Learned Societies and Open Access

Tuesday’s quick post about a letter of opposition to Plan S generated some comments from academics about the role of “Learned Societies” in academic publishing.  I therefore think it’s relevant to raise some points about the extent that these organizations (including, in my field,  the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics) rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

Take IOP Publishing, for example. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that has an annual turnover of around £60M generated from books and journals. This revenue is the largest contribution to the income that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which as a matter of fact I have published quite a few papers.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing some time ago in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to  its journals is nothing to do with the real cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of  “promoting Physics”.

This is the case for other learned societies too, and it explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access some authorities are attempting to foist on the research community, rather than the far more sensible and sustainable “Green” Open Access model and its variants.

Some time ago I came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing Green Open Access:

There is also great incentive for the people who manage and run these organisations to defend their cartel. For example, the American Chemical Society, a huge opponent to open access, pays many of its employees, as reported in their 990 tax return, over six figures. These salaries ranged from $304,528 to $1,084,417 in 2010.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold.

First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of some form of green (or at least not gold) Open Access. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that traditional journals are already virtually redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics where we have been using the arXiv for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.

The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its brand new building in King’s Cross, will dry up unless these organizations find a way of defending it. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations their attempt to stem the tide. I think this move into Gold `Open Access’, paid for by ruinously expensive Article Processing charges paid by authors (or their organizations) is unsustainable because the research community will see through it and refuse to pay.

The other problematic aspect of the approach of these learned societies is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with that purpose. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed outstandingly good – but that does not give them the right to siphon off funds from their constituents in this way.  Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial, and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The commercial academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfills little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

The question for learned societies is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that isn’t reliant upon effectively purloining funds from university library budgets. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

16 Responses to “Learned Societies and Open Access”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Regarding charities, highly paid executives are a disgrace, morally speaking. I once had a memorable discussion with a friend who insisted that if they were worth the money in terms of what extra cash they bring in then they are worth the salary. But how can you know how much extra they bring in, and how many actually prove to do that? If you want a high-powered boss of a charity, look to a recently retired businessman. Many of the retired retain plenty of energy and of course a lifetime’s expertise. Before giving to a charity, look online at what proportion of donations go to the advertised cause because variation is wide.

    Regarding the continuing academic publishing costs scandal, which Peter has done well to publicise and to undercut with the laudable initiative of the Open Journal of Astrophysics, here is a suggestion. Government should insist that every university which it funds shall maintain on its website a permanent archive for preprints written by researchers there. How about lobbying the government for that? This suggestion overcomes the low takeup rate of arXivs in other sciences than physics.

    • telescoper Says:

      There are many such repositories (see, e.g., SHERPA in the UK) but they typically only post papers after publication in a traditional journal (after any proprietary period).

      One approach I think is worth exploring is to develop overlay journals based on these repositories instead of the arXiv. More generally, I think universities should become publishers (either alone or in consortia) providing research direct to the research community thereby cutting out the expensive middle-men.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Unusually for me I suggest government using its muscle to compel the action I have described. That would get the chemists and biologists on side in 12 months..

      • telescoper Says:

        The government could easily do this through funding agencies, e.g. EPSRC for chemistry.

      • Although it has its flaws, I think that sticking with arXiv would be better. First, it is a one-stop shop. Second, the user interface is reasonable. People move around. We shouldn’t waste time learning how to interface with a new server. Also, in the case of collaborations, people between jobs, etc: where does the paper go?

      • Anton Garrett Says:


        The paper remains on the server of the university where the researcher was at the time of submission. In the case of papers having authors from multiple institutions it goes on to multiple servers.

  2. I agree with essentially everything. Again, if the OJA is not yet formally compliant due to some technicalities which could be easily fixed (you hinted at this), then fix them. Also, to satisfy the legal eagles, replace “in the public domain” by “publicly available” everywhere.

  3. Nice words and thoughts, especially if you are a member of “the (astrophysics) community”.

    How about the taxpayer community? Must we pay AGAIN to read the published results of research that we paid for (mostly)? Especially if it was our, freely given, time and effort that provided key data for such papers (I’m talking about citizen science, including online/crowdsource efforts such as the Zooniverse)? True, this is pretty much a chicken and egg thing, and there are no mobs outside the MNRAS HQ yet, but how long before the disgust at how we are being ripped off, condescended to (an initial submission on arXiv is a good enough substitute for a published, peer-reviewed paper? Please!), etc boils over?

  4. “and there are no mobs outside the MNRAS HQ yet, but how long before the disgust at how we are being ripped off, condescended to (an initial submission on arXiv is a good enough substitute for a published, peer-reviewed paper? Please!)”

    Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. MNRAS has no page charges, judges papers based on quality only (some require an institutional affiliation, some sort of membership, etc in order for one to be able to submit to them), has a good reputation, is pretty far down on the list of morally dubious publishers, and one can put something essentially identical to the accepted version on arXiv with no embargo period (this is even explicitly encouraged). Many otherwise reputable journals violate at least one of these requirements. As to people not updating their stuff on arXiv: if they don’t even do this, do you think that they are careful scientists otherwise? 😐

  5. “Take IOP Publishing, for example.”

    First, note that posting the accepted version to arXiv is generally not allowed until after a 12-month embargo period, but is allowed for the AAS journals and Classical and Quantum Gravity. From the IOP web pages:

    “Green open access is a term used to refer to the archiving of an Accepted Manuscript in a non-commercial institutional or non-commercial subject repository by the author after an embargo period. This applies to articles published on a subscription basis and does not allow immediate access nor does it allow reuse of the article.”

    This might be their definition of green open access, but I think that for most people it does not imply an embargo period.

    “The Accepted Manuscript is the author’s original version of the article, including any changes made following the peer review process but excluding any editing, typesetting or other changes made by IOP and/or its licensors. The Final Published Version may not be deposited.”

    What is (intentionally?) unclear is whether the Final Published Version means the PDF file generated by the journal, or also includes something functionally equivalent. For example, what if an author incorporates the editing, typsetting, and other changes made after acceptance and posts this to arXiv? Allowed or not?

    I’m genuinely curious. Does anyone know? (Not that this would change my choice, because I want to avoid page charges—not because I can’t afford them, but because not everyone can and because they create false incentives.)

    • The exception for CQG is at a general IOP page. On the page for the journal itself, it says:

      “Authors who do not select the gold open access option can post the accepted version of their manuscript to an institutional or subject repository after a 12 month embargo (with reuse restrictions). The accepted version of a paper refers to an author’s original version of an article after any changes made during peer review but before any editing, typesetting, etc by the publisher.”

    • Of course, this is not really an advantage for the AAS journals—au contraire, since they have page charges, essentially the only open-access model is gold.

      Are there any IOP journals which a) do not have page charges and b) do not have an embargo with respect to arXiv?

  6. It seems that even if some journals have similar self-archiving policies, what is available at ADS and in what format varies greatly. Most of the AAS journals and MNRAS appear to be there, but little if any from APS journals or from those published by Springer or IOP or Elsevier. (This does not apply to papers for which the author paid for gold open access, which most or all publishers now offer.)

    For Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series, ADS has no GIFs from scans, but there is a link to a free PDF at the journal site. Vice versa, at least for some Astronomische Nachrichten papers, ADS has a full version as scanned GIFs, but the link to the external PDF requires paid access.

    Does anyone know what determines what papers ADS has, in what format, and where they are hosted (e.g. ADS or journal site)?

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