Learned Societies, Equity, and Open Access

I’m not getting much time these days to think about new ideas for blog posts so yet again I’m going to rehash an old one, but at least it is somewhat topical because of an interesting blog post I saw recently about the American Sociological Association. Referring to the inequity of the way this particular society is funded the author says

The greatest source of income for the association is publications, which is mostly subscriptions to journals paid by academic libraries, which are being bled dry by profit-making publishers that ASA organizes academic labor to subsidize with free content and editorial services. This is a wealth transfer from poorer, teaching-intensive libraries to richer, research-intensive libraries.

I tthink it’s relevant to raise some points about the extent that such 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 and why this is not in the best interests of their disciplines.

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 approaches to Open Access employed, for example, by the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

Some time ago I came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing anything other than the most expensive forms of 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  other forms of Open Access publishing. 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 other 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 reasonably 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?

5 Responses to “Learned Societies, Equity, and Open Access”

  1. Concur. But it raises a few questions. What is a reasonable publishing cost for a paper? You are running very cheap, but if you became the size of AJ, what would your cost base be? How do we support people with insufficient funds to pay even the reduced cost? I already hear fro colleagues in less wealthy countries that they are now finding it very hard to publish anywhere. (And these countries often have research assessment schemes which require publications in certain journals – which does not help.) And finally, what level of quality control is needed on papers? Without any, papers will be judged by the reputation of the author(s) and this can stifle innovation. We would want to avoid a situation like the stranglehold of string theory. No answers – just questions.

    • There is a very handy breakdown of what which step in the publication process of an academic paper costs:
      Latin American countries (e.g., SciELO) run at about these costs and are financing publishing directly. If the rest of the world simply were to copy that, we would publish the same papers as now, but saving about US$ 9 billion every year, globally.

      Of course, when one replaces journals, one doesn’t drop relevant parts, one replaces them with superior technology:
      So quality control and assessment will still use human input, improved with modern information technology – after all, we will have saved so many billions, we can spend some of them on AI that actually helps 🙂

  2. Love the post and have promoted it profusely on Twitter.
    You wrote:
    “Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.”

    Yes, the academic publishing industry fulfills little or no useful purpose and can hence be classified as parasitic.

    However, the scientific community has known this for decades now and the parasite is still thriving. Point in case: arxiv has been around “for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.” So why do these journals still exist, if nobody looks at them. I have seen usage stats where journal article downloads are at ~25% of arxiv downloads of the same articles. And yet, our libraries keep paying outrageous sums to keep these zombie journals alive.

    For almost ten years now, we have had more than a dozen ways around paywalls:
    and yet, our libraries keep paying.

    So I’m not at all sure the parasites will die a natural death: they will have to be replaced and there likely some counter-incentives will need to be involved:

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Well worth repeating!

  4. Jim Peebles in the preface of his Cosmology’s Century (bottom of page xv) says “Copyright holders have a broad variety of prescriptions for statements of permission to reproduce, and their conditions for permission range from casual statements that reuse of figures is OK to payments required to reproduce two of the figures in this book taken from the publication of an otherwise respectable scholarly society.”

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