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June 24th, 2019

Learned Societies, the key to realising an open access future?

4 comments | 18 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


June 24th, 2019

Learned Societies, the key to realising an open access future?

4 comments | 18 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Plan S, a funder led initiative to drive open access to research, will have significant impacts on the ways in which academics publish and communicate their research. However, beyond simply changing the way academics disseminate their research, it will also influence how learned societies, the organisations tasked with representing academics in particular disciplines, operate, as many currently depend on revenues from journal subscriptions to cross-subsidise their activities. In this post Alicia Wise and Lorraine Estelle explore this issue and provide an update from the first phase of the SPA-OPS project that has been tasked with assessing the options available for learned societies to make the transition to open access.

The learned society conundrum

Learned societies are academic organisations that promote a scholarly discipline or field of research. Most are not-for-profit and their activities typically include: publishing, conferences, education, accreditation, public advocacy, influencing and training. Many societies produce journals, which are published either independently or under contract with larger commercial and non-commercial publishers.

Their significance to scholarly communication was succinctly summarised by one society publisher in our study as follows:

“often society publishers have a small number of very prestigious journals – so a small output of high-quality articles that have gone through exacting and high-quality editorial and production services. There is no scale to the system, the costs are high (for the right reasons) and the publishing output is low. It is a source of great pride to societies that we run the “best” and most reputable journals in our field and it is not a coincidence that we do – we are closer to our communities than other publishers (or we should be). So there is both a business and an emotional connection to society publications for our communities.”

Generally learned societies have begun their open access (OA) journey by publishing hybrid open access journals, usually funded by payment of author publishing charges (APCs). However, the announcement by cOAlition S, an international grouping of research funders, that as part of Plan S they would no longer fund publication in hybrid open access journals (without a transformative agreement), has presented significant challenges to learned societies and the business models that support their activities. The key issue for societies contemplating this transition being that there is unlikely to be sufficient funding for all authors seeking to publish in their journals to pay APCs at levels that will sustain their current activities.

Recognising the importance of societies to the scholarly communication ecosystem, the Wellcome Trust and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), in partnership with the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), commissioned research to explore how learned societies can adapt and thrive in a Plan S world. Ultimately, Information Power Ltd was commissioned to deliver the project, entitled Society Publishers Accelerating Open access and Plan S (SPA-OPS).

This project has involved undertaking a widespread consultation with stakeholders from across the scholarly communication ecosystem and a literature review to assess what transition strategies learned societies could adopt to achieve open access. The end product of this first phase of research has been an online discussion document that is available here.

Open business models for learned societies

A significant finding from our study was that only a small proportion of all the models we assessed involved APC payments. There are numerous other business models, many of these are more promising, and all are aligned with Plan S. Whilst the APC is the best known route to delivering open access journals, at least 1000 society journals have already flipped from a hybrid to full OA model, we believe this approach has become over-conflated with open access. If society publishers are realistically going to make an open transition, then they need to transform their existing revenue streams to support OA publishing.

From the vast array of different approaches and business models we identified, 7 categories emerged, which could feasibly be used alone or in combination and we encourage readers to explore our discussion document for further details of each of these models.

Transformative Models – these approaches, five of which operate in the market today, repurpose existing institutional spend with publishers to open content. They are supported by both libraries and publishers, and are thus possibly the most promising transition model because libraries and library consortia provide the lion’s share of funding in the current publishing landscape. Examples include read and publishing agreements, publishing and read agreements, SCOAP3, and subscribe to open.

Cooperative Infrastructure & Funding Models – these are close, strategic partnerships between libraries and publishers to jointly fund, and provide, open content and its supporting infrastructure. These models are deployed highly successfully in humanities and social science publishing.

Evolving Subscription Models – it is possible to continue to operate journals fully funded by the subscription model and still make the content immediately available OA and in alignment with Plan S. This green open access approach is dependent on either final published journal articles or author accepted manuscripts being shared with a CC-BY license at the time of publication. A growing number of publishers, including society publishers, have successfully done this without encountering lost revenue or other negative impacts.

Article Transaction Models – author payments such as APCs and submission fees can work perfectly well in titles where authors are well funded and support such payments.

Open platforms –pioneered by F1000 and first adopted by funders, and now being embraced by publishers. In this approach authors publish their articles, which are then openly peer reviewed. Articles that are judged to be important and impactful can be specially curated and showcased. Societies adopting this model could, for example, provide peer review and/or curation services. Funding for these services could be obtained through any of the OA business models we have identified, although author fees are most common at present.

Other Revenue Models – there are a wide array of other business models that can work for individual publishers or titles including advertising, crowdfunding, freemium, subsidies, and syndication.

Strategies for Change and Cost Reduction – there are also some well-established ‘tricks of the trade’ that remain viable, whether that’s flipping a journal from a hybrid to fully open model, closing or combining journals to increase article numbers to make efficiency gains, collaborating with others (e.g. other societies, OA-only publishers, larger publishers) on shared infrastructure and services, moving online only, or outsourcing.

Next steps

In the coming months and years, learned societies are likely to have difficult conversations about their future. Like other publishers, they will wish to sustain the quality of their publication activities and to continue to invest in improved service standards as they embrace OA. The extent to which they can do so in part rests on their willingness to change and their ability to innovate in ways that maximise benefit. To achieve this they will need to forge new alliances – with funders, libraries, other publishers, and universities – and rethink how they achieve their primary goal of supporting their disciplines.

In the meantime, the SPA-OPS project continues. In the next phase we will be working with library consortia, society publishers, and university/library presses to develop a model offer and implementation toolkit for OA transformative agreements. We are also working with society publishers to quantify the challenge they face in transitioning some titles fully to OA when they have a large unfunded author base. Both final report and the toolkit will be launched on 12 September at the ALPSP International Conference.



About the Authors:

Alicia Wise has more than 30 years’ experience in the academic information space including roles with libraries, publishers, and researchers. Most recently she was with Elsevier where she led on Open Access and global strategic relations. Prior to this she held roles with the Publishers Association, Publishers Licensing Society, Jisc, Archaeology Data Service, and in universities. She has served on the boards of Access to Research, Accessible Books Consortium, CHORUS, CLOCKSS, the Digital Preservation Coalition, and Research4Life.

Lorraine Estelle is a professional with experience in the development of new business models, collaborative library services, and information standards. She has orchestrated UK library support for open access initiatives such as arXiv, BioMed Central, Knowledge Unlatched, OpenEdition, and PeerJ. She developed the first models to demonstrate the total cost of publication including APC costs for UK academic institutions and led the first national negotiations to successfully agree offset models to alleviate the cost faced by higher education institutions in maintaining subscriptions to hybrid journals while also paying APC charges. Through her role in COUNTER she is experienced with working collaboratively with different types of publishers societies and their professional associations in reaching consensus. Lorraine is also co-editor of the open access journal Insights: the UKSG journal.


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Posted In: Academic publishing | Open Access | Plan S | Research policy


This work by LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.