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Societies, Mission and Publishing: Why One Size Does Not Fit All

I read with interest the recent Scholarly Kitchen Guest Post entitled “Why a Society Publisher is Moving Toward Read and Publish Models” by Emma Wilson of the Royal Society of Chemistry on their adoption of the Read and Publish model. The article was well written and cogent, but with one significant flaw – a fundamental dissonance between mission and publishing business sense that denudes the argument. You come away with a fatal sense that if the Read and Publish model succeeds, the ability of the Royal Society of Chemistry to raise enough operating income to fulfill its mission as a society falls away.

complicated balanced scales

Let me back up a little. I work at the American Mathematical Society (AMS) as Associate Executive Director, responsible for running the publishing division. The Society is of medium size, and has a rich history. Founded in 1888, the AMS has 30,000 members worldwide and supports mathematical scientists at every career stage. The AMS publishes around 100 books a year including monographs, graduate and undergraduate textbooks, conference proceedings, translations, and works of popular mathematics, including children’s books. The AMS publishes a range of journals and a discovery database called MathSciNet® that is a fundamental part of a research mathematician’s daily life. Indeed the AMS has its own printing and distribution facility in Rhode Island. The reality is that 70% of AMS revenues come from publishing activities, including subscription revenues from books, journals, and the database MathSciNet®. Surplus funds go directly back into our programs. If subscription revenues were to evaporate, the ability of the AMS to provide services and programs that fortify the mathematical sciences community would likely also evaporate. The AMS does not play the “Big Deal” game. Two of the journals have separate journal open access spin-offs that use the Gold open access (OA) model. In the AMS OA model, a mathematician’s paper is considered for publication by the parent journal editorial board, and following acceptance, the author is given the option to publish in the subscription journal, or its open access sibling. This separates the editorial decision from the business decision, and yet is not a hybrid offering as the two journals are independent entities. While they exist as an option for those mathematicians who are mandated to publish OA, there really has been little take-up, even with heavily discounted APCs.

The reality is that the culture of mathematics is different from other fields. Approximately 25% of AMS authors receive research funding from a federal agency, with the result that there are limited funds available for Gold OA author-pays model publishing. The intellectual property of a mathematics article lies in the article itself, rather than the article being a report of an experimental study, and these articles are as valid today as they will be in 30 and even 300 years. The article of record published in a journal of record is important for a mathematician’s progress in the field, for example in securing tenure and further grant funding. The article of record coexists with preprints in progress hosted on arXiv, and mathematicians value the complete ecosystem of preprint to published article of record. Advances in mathematics occur more slowly than in many other science fields. According to a 2013 study by Phil Davis on journal usage, mathematics is at the extreme for the life of journal articles. Across all subject disciplines, journal usage half-lives peaked between two and four years. However, 17% of all journals had usage half-lives that exceeded six years, with mathematics journals at the extreme — 36% of the mathematics journals examined had usage half-lives exceeding six years.

While I applaud the Royal Society of Chemistry’s willingness to experiment, the reality for most society publishers is that subscriptions are important. OA is important also, and no publisher should stick their head in the sand hoping it will go away. The issue at play here is that one size does not fit all. If one accepts the role of academic societies as important, and that for most societies, publishing provides the fuel to provide programs and services to their communities, how do we shape our programs to reflect a range of models that will provide elements of OA, a sustainable revenue stream, and an understanding of how publishing needs to reflect differences in disciplinary culture? For many societies, including the AMS, journal subscriptions and APCs are at the inexpensive end of the scale already.

Perhaps the answer lies in a more heterogeneous approach. Societies should experiment with OA models, be they gold, or perhaps even diamond/platinum if they can afford to do so, but maintain subscriptions in the mix. For example, if the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House decides to revisit public access policies in the US, in light of the emerging Read and Publish models, and Europe’s positioning of Plan S with all its implications, it is a society’s responsibility to be honest, not just with customers, but with themselves. Let’s be considered about our approach. For example, in a Green OA setting, let’s not rush to impose 6-month, or shorter embargo periods, perhaps rather considering varied embargo periods that acknowledge the valuable activities of non-profit societies, as well as the diversity of cultures among fields. There is nothing wrong with developing a mixed economy that best suits a range of communities and types of business.

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