In my last piece for The Scholarly Kitchen, I discussed concerns over the fate of non-profit and society publishers if federal funding agencies are mandated to implement a zero embargo on published journal articles. That article drew quite a response, including from outside the academic publishing community.
While much of the conversation around the path to openness was constructive — and indeed necessary — one aspect of it troubled me: the portrayal of scholarly societies as something that’s nice to have, but not essential to the research ecosystem. Doubts were expressed that societies should be raising revenues by publishing content that was already paid for by taxpayer monies. It was suggested that scholarly societies should just look to alternative business models to support their activities. (As if that’s a simple thing!) Why should private non-profit organizations essentially be funded by public funds?
Taken at face value, these appear to be reasonable questions. However, there is more to this story — we operate in a complex research and publishing ecosystem. In this article I attempt to disentangle the issues and paint a picture of how scholarly societies are an indelible part of the research and support system for academics across many disciplines. In this way, they resemble private, non-profit academic institutions as a vital part of the academic landscape, which similarly receive public monies in support of their role.
Perhaps we should start with some history. An interesting post from Scholastica in September 2019 interviewed Aileen Fyfe, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews. Fyfe produced a fascinating briefing in 2017 entitled “Untangling Academic Publishing: A history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research”. Fyfe writes:
Academic cultures of prestige are derived from the voluntary, gentlemanly practices of eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars and their learned societies: as such they sit somewhat uncomfortably with post 1945 developments. The ethos of the academic research community has historically been non-commercial, and the sharing of knowledge had historically been enabled by the generosity of publishing organizations – such as learned societies and university presses – with a mission for scholarship rather than profit. But since the end of the Second World War, academic publishing has become increasingly commercialized.
According to Fyfe, commercial publishers upended the notion of wealthy individuals giving to the scholarly community as they started focusing on selling content to institutions. This was at odds with the practices of scholarly societies, which traditionally gave away much of their content to institutions. In fact, in the 1950s, scholarly societies started to realize that they could focus on goals — such as trying to break even — if they sold publications to institutions. It is not that these organizations abandoned their mission. Rather, it was recognized that publishing could provide revenues that could be put towards other vital society activities: these include efforts to promote students and scholars directly, through prizes, travel grants, conferences, and other services, but also activities that aim to support the field more generally. For example, societies may work to influence government policy in ways beneficial to the field, or work to catalyze development of critical areas of research. Thus, most societies — especially the smaller ones — maintaining an active publishing business is the only means at their disposal to provide community services. Moreover, they see disseminating content as a fundamental part of their mission, despite significant cultural differences between fields and societies.
Is any of this at odds with commercialization? The answer is no – at least not in the eyes of academic communities, who value participation in a union of scholars and communities. For most societies, publishing revenues are used to provide services directly to all in their community – not just those who are paid-up members. In the same way that academic institutions thrive through generating revenues and then spending the proceeds on development of the community, so do scholarly societies. The ecosystem of academic life is thus entwined with the value that societies and university presses bring to their communities. Communities of scholars are able to come together under society structures and plan for development of the next generation of scholars, and indeed often how those that touch their field may enter public and commercial life and thrive – stimulating the wider economy.
We still have not addressed the question of why should an academic society be able to charge institutions for access to content if taxpayer monies are involved. The answer to that is that societies perform an important role in the academic ecosystem, just as universities do — and obtain significant government subsidies in reflection of that fact. Most scholarly societies, and here I should say that there are exceptions to this, are not rapacious, making just enough to cover costs and allow for investment in their communities – arguably a very different model from a commercial publisher whose primary objective is shareholder value.
In an era of open access, you could quite reasonably see parallels with what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries; perhaps content should be given freely to the world. The question is where does the money come from. Historically, it was wealthy individuals who decided to leverage their wealth for academic good. Perhaps, models such as Subscribe to Open, capture this ethos effectively. If we can accept that there are real costs in publishing, and that societies are an indelible part of the ecosystem, then perhaps the way to go is to shift publishing revenues towards societies that need support, but are prepared in return to make their content open.
Let’s not continue arguing over extensions of the Big Deal, which essentially ensure the ability of commercial publishers to increase profits — which is how I see the emerging transformative agreements that are so much in the news. Rather, why don’t funders and institutions recognize a more mission-driven approach to balancing publishing costs and revenue, by enhancing support for societies?
In my view, scholarly societies are essential to a thriving academic community. Rather than funders suggesting that societies need to seek alternative revenue streams, why not turn that argument on its head and more fully support society life? After all, in these political times, community and academic life are important paths to preserving a culture of fact and the community that is so important to intellectual growth and scientific discovery.