Rights Retention, Open Access and Learned Society Publishing.

The April 2021 issue of Physics World arrived this morning after the usual month in the post to Ireland. I don’t know why it takes so long. My copy of Private Eye usually takes just a couple of days.

Anyway, there is an interview in the latest issue with Steve Hall, the former Managing Director of IOP Publishing who stepped down last month. The piece is entitled The Future of Learned-Society Publishing. Here’s a short excerpt:

I laughed out loud when I read the bit about the “downsides” of a rights-retention policy (basically that authors of a work keep the copyright to their work). Such a policy would of course undermine the subscription model and the Gold Open Access models in the way Steven Hall describes, but that is exactly why it is a good idea as neither of these models is sustainable or justifiable. The Open Journal of Astrophysics – a Diamond Open Access journal fully compliant with Plan S – allows authors to own the copyright of their papers. I’d be astonished if anyone who has the best interests of scientific research at heart would argue against such a policy.

This interview does raise an interesting aspect of the ongoing debate about Open Access publishing is the extent to which “learned societies”, such as the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

IOP Publishing is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that generates a sizeable annual income – tends of millions of pounds – from books and journals. This is the largest source of the revenue 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.

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 in a blog post some time ago, 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 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 explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access that is being foisted on the research community, rather than the far more justifiable Diamond Open Access.

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 by other modes of publication. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that journals are already redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations is unjustifiable and unsustainable and it won’t last. The IoP, RAS et al need to find another way of funding their activities pronto, or downsize accordingly.

The other problematic aspect of this approach 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 disseminating research. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed oustandingly good – but that does not give them the right to syphon off funds from their constituents in this way. Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities than raiding library budgets.

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 in any case 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 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 fulfils 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.

But I wonder if the learned societies will go the same way. Is there a financial model according to which they can enjoy a stable and sustainable future? Are they actually needed? After all, if we can publish our own physics, why can’t we ourselves also promote it?


5 Responses to “Rights Retention, Open Access and Learned Society Publishing.”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Agree totally with the article. It is sad that the professional bodies have become so embedded within the copytheft business model. Laden with irony; and now so dependent that they cannot conceive of themselves in any other guise than this utterly unsustainable mode which aids the impoverishment of the wider educational community. You’re right also about the glitzy offices in central London of many organisations; all about ‘influence’ by being close to the seat of power, or the HQs of various industry bodies, the media, etc. Soirees in each other’s foyers, lunch in each other’s restaurant, etc.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Did he mean to write “It’s a disastrous policy that will cause enormous problems for the IoP”? I cannot do better than repeat what I said in 2012:

    “Currently, researchers have to typeset their own work, sign away the copyright to publishers and referee the work of their peers – all for no remuneration. They then pay large sums in publication fees or library subscriptions to buy that work back in refereed and collated form.”

    It ought to be self-evident that this is grossly unfair, and I am glad that the internet is making it possible for journals such as OJA to break the mould. Did IoP care when a number of skilled typesetters it used lost their jobs when printing went computerised several decades ago, or did it see the change as progress? Today progress is set to induce further changes, and again there will be winners (physics researchers) and losers (IoP publishing staff). One does not expect the losers to be happy, but one need not take their arguments for the status quo at face value. Nothing is stopping IoP from setting out a range of its other activities which it believes should continue to be supported, and seeking voluntary contributions from individual physicists, physics departments and technology companies. Let the physics community decide.

  3. Martin Says:

    Learned societies existed before journal publishing for profit was a thing. They will have to adapt to existing without it. The IoP and RAS do a lot of stuff that the community does benefit from, so the sooner they recognise that that and not for-profit journal publication is their actual job, the better.

  4. Albert Says:

    The same is true for all scientific publishers. They have to justify their charges, limit profits to an acceptable level (5% would be acceptable, the current 40% is not), and provide a service that is worth paying for. Some form of quality control is useful. Limiting access is not.

  5. Has the UKRI policy on open access, apparently promised for April according to the interview, appeared?

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