Publishing partnerships can help society journals

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Bob Campbell of Wiley-Blackwell reveals how the role of society publishers has changed and why many are turning to larger commercial partners

For the three centuries up until the Second World War journals were published largely by national societies, with university presses and academic publishing houses producing the rest. With the launch of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) in 1947 Elsevier pioneered a new concept: the international English-language research journal from a commercial publisher. BBA was to become the largest primary journal in the world (in 1979 44 volumes were published). It took some nerve too; apparently BBA made heavy losses in the early years.

Robert Maxwell of Pergamon and others were quick to understand this business model, and as investment in tertiary education and research gained momentum, so publishers followed, by publishing more pages and new titles. The amount of material published increased more or less in line with the growth in the research community, around two to four per cent per annum.

The once dominant self-publishing societies lost market share for two reasons. Firstly, the size of their journals was limited by what members could afford. They could never grow an individual title in the way that Elsevier drove up BBA. And secondly, they were not specialist publishers. There were many other calls on their budgets from the different activities of the societies and they could not fund the losses that a new title usually incurred in its first five years.

Recent pressures

Some learned societies have competed successfully in the global publishing market, for example in chemistry and physics, but for many it has become more difficult. They do not all have international sales forces to negotiate the ‘big deal’ and similar licensing arrangements with libraries and consortia. They also need to keep up with the technology and the options for outsourcing, say, distribution, subscription management and aspects of production, although there are excellent suppliers of such services. Society publishers may also be concerned about the possible threat of new publishing models and the so-called green road approach to open access, which might be described as the ‘no-one pays’ model and is therefore ultimately unsustainable.

With such pressures it is not surprising that learned societies have turned to the larger international publishers when faced with these issues. It can be a huge decision for them though. They might feel they are giving up their independence, there could be redundancies, the publishing unit’s contribution to office overheads might be lost and the society’s brand (often closely associated with the journal’s brand) might be diluted or diminished in a long list of titles.

The society has to talk through all these concerns with prospective publisher partners. It will usually put out an RFP (Request for Proposals), often with the help of an outside consultant or agent, and work through long, detailed submissions from eight to 10 publishers. Societies will often listen to presentations from a short-list of three to five.

Getting the right partnership

The right deal will secure for the society ultimate control of all the major publishing policies, especially editorial, and establish a genuine partnership. The society provides the brand (and it will be in the best interest of the publisher to enhance this), the subject knowledge, and the editorial team, who may well ask society members to peer review submissions. The publisher provides publishing services and expertise, ranging from supporting the editorial team and advising on strategy, to sales and the online delivery platform.

Bringing journals together: society partners join Wiley-Blackwell’s own journals on the Wiley InterScience platform.

An important aspect is the finances. With the publisher’s economies of scale and specialist skills, the net income from the journal(s) to the society should increase. This is often the basic driver for making the decision to move to a commercial publisher. For most societies, however, sustainability is at least equally important. They want a long-term relationship with a publisher who will ensure that standards are high, readership and number of citations (the journal’s status) rise, the burden on society officers is reduced, and income (often needed to support other activities of the society) levels are forecast accurately and maintained. In addition, an active publisher should be able to introduce new products and product enhancements.

If a publisher can deliver on these it will maintain its valuable partnerships and win new ones. This is no easy matter. Competition is intense, and with the ever-increasing range and complexity in the market, publishers have to invest heavily and continually in developing their resources, particularly people, but also technology.

In practice

Much of this discussion can be related to new partnerships for journals that were previously self-published by societies. For example, the American Geographic Society (AGS) has recently partnered with Wiley-Blackwell on two journals after two years of negotiations. This was a significant change in organisational culture for the previously self-published society. According to Mary Lynne Bird, executive director of the AGS, ‘Our choice of a publisher was influenced by our desire to maintain our existing subscription and membership structure, which allows our constituents to choose from a menu, rather than being faced with an all-or-nothing package deal. That flexibility and willingness to work things out have continued throughout the transition. Direct online access through Wiley InterScience for both journals will be a new asset for the society.’

The Australian Anthropological Society (AAS) hopes that a similar agreement will raise both its journal’s international profile and citations. The president of the Korean Securities Association, Dongcheol Kim, agrees, having recently moved the Asia-Pacific Journal of Financial Studies to Wiley-Blackwell: ‘This is a real opportunity for us to reach a broader audience. Wiley-Blackwell’s expertise will give us the strategic direction and resources to attract top quality content and reach our international audience.’

These few examples refer to new relationships. The real test is keeping them. To quote from Julian Graubart in an email: ‘The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) is now going on 10 years of partnership with John Wiley & Sons in publishing our Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. A few years into the partnership, APhA began to appreciate that Wiley brought a lot to the table – technological savvy, worldwide marketing reach, and a focus on quality – and we extended our arrangement by 10 additional years.’

Bob Campbell is senior publisher at Wiley-Blackwell