, indexing and metrics companies. The overall costs of changing the Journal of Bacteriology (a title in continuous publication since 1916) to ASM-Bacteriology, for example, may greatly outweigh future benefits.

“Support Science by Publishing in Scientific Society Journals” is a message with which few will disagree. Unfortunately, the editorial provides no roadmap for fellow society editors and publishers other than a dire warning of what may eventually come to pass. As relatively new entrants into scholarly publishing, commercial publishers learned much from societies, tweaking models and improving processes. It may now be time for societies to look for viable solutions from their commercial rivals.

Disclosure: I have consulted for the ASM and GSA on topics unrelated to branding.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.com/


4 Thoughts on "Support Science by Publishing in Scientific Society Journals"

Thanks for bringing attention to this editorial, Phil. As commercial and mega-journal publishers increase their market share, and, following the librarians, we not-for-profit and society journal publishers rue such trends, it would be more productive for us simply to embrace the reality that we must compete with the commercial sector in providing valued services to researchers.

This is an important factor in the continued viability of society publishing and the many important programs they contribute to their members and the scholarly community as a whole.

I am currently working on a report about learned societies and journals for Universities UK – it will be a small element of a bigger look at OA due to be published on December 5 but there will be a separate report on the learned society component sometime next year. The data are not fully analysed and I don’t want to anticipate too many findings. However, the issues discussed in this blog mainly affect the bigger STEM societies who maintain self-publishing operations. In humanities and social sciences, we were interested to discover that OA was actually leading some (many?) to give up self-publishing or links with smaller non-profit publishers because of the complexity of the environment that had been created by the lack of standardization in the OA space. Unless publishing at scale, title owners and publishers could not make the investments necessary to keep up with the proliferation of requirements and buffer the turbulence. This may seem a perverse outcome but one effect of OA appeared to be greater concentration of publishing in commercial hands. From the societies’ perspective, it freed and secured organizational and financial resources for their wider programs supporting members and at the public promotion of the interests of their field.

Interesting points, Robert. Can you clarify some points? The data are UK, data, right? When you say “self publishing” and talk about smaller non-profit publishers, are you talking about articles and journals respectively? When you say “complexity of the OA space” and “proliferation of requirements and turbulence,” could you provide concrete examples? And then, in the end, are you suggesting that researchers report a sensitivity to the metadata and other elements surrounding their choice of publisher? An alternative would be marketing by commercial firms of the marketing effectiveness.

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