learned societies

OAPEN-UK Learned Societies Focus Group: 15 February 2012

The OAPEN-UK focus group for Humanities and Social Science (HSS) learned societies concentrated on four main areas: business models and income streams; quality; international issues; and rights.

Underlying the entire discussion was a strong sense that the scholarly communications system is itself changing, at an extremely rapid pace; an awareness that learned societies operate quite differently from one another; and that although monographs are evidently in trouble, they are just one part of the wider scholarly communications system, and cannot be considered in isolation from journals, textbooks, texts and even (in some disciplines) creative works of art. This said, they also acknowledged that publishers are decreasingly interested in publishing research monographs, and monographs may therefore need particular attention.

Business models and income streams
Publication revenue is a vital income stream for learned societies, and underwrites the financial support for most of their other activities. Participants felt that this is not widely understood, as most researchers and policy-makers think membership is the most important source of income. If publication income were to be lost, learned societies would have to reduce many of their other activities such as networking, CPD and research awards. Participants highlighted the strong link between membership and publications – members, both institutional and individual, receive significant discounts on  journal subscriptions, book acquisitions, and other purchases: in some cases, this can extend beyond the learned society’s own publications to all the holdings in their field that are published by the learned society’s publishing partners. These members could be lost if such discounts were no longer available on the societies’ publications. It is crucial that income continue to be generated and membership remains part of their model or learned societies will no longer be able to undertake the loss-making developmental work that entitles them to have charitable status.

Participants considered the possibility of moving into new areas in order to generate alternative income streams. Change in the scholarly publishing environment is happening extremely fast, not just in terms of new technologies, but also policies and processes. Many of the societies Institutions are already considering open access mandates and the amount of funding needed to create a centralised open access publication fund. Most societies, recognising the infrastructure costs and technical skills required to manage and distribute publications, have partnered with publishers and recognise the benefits of these partnerships, particularly in terms of rankings. Participants felt that learned societies are not equipped to respond to the rapid pace of change of the scholarly publishing industry and because they outsource publication operations, are not directly involved in the conversations with publishers and technology companies that will shape those changes.

Non-publishing scholarly communication areas such as networking and helping researchers to navigate content was suggested as a possible revenue stream, but participants said that they see these activities as under their remit anyway and are not making money. Participants discussed the possibility of acting as a post-publication quality assurance service in an open access world, verifying the ‘version of record’ of publications. However, they felt that this would be problematic on two levels. First, they do not have the technological skills; this is why most of their publishing operations have been outsourced to publishers. And second, they would be uncomfortable about making money from judging other people’s work and expertise.

Participants recognised that publishers currently undertake a number of functions which ensure that high-quality work is produced. Peer review was considered a particularly important element of the gatekeeping function of scholarly communications, and participants, although they did not have time to discuss this in great detail, wondered whether a crowd-sourced ‘wikipedia’ style post-publication review process would be an adequate replacement for pre-publication peer review. Copy-editing was another important issue, although participants recognised that not all publishers currently undertake copyediting and noted that most Greek and Latin texts are currently copyedited by the author, which is a big responsibility. This led to a discussion about translation of published works, recognising that international markets are important. One participant explained that their publications are published simultaneously in both English and Chinese in recognition that China is a major player in his field of research. Participants wondered who, in an open access model, would pay for translation of monographs into other languages.

Other quality issues related more to production. In some disciplines researchers are already required to produce camera-ready manuscripts, while in others publishers undertake the technical production work themselves. It was suggested that this may be a generational issue, with younger researchers more used to preparing their work for print. The quality of the final product – assumed to be a PDF – was also discussed. Participants recognised that the quality of PDFs can vary considerably, and readability varies depending what kind of device you are using to read content. Some societies deliberately produce low-quality electronic versions of journal articles so as to keep reproduction and image rights costs down and also to protect income from their picture library.

The final issues around quality relate to long-term durability and control of content. Participants explored the problems that would occur when platforms changed and content created in one format was no longer supported, recognising that this would be a big problem for electronic-only open access publications. They also wondered how to manage version control. In some disciplines, multiple versions of a single document might exist: for example, the print version of a text might be in modern English while the electronic version retains the original spelling. They wondered whether a move to open access might just move power into the hands of whoever controls the technology and makes the money. They did not see this as a role for learned societies, as they do not have the technical capacity.

International issues
Participants discussed the ramifications of the UK moving to an open access model while the rest of the world did not. Most learned societies describe themselves as UK-based international learned societies, reflecting the international character of their members, authors and sales. They stressed that moving to open access, and removing print, would undermine the current ‘exchange’ system, where their society library sends copies of society publications to their international counterparts, receiving in exchange publications from those counterparts. In some cases, this is the only way that such international content is available in the UK. If those counterparts could access the society’s content for free (but they themselves had not yet moved to open access), the reciprocity would be removed and UK learned society libraries – and their wider disciplines – would narrowed and potentially face the issue of parochialism. They stressed that open access is not high on the agenda of, for example, BRIC countries, and that it was therefore quite likely that a UK move would have these results.

They also questioned what open access might mean in an international context. For example, in some developing countries, a high-quality PDF download could be extremely expensive, in terms of internet fees. Some learned societies have arrangements with their publishers whereby a print copy of their publications is placed in libraries in developing countries: this arrangement would have to end if a print copy was no longer produced in an electronic-only open access model. Even in countries such as China, accessibility would be dependent upon having access to the internet and being permitted to view the content, which is not a given.

Participants recognised that current copyright arrangements are extremely complex, and vary enormously between publishers. In some disciplines, authors are expected to negotiate directly with the publishers, and in others they go through the learned societies to secure deals. Increasingly, publishers want authors to assign copyright to the publisher or to at least offer an exclusive licence to include electronic distribution. This may conflict with institutional repositories policies, who often assume that researchers have retained rights and may deposit the post print version or assign copyright to them.

In an open access model, arrangements would become even more complicated. Participants felt that if the author received no financial reward for their work, they should be free to publish their content as widely as they liked. For some learned society publications, copyright is assigned to the publisher but reverts to the author when a book goes out of print: it was not clear what ‘out of print’ would mean in an electronic-only open access world. Participants felt that if publishers remained very rigid about transfer of copyright, authors might begin exploring alternative publication outlets: if this were to happen, learned societies may not wish to support publishers on strong copyright restrictions. They also noted that it would be extremely difficult to secure image reproduction rights for open access content.

Participants recognised the possibilities inherent in an open access environment; for example, it might be possible to take a more collaborative approach to authoring, allowing researchers to open up their texts at an early stage and incorporate critiques from their peers. But they were not clear about how such contributions should be acknowledged within copyright and licensing arrangements. They were also concerned about the possibility of interference with electronic content post-publication, and wondered how researchers could feel secure that they controlled their own IP and, consequently, their reputations.