'Societies should not be forgotten'

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Learned societies have always played a major role in scholarly publishing but changes in business models threaten to destabilise this. We asked René Olivieri, the CEO of society publisher Blackwell Publishing, for his insight into this sector

With the recent public debate about the author-pays model, there has been a considerable focus on the profits made by commercial publishers and their shareholders. But a large proportion of research information is published by learned societies and they often see publishing revenues as essential for advancing their disciplines and subjects. Blackwell Publishing publishes a large number of journals on behalf of such learned societies, so we asked the company's CEO, René Olivieri, for his perspective on this issue.

How many societies publish journals and how good are those journals?
Sally Morris of the Association of Learned and Professional and Scholarly Publishers (ALPSP) estimates at least 50 per cent of the 21,000 peer- reviewed journals listed in Ulrich's Periodicals Directory are published by either a society or a university. Three quarters of the top 200 and two-thirds of the top 500 ISI-ranked titles are owned by societies or other non-profit organisations. The majority of these titles are self-published, but between a quarter and a third are contracted out to another publisher. Numerous studies suggest the average per-page price for non-profit titles is well under half those of commercial publishers.

Why do societies contract out their publishing to third parties?
Traditionally, by joining forces with larger publishers, societies have been able to gain the benefits of economies of scale that those larger publishers enjoy in such functions as production, distribution, and order processing. Specialisation and focus have allowed dedicated publishers to create a larger in-house skills base and get higher productivity per employee.

With the arrival of online publishing, societies began to look to publishers to provide new services, such as society websites, online delivery platforms, online submission systems and consortial sales forces. By not being part of 'big deal' bundles (sales of an entire publisher's journal collection to a library consortium), some societies feared losing out on opportunities to increase revenues and readership. Subcontracting to a specialist publisher retains editorial and pricing control and the freedom to terminate the relationship but allows societies to keep up with market developments and new technologies. It also enables society editors and officers to focus their attentions on attracting authors and members.

If the benefits of outsourcing are so compelling why do many societies continue to publish themselves?
Some individual societies are large enough that they can achieve considerable economies of scale and levels of specialist expertise on their own. Others decide to make publishing one of their core competencies and get critical mass by offering publishing services to smaller societies in the same field. Members of ALPSP have combined together to create their own 'big deal' package. At the end of the day, if the brand name of the journal and society is sufficiently prestigious and quality control remains rigorous, a journal can survive and attract the best authors even if it does not have the widest readership or the lowest costs.

How do big deals of society journals differ from big deals of 'proprietary' content?
Because societies have a wider range of objectives and are not always focused on the bottom line, they tend to be less aggressive on pricing. Much of the profit from such deals is recycled back into the professional and academic community.

From the point of view of the aggregating publisher and the librarian, however, these deals are sometimes more complex to administer. The responsible publisher must consult each society on every significant commercial decision it makes. In particular, it will need agreement from each society in order to participate in bundled offerings. Societies will want to understand any changes in the pricing model and agree how revenues earned will be allocated to individual titles.

Another complication is that, because these titles are published under contract, the society may change publisher in search of better services or an improved financial return. In any given year, Blackwell Publishing adds upwards of 30 new society journals to its publishing programme. Journals that change publishers can be a nuisance for librarians. More seriously, it makes pricing decisions and negotiations for multi-year deals especially difficult, because the list of titles covered may change over the contract period.

How do societies use the money they gain from publishing?
Last spring, Blackwell Publishing and the ALPSP conducted a survey of societies. They surveyed 154 societies, of which 68 responded. Although about a third of societies make a loss on their publishing, the rest make a surplus, with the usual return being 15 per cent of revenues. In interpreting these figures, it is important to point out that the majority of societies that responded were based in Europe. John Willinsky has studied US societies and found that a much higher proportion of them lose money on their journal publishing.

Those societies that do make a surplus reinvest that money, not just in publishing but in a variety of other areas. Roughly 80 per cent of scientists belong to at least one professional society and the money earned from publishing is often used to subsidise membership or subscriptions.

Even in an age when site licences are making journal content available outside the library, members continue to benefit from their membership fees. Conferences, organised and subsidised by societies, remain nearly as important as scholarly journals in oiling the wheels of research. It is also not uncommon for societies to fund research directly or provide scholarships to promising graduates. As lifelong learning becomes more widespread, societies are meeting the challenge of providing and accrediting continuing professional development, through programmes and material.

Increasingly, societies are also playing a central role in public education and debate. They act as useful filters to help the general public and the media make sense of scientific research and current events. One current example is the launch of patientInform, where the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetic Association are collaborating with primary publishers to interpret the scientific literature for patients.

Why should the health of society publishing be considered?
Society journals are extremely important, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to scientific and scholarly research, and represent exceptionally good value for money. It is important to recognise that the modest and well-earned surpluses that some societies gain from their publishing activities are being ploughed back into the research and teaching community to provide a wide range of invaluable academic and public services. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the modern, networked society, with its narrow subject focus and global membership, is an essential counterbalance to universities that are characterised by more diffuse and local interests and are weighed down by bricks, mortar, and overheads. The world, including academia, will be the poorer in more ways than one, if societies were to be swept aside in a supply-side revolution.