Unique challenges shape society plans

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A BMJ-hosted symposium in June saw decision-makers from a range of biomedical society publishers discussing the future of society journals publishing, writes Charlie Rapple

Society publishers are subject to many of the same pressures as other publishers – falling library budgets, emerging technologies and competition for authors, to name just a few – but despite these common issues, society journals have a subtly different role in the scholarly community. Consequently, they face some unique challenges, including parent society relationships and funding, market segmentation and business models, member engagement, and publishing partnerships.

In June, a group of biomedical society publishers met together in San Francisco at a symposium hosted by BMJ Journals to discuss these issues. Consultant Morna Conway opened the ‘Today’s Essentials, Tomorrow’s Strategies’ event with an exploration of the complexities of society stakeholders – the journal owners, publishers, customers and content providers. The various objectives of these different groups create potential for conflict: financial imperatives, academic credentials, community service, intellectual currency, moral expectations and ideals.

Balancing members and quality

A society has a dual role of publishing a high-quality journal and meeting members’ needs. Tensions can arise if society members submit papers that aren’t accepted for publication. The proliferation of research leads to higher rejection rates for journals that don’t have room for more articles or that are focusing on increasing their impact factor. Societies must be mindful of potential frustration when communicating their publishing strategy to members and reviewers. The growth in submissions also increases competition for reviewer services and societies must consider appropriate incentivisation, noted Conway.

There are also potential threats from librarians, which some people foresee as becoming repository publishers. However, ‘the institutional publishing venture is the ultimate in parochialism,’ said Conway, with research readership restricted to institutional silos. The journal is more than an article repository; it’s an icon for quality, subject coverage, peer review and audience, with symbolic and intellectual value, she argued. Interlinked repositories, while technically providing access to all published papers, cannot replicate the ability of the journal to confer stature on its contributors. The trend of querying what value a publisher brings to the process shows that ‘we have failed in explaining what publishing means.’

Delivering benefits

Choice of publishing partners plays an important role in striking this balance and showing the value of publishing. Journals are assets that contribute to the profile, prestige and brand of the society. It’s therefore vital that partners are selected for their ability to help protect and grow the value of the asset. As potential members start to limit the number of societies to which they belong, revenues that are not from membership fees (such as those that can be generated from publishing activities) become more important.

To help understand some of society’s perceptions of publishing challenges and opportunities, Melinda Kenneway, director of TBI Communications, introduced the results of a survey to explore this, carried out as part of BMJ Journals’ Affinity publishing programme. As networking and communication media proliferate, many societies are concerned that members find society membership less valuable, and ‘try to fill that value gap with irrelevant services such as insurance discounts.’ This is ‘undermining the value of the society’s principal functions’ and not a sustainable solution; societies need to focus services on personal and professional development opportunities – ‘grab that market and service it better,’ said Kenneway. She cited the example of BMJ Journals’ integration with the BMJ Learning platform for continuing medical education. ‘The education market is worth $10 billion,’ pointed out Kenneway. ‘How might this change our publishing programmes?

‘This is an exciting time for societies. There are many publishing opportunities to be built around ‘cradle-to-grave’ member relationships; we can use technology to engage our communities and reach new audiences. Publications strategies will need to leverage quality and usability to capture budget released from cancelled big deals,’ she continued. Strategic market analysis and planning will be important for identifying niche market opportunities, and as societies become more international, there is potential for local membership offerings and partnerships. ‘It’s about agility,’ concluded Kenneway. ‘Societies need to take a more holistic approach to fully meet community needs, and this will require us to have a framework in place that enables quick reactions. Speed and responsiveness will be the only way to steer a safe course through oncoming challenges.’

Trust and innovation

Also at the symposium, Edward (Ted) Shortliffe, president and CEO of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biomedical Informatics, spoke about issues specific to the relationship between a society and its publisher. ‘The relationship with the publisher needs to be one of trust and respect. That isn’t always the case; there has to be mutual benefit, and it needs to be balanced. One of the challenges for publishers is to make it clear what value they add,’ he said. The notion of being on the ‘cutting edge’ is important and societies turn to publishers to help achieve that.’ A ‘modern online editing environment’ that is tightly integrated and ensures smooth progression from submission through review to ongoing communication is required. Societies can benefit from contract publishers handling this.

Where a society’s philosophy supports a hands-off editorial process (‘untainted by society interference’), it is important to be clear about where ultimate responsibility lies for different types of decisions. A publisher’s reputation affects perceptions of the society’s journal. If a publisher does not have a positive reputation, this can present problems ‘no matter how good the service is.’ Shortliffe has had experience with individuals refusing to review for a journal solely to avoid expressing support for the contract publisher. ‘That may not be a rational reaction, but it’s real,’ he said.

Ethical issues

Publishers also support societies by providing leadership on issues such as dual publication, conflicts of interest and plagiarism. Ted Shortliffe noted that with plagiarism, ‘the tricky part is finding it’. Most instances are uncovered by ‘serendipity’, for example when two journals send the same paper to the same reviewer at the same time. Shortliffe referred to a 2006 statement from seven major informatics journal editors [JAMIA 2006:13:113–114], which proposed that repeat offenders should be blacklisted and banned from future submissions. The Committee on Publication Ethics advises on good practice and provides tools and funds research relating to publication misconduct. Tad Campion, NEJM online editor and senior deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine, also pointed out that tools like iThenticate and TurnItIn are making it easier to find plagiarism, but that there are associated costs.

Open access

In discussing who should meet these costs, the discussion moved onto open access (OA), which ‘pushes in the direction of a posting service’, said Tad Campion, and threatens to ‘erode the quality and thoroughness of peer review’. However, Ted Shortliffe noted that ‘OA doesn’t mean you don’t have the resources to support quality publishing – they just come from somewhere else.’

As OA grants and subsidies have begun to dry up, author fees have started to increase and revealed a split between those authors still willing to fund OA publishing and those who prefer the traditional subscription model; the hybrid journal model supports both. Laura McLellan, editorial assistant at the Annals of Family Medicine, described the unusual business model adopted by the Annals, which is free at the point of access and supported by sponsoring organisations. ‘It has its own challenges,’ she acknowledged, ‘but it’s possible.’ The journal is an independent non-profit organisation, not owned by any of the supporting societies, that has been operating successfully for seven years. ‘Not everyone can do this, but some societies need to stop thinking about their journals as revenue generators,’ she argued.

Content versus services

TBI’s Melinda Kenneway described one society that is strategically preparing for a five-year scenario in which it won’t be able to charge for content and instead will need to build on services that enrich information and help people to find and manipulate it. ‘That’s the opportunity for us,’ said Kenneway, ‘but the risk is that someone else will beat us to it.’ Publishers need to determine how they are going to appeal to different communities and guide them to relevant content. There will be ‘a shift in terms of where the serious money [in publishing] will come from. Revenue per article is declining fast,’ continued Kenneway, predicting the demise of ‘publishers that rely on the original research article as a main source of revenue.’

Change is an inevitable part of journal publishing. However, focusing on core strengths such as member relationships and community-oriented publishing, while contracting publisher partners to deliver commercial expertise and technical innovation, can help society publishers establish a sustainable role in the changing landscape.

Charlie Rapple is head of marketing development at TBI Communications.