As Michael Clarke recently wrote, one of the unintended consequences of Plan S, the new open access (OA) mandate from a group of European (and one US) funders, is that it is seen as an existential threat to independent, small, and research society journal publishers. The architect of the plan, Robert Jan-Smits has been quoted as saying that societies will have to, “bite the bullet and go open access.” But it’s unclear whether Plan S offers a sustainable path for societies. Is this an acceptable sacrifice or are societies, and not-for-profit publishing, worth preserving?

Talking Heads
“Burning down the (publishing) house!” Talking Heads, 1978, Image via AngryLambie1.

While Plan S has the right goal at its core – the world would be a better place with absolutely unfettered access to high quality, vetted information – it offers no new ideas for how to achieve and maintain that goal in a scalable, sustainable, and long-term manner. While the implementation plan calls for “support mechanisms for establishing Open Access journals, platforms, and infrastructures where necessary,” as well as a, “diversity of models and non APC-based outlets,” it offers nothing further as far as what those models might be or how that support might work. They are essentially passing-the-buck along to others, you figure out something new and maybe we’ll help you (“So long as you can meet these conditions the details of how you do so are not of great interest to us right now. It is for you publishers to tell us how you plan to implement the principles.”). Given that we’ve been experimenting with new OA models for nearly 20 years, and that Plan S goes into effect in a mere 13 months, it is unlikely that any new revolutionary business model will emerge, pass approval, be funded, and be in place by the time its requirements start.

Because of this, Plan S is a de facto Author-Pays, APC-based, Gold OA mandate. Publishers will largely be consumed with adapting to Plan S-related rules, rather than devoting time and funds to new experiments. And they’ll need some revenue source to keep the lights on while waiting for those new models to be uncovered, so APCs seem the most likely route.

While that creates problems for unfunded researchers (and entire fields of research), it’s also a problem for the smaller, independent publisher. APC Gold OA works best at scale because there is a direct relationship between revenue and the number of articles one publishes. Smaller publishers are already at a disadvantage – big publishers can do nearly everything cheaper than small companies because they’re buying in bulk. They can afford to run their own platforms and employ their own production and marketing services, rather than outsourcing them. A move to APC Gold OA is a move to market consolidation around the largest commercial publishers.

I don’t think this is a good thing, and before I explain why, first some full disclosure: I work for a not-for-profit publisher, where the majority of the journals we publish are owned by research societies. In my career, I have only ever worked for not-for-profit publishers associated with research institutions because I firmly believe that mission-driven publishing is the right way to drive scholarly communications in an ethical manner. I work with research societies every day, and am perhaps not an objective observer, so I wanted to be transparent about that (and to be clear, the opinions expressed here are my own, not those of my employer).

Why Do Societies Publish?

Every society I’ve worked with sees itself as a steward of their field. The society is meant to bring together and support its research community, to promote the study of the subject it represents and drive funding where available, and to guide and protect the integrity of that research. Publishing a journal is a natural extension of that mission, putting the members’ expertise to use in a high-quality peer review process to help improve and expose the latest research results. Society journals are sometimes started to foster communities of research. They are often not just “a journal” but the outlet for that community of research and its members working on advancing a particular field.

Publishing is a service business, and over time, offering that service to the broader community has become one of the main ways that research societies fund their activities. (It is perhaps worth noting that the first science journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was a private venture, funded personally by Henry Oldenburg, who was reportedly disappointed with its financial performance). Publishing involves a lot of tedious, difficult, and unglamorous work. If researchers had to spend much of their days sorting out DOI discrepancies or chasing down late peer reviewers, very little research would get done.

Why do societies need fundraising activities like journal publishing to pay for the things they do? Matt Ruen asks on Twitter, “If a society isn’t providing enough benefit for members (or other stakeholders) to support it, should it still exist?” Research societies are, like many charitable organizations, ambitious, and often their goals exceed the pocketbooks of their members. Most researchers are not particularly wealthy, and it is worth remembering that most grant funds cannot be used to pay for memberships (which caused major problems for PeerJ’s membership-based OA business model).

And so these organizations will turn to other activities and services in order to raise funds. The local high schools where I live often hold bake sales or car washes to raise money for their class trips. Patient advocacy and disease awareness groups hold marathons or other social events to bring in funds to do work on behalf of their communities. Through journals, research societies are putting their members to work, taking advantage of their expertise and authority to provide a service that can help raise funds to be put toward scholarship, training, education, advocacy and the many other positive things that societies offer.

The next question that often arises is, as asked here by Walt Crawford, why libraries should be paying to subsidize those activities. One could just as easily ask why marathon runners should be forced to support breast cancer research or those who want to eat cupcakes should be forced to support class trips. All of these organizations are offering a service or a product, and each buyer must decide for themselves whether they value that service enough to purchase it. We see libraries dropping major subscription packages when they are seen as lacking value for the price asked, so perhaps there’s no difference here.

Though to be fair, there is an important difference if one starts to dig a little deeper into the economics of society and not-for-profit journals. OA is often seen as a pathway to lowering the overall spend on research publication. cOAlition S, like all research funders, wants to maximize the return it gets on its funding spend. It makes sense to concentrate that funding on areas that offer lower prices and higher value.

Studies have repeatedly shown that journals from not-for-profit publishers are both lower priced, and offer better value to the community than their commercial counterparts. More importantly, if you want to maximize return on your research funding investment, why not spend that money in a manner where it will continue to be used within the community to drive research progress, rather than sitting idle in the bank account of a commercial company’s shareholders?

This is why so many research societies find Plan S so confounding. Because it offers no functional and implementable alternatives to APC-driven Gold OA, it effectively favors large commercial publishers over not-for-profit and research society publishers. A deliberate choice is being made to favor higher costs and to drive grant funding outside of the research community, rather than spending less and keeping it in areas where it can continue to provide value.

We know how pricing and the journals market have developed over recent decades as commercial publishers have increased their domination. Is increased consolidation with the largest of commercial publishers really the best path forward? For librarians and funders, doesn’t it make sense to favor a path where you can spend less, receive more, and keep those funds within the community where they can continue to support research?

Some societies will be able to adapt to Plan S, but I suspect most will either choose to exclude Plan S-funded authors, or give up their independence and sign on with larger publishing houses. I’m not sure that limited access for authors and greater dominance by highly profitable commercial publishers are the outcomes that cOAlition S are seeking, but this seems the most likely path ahead. As author and futurist Warren Ellis recently said, “systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are,” and here we see a potential extinction event being introduced into a complex ecosystem.

I can’t help but think back to a conversation I had with the head of a biomedical society recently, about the huge amount of time and effort they put into lobbying funding agencies and Congress each year to help drive research funds to their community. The loss of those efforts, not to mention the regular meeting cycle for most fields, are potential ripples, unintended consequences of deliberately disenfranchising community-led efforts in favor of commercial ones.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


22 Thoughts on "Why Society and Not-For-Profit Journals Are Worth Preserving: Better Economic and Continuing Value for the Community"

I am no longer involved in publishing and haven’t kept up with Plan S but it seems small societies have some options for converting their journals over to full OA while maintaining a viable business model with modest APCs. Ubiquity Press is a good example. They are able to take advantage of the economies of scale you mention and still provide basic publishing services to small societies for $550 per article published. The society could simply charge that or charge a higher though still quite modest APC of say $1,000 and reserve $450 to help support the activities of the society. Partnering with a university scholarly publishing office might be another option for small societies.

Hybrid journals were originally developed as a means of allowing publishers transition from subscription to APC funded OA while minimizing the economic risks. In my view it has turned into a permanent model that exhibits the worst of both the subscription and APC funding models. For that reason I can understand why funding bodies interested in promoting OA for the research they fund are considering imposing the constraints being implemented through Plan S.

I’m not sure that most (any?) societies would cover their costs earning $450 per paper. Remember that under APC-driven Gold OA, every paper published has to cover a lot of expenses that occur outside of that paper. For a highly selective journal, the accepted papers have to pay the costs of peer review on every rejected paper for example.

It’s more likely that a society in that position would sign on with a big commercial publisher (or at least a big NFP like OUP/CUP) and receive more services (a global marketing team for example), charge a much higher APC, and then at least hope to come out revenue positive.

Maybe I wasn’t clear. Ubiquity Press charges $550 for each article it publishes. That is their only charge. They host the journal, provide a journal management system, format and generate XML for the articles, assign DOI etc. I believe they also provide some level of managing editor services for the journal/society. The editor/editorial board does the peer review. ‘

How the publishing fee is paid is up to the society/non-profit organization using their services. A society could publish their journal through Ubiquity Press and just ask the author to pay the $550 publishing fee. Some other entity such as a charity could pay the fee such as is the case of the for the Open Library of the Humanities. If a society wants to generate some income to support the society they could for example charge a $1000 APC, use the extra $450 to support the society and still charge a fairly modest APC for publishing in their journal.

The point I was trying to make is societies and not-for- profits have other options then going with a large commercial publisher if they want to or are forced by Plan S to transition to OA. They can get good quality publishing services through an organization like Ubiquity Press at a very reasonable price.

To reiterate from my previous answer — Ubiquity Press offers excellent services, but they do not offer the complete package of services necessary to run a journal. The society will have costs beyond that subset of services. $450 is not going to be enough to cover the additional costs, so the journal would lose money.

I think many authors would find the description of $1000, or even $500, as a modest APC fee, completely incomprehensible. I published my first article as a master’s student. Single author. I had no grant funding for my scholarship. $1000, adjustments made to put my salary into today’s dollars, would have been 3 weeks of my salary. In other words, I would not have published.

Absolutely! and the same for retired but productive workers.

I agree entirely with Lisa Hinchliffe and Robert Cameron’s comments. Any plan that relies on a author pays only model forces out independent researchers without grant support, including the active retired.

Lisa – Plan S will change nothing – the Commercial Publishers will continue their acquisition of AO Journals utilising exactly the same strategy as they have done with all the top rated subscription journals, then when having absorbed all the majors AO journals into their stables of journals; they will again recommence the extraction of enormous rents, but this time from the Authors & Funders rather than the Libraries – their domination of academic publishing will continue unabated.

Hopefully nothing in my comment led you to think I believe otherwise Geoffrey. Not only do I think it will continue, if Plan S is fully implemented, I expect we will see an acceleration of the contracting between societies and commercial platforms.

Lisa – no not at all.
Just baying at the Moon, trying to point out what’s seemingly self-evident.

The idea that the society could reserve $450 to cover other activities assumes they have no publications staff to pay, no typesetting, etc. — which I don’t think the $450 per paper would reasonably cover.

Another point I’d like to bring up is that if a society journal is publishing 1,000 papers a year under a subscription model, how much can they expect that number to decrease if they switch to a gold model? How many authors would choose to take their submissions elsewhere because they cannot pay? It sounds like income would become very volatile/unpredictable, whereas a subscription model tends to be fairly dependable income.

Thank you. The danger that Societies will implode, or be reduced to producing informal, grey literature newsletters is great.

Thank you as this article articulates the society publishing point of view. Having worked for different societies, I understand the value that journals bring to a society that then help achieve its charitable goals. However, the message that is not relayed adequately to a membership is that the best way to support your society is to submit your best paper to the society’s journal.
S plan affects small society publishers, but it also affects the high quality specialist journal that will now not have access to some really good research. Ultimately it is the researchers who are being punished as not all research can be funded by Wellcome Trust, Gates or other large funding bodies. We work in a global world and if S plan derails hybrid journals then where will some of the good research coming out from developing countries or under funded areas be published?
The funders who support S plan need to engage with the stakeholders, and they are to some extent but whether it will have any impact remains to be seen.

Lots of questions
(1) Since the driving force behind Plan S is European science funders, do Society Publishers in Europe operate with the same funding structure as societies elsewhere?
(2) How do Societies feel about the impact of research locked behind paywalls? Are they generally in agreement that this is bad for society as a whole?
(3) Do Societies really feel it is an “experiment” to ask their funders (members etc.) to emphasize the distribution of research as a priority?

1. Data on UK social science society publishing – and its contribution to society revenues can be found in a paper that I co-authored I am not aware of anything comparable for other European countries.
2. The UK social science societies I work with are generally agnostic about paywalls. Their journals mostly offer Green options for deposit in university repositories. Several have been making moves to create mirror journals alongside their main hybrid journals – I don’t know of any that do not offer a Gold option. However, these would be barred by Plan S. Mostly the feeling is that, if you want public access to social science research, OA is not the best way to achieve it. Journals are where a scientific community has a conversation among its members rather than promoting its work to the public. The issue of access in developing countries is thought to be reasonably covered by Research4Life.
3. There is really no question of asking members to pay more to replace journal income. Subscriptions are paid directly out of members’ pockets. Journal revenues allow quite a lot of subsidy of early career members and graduate students but the salaries of established members have been consistently declining in real terms over the last decade and above-inflation increases would lead to huge losses in membership. In the social sciences most UK societies would cease to be viable.

The object of the S Plan to make knowledge available freely to all is commendable, but the move from a subscription (reader) to a gold APC (author) business model is fundamentally flawed. The majority of journeys are published by oligarchy of full profit
commercial publishers. The question I ask is why would the shareholders of the commercial publishers permit reduction in revenue & therefore profit, for an ideal ? I am of the firm belief that as the transaction from subscription to an adoption of a full Gold OA model, the APC’s will increase to compensate the revenue loss in subscription revenues. A very crude calculation of future APC’s may be – $25b revenues divided by articles published 2.5m say $10,000 per article published. The next question is, will the funders support the payment of future $10k APC’s? If not, where will the deficit come, author or institution?

The researcher would be forced to publish in a different journal, or the deficit would be taken as a loss leader. There’s no simple spreadsheet calculation for a model that aims to change fundamental distribution of research.

Basically a game of chicken. Who has more power? Can the funders put these provisions in their grants? Can publishers refuse to take certain papers? Note that its still a small percent of funders, and all in Europe, buying into this.

I am not sure how things work in other places, but here in a small country in the Far East, the government is the major (and for certain fields, only) source of funding for both research AND university libraries. So in essence, the government is paying for both journal subscriptions and APCs of individual works. Now, funding for universities has been going down in recent years, so it has come to the point where the library of a certain STEM-focused national university had to cancel subscriptions to JACS and PNAS a few years ago. For the researcher, publishing charges have to be budgeted into our research proposals as a separate item and are subject to budget cuts, meaning that some people may be forced to publish in less expensive journals.

From the government’s point of view, it is paying twice for the same service, so it is only natural that Plan S would be appealing to those in charge of framing the national budget. I am quite sure that there are other Asian countries which have a similar funding structure for research. Publishers charging exorbitant APCs will simply lose articles from these countries.

When I first looked at OA, initial thoughts “brilliant no more pay-walls or embargoes, it removes barriers to read”, but upon reflection all it did was migrate the cost from Libraries & readers to Author & Research Funders. Now imagine if my predictions for APC’s comes to pass, $10k is an uncomfortable amount to find in a G20 university but an impossiblility in a 3rd world. My University’s budget is approx $1B, which exceeds many countries entire GDP (25), all Gold AO has achieved is move the barrier from reading to authors ability to fund APC’s.

We (The Eldorado Project) are currently working on a model that recognises & honours the great traditions of the pass, offers a substainable solution, addresses the manifest inequities present in todays, honouring the author work rather than where published.

It’s interesting to see how people slip into “per-article” calculations without realizing the intermediate assumptions that shift elides. I recently wrote about what I consider the “tell” of per-article thinking ( Per-article logic only makes sense for producers of information — in our world, funders and authors. Anyone who uses this approach to calculate value is ignoring reader-based value, which is hardly ever based on per-article logic but on more fulsome perceptions of brand value, affiliation, and trust.

Any time we talk about per-article charges, we’ve entered a cost-based, funder/author-driven world of information valuation, in which the producers’ view suddenly dominates. Talking about value-based economics where the reader/consumer view of value (trust, relevance, quality) dominates remains a healthy zone for such discussions. It may seem less familiar to a lot of people after 20 years of funders and authors insisting we only discuss per-article costs and arguments that we shift the entire scholarly economy to their preferred metrics and worldview, but the immutable fact remains that readers are where the action is, even for authors and funders. How readers value content should also be considered, if not actually central.

Many surveys have shown that all researchers that need access to content – have that access in one way or another. Plan S is about wider access to the public, independent researchers and the wider international, interdisciplinary scientific communities. Subscrptions to society journals are good value as indicated above, Gold OA increases costs for most universities and provides free access to lawyers, industry, silicon valley and many others who are the most able to pay for access to research. Without these industries paying, of course APCs will rise for everyone else – whether society publisher or commercial. Commercials will be able to take the hit better than most society publishers. Scott Pope above asks
(2) How do Societies feel about the impact of research locked behind paywalls? Are they generally in agreement that this is bad for society as a whole?
I believe that the impact of research has not been impeded by the subscription model (see first sentence of this post). Admittedly it does not allow access to the independent researcher, but if he/she cannot afford a subscription (or buy single articles) how does Gold OA benefit those researchers – as they will certainly not be able to afford the APC to publish their work?
Funding by the EU and other funders also results in many patents why is not Plan S indicating that all outputs of public funding should be open and free to access? Including those patents — this will have a far more significant impact on faster progress in research of all types than just making the articles OA. IP ownership is one of the biggest barriers to research in technology fields.

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