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.

community standing together

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.

Solidarity forever!

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Associate Executive Director, Publishing at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.

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15 Thoughts on "Why Scholarly Societies Are Vitally Important to the Academic Ecosystem"

Great article Robert, thanks.

I see your point about learned societies often being lumped in with the commercial publishing world, especially when there are accusations of profiteering. On the other hand, it’s important not to tar all for-profit organisations with the same brush either. There’s a slightly technical point here that privately owned and publicly traded companies are very different, with the latter of the two being the one where directors are strongly legally obliged to put the interests of shareholders first (but that’s perhaps also unfair as publicly traded companies also have a range of attitudes and behaviours). When you compare some non-profit organisations with some privately held companies, it’s can be hard to tell which one is supposed to be mission driven and which one is profit/surplus driven.

I suppose my point is that we should take each organisation as we find them.

On a different note, in addition to SSPA, there’s also SocPC.org, a fairly new group by learned societies, for learned societies, to help them adapt to changing economic realities, including through collective actions and negotiations around Read and Publish models and their variants. They’re also doing interesting work in collaboration with https://tspoa.org/, a group drawn from libraries, institutions, publishers and consortia to again help publishers move towards open access through new models and collaborations.

If you ask a scholar why scholarly societies are vital to the academic ecosystem, I doubt the first answer any of them would give is about publishing. They will most likely talk about opportunities to present at and attend conferences and opportunities for service in their discipline. Publication might make the list further down, although most scholars will probably be more likely to mention the reliability of these publishers than the affordability of them.

Wiley has done a survey of society members every year since 2016, and the results have very interesting–journal content (“I use the journal”) and conferences/meetings (“I attended the conference”) were the two most common responses to the question “Why did you renew your membership in the society?” in the 2016 survey. (And, of course, it’s worth noting that for many societies, journal publishing and conference organizing are tightly connected — it’s subscription revenues that keep conference registration affordable for their members.) Top-line results of the 2016 survey can be seen in an infographic here. A similar result from the 2018 survey (showing consistent responses along these lines over three years) can be seen here.

Of course, one might say “Naturally Wiley is going to report that society members care about journal publishing, since Wiley is a journal publisher.” Unfortunately, Wiley doesn’t seem to have made the full survey results publicly available, which makes it hard to evaluate the validity of that response. (Wiley, correct me if I’m wrong and please provide us a link.)

Rick, you’re right – we hadn’t previously made the full survey results available. We’ve corrected that now. The full data (excluding personally identifiable data) for our 2016-2018 survey are available here: http://news.wiley.com/comsoc2018. We’re still working on our analyses from the 2019 survey (keep an eye out for more releases) and we’ll publish the data a little later on. We’d be delighted for anyone who’s interested to reach out with suggestions for how we can continue to improve our society membership survey. In the meantime, thanks so much for the suggestion.

Depends on how you ask the question, doesn’t it? What is your hypothesis if it’s framed this way: “The primary means by which your society funds its operations is through the sale of its publications. Should the publications be a priority?” Some societies are not highly dependent on publications, for others the threat to publications is an existential threat. We work work with these groups every day.

Whenever I think of the plight of societies I think of Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot…

Many societies are really very small and only have one journal. What do they do in the light of Plan S or some other plan? The answer seems to be seek a Wiley or Elsevier, etc. In short, they have been given a lemon but they don’t have the water to make lemonade!

Great article Robert. While I am now retired and out of the real-time fight concerning OA, I am still following the discussion. I think you clearly provided insights into the challenges facing society publishers including my former employer, the American Physiological Society, founded in 1887.

Robert (and other society publishers of course), I think you may be interested in Society Street, a new conference that aims at giving thought leaders within learned societies a space to discuss how societies can “embrace the mission” of serving their communities in today’s world – defined pretty much exactly as you did in that second paragraph. This isn’t a publishing-focused event; instead, it’s taking a more holistic approach and aims at gathering a diversity of society representatives. Apologies for the plug, but your words resonated (disclosure: I am on the organizing committee for the D.C. edition on March 26 2020, https://www.societystreet.org/usa)

Dear Robert,

We’re pleased that you’re looking forward to attending our Annual Conference – we always look forward to seeing you. However, I feel it’s important to clarify STM’s makeup in terms of our representation – both our current Chair and Treasurer, and indeed our Chair and Treasurer Elect (for 2019/2020) are from a Society and a University Press as are a full third of the STM Board. Half of our standing committees are chaired by society publishers, who are also represented on them. Similarly, we hold an annual ‘Society Day’ event every year in Washington DC which has a sole focus on issues of importance for our many Society members. STM is the international association for the industry as a whole not just the for profit sector.

Best Michael

Thank you, Robert, for this important perspective. I am pleased to see societies finally coming together to address the unique threats and opportunities to our organizations. But I continue to be dismayed by the low level of involvement from societies that have outsourced their publishing, There are exceptions of course. But these tend to be larger societies that have the means to retain career publishing staff versus assigning management of the publisher relationship to someone who is focused only on the royalty check. It seems that once a society outsources they largely disappear from the scene – industry conferences, trade group memberships, multi-society communications – and hide silently behind their publisher.

Plan S is a blessing in disguise for societies. This single pronouncement has catalyzed inter-society communications, including societies that have outsourced publishing, like nothing else I’ve seen in my career. I hope the momentum to work together grows.

However, while figuring out our publishing future, societies need to do more to demonstrate their value to authors. One opportunity is to lead in the harmonization of publishing policies, at least within disciplines. Publishers deserve criticism for making authorship difficult and inefficient through our disparate peer-review systems and publishing policies, from conflicts-of-interest to formatting to data sharing. Commercial publishers lead the way on simplification and harmonization. Societies should be leading these efforts within their broader disciplines. Failing to fix these time-wasting, legacy systems and policies will alienate authors.

Societies also need to address how their leadership, governance structures, and policies may impede the ability to be nimble in a market environment that punishes sluggishness, apathy, and indecision. A little self-reflection will go a long way.

A marvellous article is this one, and I quote from it. Quantitative analysis. In my discipline there is much to ponder – you get more ‘value’ from your publications the less commercial the publisher.

Oliver T. Coomes, Tim R. Moore & Sébastien Breau (2017) The Price of Journals in Geography, The Professional Geographer, 69:2, 251-262 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2016.1229624
We assess the importance of publisher conduct and journal quality in determining the price and cost-effectiveness of journals in geography. Drawing on a database of 136 journals in which geographers publish, we examine the price of journals, publishers’ market share, the determinants of journal prices, and the cost-effectiveness of journals. We find that commercial presses charge 2.3 times more for journals than society and university presses and 50 percent more for journals published on behalf of universities and societies. Journals in physical geography are almost twice as expensive as those in human geography and 43 percent of them can be considered “overpriced.” Four commercial presses hold 72 percent of the titles and 93 percent of the value of subscriptions, enabling them to exercise oligopolistic market power over pricing. Our multivariate analysis shows that the price of journals, of articles, and of citations in geography is driven by publisher conduct rather than journal quality as measured by citations accrued to articles. Geographers can further the transition underway in scientific publishing by self archiving their published work, disseminating their findings through social networks, and paying closer attention to journal cost effectiveness in choosing where to publish and review.

I appreciate the value of scholarly societies and have no desire to see them crushed beneath the wheel of giant for-profit publishers. That said, there are reasonable questions to be asked when the publishing income of a non-profit scholarly society exceeds the actual (totally real, totally legitimate) costs of publication. If a society is truly non-profit, how much above the actual costs of publication can it charge and still remain an ethical non-profit? O%? 10%? 25%? More?

Considering that the bulk of library collection funds originate as public monies (government grants, direct taxes, student tuition dollars), is it right that the net publishing profits generated by these public dollars be used to support things like professional presentations and conference attendance?

No two scholarly societies are the same, just as no two non-profits are the same. I am confident the ASM conducts its non-profit operations on a modest basis. On the other hand, I could name a non-profit scholarly society for which the top two executives earn more than $1M per year and the top eight executives each earn over $500,000 per year. And I am confident that anyone who reads The Scholarly Kitchen would gladly trade their annual salary in exchange for one year of the net profits generated by this society’s publications. (Yeah, I know the difference between net and gross.)

Just as not every for-profit publisher deserves devil horns, not every non-profit scholarly society gets an automatic halo.

There are parts of this argument I largely agree with, but other parts I find somewhat confounding.

Libraries (and universities and researchers) need goods and services that they can’t provide for themselves, and are thus forced to purchase those goods and services from others. Ideally, one should negotiate and get a fair price for a quality return. But why should one care what the vendor does with their resulting revenue? If the library buys a new set of desks (using public funds), does anyone investigate and care about what the deskmaker is doing with his/her profits? If the university groundskeeper buys fertilizer (using public funds), does it matter if the public money ends up going to the rich fertilizer company’s owner’s yacht if the university got a good deal on the fertilizer?

I’ve written extensively about this subject here:
Studies cited in that article and in some of the comments above both show that non-profit journals offer better prices and higher value than their commercial counterparts. More importantly, if we eliminate support for research societies from the library budget, they still need to purchase journals (or authorships). And the alternative is for-profit, commercial products. Should we care that public funds are going into the bank accounts of Elsevier shareholders, or is that somehow more acceptable than returning the funds to the research community to be used on behalf of the university’s researchers? Why not put those public funds to better use for the community than seeing them leave the community altogether?

A not-for-profit absolutely must generate a surplus if it expects to survive. One needs funds to do new projects, to maintain old ones, and to weather difficult or unexpected times. If you only break even, then you can afford to do none of these things, and you are soon gone from this earth. I do, however, agree with your argument that many not-for-profits put too much emphasis on building a huge endowment (Kent Anderson wrote about this here: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/01/05/trickle-down-thinking-does-anyone-understand-why-universities-and-not-for-profits-have-large-endowments/). The problem, as he mentions, is that universities themselves are the worst offenders here (https://thebestschools.org/features/richest-universities-endowments-generosity-research/ which includes a lot of “public” universities as well as private ones with non-profit status). If it’s wrong for a society to put away some amount of public funds for future use, why is it okay for a university to do so as well?

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your article expressing your thoughts and concerns about the inclusion of societies in the industry’s meetings, conferences, discussions, etc.

Building on Michael Mabe’s post, I would like to stress that STM’s 6th Annual Society Day will be held on Tuesday, April 28, 2019. Jasper Simons, Chief Publishing Officer of the American Psychological Association (APA) will be our opening keynote speaker.

Executives and organizations are encouraged to submit their presentation abstracts directly to me at gunter@stm-assoc.org. Also within the STM Member Newsletter Membership Matters, society members have been invited to participate in the STM Society Day Executive Planning Committee.

So as you see STM fully supports the Society Publishing community and wants to take it to the next level.
Solidarity Together!


Darrell W Gunter
President & CEO
Gunter Media Group, Inc.

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