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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18 Responses to Should the Foology Society sell its journals to commercial publishers

  1. A says:

    I’m a graduate student and I have a lot of problems with the way that the database publishers are behaving. It’s a real threat to the openness of research. Lately it seems that universities have started waking up to this threat, due to both increasing costs and increasing calls for openness.
    Therefore I have three suggestions for societies in this position. First, meet with some of the universities who have recently called for their scientist’s publications to be open–MIT is an example. Perhaps these universities have ideas on how societies can retain their independent publishing. Second, reduce costs as much as possible by publishing only online. This is already done by a number of other journals so it should no longer carry any stigma. The archive can be maintained and made searchable using FLOSS tools. Finally, societies should consider trying to form a co-op with other societies in a similar position. Perhaps by banding together they will be in a stronger position to negotiate. The other societies need not be in precisely the same field, as many universities teach in multiple fields and there is growing interest in interdisciplinary research.
    Another option is to make the content free, as is done with First Monday. Cut the costs enough and it should be feasible, given the number of hits the average journal needs to support. Personally I think that’s a wonderful way to make research accessible to everyone, but I can understand if they wish to reserve something for members in order to encourage people to join the professional association.

    • pm286 says:

      @A Many thanks for the long reply. The future of science is in the hands of students. Be brave.
      Your ideas are excellent and will be read by Prof Foo and also by many others. You mention “database publishers” specifically – have you something in mind about data as it needs to be treated differently from articles.

  2. bill says:

    They could consider flipping ( to an OA model, with or without author-side fees.
    They could partner with BMC (
    They could cut journal costs by dropping the print version, if they have one, and going online-only.

  3. Christina Pikasc says:

    Paying a service that is standards compliant and usable is a great idea for small societies – but I’m not sure how much it costs. I’m not sure that every small society can take their journals OA, either – think that will probably require lots of careful consideration. In addition to the for-profit organizations hosting journals (Wiley-Blackwell, etc.), there are things like Highwire Press. I think the society folks should use the materials made available from the ALPSP and see about getting mentoring (or consulting) from there prior to making the decision.

    • pm286 says:

      @christina thanks. Valid points and I would certainly explore these. I’ve mailed Prof Foo and hope she will read these.

  4. Mark Ware says:

    Professor Foo has a valid concern, and one that other societies have raised with me. The global recession is certainly going to put increased pressure on library budgets (see e.g. Van Orsdel & Born annual review in Library Journal, More than half of library content in now acquired in bundles of 50 titles or more (ibid.)
    A few points of possible clarification, though:
    – there already is a national scheme in the UK, namely JISC Collections – see
    – It’s not entirely clear from the post whether the society is considering selling the journal or licensing it to a publisher (as opposed to self-publishing). The latter is of course common, and provided the society retained absolute editorial control and had a reasonably short-term contract (which would be standard) I can’t see that this would endanger the soul of the journal, while giving the society access to the publisher’s consortia marketing clout. Many of the highest-quality society journals are published this way, and I suspect from the last sentence in the quoted extract that’s what’s being discussed here.
    – publisher partners for societies need not be for-profit companies, e.g. university presses or some of the larger society publishing arms
    – OA might be an option, it’s hard to say without knowing more about the field and the journal, but I see Prof Foo’s concern being primarily about mitigating business risk, and I don’t think anyone would argue that switching from an existing subscription model to OA would be likely to be a lower-risk strategy, at least not without a lot more data.

    • pm286 says:

      Many thanks and Prof Foo should be able to use this – she is offline at present. I don’t know exactly what is being proposed.

  5. baoilleac says:

    “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.” You don’t have to go as far as Brazil to see examples of this in action. Since 2004, Ireland via IReL ( has had a similar system in place. The funding is coming up for renewal in 2010 though…

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  7. Isla says:

    You may be interested to know that the NHS are already working in the direction of nationally available set of journals – NHS Core Content ( provides e-journals to anyone with an NHS ATHENS password (inlcudes all NHS staff, students on placement, social care staff full details:
    Also, on a regional level, the East of England NHS librarians, together with the Strategic Health Authority have worked to organise the purchase of further e-journals to supplement this national collection, and to reduce duplication of purchasing. (
    There’s never enough money to buy all the journals that everyone needs, but it’s heading in the right direction, don’t you think?

    • pm286 says:

      @Isla many thanks. Yes, this is how it should be going.
      Has the NHS ever considered that it might become a publisher?

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  9. Gavin Baker says:

    Where’s an OA society publisher coop when you need one?

  10. Muggler says:

    The Society should offer a five-year licence on its journal back-issues (not sell outright) to whoever it decides is the best bidder, after an open call for a business solution that brings its knowledge to the world _but_ also retains significant income. Open up to innovative commercial solutions outside of the big publishers, from all and any players (subject to after-bid scrutiny to ensure they’re not spivs, of course). As for the current and ongoing issues, it depends on many factors – the ongoing availability and willingness of peer reviewers, the costs of producing paper copies, etc, and only they will have the best feel for how to proceed into the future.

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