Scholarly journals and their future

Modern day professional and learned societies were formed a few centuries ago to promote scientific discoveries and discourse as a whole. They were to represent and promote specific scientific and scholarly disciplines or professions and to champion advanced education of practitioners in those disciplines. It was immediately evident that deciding on a universal mean to keep a record and disseminate scientific findings was essential to the success of the mission of the Royal Society of London. Hence, the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society became the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science. Societies also held conferences and seminars, educational courses and debate forums, but the scholarly ‘article’ or ‘paper’ soon became the cornerstone of science and its dissemination, and enabling discourse.

In the 21st century, the mission and function of professional and learned societies has largely remained the same. They champion their disciplines and professions, own journals, hold conferences, and provide leadership in academic and professional education. Societies’ maintained themselves (and still do) mainly (but not exclusively) through two revenue streams: Membership and their publications (be it scholarly and academic journals, monographs, textbooks, professional guidelines or other types of information).

Nothing has changed in terms of ‘what’ needs to be done, the main dilemma is ‘how’ it can best be done. Now people don’t seem to need a physical venue and a set date in the calendar year to get together and discuss common interests. All you need is a social network account, and you are on course to discuss your ideas, promote your work or influence others.

Journal publishing has also undergone change. From print issues of a journal who were sold to institutional libraries, we have reached a point where the basic concept in journal publishing are fading away: What’s the point of an ‘issue’ or ‘volume’ anymore now that we have DOIs? What’s the point of printing a journal when access, discovery and usage are mainly digital? What’s the meaning of a ‘paper’ or ‘article’ when research itself has moved beyond the concept of a contained piece of information? When and where are the concepts of intellectual property and copyright (which commercially rewards the creation and dissemination of scientific output) meet the concepts of open science, open source and open access?

And most importantly, how can societies and associations survive the increasing pressure from their members to increase the value of membership without any real and proportional increase in their revenues, the need for continuous investment in their digital technologies, and the fact that anyone can launch a journal in their discipline in a blink of an eye?

Publishing has become a gigantic business. Digital technologies which initially were thought to democratise publishing have become so fast moving that a society with its small revenue from membership cannot compete with large publishers in investing in new technologies. The number of scholarly and scientific articles published has increased so exponentially that academic libraries cannot balance the demand for scholarly communications and their limited subscription budgets. They want to acquire the most number of articles at the lowest cost possible. Therefore, they have focused their resources on subscribing to platforms of a handful of publishers who produce the highest number of articles, and they champion ‘open access’ so their academics can get access to the information they need at no cost to the library.

A large number of learned or professional societies, therefore, have reached the inevitable conclusion of partnering with one of the large publishers in order to both benefit from their investments in digital technologies and their access to the market. Publishers also need societies, their prestige, their well-established journals, and the trust they have gained among academics. So a natural alliance between societies and commercial publishers has resulted in various partnership models, from profit-share to a royalty system.

The dilemma of partnership

Shared interests, various options, problem solved. But nothing is that simple. Societies own the journals and almost all partnership models between societies and their publishers grant full strategical and editorial control to the society. The publisher mostly acts as a service provider and an agent. This means that the publisher designs its service based on the demands of the partnering society which does not always match the needs of the scholarly community. Many societies still want traditional issues and even print copies of their journals and a very focused scope. This is in contrast to the general trend in scientific communication, where

  • digital has replaced print
  • ‘research object’ [a combination of scientific findings and all the data and tools and meta-information resulting in that finding are available to the user is replacing ‘research paper’
  • DOIs and URIs are complementing, and maybe eventually replacing traditional forms of citation
  • semantic web, big data and linked data are replacing indexes and ‘fame’ for discovering content
  • journal level metrics are being replaced by article level metrics.
  • ‘Journals’ are losing their authority, with the authority of the ‘research objects’ and their creators rising.
  • The value of the Impact factor is strongly being debated
  • Mega-journals are taking over from niche journals
  • The structure of the ‘editorial office’ and the concept of peer review is changing ton support scale
  • Authors are replacing institutions as the main market for societies and publishers
  • the sustainability of the open access model is largely dependent on quantity rather than quality

If societies and publishers do not change the paradigm of their relationship from service-provider/customer to partner/partner, publishers will hesitate in embracing the new world of scientific communications. They are largely dependent on their ‘society partners’ and their satisfaction and see them as ‘clients’ rather than ‘partners’. Societies, on the other hand, will not benefit from capabilities of their publishers in investing in the way technology is being used to disseminate scholarly content (because they wish to retain control over how their journals are published).

The fact that the contract between a publisher and society almost always has a finite term (5-10 years) doesn’t help. Societies, driven by the justified and legitimate need to maximise their financial performance and to be accountable to their members, usually seek the best financial deal close to the expiration of the term of their agreement with their publishers. This means that every five years (or however many years depending on the contract), a better financial offer from another publisher may result in the journal being uprooted and replanted in a new platform. With this divorce most of the intangible learnings, the ‘experience effect’ and value of the relationship with their existing partners dissapears. The journal will have to start from scratch in many ways. It will still have its brand and other intangible attributes, but it needs to adapt itself with the new publisher’s roadmap, tools and way of working and like any new relationship, invest heavily in a new learning curve which sometimes could become quite costly.

After financial performance, the next main factor that could influence a society’s decision to choose a publisher is their marketing activities and spend and publishers usually enter a bidding game in marketing: Who spends most on marketing, and more importantly who meets the demands of the society on how the marketing budget is spent. I’ll talk about marketing for journals separately, but negotiations between societies and their publishing partners need to immediately shift from ‘how’ to ‘what end’; from ‘which conferences to attends’ or ‘what advertising to place’ to what ‘outcomes’ the society and the publisher are aiming to achieve. And when you start thinking about objectives and outcomes and start working your way backward, you may not end up spending a fortune on attending niche conferences in all corners of the world and instead you may channel your marketing resources on achieving measurably high impact, influence and reach for the journal, you may spend your money and time on building the largest possible audience from your target market using your digital platforms and channels. This can only be done if both sides truly embrace the spirit of a partnership with a shared goal.

Societies should look for the best financial deals or not move to a new publisher if they are not satisfied by their current publishers’ services. But they should also take into account various factors, including the value of their existing partnership. A real joint ownership of a journal by a society and a publisher empowers both sides to start thinking differently and embrace new ways. Societies should start seeing their publishers as true partners. More importantly, they should see other societies published by the same publishers as partners too. Imagine that a large publisher with established access to the market, partnering with 1000 societies forming an enormous organic community of scientific and scholarly publishing. Each society brings the prestige, the discipline and the domain knowledge to the table, and the publisher offers significant investment, access to market and know-how to this mega-partnership. This can drive change, and make the world a better place for societies, publishers, scientists and scholars, and science.