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Should the Foology Society sell its journals to commercial publishers

I received a request from a well-known learned society, which I will anonymise as the Foology Society (and use female gender to anonymise people). They have agreed for me to blog this and actively invite comment either on this blog or by mailing me to pass on. A well-known scientist and long-standing member and officer of the Society (Prof. Foo) rang me and asked if I could give her informal advice about whether the Society should sell its flagship journal to a commercial publisher. The motivation was not primarily to raise revenue, but fear about the commercial prospects of society journals. She sent me the following which epitomizes the concerns of many of the society officers:

“Libraries will target most of their cost cutting attentions on the smaller academic/not-for-profit sector subscriptions in order to protect the large commercial contracts such as the “Big Deal” and similar consortia. The days of small independent publishing are over, out-licensing is the only way to protect publishing income.”

She regards this as a catastrophe for the society and the journal and asked if I could provide contrary views.

I immediately replied that on no account should the society sell its journal it was the crown jewels and far too many societies had sold these. I’ll first of all give my own views which relate only to STM journals – and then suggest how she can get other views and also get help.

The journal system of today arose from learned societies. In 1970 many countries had their own domain journal France, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, UK, USA, Canada all had national societies which ran flagship journals. There was a close liaison between the society journal and the membership and most members would receive one of more journals. Some scientists belonged to more than one society so as to get the journal. Libraries would subscribe to most national journals in a domain.

I’ve been a founder member (Treasurer) of a learned society (Molecular Graphics, now Molecular Graphics and Modelling) which in 1982 also ran a journal which was from the start run by a commercial publisher (Butterworth). The society raised its income from membership and meetings (equipment manufacturers would pay to exhibit and we always made a profit.) To be fair there were no paid officers but that is how many societies started. We got no income and incurred no costs from the journal, but members got it free.

As I blogged recently a major asset in C21 will be trust. I still trust learned societies to behave honorably (and when they do not it is deeply upsetting). I do not now trust commercial publishers to act honorably in all circumstances. The lobbying in Congress, Parliament, Europe by commercial publishers is often directly against the interests of scientists, most notably through the draconian imposition of copyright. The PRISM affair highlighted the depths to which some publishers will go to protect their income rather than the integrity of the domain. For Elsevier to finance PRISM to discredit Open Access science as junk while publishing fake journals means that no society can rely on their integrity.

Prof Foo shows how poisonous FUD is now a perceived part of libraries thinking. It may or may not be accurate but it is the perception. She is right that libraries are not likely to protect societies. Indeed I regard individual libraries now as the wrong place to purchase journal subscriptions. It is easy for a professional salesperson from a large publisher to win against the average library who is not trained in sales and negotiating. The divide and conquer strategy has been too successful already.

I would take individual libraries out of the purchasing system immediately and make this a national or consortium process. I believe Brazil buys journals nationally and so every university has access to every subscribed journal. This cuts management costs and almost certainly also cuts journal subscriptions. In the UK possible organs could be JISC or the British Library.

It is possible that consortia such as Highwire can provide a critical mass but I don’t know enough about their purchasing or selling influence (if any). I believe they might provide the sort of bundle that Prof Foo needs.

How is the Foology Soc to continue to remain solvent. That’s not easy, but if the journal is part of it then it, not a commercial publisher, should be in control. My own view is that societies must become points of rapid innovation, perhaps by teaming up with Universities and maybe through organs such as JISC.

I gave a list of people who might be able to help, but I hope very much that YOU will also give help, by commenting here or by email.

Because if we do not get ideas, Foology will die. Its soul will pass to the megapublishers.

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