Are learned societies an endangered species?

Dr Mattia Fosci, Consultant, 16 Oct 2015

Earlier this year, Research Consulting carried out an analysis on the financial health of UK learned societies, and of their reliance on publishing revenues. The analysis was part of a broader study commissioned by Universities UK’s Open Access Co-ordination Group that collected data and generated indicators to better understand how the transition to open access (OA) in the UK is impacting on the publishing and research environments. The main contribution of our work has thus been in developing a baseline position against which future changes to the financial health of learned societies can be monitored.

Wait a minute, but what is a learned society exactly?

A learned society is not an extremely well-educated nation, nor is it the new incarnation of the government’s aspirational Big Society. A learned society is a membership organization that exists to promote an academic discipline or profession. Sometimes referred to as a learned academy, scholarly society, or academic association, learned societies are usually non-profit organizations carrying out charitable activities aimed at presenting, discussing and disseminating research results. Some also act as professional bodies, regulating the activities of their members in the public interest or the collective interest of the membership.

Far from being a 19th century gentleman’s club for pompous professors, learned societies are in fact a hub of intellectual activity within a distinct discipline. They work as connective tissue for researchers, helping break university boundaries and encouraging cross-institutional collaborations that are key to the development of a discipline. In sum, learned societies are an oft-overlooked but crucial success factor for the UK research environment.

Learned societies’ reliance on publishing revenues

One of the key activities of learned societies is the publication or sponsorship of academic journals. Of more than 500 learned societies headquartered in the UK, just over half (279) have an active academic publication, which is generally outsourced to a major commercial publisher (only 67 out of the 279 societies publish in-house).

For many learned societies, publications are their point of contact with the world, as well as evidence of their contribution to the advancement of science and the wellbeing of society. But our study showed that publications are also an important source of revenues, contributing over £300 million to societies’ income in 2013. We looked at the financial statements of 30 learned societies and found that publishing is a profitable activity for the vast majority of them (to be precise, they generate a 12% profit margin on average).  These surpluses are then used to cross-subsidise other activities such as grant-making, member services and public education.

When we looked at the figures, we noted that revenues and surpluses were not evenly distributed across disciplines. Societies in the social sciences appear to generate by far the greatest surpluses on publishing, followed by those in medicine and health sciences. Meanwhile, some societies in arts and humanities, as well as a few in engineering, mathematical and earth sciences, ostensibly make a loss from publishing. We were even more surprised that size does not matter, as smaller societies are no more dependent on publication income than larger ones.

Revenue and surplus/deficit from publishing versus total revenues (30 societies, 2013)

Revenue and surplus/deficit from publishing versus total revenues (30 societies, 2013)

 

 

Changes to the open access landscape: what does it mean for learned societies?

Given the big changes to the UK open access landscape at present, which we have discussed in other blog posts (such as this one), one aim of our work was to understand the risks these changes represent for learned societies. The answer we found was that, yes, the changing publishing landscape presents risks to some learned societies, but also opportunities. The recent trend towards market consolidation makes it more difficult for smaller society publishers to compete on a level playing field, and the ‘Big Deal’ discount packages used by major publishers can potentially reduce the available revenues to smaller players. At the same time, however, partnership with commercial publishers can give learned society access to marketing clout and technical infrastructure, and increase the dissemination of their publications.

A longstanding concern expressed in some quarters is that the spread of open access could severely undermine revenue generation, and therefore threaten learned societies’ very existence. However, our work has not evidenced any decline in publishing revenues so far, and while the threat cannot be ruled out altogether, all the indications are that a full transition to open access remains many years off. The good news for learned societies is that open access is likely to increase their readership and may also open up new business opportunities – such as through the use of second-tier OA journals that publish articles rejected by the flagship journals.

Looking into the future: sustainability and market Darwinism

The doomsday scenario of learned societies having to radically scale back their operations and charitable activities because of open access and other changes to the publishing market has not materialised. A recent survey on Scholarly Society Membership also indicates that respondents continue to set great store by the benefits of society membership.  Nevertheless, the heavy dependency on publishing revenues for many learned societies means that they should not be complacent. As the market continues to evolve, societies must increasingly seek to diversify their revenue sources by embracing the new opportunities created by internet technology, open access and the consolidation of the journal subscription market. They may also be compelled to reduce costs through increased adoption of shared purchasing arrangements and the pooling of some support functions across societies.

Looking forward, it is not difficult to predict that learned societies will have mixed fortunes: those who take measures to prepare for, and adapt to, future market challenges will do well. Those who resist change and rely on tried and tested business models will likely struggle. Learned societies may not be an endangered species yet, but in this Darwinian world adaptability and evolution are the only valid recipe for self-preservation.

If you want to know more, please have a look at the original report or read the article we published on the Learned Publishing journal. You can also have a look at the original data here and here.