RSA Case Study

About the Regional Studies Association

The Regional Studies Association (RSA) was established in 1965, and now has just over a thousand members. It is a charity and a company limited by guarantee, and was originally a UK-based society which, over the years, has expanded into Europe and the rest of the world and which now has members in 67 countries. The Association has five full-time members of staff, and is governed by a Board of twelve trustees, nine co-optees, and observers, who represent a range of national and professional backgrounds. Beneath the Board are three key committees: the publications committee, the research committee and the international networks committee. The Association is guided by its Development Plan, which is reviewed on a regular basis. The Board is responsible for setting strategy and making key decisions, but staff members have considerable input into this process and are responsible for many innovations. The relationship between the Chair and the Chief Executive is close and they speak regularly.

The academics we interviewed had begun their work with the Association in different ways, but all had some degree of involvement as a member before they were invited to take on their current roles, usually by the Chief Executive. Many emphasised the importance of this process; the progression from attending conferences, to speaking at them, and then into a role on the Board. They felt this gave them a rounded understanding of the organisation and its role within the academic community. Estimates of the time spent on RSA work varied, but could be as much as a day a week, although work is cyclical (particularly for the publishing activity) and so it was difficult for most interviewees to make an accurate appraisal. Although most of the academic interviewees are encouraged by their institutions to participate in this type of activity, and may be rewarded for it in appraisals or promotion decisions, they are not offered a reduction in workload to compensate for the time spent on RSA activities; many institutions, in fact, see it as a core part of the job that their researchers are paid to do. One interviewee felt that younger researchers are maturing within a different culture with less flexibility and time and so approach their involvement with learned societies in a different way.

When asked about the main role or purpose of the RSA, most interviewees mentioned the charitable goals or Development Plan. Promoting regional studies is a crucial aim of the Association, and many interviewees talked about this in a way which asserted the importance of connecting different groups of people to create what one interviewee called a ‘supportive scholarly network’. For the Association, this means bringing together researchers from different disciplines; younger and older researchers; more experienced professionals and publishers; researchers in different territories; academics and people with more of a policy or practitioner focus. One interviewee characterised this as a ‘heterodox approach to advance knowledge’, and several acknowledged that their perspective would be a reflection of their own priorities as academics: other types of member might see different priorities for the Association. Regional studies, as a field, benefits enormously from the active involvement of all these people, and the Association has an important role in ensuring that they have ways to meet and share ideas. Members are central to everything that the Association is and does.


The RSA works in an interesting multi-disciplinary space. As one interviewee said, ‘there is no textbook for regional studies’. Some of the main disciplines with an interest in regions or territories include economics,  geography, planning, politics, business and management studies. Most of these disciplines have their own learned societies – several of them, in some cases – but these tend to operate in a more isolated way. Silos can even exist within individual societies, which might prevent researchers with related interests from having contact with each other. The Association works to bring those different researchers together, and thereby support the development of the discipline overall.

This has three particularly important benefits. First, it offers researchers a network of people with similar interests who they can use to test ideas, share findings and develop new areas or methodologies for investigation. It is often important that these people come from other academic disciplines and are able to offer their own ‘windows to assimilate stuff’, as one interviewee put it – a rigorous set of theories, methods and practices from their own discipline which researchers from other disciplines can use as another way to examine areas of interest.  Second, related to this network, it gives greater status to the study of regions or territories. Without the Association, regional studies would be a sub-discipline in a number of other departments. The Association signals that researchers working on these issues have membership of a wider global network of research, built around a set of issues, methodologies and practices that have been validated by researchers over a number of decades. This can be very important to regional studies researchers, who may be working in relative isolation within their own institution or department with colleagues who see cross-disciplinary research interests such as regional studies as a ‘passing fad’, as one interviewee put it. Finally, the network offers researchers an opportunity to meet each other and form collaborations for new projects, particularly the interdisciplinary collaborations which are increasingly important to research funders.

One interviewee suggested that the Association’s multidisciplinarity gave it a particular focus upon research activity rather than broader higher education policy issues such as teaching, course structures and ‘health of the discipline’ which can be a focus for other learned societies. Since there is no defined set of courses or departments which focus upon regional studies – they tend to be sub-groups within other schools such as economics, geography, planning or politics – it is difficult to find a set of issues to organise around. That said, the Association will take a position on discipline-specific issues which affect members – feeding into REF and RAE for example – and also takes a position on issues like open access which affect its business model.

The multidisciplinarity is reflected in the Association’s membership. Although one interviewee identified a ‘small core’ of members, membership turnover is generally higher than it might be for more discipline-specific societies. Many researchers drift in and out, allowing their membership to lapse when they move away from research that has a strong regional focus but returning if their research interests require it. This is not seen as a problem by the Association and in fact membership overall is growing, but it does make it particularly important for them to remain in touch with members and their priorities.

Networks and connectedness

Several of the RSA’s activities are geared towards promoting connections between different groups of their membership. Interviewees suggested that access to publications had traditionally been the main driver for membership of the Association but, as availability has increased via institutional subscriptions, the networking opportunities are becoming an increasingly important benefit, and one which members acknowledge as such. The RSA’s events have a good reputation and are seen as an important opportunity for members to meet each other and exchange ideas; not just formally via presentations but also in the wider programme of social activities which can be very important in leading to new collaborations.

The focus on networks and connectedness can be seen in two areas in particular: the Association’s international activities and its work to bring together academics and practitioners. The two are in fact quite closely related, as it was the European Union’s focus upon regional development, and the subsequent importance of ‘regions’ for policymakers, which prompted the RSA’s first international activities. Many of the people working in Europe were British so this was a natural development for the then-UK-based Association. Expansion has continued, with a particular focus in recent years upon the US and China, and increasingly upon South America. This international focus is very natural for the Association since regional studies is a highly international discipline, with research questions, perspectives and methods which are truly global. Countries look at other countries to inform their responses to problems: one interviewee gave the example of Chinese planners trying to deal with congestion as they become a car-owning nation and how they can learn from countries who have already been through this process. The Association’s international activity is slightly complicated by the fact that the discipline of regional studies is seen differently in different countries: for example, its closest analogue in the USA is regional science, which approaches questions from a different angle. There are also cultural differences in the way that academics work which can be a challenge for the Association and its leadership.

The RSA supports its international activity in a number of ways. The most formal is dedicated networks, funded through grants, to support local events and promote RSA conferences and publications to local researchers. These are established following an open call for tenders by the research committee, and always receive proposals. Running the network is a lot of work for successful applicants, who receive some reward for their input, but rarely enough to cover the effort expended. These networks are overlaid by what one interviewee called ‘informal networks on networks’: for example, the Board members from overseas often have a role in supporting the RSA’s activity within their own country or region, including organising or attending events, or introducing fellow RSA staff and board members to key contacts. Furthermore, some of the research grants focus upon territories or regions which are simultaneously beginning to develop networks under the RSA’s funding scheme. Researchers and board members have to negotiate a delicate balance which ensures that the different ways of engaging scholars in these emerging territories complement each other, rather than competing.

Building connections and networks between academia and practice is a less formalised process, but one which is very important to the Association’s activities and goals. Once again, the interviews illustrated how broad and complex the RSA’s remit can be. One interviewee distinguished between ‘policy makers’, who he characterised as working in regional, national or international government structures, and ‘practitioners’, who he saw as being based in smaller communities – towns or cities – and actively working with small businesses and communities rather than setting political agendas. The Association’s membership includes both types of professional, and some members will move fluidly between academia, practice and policy over the course of their career. One interviewee exemplified this by charting his progression from a university into a local authority with a big research unit and then back into academia: his connection to the Association grew and changed with each career move. Most interviewees suggested that engagement with professionals happens in a number of ways and tends to be rather fluid. The Association runs events such as policy seminars within Westminster and organises the three day Open Days University for Directorate General Regio, European Commission which comprises multiple sessions where academics and senior policy makers inform regional policy makers and practitioners around Europe. The event has around 6000 attendees annually. The Association also offers sections in some of its journals which are specifically targeted at policymakers. Some interviewees suggested that, as the impact agenda builds in higher education, this ability to ensure research is seen by practitioners will become an increasingly important benefit for academic members of the RSA.

Leadership and support for members

Leadership and support for members are two important themes that merit a more careful examination within this case study. They run through much of what has already been said about creating a clear identity for the discipline, and providing opportunities for different sections of the membership to engage with each other. But the Association also plays an important role, as a learned society, in supporting the career development of its members, and ensuring that they are engaged with important issues in higher education policy.

Support manifests itself particularly strongly around young researchers. Around 19% of RSA members are early career researchers, defined as those who  who have completed their PhD within the last five years. There is a similar percentage of student members. These researchers are seen as crucial to the future of the discipline, and part of the Association’s role is to create a supportive environment where they can ‘learn to be an academic’, as one interviewee put it. This focus on young researchers manifests itself in a number of ways. There is a dedicated annual event for young researchers, which helps them to meet each other and to build their networks. There are sessions at other RSA conferences targeted at young researchers which give them an opportunity to meet editors and practitioners, while being part of an academic conference alongside their more senior colleagues. Each RSA journal has an early career researcher on its editorial board, with the aim of ‘developing the editors of the future’. Regional Insights, one of the Association’s publications, is targeted specifically at early career researchers: it is not yet part of the RSA’s journal collection but it offers young researchers an important mentored opportunity to learn about the process of publishing an article, and to make their research available for discussion. There are also dedicated funding streams for young researchers, which attract around 20 applications every six month cycle – typically, 3-5 of these will be offered £10,000 awards.

The RSA also sees itself as having a strong leadership role, ensuring that its members are informed about important policy issues and that the Association gives them an opportunity to express any concerns. It is particularly important, said one interviewee, because institutions are not always very good at providing such leadership and consultation. The leadership role is not always straightforward for the RSA because it is such a multidisciplinary society.  Because regional studies researchers can be found in different schools and teaching on different courses, it is difficult to engage with debates about teaching and the structure of courses; not least because there is very little data about ‘regional studies’ students. But several interviewees reported that the Association has taken a role in debates about research assessment in the UK because this is something which ‘affects all the members’: others sounded a note of caution about the RSA becoming too involved with issues that only affect a few countries.

But almost all interviewees agreed that the Association should mobilise and provide leadership around changes that could potentially damage its own existence: open access publishing was seen as one such issue. One interviewee described learned societies as the ‘Cinderellas’ of academia, stressing that their importance is not always recognised because they provide the infrastructure, platforms and networks which allow more visible aspects of academia to function, rather than being a notable academic output in themselves. Another interviewee highlighted what he saw as an increasing tendency to question the value and existence of learned societies in the social sciences, and the need to reassert the role of experts and elites alongside pluralism and consultation.


The RSA publishes three journals and, at the time of interview, was shortly to launch a fourth, open access, journal: all of this is done in association with Taylor & Francis. The Association also publishes a book series with Routledge (Taylor & Francis’s book imprint) and publishes two magazines which, although not academic journals, are an important conduit for information within the discipline: one is a magazine for members and the other, Regional Insights, is primarily authored by young researchers to give them a first opportunity to publish their work but is circulated to the entire membership.

The three journals are the mainstay of the RSA’s economic model. They generate 67% of the Association’s income, all of which is streamed back into disciplinary-support activity: for example, all their research grants are funded through publications and other income. All interviewees recognised the important role that journals play in the Association’s financial health, but stressed that they support the Association in a number of other ways which are just as important, if not more so. The journals offer RSA members a platform where they can communicate with each other, sharing ideas and developing their research agendas – one of the key benefits of the Association. Generalised social science journals would tend to obscure the distinctive regional agenda in RSA members’ work, and make it difficult for them to discover and sustain conversations with their peers – the same problem that was identified in relation to discipline-specific learned societies. The RSA’s journals are thus very important to its core mission of supporting the discipline.

One interviewee described the Regional Studies as the Association’s flagship journal, while the other two – Territory, Politics, Governance and Spatial Economic Analysis (the latter published in association with the British and Irish Section of the Regional Science Association, which is strong in the US) – are about broadening reach. Interviewees suggested that Territory, Politics, Governance had been established to provide a home for research which would otherwise have been spread across a number of journals in different disciplines. Spatial Economic Analysis is a niche journal, designed to support new academic perspectives and approaches which the Association had noticed emerging in their existing communications streams such as Regional Studies, conferences and the research networks, and which did not, at that stage, have a natural home. The decision to publish these journals is based upon pragmatic knowledge about what is likely to sell as well as academic priorities for discussion, reflecting the Association’s need to be a rigorous academic organisation as well as financially healthy.

The book series, on the other hand, does not make money (indeed, some interviewees thought that it might actually be a cost to the Association, although the evidence suggests that this is not the case), and is almost exclusively about supporting disciplinary development.  Regional studies researchers come from a range of disciplines, so members’ attitudes to the importance of books vary to reflect their disciplinary perspectives. But interviewees were clear that researchers should have access to the possibility of publishing books if they wanted to. Edited books and collections were seen as particularly important – and sell well – as there is value in curating a set of papers or ideas around a particular theme or consolidating the work of a certain author so that it is presented together as a coherent whole. In other cases, interviewees felt that monographs are needed to express ideas fully – ‘Das Kapital could not be a journal article’, as one interviewee said. Another interviewee suggested that the writing conventions of books offer more flexibility than journal articles, allowing authors to choose their tone and allowing, for example, fewer pauses for referencing than might be required by a journal editor.

The books were also seen as a marker of academic credibility. As with the journals series, books were seen as offering a platform for regional studies researchers to outline their ideas, techniques and methods, building the discipline. This reflects positively on the Association, but the Association also lends credibility to the book series with its brand – for example, all book covers feature the logo of the well-established and prestigious RSA brand. One interviewee suggested that this is particularly important for researchers, as books do not have impact factors or similar markers to help signal significance. The editorial team is another important part of this brand: it is highly international and composed of eminent researchers within the field. Their names are published at the start of every book – again, this reinforces the quality of the brand. At present, the series receives many more proposals than it is able to publish, which suggests that the platform is both prestigious and valued within the academic community.

The book series is a true partnership between the Association and the publisher, Routledge. Broadly speaking, the RSA is responsible for much of the intellectual content – soliciting proposals and putting together the editorial board – while Routledge supports authors through writing and production, giving them a single point of contact about their book. Decisions about which books to publish are taken jointly by the RSA and Routledge. Interviewees had slightly different perspectives on exactly how this process works: one suggested that financial considerations did not play a part in the choice of titles, while another said that Routledge would occasionally turn down a book despite support from the Association because they did not think it would perform financially. This only happens on very rare occasions, and sometimes the Association is able to negotiate to release the book in a different format (e.g. hardback only or print-on-demand) to ensure it is published.

The partnership between the publisher and the Association, on both books and journals, is seen as very successful by all interviewees. It is subject to a regular re-tendering process and, although the relationship extends back unbroken to the 1980s, some interviewees felt that it was very important that it could be renegotiated or even terminated if necessary. Interviewees felt that because the relationship is so long, and because it covers both books and journals, each party understands the other one well and they are in what one interviewee called a ‘mutually supportive relationship’. Success relies upon the input of both the publisher and the Association, at the level of individual titles as well as the series or imprint. For example, Routledge has the administrative capacity and experience to manage a number of titles in the book series, but they will call upon the editor of the book series to chase individual authors who are being particularly slow with their submissions. At a more strategic level, the Association provides the publisher with credibility and helps them to attract high-quality submissions to titles which may – particularly in the case of the journals – be a very important part of their own brand as a publisher. And the publisher provides expertise to the Association, ensuring it stays ahead of developments in the publishing industry. One interviewee stressed that Routledge are always very responsive to requests for change from the Association, and in many cases actively drive developments in the types and formats of outputs. Another interviewee described publishing as being ‘like a car, where you switch the key on – so much of what happens next you don’t understand or control’. The publisher’s expertise is seen as very important to the success of RSA publications. There are regular communications between various individuals at the publishers and individuals at the RSA, and the relationship is strong throughout the term of the agreement, not just around the negotiations and retendering of contracts.

Open access

All interviewees had given some thought to the issue of open access and how it was likely to affect the future of the Association, and all stressed that this was an important part of the Association’s current discussions at Board level. Broadly speaking, interviewees saw two distinct but related issues – the effect upon scholarship for their members, and the effect upon the Association’s business models. In both cases, interviewees were primarily concerned about process: how the move to a more open publishing model could be achieved without disrupting what is currently working well. In relation to scholarship, this meant ensuring trusted brands are not undermined, in particular that the process of peer review remains in place. Several interviewees mentioned concerns about damage to the Regional Studies Association brand if the move is not managed successfully. One interviewee expressed concerns about the new ways that work could be used and cited, and the loss of control over their own work that academics might experience. But interviewees were also able to see possible benefits to scholarship from open access: for example, quicker publication speeds and more open discussions around articles, benefits for policymakers and practitioners, and the ability to disseminate different types of content throughout a research project rather than waiting until the end to publish peer reviewed articles. Two interviewees mentioned this last point, but both also expressed caution: they felt that this could be extremely complicated to manage owing to the diversity of data types within regional studies.

There were also concerns about how open access might affect the Regional Studies Association’s financial viability. As already mentioned, income from publications makes up a significant proportion of the Association’s budget, and it is subsequently used to support conferences, dissemination, research projects, overseas networks, early career researchers and all the Association’s other activities. Most interviewees emphasised that the challenge was really around implementation: managing the process of change and the uncertainty around new business models. Several mentioned that while there are potential benefits in being early movers, there are also risks, particularly given that the momentum for change is coming primarily from the UK, and the Association is highly international. There is no guarantee that its authors would all be working within the open access framework shaped by the Finch review and subsequent funder moves.

The Association is already quite engaged with open access, offering both Gold and Green OA on all its titles and introducing a new pure Gold open access journal this year, believing that researchers in regional studies need an open access outlet for their research. But most interviewees had not yet given much thought to open access for monographs. There was a general feeling that journals were more of a priority, although there may be some crossover with the ‘special editions’ of journals which are subsequently published as part of a book series. One interviewee wondered whether open access might help books to become more financially viable, recognising that although authors like – indeed, often need – to write books, the current business model means that not all of them reach the audience that they should, if they are published at all.