Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

Should scholarly societies outsource their publishing?

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There was an excellent presentation at this year’s UKSG Conference on scholarly society publishers, followed by a preprint article on Zenodo. The survey, by Rob Johnson and Elle Malcolmson of Research Consulting, suggested that societies have not always been well-served by moving their publishing to third parties. I would have thought such a conclusion uncontentious, until I read a Clarke and Esposito news story suggesting the that no such inference should be drawn.

Clarke and Esposito acknowledge the trend identified in the report, and accept the report’s finding that smaller societies have shown declining revenue from publishing, while the largest societies have shown an increase in growth. But they don’t accept the report’s “compelling evidence for retaining their [societies’] independence”. They complain about incomplete data, and small sample size. However, this is not just a neutral assessment of the evidence. Clarke and Esposito make much of their revenue by negotiating the sale of society journals to publishers, so I think you could reasonably state they are an interested party in the matter. I don’t think they would make any money from the reverse operation, a society regaining its publishing independence, if that were ever to happen.

A couple of years ago I surveyed all scholarly societies who publish at least one English-language peer-reviewed journal. I found a total of around 440 journals (the exact number varies weekly as new journals are launched or existing journals closed). Almost half the societies publish just one journal, which suggests a small society, and a rather specialised journal: for example, there is the International Society for Archaeological Prospection, the Historical Metallurgy Society, and the European Turbomachinery Society, each with just a single journal. In contrast, some of the largest medical societies publish only one or two titles, such as the Massachusetts Medical Society, which publishes the New England Journal of Medicine so the number of journals published is not a correlation for the size of the society. Nonetheless, this is a market with a very long tail.

Many of the statistics I found are unsurprising. Around 39% of society journals cover medicine and allied subjects; around half of the societies examined are based in the US or Canada.

What I found fascinating was to see how many society journals are today published by a third-party publisher. Here there is a distinction between publishing platform, such as Atypon or PubFactory, who manage the hosting but not the publication process, and third-party publisher, for example Wiley or Cambridge, who become the publisher, as well as the platform provider, for  the journal. Mine was not a longitudinal survey, so I didn’t have any information on change over time, but it certainly seems clear that there has been a steady migration of society journals away from self-publishing to using a publisher.

I found only around 10% of journals publish on their own platform, which didn’t surprise me. On the other hand, around 52% of societies have their journals published by Wiley, a remarkably high concentration of publishing with one of the big players. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that Wiley publishes 50% of all journals, as many of the societies Wiley publishes have only a few titles. Nonetheless, Wiley has a unique market share. Other publishers with substantial third-party publishing operations include Oxford, Cambridge, Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis, and MDPI, but Wiley publishes for more societies than all these publishers put together.

One aspect that statistical surveys do not reveal is the unusual structure of scholarly societies. They have commercial activities, but they are usually not-for-profit, and to an extent managed by their members, usually academics. Their goals are therefore not entirely commercial, and their decision-making subject to a wide range of stakeholders. Nonetheless, it would seem to me that the decision to hand the publication of the society journals to a major publisher is unlikely to be the best long-term interest of the society. I think that many societies do not realise the unique perspective they can bring to their domain by using their combination of subject expertise and location within (and often ownership by) the members they represent, the academic researchers.

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1 Comment

  1. Judith Atkinson

    The cost of working through Wiley is large and the benefits are small. The difficulty facing learned societies is the lack of clearly defined routes to self-publishing and a lack of advisers who can provide clear options for removing publishing from commercial companies who do not have the best interest of the societies or scholarly communications at heart. Money and profit are their only goals. And they get that through scale, not working on a single journal for a small society.
    As you suggest, Clarke and Esposito and the ridiculous Scholarly Kitchen Chef-coterie have too much invested in this commercialised system. Again, profits are maintained through selfish blogs like The Brief, the allied librarians and SK Chefs spoiling the broth, and the publisher groupies who benefit from endless trips to conferences to repetitively spew out their banal views in support of the system that pays for the lunches, hotels and flights. The majority of consultant and data groups come from this same self-serving cabal.
    There are many ways societies can take back control of their publishing at a fraction of the cost. The industry is in dire need of help to move in that direction but it will not come from these unoriginal groupies who hold the mic at almost every industry conference.

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