With the promulgation of Plan S and negotiating stand-offs over publish-and-read and read-and-publish deals, some professional societies are beginning to think the unthinkable: selling off their publishing operations to the highest bidder. Such transactions are exceedingly rare, but the atmosphere of uncertainty in scholarly communications is making some societies consider getting out now before it’s too late. This takes them down a long and difficult road — of internal discussions, of analyses of their operations, and even of conversations with bankers — for which they are often ill prepared and temperamentally unsuited.
Professional societies are mission-based organizations that do many things; for some, publishing is one of them. Indeed, some societies were founded around the need to create a publication in a specific area. Over time, however, things may have changed. The publishing program may have gotten larger; it may have begun to throw off some money; for some lucky societies this sum of money is nothing to sneeze at. It is not unusual to stumble upon a society whose publications generate half or more of the total society revenues, and some of that money is used for other purposes, such as subsidizing conferences and Webinars, assisting job-hunters, lobbying for governmental support of the society’s mission, or providing continuing professional education. All of these activities directly or indirectly contribute to research and teaching; that value is captured through the commercialization of publication. When society publishing becomes successful, in other words, it is no longer simply a mission-based activity but it is now a business. As such it can be looked at with a cold eye: Hey there, publishing business: what did you do for me today?
To put this another way, for a professional society, publishing starts out as a strategic activity, but it can evolve into a non-strategic asset. When it is viewed simply as an asset — How much money can we derive from it? — the leaders of a society may begin to behave like asset managers anywhere. How can I maximize profit (usually called “surplus”)? What is the appropriate level of investment? What dividends can I pay myself? And most importantly, should I buy or should I sell?
I had occasion to address this issue in the Scholarly Kitchen from a different perspective a while back, but recent events — Plan S in particular — have changed the way many societies think about their publishing assets. There is palpable anxiety in the society world today as compliance with prospective funder requirements would gut the business models of many.
Society publishers vary in their economic strategies. Some are independent publishers — an increasingly hard game to play. Some band together with other society publishers to share some overhead and to provide a bit of critical mass for sales and marketing. Increasingly society publishers license publishing rights to the largest firms (though the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge are also significant players in this area) — Wiley, for example, has literally hundreds of society-owned journals in its portfolio. And then there is the rarely invoked strategy of selling the assets outright, more common for books than journals (as the backlist of books has ongoing economic value).
Why is an outright sale infrequent? There are various reasons for this, but the most important is that the society feels a connection to the publishing operation. To begin with, in many cases the society’s name is in the title of the journal — thus the Society of Phrenology publishes a journal called The Journal of the Society of Phrenology. It is hard for a society to allow something with its name on it leave its control. The second reason is editorial, the desire to maintain standards and also to set the direction for certain kinds of research. It would be awkward, for example, for a journal of continental philosophy to be sold off and converted into a journal of analytic philosophy. Finally, the society’s members may feel that they are losing a publishing venue that serves their interests if another entity takes control.
For these reasons, the preferred course of action for most societies is the third, the licensing of publishing rights to a larger entity, usually for a period of 5-10 years. The license allows the society to retain ownership and control of the publications, and to remain in charge of how the brand is used and of the editorial strategy. When the term of the license is up, the society can determine if the partner was a good one or not and adjust course accordingly.
The problem with this strategy is that it is based on the assumption that the value of the publications will remain constant or rise. If the value falls instead, when the contract is up the society may be offered a far smaller amount of money or none at all. In an adverse economic environment, in other words, the value of a journal may go into secular decline. Society leaders, like individual investors everywhere, know that the way to make money is to buy low and sell high. If the value of a journal appears to be on its way down, is it not best to take the money and run?
People who put deals together for a living are astonishingly creative about stitching together two parties even when they appear to have irreconcilable differences. Concerned about allowing a buyer to use your brand? How about licensing the brand for 5 years (or, for the right price, even 10), giving the buyer time to migrate to a new brand during that time? Editorial control? You could insist that if an oversight committee appointed by the society is unhappy with the editorial decisions of the new owner, the new owner will no longer be able to use the society’s brand. Loss of a publishing venue for society members? Well, is this even an issue with perhaps 30,000 journals to be found in the wild, many of them Gold OA journals with a low bar for acceptance? The people who put these deals together are compensated precisely because they find ways to make the impossible deal happen. The most effective outcomes are those that are conceived with an understanding of the needs and ethos of the research community and the professional societies that link the many academic institutions together.
What is really necessary is for societies to bring the same careful intelligence to thinking through the current publishing environment as their members bring to their own research.
The important question is not whether you can sell a society’s publications outright — if it’s a good set of properties, you will find a buyer; the real question is whether a reasonable forecast puts a higher or lower value on the publications in the future. Plan S is causing panic for the simple and obvious reason that its terms, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are pointed right at the heart of professional society publishing. If all articles everywhere were subject to Plan S compliance, most society publications would be shut down by the end of the year. But is panic the right response? Is panic ever the right response? A good place to start assessing Plan S and its many variants is to inquire whether all articles everywhere indeed are subject to compliance — or ever will be.
Before a society decides to do the unthinkable, it would be a good idea to do some thinking. Does Plan S have legs? How broad is its coverage? How likely is it that the U.S. government, among the largest funders of research in the world, will support the policies of a consortium anchored in Europe whose communitarian ethos is repugnant to the commercial libertarianism of those in power today? What about all those fields that don’t receive funding? How likely is it that librarians will suddenly all stop buying things, even as they have been trained to be exquisitely intelligent buyers? And by the way, has anyone thought to ask well-established researchers, who have fought their way through the traditional environment to their successful perches today, how they feel about the obliteration of the reputation engines that are the key journals in any field? Perhaps Plan S is a shot across the bow, but not a direct hit to the magazine.
What is really necessary is for societies to bring the same careful intelligence to thinking through the current publishing environment as their members bring to their own research. To be alert is one thing; to panic, quite another. We may indeed see an uptick, perhaps even a sharp uptick, in the number of outright divestitures of publishing assets, but let’s hope that such decisions are made in the best interests of scholarship and not in haste.