Guest post: Society Journals and the Research Works Act

My previous post on Elsevier and the Research Works Act (RWA) stimulated a conversation on Twitter with Benoit Bruneau about the possible impact on the journals of scientific societies of moves to open access publishing.  This is an aspect of the debate that has not been discussed in much detail of late. Benoit, who researches cardiovascular disease at UCSF, kindly offered to write a guest post discussing the dilemmas posed to scientific societies by the RWA. 

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 for HHMI and Wellcome Trust-funded researchers, reasoning that they can afford the $3,000, but that many other researchers can’t. Then why not have a hybrid model such as the Company of Biologists, who publish Development, 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.

I’m sure Benoit will be happy to respond to any comments that you might want to make.

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27 Responses to Guest post: Society Journals and the Research Works Act

  1. Bob O'H says:

    The Ecological Society of America is also pro RWA. This makes me wonder about the mentality of US scientific societies – who do they think they are answerable to, and who do they think they are serving? I don’t have any feel for this, so I don’t understand why they’re in favour of a bill that limits scientific communication.

  2. This is an important topic. The big publishers will just cope, or alternately not, but we can probably pick up the pieces. The societies are an important part of our research community and their activities are often funded by journal subscriptions.

    My view on this is a bit harsh – what we’re really talking about here is just shifting funds around, from the library budget to our travel budgets. At the moment the message from societies to members seems to be “you’re getting all this for free because we are offloading the costs onto other people for you”. Of course with all the societies doing this the cost is getting spread back to all the communities anyway.

    The more serious question is how this shift would effect funding across institutions. Do the societies subsidise less well off researchers by charging the libraries of “wealthy” institutions or is it the other way around. One of the issues with moving to author pays OA is that it will mean a transfer of costs from less well off institutions (which publish less papers but try to keep up with subscriptions) to the more wealthy. If you see research communication as a core part of the research then you would characterise this instead as a current subsidy from poor to the rich which should be reversed. I’d be very interested if people have actual numbers on this from society publishers.

    But I think the discussion of how we preserve the important activities of our societies and how that should or could be paid for is really important and I’m glad that Benoit and Stephen have kicked it off.

    [As an aside, if US scholarly societies are so concerned about us nasty foreigners getting hold of their important information then I guess we should stop subscribing to their journals and sending them papers. That kind of idiotic nationalistic rhetoric might be alright for politicians but it is not what we should expect from the community of scholars.]

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  4. It’s distressing that the paper that you wrote becomes the private property of the publisher once they have sent it out for unpaid peer review by one of your colleagues. Surely it is for the members of scientific societies to apply pressure over open access, and even come up with some creative solutions.

  5. Some societies do, Ian, mostly with ‘hybrid’ solutions. For instance, the Physiological Society moved its journal publishing some years ago from an academic /semi-in house operation with Cambridge University Press to a commercial publisher (Wiley Blackwell). However, everything that appears in the journals becomes full open access one year after initial publication – including the entire digitized back-catalogue all the way back to 1870-something, all free online.

    This sort of arrangement is obviously a compromise between the principle of free access, and the desire of the scientific society for some income from its journal to fund other society activities. But it does at least attempt to address both.

    My experience has also been that the societies do attempt to hold the costs of their journals to subscribers down when they can. One example might be by blocking the automatic annual ‘inflation-related’ increase in subscription price that publishers often like to apply.

  6. Peter Suber says:

    I’m sympathetic to society publishers, since their journals (when not OA) tend to be lower-priced and higher-quality than journals from the big guys. But we shouldn’t let the societies who oppose OA leave the impression that all societies oppose OA. In December, Caroline Sutton and I released the second edition of our catalog of society publishers of OA journals []. We found 530 societies publishing 616 full (non-hybrid) OA journals. We posted the data in a publicly-editable Google Spreadsheet under a CC-BY license, and since then users have helped up the tallies to 552 societies publishing 639 full-OA journals.

  7. Frank says:

    Interesting post, Benoit. This has been a bit of a minefield for years. To some extent, the societies are the community and they are steered by scientists. I have had conversations here with researchers who would not support OA because they feared it would damage the interests of their society.

    The American Society for Cell Biology have led the way with OA. Back in 2003 their newsletter had an article about OA and in 2007 they issued a Position on Public Access to Scientific Literature. Elizabeth Marincola, who was exec director of ASCB, has spoken out in favour of OA. There was an interview with in Open Access Now back in 2003 (ironically I can no longer find it online) that made me realise society publishers can co-exist with OA. It’s just that they will have to change, and we all fear change. Change will come though so it’s better to get ready for it rather than put up a petulant resistance.

    The Royal Society resisted OA for many years, but now they have a new OA mega-journal, Open Biology, and are pushing their institutional membership scheme to encourage OA. The very large societies (think ACS) are problematic – they seem to think and behave like commercial publishers rather than parts of the academy. I can’t see ACS changing anytime soon.

  8. Heather says:

    Whoo-hoo! Welcome over to OT, Benoit!

    Of course, engaging our society leadership is key. But who am I in the ISSCR to, say, pressure the Elsevier group to make Cell Stem Cell put more money back into the society, and/or make the ridiculous $5,000 fee to comply with certain funding body open access requirements for authors, drop to at least the same level with other less greedy yet still surviving publishers? (A: Currently, no one. I let my membership lapse.)

    I concur that a <1 year period embargo, while objectively less than ideal, is a reasonable option for societies to negotiate. PNAS also seems to be pretty successful with this approach. I bet that the AAAS gets more than 10% of the cut?

    I wonder how the International Journal of Developmental Biology, which is actually an organ of the Spanish SDB and not the International one, and published by the presumably tiny University of the Basque Country Press (UBC Press), manages to have a similar intermediate policy? They wouldn’t be considered wealthy by many standards. I had always been under the impression that their articles were open access, but they’re not automatically (though there aren’t any page charges, so the OA fee, though not easy to find, can’t be dramatically more than PLoS/PNAS?) – it’s even a little shocking to read that they think authors would hold back from depositing articles in PMC right away. Are there really journals that forbid doing so?

    “Copyright and PubMed Central Repository: Payment of the Open Access fee entitles authors to deposit their accepted papers in the PubMed Central repository without any embargo. Otherwise, authors are granted permission to deposit their accepted manuscripts in the repository, six months after publication.”

    @Peter – thank you for continuing to publicize what I consider an excellent resource.

    This is another good one, less complete.

  9. Heather says:

    I hadn’t read Stephen’s earlier post, having given my own less-reasoned response to the RWA some time earlier.

    However, I wanted to revive Steve Caplan’s comment there in the context of my comment above:

    “Those of us who review and sit on editorials boards can and probably should aim to be more involved–as you are–in taking a stance.”

    I have just been potentially invited to an editorial board of a Wiley journal. Not very prestigious (not as much so, even, as the PLoS One article I have finally just brought to press, after some contention with the co-authors and six different journal submissions before we went where I wanted!), and I was tempted to refuse, based on it not being Open Access. (My invitation comes from the person being sought after as Editor-in-Chief, not the publisher.) Then I thought, I would have the ear of that Editor-in-Chief, and be in a position to seek some change. Perhaps even it would make the journal more attractive, more visible? I could actually DO something! One little brick at a time. (Or, just another brick in The Wall?)

    • Heather says:

      Two links is acceptable; four links, even if two of them are to other OT items, make a comment flagged for moderation. For future reference.

      • Stephen says:

        I’ve upped the allowable limit on links per comment to 6. That should be enough to satisfy even Austin! But I don’t really know what people consider the norm here.

  10. Benoit says:

    Thanks everyone for all your comments. West Coast just woke up, so I’m late to the party. The ideal situation overall would be for funding bodies to help pay for publication costs. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada does (or at least did). That opens up a huge can of worms of course, but it would help keep govt funded work public.

  11. Benoit says:

    Correction and magnification: Dev Biol allows OA for anyone who can pay a hefty sum: “The fee of $3,000 excludes taxes and other potential author fees such as color charges. In some cases, institutions and funding bodies have entered into agreement with Elsevier to meet these fees on behalf of their authors.” Copyright is retained by the journal. (thanks Eva for pointing this out)

  12. Mike Taylor says:

    The AAI’s statement in response to the OSTP call apparently says:

    “… ensuring that private sector, scholarly journals survive, preserving their crucially important service of providing independent, expert peer review (accomplished at publishers’ expense) …”

    What the hell>?!

    How can they stand up and make such baldfacedly false assertions? (I don’t want to come right out and call them “lies” because … Actually, I can’t think of a reason not to.) How can they expect not to be called on them?

    Say it loud, and say it as many times as you have to until the world Gets It: Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.. Publishers do not pay for peer review. It is donated gratis. By us. By the same body of people that contribute the articles and then pay to read them.

    Please. Let’s stamp out this lie.

    • Benoit says:

      This is a really important point. The AAI is basically regurgitating RWA’s proponents’ boilerplate text, with the “added value” business, and the ridiculous “foreign enemies will crush us is we provide open access”. But the misinformation you point out is indeed ridiculous and blatantly false.

    • Frank says:

      When the Wellcome and MRC mandates came into effect in the UK, I recall that the AAI were one of the last to offer an OA option. Only concerted action by our immunologists had an effect. They explained to the JI editor that the OA mandates from Wellcome and MRC meant that JI would be non-compliant with those funders’ policy. In effect most UK immunologists would have been barred from publishing in JI. They relented and now will deposit articles into PMC after 6 months if the funder requires.

  13. Hello Benoit, good to “see” you here.

    I’m curious as to the American Society of Human Genetics’ stance on this. Their American Journal of Human Genetics was in recent memory taken over by Cell, so they fit in the same general category as the SDB. I’m an ASHG member but must admit I have no idea what their stance is on this. The website is, perhaps predictably, uninformative on this point.

  14. Heather says:

    I just signed up as a member, Richard, and have published with them since the “takeover” (my 100% OA will never come to be) – they are aligned much on the same terms as other Cell journals. Exorbitantly expensive if at all possible to go OA, which they call “sponsored”:

    “AJHG offers authors the option of having their article sponsored in order to make it available to non-subscribers on ScienceDirect and the AJHG website immediately upon publication. The charge for exercising this option is $5000 for an Article and $2700 for a Report.”

    I have been offering my online-only subscription, as per the possibility, to anyone who wants it in a country outside the U.S., since my institution is subscribed. No one so far has taken me up on it.

  15. The options for society journals are much greater and more varied today than they were a few years ago, at the time when many signed up with Blackwell, Elsevier, etc.

    If any editorial board were to canvas members to see if their local libraries provide journal hosting and support services, odds are that this would yield several alternatives. Some of the members of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association would gladly talk with societies about options, too.

  16. Eva says:

    Now also available on the Node. In case you want to read this post again, but this time on a light green background.

  17. Stephen says:

    This is veering off-topic but not quite: it tickles me that Benoit and I have never met and yet, though online interactions, I am able to offer to host an article written by him on this blog, which has now been reposted by Eva at the Node where I hope it might attract yet more readers.

    It’s a nice, simple example of the value of the free sharing of information, also known in some circles as open access.

    • Heh. I believe Benoit was for a number of years at the very institution in which I am currently sitting. I’ve never met him either – I think.

    • Benoit says:

      Indeed, especially as we are not in the same field of research. I have had the pleasure of meeting Eva a couple of times, but that is the only one of my online acquaintances. I keep telling the non-initiated how blogs and twitter are a great way to expand ones horizons (while admittedly perhaps perfecting one’s procrastination skills). BTW, the cross-posting at the Node led to an email from the SDB president, so we’re not the only ones who read this!

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