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.
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.