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Society Journals and the Research Works Act

Posted by , on 31 January 2012

This post about the Research Works Act and the effect on society journals was written for, and first published on, Reciprocal Space. Reposted with permission, and edited to add a correction.

Much has been said about the RWA, and the involvement of big name publishers. Less discussed, but very important for many scientists, is the role that scientific societies and their journals have, and the impact of current or future publishing practices. Some societies, such as the American Association of Immunologists (AAI), the American Society of Nephrology (ASN), the American Heart Association (AHA), and the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), publish their own journals. Of these, very few (in this list only the ASCI), have an open access policy. Other societies, such as the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB), publish in journals operated by big publishers, such as Elsevier (in the case of SDB’s journal, Developmental Biology). So where do these societies and their journals stand on RWA?

Well in some cases it’s crystal clear. In letters that responded to a “Request for Information” (RFI) by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, regarding “Public Access to Peer- Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting from Federally Funded Research””, the AAI wrote:

“…working in partnership with professional societies and other scholarly publishers offers the federal government the most cost-effective and efficient way of ensuring that private sector, scholarly journals survive, preserving their crucially important service of providing independent, expert peer review (accomplished at publishers’ expense) of government-funded scientific research.”

This refers to their perceived duplication of efforts in having PubMedCentral duplicating published manuscripts. The statement might make sense, if the journals were to offer free access after 12 months. But they continue with:

“…want to express our clear opposition to government mandates which require private sector publishers to make their legally-owned property (i.e., journal manuscripts, published articles and associated data) available online on sites other than our own, or to comply with a government-determined embargo period. These mandates allow the government to take private property without owner authorization or compensation, and threaten the sustainability of our nation’s premier peer-review publishing system.”

So, not so happy about providing free access. They also claim that PMC is an inferior means of disseminating and archiving published material. This is highly debatable, especially the permanence of published work. Finally, they answer many questions posed by the RFI, and include this delightful gem, which we’ve heard from Congresswoman Maloney:

“…increased “free” access is likely to benefit scientists in other nations, whether allies or enemies. In some instances, this will enhance international cooperation in the sciences, but it is not necessarily beneficial to the U.S. economy as even our friendly competitors will gladly take our research findings for free….. Neither publishers, nor the U.S. scientific enterprise, nor the U.S. taxpayer benefits from the “giving away” of our peer-reviewed publications.”

Oh dear. The point really is, these societies make most of their money from their publications, and of course feel threatened.

But then how does ASCI do it, publishing all papers in JCI for free? I don’t have the answer, but perhaps these societies should talk to each other…

In the case of the SDB, it’s a bit more complicated. They too make most of their revenue from their journal. But in this case, they fall under Elsevier’s control, and only receive a fraction of the journal’s revenues (around 10%). What can they do, stuck between a rock and a hard place? Currently they are debating what to do, so the jury is out. The SDB does provide an OA option stemming from agreements with HHMI and Wellcome Trust, that allows researchers to make their paper available as OA for a fee of $3,000. (The Company of Biologists, who publish Development, have a similar hybrid model and offer OA for a fee.)

Then the final question is for those of us who are members of these societies. Do we boycott our own society journals? Do we engage the leadership to try to convey our views? There is no clear answer, but it should be something. The editors of the journals are scientists, just like us. They understand, and they will listen. The societies have existed for a long time, and are an important part of science, in assembling scientists with shared interests in the form of conferences and journals, promoting scientific education, amongst other laudable goals. But many have their survival inextricably linked with their closed access journals.

As scientists we must ask ourselves how to help our scientific societies, while promoting open access.




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7 thoughts on “Society Journals and the Research Works Act”

  1. I was always wondering if an avarage publication will “earn” an amount of money comparable to the OA fees (i.e. 3000 USD for DB), demanded by a journal (as many have an OA option, ranging from several hundreds up to several thousands)?

    If this is not the case, I think it would be a good option to adjust the price and do OA all the way. This could make a reasonable business model for the publisher, the 10% for SDB will be still the same as if it was non OA and make it even more interesting for people to publish in that journal (as likely visibility of the article is increased by OA).

    Does this make sense?

    1. Hi Peter,

      I’m the Executive Editor of Development.

      Just to say: in general, the OA fees charged by journals generally don’t cover the costs of publication – if a journal wants to switch from a subscription model to an OA model, charging the fees they currently do, they’d lose a lot of money. Which, in the case of a journal like Developmental Biology, would probably mean much less or even no money for the societies they help fund. The same is true for Development, which contributes significantly to the BSDB, as well as providing money for other charitable activities run by the Company of Biologists.

      OA journals only can be profitable by either charging OA fees that most authors would baulk at, or by being high-throughput and having a very high acceptance rate, like PLoS One.

      So many society journals are indeed, as Benoit says, stuck between a rock and a hard place: they need publishers to print and host their journals, they need to make some money to fund their societies, and it’s not easy to reconcile these issues with the kinds of OA models that many scientists would like to embrace.

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  2. Thank you Katherine for the info. Very interesting issue…
    Would it benefit the finances to quit printing issues and go online only? Printing is likely the 2nd most expensive part besides salaries, I guess…
    In part it might be like in the music industry when sales of physical formats did not cover the production costs (at least for smaller labels) and the only way to survive was switching to digital formats like mp3/iTunes. Still it did never recover to a level like before, but allowed also smaller labels to continue…

  3. OK, so having just done a quick bit of research:
    JCB operate a fairly standard model – subscription fees coupled with a small author charge for publication (page charge or equivalent). They’re published by Rockefeller University Press: a small publishing company rather like CoB, so they’re not shackled by the Elsevier branding, but they way they work isn’t so different from any of the more commercial publishers.
    JCI have what seems to me a pretty unusual model: it’s officially not OA for copyright reasons, but it does offer immediate free access. I assume it manages this because it has quite high author fees in terms of page and figure charges, and it also has a submission charge.

    As for getting rid of print versions, you’ll find that many journals still actually make money from their print versions: through both advertising and subscription. So stopping printing wouldn’t actually help.

    Hope that helps – it’s an incredibly complicated issue, and I really don’t know what the best solution is. Publishing is in a real state of flux right now: as you can see, different publishers are trying out all sorts of different models, and it’ll be very interesting to see what comes out on top in 10 years or so.

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