We live in a world where bigger is better, scale matters, and those with the largest coffers and most profitable businesses have an outsized influence on policy. Take, for example, the publishing trade organization, STM. STM presents itself as the leading global trade association for academic and professional publishers. In the STM 2018 Report, we learn that The Europa World of Learning has identified over 5000 scholarly societies globally. However, although STM’s members include learned societies, university presses, and for-profit publishers, there is relatively sparse representation in leadership, especially from smaller society members.The problem here is that STM is a commercial trade organization, and its activities are largely funded by the big commercial publishers who have the money to pay for initiatives – they get to call the shots. I will be attending the upcoming STM conference in Frankfurt, Germany in October – the wind-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was somewhat dismayed this year to see that the program, while diverse in many ways, does not include a single speaker from a scholarly society, large or small – though I am sure it will be an enjoyable conference. It always is. Although I may be a wee bit biased (having worked for such societies for the past 10 years), I feel that this is a serious omission.
In this article I attempt to explain the critical role of scholarly societies, bearing in mind these societies vary enormously — in terms of the culture of the discipline and scale. I will argue that independent scholarly societies are vital to the academic ecosystem, and are the only community organizations whose sole reason for existence is to provide for the scholars in their academic community. The sad reality in publishing circles is that even with laudable initiatives such as the funder-driven Plan S, which ostensibly aim for an open world of research and content, it is the big corporate publishers who win.
Let’s look at a “Life-in-the-day” of an independent scholarly society. The American Mathematical Society (AMS) is a fiercely independent society since 1888, with a mission to advance research and connect the diverse global mathematical community through publications, meetings and conferences, the discovery database MathSciNet, professional services, advocacy, and awareness programs. The AMS has 30,000 individual members in addition to 570 academic institutional members. The business reality is that sales of AMS publishing products account for 70% of the society’s annual operating revenues. There is an annual financial surplus, but it depends where you look as books, journals, and the MathSciNet database do not all contribute equally, and the AMS goes out of its way to be reasonably priced, frequently publishing content that perhaps would not be viable to publish if AMS were, like corporate publishers, purely serving the needs of shareholders. In fact, critics of publisher prices and unreasonable profit margins often lump societies and corporate publishers in the same pot. I am not going to share our financial details, but in essence, I find it remarkable that gross profit is almost always mistaken for net profit, and yet in reality the net is small and always reinvested by societies back into the academic community – indeed, that is their raison d’etre.
Recently, Karen Saxe (AMS Associate Executive Director & Head of Government Relations) and I met by telephone with the new Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kelvin Droegemeier. It seemed clear to us that the OSTP does not want to burden authors with the complexities around open access policies, and is keen to take a completely different approach than Europe does in developing such policies. One critical point we aimed to communicate was that our services are not merely aimed at AMS members, but meant to benefit the field more generally. One could argue that any society purely providing benefits to its membership is not truly serving the wider academic community in the discipline. In fact, for the AMS, it is perhaps a strength and a weakness that the programs and services we provide are steered towards all mathematicians, not just members of the AMS. This of course raises a further problem – why would a mathematician join the AMS? In the end the value proposition is somewhat similar to belonging to a political party. You join to further policies you believe in, provide support for your community, knowing that in unity there is prosperity – a point that not everyone appreciates. The AMS is of course not alone in doing a terrible job of communicating our value to the world. If revenues evaporate, and the society withers, the mathematical community will notice — but by then it will be too late.
Let’s return to my claim that even initiatives such as Plan S are cementing the role of the corporate publisher, leaving societies to wonder whether they may survive unless they partner with a larger commercial organization. The Plan S transformative agreements have essentially created institutional lock-in businesses on a grand scale. Only publishers who have significant publishing scale may effectively form transformative Publish and Read agreements with institutions (a category that can include governments). This is a problem, not just for societies looking to be as open as possible, but even for fully open access publishers such as PLOS. As Alison Mudditt (CEO of PLOS) recently pointed out, if you are already in full compliance with Plan S you are essentially shut out of the monies attached to transformative deals as publishers move from subscription to gold open access. Where once the Big Deal created lock-in, leaving smaller publishers to scramble for remaining institutional funds, now there is the added realization that only through scale can open access be provided. Otherwise, where will the revenues come from?
Add to this the cultural difference between fields and things look bleak for scholarly societies, especially when considering gold open access. Where will authors without sources of funding find the money to pay for article processing charges? Gold open access works for well-funded fields and for principal investigators, but not for fields where research is not grant-driven and for those researchers who are not in charge of budgets, such as those starting out in their fields. An interesting recent development is the release of the report Society Publishers Accelerating Open Access and Plan S (SPA-OPS) Project. The report is encouraging in the sense that there is clearly a willingness from institutions and funders to at least consider how to help shift scholarly societies to open access. Yet, despite a plethora of general model suggestions, including discussion of Subscribe to Open, there is no clear path to sustainable revenues for many societies through open access, especially Plan S compliant open access. For me, the rather profound effect of discipline culture when considering a path to open access is missing from the report. I do also recommend reading Alison Mudditt’s interesting article “Plan S and the Transformation of Scholarly Communication: Are we Missing the Woods?”
However, the future may not be as bleak as I have suggested so far.
It is a cliché to state that where there is a threat there is opportunity, but it really is true. If societies such as the AMS can communicate the value we bring to our communities effectively enough, help simplify a researcher’s life so they may concentrate on research and teaching (which is what they signed up for), and provide a path for career success, tenure, and collaboration — then the value is clear. Most researchers do not want to be burdened with dissecting which open access policy they must follow, where they may and may not publish their articles, and where to find funds required to publish, when for most it is not a priority. In fact, what researchers really would like to see are publishers that make it easy to submit an article for consideration at a journal – why is it still so hard? If societies can demonstrate their value, then a financial model that allows subscriptions to thrive and promotes openness, such as Subscribe to Open, or joining initiatives such as Research4Life (as we at the AMS recently have) that are paired with subscriptions, societies will be stronger than ever before. The unity in collective action is what societies provide for their communities. This kind of unity is not achieved if the business of society publishing, and policy positions on openness are subsumed by a corporate partner with differing ideals from society governance.
Perhaps the next step is cross-discipline collective action between the many independent scholarly societies with missions and publishing programs globally. Indeed, there are seedlings of such an approach beginning to sprout. The Scientific Society Publisher Alliance (SSPA) is one such project.