Open Access and Learned Societies: An Update

OA sponge
(Photo: biblioteekje, CC BY-NC-SA)

This post is co-authored with Rob Johnson,Research Consulting
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The United Kingdom has been in the vanguard of attempts to drive the scientific and scholarly communities to adopt an open access model of publishing, where the output from academic research will be freely available to readers rather than requiring some form of payment. However, the Finch Committee, which did much to promote this policy, noted in 2012 that one consequence of this change might be to threaten a significant source of income to learned societies and to disrupt their contribution to the research ecosystem:

‘…[F]unders and policy makers should be aware of the risk that any policies that may undermine the viability of subscription-based journals may also endanger the core activities of key learned societies, and the support they provide to the UK research community and its work.’ (Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications, 2012, p. 110)

We have both been involved in commissioned research to monitor the impact of this change on learned societies. In the course of this work, we have also been trying to develop a better understanding of the role of learned societies in relation to their memberships and the wider society. Robert Dingwall led a review for the Academy of Social Sciences with support from ESRC, looking specifically at learned societies in the social sciences. This report is now available in a peer-reviewed paper. Rob Johnson has been working with the Universities’ UK Open Access Co-ordination Group since 2015 on a bi-annual exercise to monitor the UK’s transition to open access, including the financial health of learned societies. As part of the latest iteration, we have been working together to assess how 30 UK learned societies, across all disciplines, have fared over the five years from 2011-2015.

Our findings remain under wraps until the full report’s release in December, but we gave a preview to representatives of almost 40 UK societies at the Royal Society of Biology on Wednesday, 27 September. This provided the starting point for a lively discussion about the future of societies. Held under the Chatham House Rule, all comments must remain unattributed, but they provide some valuable insights into this under-appreciated part of the research ecosystem.

Understanding the landscape

Rob Johnson’s 2015 study identified over 600 learned societies in the UK. Just under half of these publish academic journals and conference proceedings. Most societies only publish a single journal, but others operate highly internationalized publishing operations with a significant portfolio of titles. The success of UK learned societies in generating export income from publishing helps underpin many of their charitable activities.

Is the tail wagging the dog?

Our delegates stressed the need for societies to remain focussed on their core mission, acknowledging that this could sometimes be in tension with their revenue-generating activities. ‘Have societies over-expanded, and become big, sprawling and monstrous?’ asked one delegate, only half-joking. Yet there was universal agreement that publishing is not simply a cash cow: ‘As long as we didn’t make a loss we would still continue to publish our journal, as its part of our mission.’


Interested in full report?

The full report Monitoring the UK transition to Open Access: 2017 edition will be launched at Universities UK, Woburn House, London on 5 December 2017. See here for further details.


There were differing opinions on the merits of having a society’s journal closely associated with its brand (a dilemma also faced by US societies), and over the relative merits of societies publishing on their own account, or partnering with a commercial publisher or university press. Partnership can allow societies to extend their reach and benefit from the investment in technical infrastructure made by large publishers. It also avoids the need to grapple with the sheer complexity of the open access environment and the diversity of funder policies and practices. Yet it can also erode links between the journal and the society’s membership base, and create an illusion of stability which is at odds with the external environment.  ‘Are we lemmings, just counting on stability for the next 2-3 years [of our publishing contract], and then falling off a cliff?’ queried one delegate.

Managing risks

As highly-internationalised organisations, the potential impact of Brexit was uppermost in many people’s minds. In the short-term, the devaluation of sterling since June 2016 has been an unexpected boon to societies, which generate much of their revenues overseas. Yet the long-term impact is more uncertain, with large societies particularly concerned about the impact on international links.  There was also a sense that Britain’s changing role on the international stage could shift perceptions in an unhelpful direction. ‘Journal titles with the word “British” in them could become a barrier,’ observed one delegate, adding, ‘We need to become more considerate of marketing strategies and brand risk.’

Societies also face inflationary cost pressures, and some are grappling with complex property transactions and growing pension liabilities. The need to take a professional approach to society management was widely acknowledged (‘We can’t be the Victorian gentleman amateur in 2017’). Several societies noted that they are now becoming much more strategic in their financial and investment planning.

Seeking out opportunities

A few attendees voiced concerns that societies’ consensus-based governance model could make them slow to respond to threats, and to grasp opportunities. Yet there were many examples of societies actively reshaping their activities, with diversification of revenue sources a key mantra. Several are seeking to make better use of their existing physical assets through conferences and events, while other are pursuing opportunities in continuing professional development. Meanwhile, some delegates noted the potential for greater collaboration and cost-sharing between societies. Our venue for the event, Charles Darwin House, represents a model for this, being co-owned and occupied by six learned societies in the various branches of biology. The need for continued investment was also widely acknowledged: ‘We need to make better use of technology to get more bang for our buck.’

Disciplinary variations

As befits such a heterogeneous sector, there are shared challenges, but no single narrative that applies across the board. Some societies, particularly in medicine and life sciences, have an important role in professional accreditation. Others face particular challenges linked to the health of industry sectors, or benefit from government grants or longstanding endowments. For many societies in the arts and humanities the health of their publishing activity is a lesser concern, since publishing represents a net cost to the society. More pressing concerns in these disciplines relate to government education policy, undergraduate numbers and implications for the long-term health of the discipline. A tendency towards insularity was highlighted as a key risk, with many taking active steps to become more public-facing.

Future plans

UK societies are starting from a position of strength: existential fears about the impact of open access appear to have receded in the last few years. ‘Open access is not biggest issue by a long way,’ stressed one attendee, ‘income diversification and internationalization are a long way ahead of this.’ There was consensus that societies must begin by understanding what their members and communities want, and then ask:

  1. What is the society for?
  2. What should its strategy be?
  3. How do we achieve this?

For many societies, publishing will be a central part of their strategy, but it remains just one means of fulfilling their mission. As one of our attendees concluded: ‘Societies are well positioned to drive the future – but we need to figure out what it looks like.’


Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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