As a society publisher, my colleagues and I have been asked on several occasions to participate in discussions about remaining competitive against commercial publishers. Staying competitive is a tough thing to do when you are out-spent and out-resourced.

Scientific Society Publisher Alliance

This frustration comes through loud and clear from a new organization announced earlier this week, the Scientific Society Publisher Alliance (SSPA). The SSPA currently includes heavy hitters in biomedical sciences including the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), Society for Neuroscience (SfN), American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), American Physiological Society (APS), American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), Genetics Society of America (GSA), Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE), American Association of Immunologists (AAI), American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), and American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).

I had a chance to ask Mark Johnston, Editor-in-Chief, Genetics (published by GSA), and Chair of the SSPA, some questions about the goals of this new alliance.

“The mission of the SSPA is to raise awareness of society-sponsored journals as longstanding venues for the certification and communication of scientific advances,” said Johnston. “The goal is to raise the profile of community-run journals, which have become overshadowed by metrics and trends.”

The specific concerns of this alliance are clearly outlined on its website which states:

SSPA members are concerned that the proliferation of perceived high-impact, for-profit journals — most of which are not rooted in the scientific community — is damaging science by diminishing the influence of active, practicing scientists in determining the trajectories of their disciplines.

There is a whole lot to unpack in this statement.

Given the subject matter covered by alliance journals, the SSPA is focusing on their perceived market losses to Nature (owned by Springer-Nature) and Cell (owned by Elsevier). In fact, an editorial authored by Johnston, the chair of journals at ASM, and the Editor in Chief of mBio about the need for this alliance further details their concerns with for-profit journals in their space.

That editorial, discussed by fellow chef Phil Davis, blames a loss of market share on the proliferation of journals (in particular mega-journals), greater emphasis on the Journal Impact Factors (JIFs), and “’glam’ journals that maintain their high JIFs by limiting their size to create artificial scarcity.”

“Springer/Nature and Cell/Elsevier certainly have more resources than our individual societies,” Johnston said, “But more important, I think, is their leveraging of the high JIF of their flagship journal.”

Johnston contends that these journals are “not rooted in the scientific community” because the journal editors are employees of the for-profit journals, as opposed to volunteer editors from societies.

“The peer-editors of society journals all have a record of accomplishment in science and are well-recognized as accomplished, experienced scientists. I submit that that bestows authority to certify their peers’ contributions to the literature,” Johnston said.

An editorial authored by Johnston in Genetics this week claims that, “Today journals run and edited by employees of for-profit publishers outnumber those run and edited by scientists who serve not-for-profit scientific societies.” Note that Johnston authored this editorial as editor of Genetics and not as chair of the SSPA, although it was provided to The Scholarly Kitchen along with the SSPA Press Release.

While it is true that commercial entities publish more journals than societies (64% compared to 30% as stated in the 2015 STM report); many of those journals in the commercial pool are society-owned journals.

Often when societies partner with a commercial publisher, the society maintains editorial control — they select the editors, they conduct the peer review. Further, some non-profit publishers do have professional editors instead of volunteers and many commercial journals have working scientists as editors. Lastly, many societies have very specific contracts with editors and are paying six-figure honorariums to their “volunteers.”

That noted, Johnston said his concern is that many biomedical journals dominating the field, namely the Nature and Cell family of journals, do rely on full-time employee editors. “Just as judges on the courts are appointed based on their experience and record in the field of law, I feel that journal editors charged with judging what should enter the literature should be appointed based on their experience and record in science. We don’t appoint people just out of law school and clerkships to the courts; why do we want to give editors just out of graduate school and postdoc such influence?” Johnston asks.

The SSPA seeks to make a distinction between society journals and commercial journals by educating authors about the benefit and value of supporting their own scientific communities and ensuring that their work — and profits made off their work — are returned to the scientific community through society research grants, outreach, and education.

Beyond the editorial control at the top of each journal, the SSPA stresses concern that for-profit journals influence the direction of science. “They (the commercial publishers) have — wittingly or not — caused the JIF to have enormous influence on science. The inappropriate use of the JIF as an article-level (and scientist-level) metric has been well-documented, yet it continues to play a major role in determining the course of science (who gets hired, funded and promoted),” Johnston said.

The rewards for publishing in high-impact journals can influence the kind of work that is being done. Authors dependent on grants and getting bonuses for papers in high IF journals can certainly tailor their research interest based on what they think will have the most impact. “It has resulted in undue emphasis on fashionability (which is what the high JIF journals tend to look for) rather than on long-term importance. I believe that editorial decisions that are rooted in the likelihood of a paper to attract attention in the short term and to get lots of citations in the short term do not serve science well,” Johnston said.

While the Genetics Society of America does not promote the JIF on its website, other societies in the alliance do. Likewise, some of the alliance societies including ASM, APS and GSA have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), while others such as FASEB and ASPB have not.

Regardless of whether each society in the alliance uses the JIF to promote their journals within their respective communities, the SSPA hopes to de-emphasize the importance of the JIF to authors looking at where to submit papers. “That damages science by wasting authors’ energy (as they desperately search for the journal with the highest possible JIF that will accept their papers) and delaying publication of their work (as their paper cascades down the JIF ladder of journals),” Johnston said.

Competing with commercial journals is one of the challenges of a society publisher, particularly those that are self-published. These societies are not limited to “science” societies and an argument could be made that broadening the scope of the alliance would provide for a more powerful platform. Johnston says not yet. “I would love it if the SSPA included other scholarly societies outside of science! I hope the SSPA eventually goes there,” Johnston said. “It seems to me that’s where the competition is most acute (because of the proliferation of journals in that space), or at least the most apparent, and it’s that field that is most metrics-driven.”

There is certainly value in promoting the benefits of society-run journals. Those journals actually have a large advantage over commercial journals in one way — the people. The first place to start promoting these benefits is within the societies. Those members should already see a benefit in publishing within their own community.

If the journals in the alliance believe that their members are preferring to publish in commercially owned journals, then perhaps those members can share with the society what journals can do to attract these authors. On the other hand, if these societies are also losing members, they will continue to see their market share decline, making this an even bigger issue than where to publish.

Society journals are wise to do an environmental scan to see what their role is within their respective communities. For all the reasons stated earlier (chasing JIF, competing with mega-journals, changes in attitudes around peer review), the stature of journals and even the influence of the societies has likely changed. Likewise, an analysis on what make a commercial journal more attractive to an author than a society journal must be explored. For example, many of the journals in the SSPA charge submission fees and page fees that are not being charged by the big competing journals.

The charge of the SSPA and the comments that accompany the launch feel like an emotional response to market changes. In order to win over the hearts and minds of potential authors, some data-driven solutions will need to be made available. At the end of the day, societies should have access to members that see value in supporting those society journals. If the members find a better deal elsewhere, it may be difficult to convince them to come back.

There are very strong arguments for the scientific community to have control over their scholarly ecosystem. That said, it’s the academic community that values high Impact Factors and the authors in scientific communities that continue to support commercial journals. These journals must be doing something right.


14 Thoughts on "Biological Science Societies Hope to Convince Authors to Stay in the Society Family"

I’m kind of torn here — I think this group’s cause is a righteous one. I have only worked for publishers owned and run by the research community, and strongly believe that the community should both benefit from, and control its communication ecosystem. But their arguments seem off base and their efforts misguided.

First, blaming academia’s over-reliance on the Impact Factor on a handful of top journals is ludicrous. The behavior of those journals is a reaction to the conditions set for them by academia. Asking those journals to change the system is a bit like asking the tail to wag the dog. The root of the problem is in the academic career and funding systems, not in the publications that have optimized their approaches to serve those systems.

Second, the question of “professional” editors versus working academics is a complete red herring (full disclosure, in the past I have served as a professional editor for a not-for-profit journal run by a research institution). There is no red line that divides journals with this approach from other journals, and no 100% correlation between their ownership and business model and the type of editor used. I have regularly worked with societies that employ full time editors for their journals, and there are many commercially-owned journals that employ working academics as editors. This group presents no evidence that one type of editor is superior to the other. In fact, many indicators (at least those apparently valued by the research community) suggest that professional editors may be a better approach. There is no obvious correlation between being a working scientist that makes important discoveries and being a talented editor. While there is often overlap between the two, they are separate skill sets. Further, the notion that someone can just walk out of graduate school and become a decision editor at Nature is disingenuous.

As you note, by including the word “Scientific” in the group’s name, they shut out an enormous portion of their academic colleagues, as many of the issues they are facing are shared with the Humanities and Social Sciences. This is a seriously myopic misstep.

But most of all, researchers are generally unaware (or don’t care) who publishes a journal, or whether it is associated with or owned by a society. Surveys of authors confirm this (here’s one where it comes close to last in the criteria authors use to choose a journal Authors, unsurprisingly, generally act in their own self-interest. If you want authors to support your product rather than a different one, you need to out-compete that product and do a better job of offering authors what they need. Simply asking authors to sacrifice their own career advancement for the benefit of their home society is likely to be ineffective.

To David’s first point, I’m not asking the commercial journals to change. I’m encouraging authors to change their behavior and publish more of their work in society journals. I recognize that’s a heavy lift at the moment, but I hope that by promoting the virtues of society journals authors will see that those journals are a good product worthy of their support.

Second, I recognize professional editors have a place in the publishing ecosystem. For many journals they’re necessary. My premise is that an editor with a well-recognized record of accomplishment and experience as a scientist brings more authority to judge a piece of scientific work than does an editor without a proven record and with less experience as a practicing (and publishing) scientist. Science has long been self-(peer) governed, and society journals maintain that tradition. And while someone may not walk out of their postdoc into an editorial position at Nature, I believe it happens with their secondary and tertiary journals.

Are there any published comparisons of society page payments and open access author processing fees? Are any society members publishing OA and how are the qualities of the two types of publication perceived?

The most constructive approach forward, IMHO, would be to investigate whether the membership model—a distinct characteristic of the society publisher over its commercial counterpart—can be leveraged into a competitive advantage. If not, societies may be best to emulate what commercial publishing houses are doing more effectively.

Phil– I do believe that members/access to members is THE competitive advantage societies have over commercial publishers. That said, many societies are seeing drops in membership as the social dynamics change. If societies are not staying nimble and making changes that attract younger members, that advantage is lost. Further, without providing a commercial publisher with access to high numbers of members, societies may have a hard time getting a decent deal on commercial partnerships. Basically the entire floor falls out of the society system. In addition to the obvious threats that come with societies having to compete with commercial publishers (and not-for-profit mega journals), societies are also having to deal with loss of subscriptions from an aging membership, loss of revenue over content going to Research Gate or Sci-Hub, and accessibility of “free” content in general (preprints and public access mandates). Large commercial operations can absorb some of those losses by offering a suite of other products. The average society has a harder time of that.

To extend a bit one of the points Angela made above, one of the primary benefits that _some_ academic faculty saw in being members of a particular society was access to one or more journals published by that society, either entirely covered by their membership payment or at a significantly reduced subscription cost. A couple decades ago, when that access was print issues sent to the member’s home or office, that meant convenient access to the content of those journals without having to visit their library, which also carried many of those same titles. With the move to electronic access, it’s just as easy for that faculty member to access the library-supplied content as it is the membership-supplied content, and at no out of pocket cost to the faculty member.

I’ve talked to a number of engineering faculty over the last few years about this very topic, and most told me that they would never drop their membership to their _primary_ society (the one whose conferences they might attend or in whose journals they might publish), but that if they were also members of a second or third society in a related disciplinary area that THOSE are the memberships they were dropping because the biggest advantage they were seeing from those memberships was access to those societies’ publications, and if their institutions have a subscription to those titles, the need to spend money on a membership in one of those (to them) non-core societies to acquire convenient access to those titles disappears.

It seems to me that most journals are founded because no one else is serving the community. Perhaps, it would be better for the societies involved in SPSS to go out and find out what is needed and then serve that need rather than accuse those who are serving the need of publishing rubbish!

It’s also interesting to see the lack of any mention of the journal Science in the arguments, which is arguably as guilty of the accusations as Nature and Cell, yet is run by a not-for-profit research society. Again, this indicates that the arguments being made are off base, and are not necessarily reflective of the important divide between commercial and non-commercial publishers.

As a society journal, Science offers most of the features of society journals I highlighted in my editorial. It’s a scientist-run journal rooted in the scientific community, and its not-for-profit society reinvests in the scientific community. Of course a journal such as Science can’t be run with volunteer academic editors, so it’s a good example of where professional editors are needed. But Science has always had a well-recognized and accomplished scientist chosen by he scientific community (via the AAAS) at the helm, so I’d say it’s essentially a peer-edited journal. And, Science, unlike the Nature journals, has an editorial board that the editors consult.

I guess what’s confusing me is whether the SSPA’s problem is with the behaviors discussed or with who is doing the behaviors. Is it okay to run a “glam” journal of limited size to create artificial scarcity, to emphasizes that journal’s JIF, to capitalize on that JIF by starting a whole line of spin-off journals (including a megajournal), and to have a professional editor who is not a working researcher if one does so for the financial benefit of the research community? If so then the complaints are not relevant here and the emphasis should be focused solely on where the money goes. If instead these are all objectionable acts, then it shouldn’t matter who is doing them.

Let’s not forget the JAMA family or NEJM. I’m not sure why we need a new organization. Isn’t this perfectly in ALPSP’s wheelhouse?

it’s a personal bugbear, but I want to push back as I often do on the idea that “glam” journals are inherently a bad thing. they are good, not bad. you cannot look at any even broadly meritocratic part of culture without noticing a tendency to pick winners. there is nothing wrong with that. it is helpful to have particular nodes that pretty much everyone can point to and say, even if not THE BEST, generally of high quality. that is literally everything about meritocracy working as intended. neither academia nor society would be better off if we had no way of roughly distinguishing the quality of journal A from journal B. that does not mean these rankings are fixed in stone, that JIFs are always correct, etc. but the fact is that a system based on trying to find better and worse research is always going to create loci where the better and worse work *generally* clusters. I understand that it sounds good to use words like “elite” and “authority” when talking about major journals and top schools, but I honestly have never heard a clear proposal for what people who dislike these want to see in their places. Not everyone at Harvard is a genius; not every article in Science is Nobel Prize-worthy; not every professors at Cal State-Northridge is not at the top rank, etc. these are rough guides. eliminating them would hurt the academic project, not help it, unless you honestly believe that all research and researchers are fundamentally identical in quality, which I don’t think anyone does.

This is a bit of a side note to this discussion of commercial publishers competing for authors with societies, but I think it bears mentioning as it’s part of the larger conversation around how these two types of publishers interact.

Having been part of numerous communication and decision-making cycles that take place when a society decides to begin publishing their journals with a commercial publishing partner, I have often heard from senior staff at the society that they are making the change due to the lower cost, streamlined process, technology and platform benefits that commercial publishers can offer them. There also seems to be a certain level of fatigue on the part of the society in keeping up with workflow and technology changes that they are challenged to address with their current staff, many of whom have been doing their jobs quite comfortably for many years, without a huge amount of change being thrust upon them.

The truth of it is that both commercial publishers and society publishers are typically both using many of the same services providers for their work and that by simply asking those vendors to help them work through the challenges they face, nearly all of the benefits of partnering with a commercial publisher can be achieved by the society itself. Improvements in cost, efficiency, and technology can be made in a measured and manageable way, or all at one time, depending on the publisher’s desires and ecosystem requirements.

This requires a solid relationship of trust with your services provider. If society publishers don’t feel that they have that level of support from their current supplier(s), they should seek out new vendors that can provide it.

Echoing some of these comments, as well as an earlier posting by Phil Davis, it would seem that society journals need to reevaluate their workflow and business models to remain competitive with commercially published journals. I have worked for several society publishers as well as in commercial publishing; they use many of the same suppliers and vendors, yet the business approach differs considerably. Angela’s points about diminishing membership are well taken, but most subscriptions are sold to institutions for online access. Perhaps the sales efforts are lagging.

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