Learned societies and open access

By Rob Johnson

Since 2015, the Universities’ UK Open Access Co-ordination Group has commissioned a bi-annual exercise to monitor the UK’s transition to open access, including the financial health of learned societies. As part of this exercise, I have been working with Professor Robert Dingwall to assess how 30 UK learned societies have fared between 2011 and 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. In addition to informing our work, this provided the starting point for a lively discussion about the future of societies. Held under Chatham House rules, all comments shall remain unattributed, but they provide some valuable insights into this under-appreciated part of the research ecosystem.

Understanding the landscape

Our 2015 study found that there are over 600 learned societies in the UK and that just under half of them publish academic journals and conference proceedings. Most of these societies only publish a single journal, but others operate highly-internationalised publishing operations with a significant portfolio of titles. The success of UK learned societies in generating export income from publishing, in turn, helps underpin many of their charitable activities. As the Finch group acknowledged back in 2012:

‘…[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)

Is the tail wagging the dog?

Those present at the event on 27 September emphasised 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 it’s part of our mission’.

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). Participants also debated the relative merits of societies publishing on their account or partnering with a commercial publisher or university press. Partnerships can allow societies to extend their reach and benefit from the investment in technical infrastructure made by large publishers. Yet they 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 delegates’ 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. However, 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, with some grappling with complex property transactions and growing pension liabilities. Several societies noted that they are now becoming much more strategic in their financial and investment planning, and acknowledged the need for a professional approach to society management (‘We can’t be the Victorian gentleman amateur in 2017’).

Seeking out opportunities

A few attendees voiced concerns that societies’ consensus-based governance model could make them slow to respond to threats and grasp opportunities. Nonetheless, there were many examples of societies actively reshaping their activities, with the diversification of revenue sources a key mantra. Several are seeking to make better use of their existing physical assets through conferences and events, while others 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 publishing activities is a lesser concern, since publishing represents a net cost to the society. In these disciplines, more pressing concerns centre on government education policy, undergraduate numbers, and implications for the long-term health of the discipline itself. 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 and existential fears about the impact of open access appear to have receded in the last few years. ‘Open access is not the biggest issue by a long way,’ stressed one attendee, ‘income diversification and internationalisation 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.’

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 the event’s page for further details.