As part of last month’s Open Access Oxford week, a distinguished panel of Oxford academics led discussions around learned societies and their transition to Open Access. The event was held in collaboration with Oxford University Press (OUP) and aimed to address issues raised by Plan S. Below is a report of the discussions.
Sally Rumsey (Head of Scholarly Communications, Bodleian Libraries) [slides] began by outlining the problems posed for small learned societies. In this context small societies are those that publish only a handful of journals. Potential problems of a transition to OA include risks to primary income stream, lack of resources to effect any change, and loss of membership benefits. A society’s raison d’etre can be to disseminate scholarly findings, but is often a small group of dedicated individuals creating a publication on a shoe-string. Some societies plough funds made from their publications back into the academy.
Prof Matthew Freeman (Head, Dunn School of Pathology; Company of Biologists) gave a brief overview of the journals published by the Company of Biologists (3 core original journals now hybrid, plus 2 new OA titles). As Chair of the event he introduced the panel and invited each to describe their own experiences within their respective scholarly societies’ practice in publishing.
Prof Aditi Lahiri (Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics; Linguistics Society of America; President, Philological Society), described the Philological Society’s journal, Transactions of the Philological Society (TPhS), a hybrid title published via a partnership with Wiley. The society directs much of the surplus earned from the journal towards bursaries for students.
Although OA and Plan S sound like a good idea in principle, serious questions remain over the financing. In humanities, there are already concerns about unfunded researchers and payment for OA, and an uneven situation for PhD students where the expectation to go OA depends on whether they have a funding body with an OA mandate (or not, eg British Academy, Leverhulme, Mellon). Impact factor still plays a part in selection of a journal, and although senior academics may feel comfortable disregarding it, it would be understandable for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) to think differently. Inter-related issues affecting a researcher’s choice of journal need to be thought through.
Prof Kate Watkins (Experimental Psychology; Society for Neurobiology of Language) explained, in a timely development, that the Society for the Neurobiology of Language was about to launch a new fully OA journal, Neurobiology of Language, jointly owned by the society and by MIT press, with Prof Watkins one of the Editors-in-Chief. The impetus to start the new journal arose from frustrations as an editor on commercially published journals at the publisher service, software, and prices charged to universities. This plus negative experiences publishing an article of her own prompted the search for an alternative solution with an academic publisher. Prof Watkins secured a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to get the journal off the ground. APCs are $800 for Society members – higher than originally intended, but at a level that enables the society to pay for a journal manager and still remain cheaper than many others, challenging the existing high costs imposed on libraries. It was noted that it takes considerable effort to create a new journal and make it available.
Prof David Mills (Department of Education; Treasurer of European Association of Social Anthropologists, EASA) described the society’s journal, Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, published by Wiley. The society’s members have a strong desire for the journal to go fully OA. A recent Open Journal Systems-based (OJS) low-cost publishing initiative within the discipline had not gone well, so although there is a willingness to move to OA, there is also wariness about volunteer-led models, and the cost implications for the society’s activities. EASA has a bi-annual conference for its members that contributes to the majority of the society’s income. The journal returns a profit, split between the publisher and the society, contributing a proportion of the society’s income each year. The costs of self-publishing would be prohibitive; society members would be unwilling to lose other benefits in order to enable a transition to OA. Currently the society is exploring the possibility of a US library-based consortium (called Libraria) working with nine anthropology journals to make flipping to OA work with the benefit of scale, using a library-funder financial model.
Deborah Dixon (Editorial Director of Medicine and Science Journals, Oxford University Press) [slides] gave an overview of OUP journal publishing: they publish 450 journals (50 fully OA, 400 hybrid), 80% of which are owned by societies. Deborah outlined key points of Plan S, with a reminder that the lack of support for hybrid by Plan S is a major issue: for many societies their journal(s) form a major part of their revenue. Humanities researchers are also concerned about the requirement for a CC-BY licence. With regard to transformative agreements, large customers wish to combine their subscription deal with an OA deal. They do not wish to pay more in total than what they are currently paying, to have access to all content and enable their own authors to publish OA (‘Read and Publish’ deals). This model is more of a challenge to smaller societies.
2019 is a decisive year given the number of high level reviews and reports currently underway. Deborah is an ALPSP (Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers) board member and in that role is a member of the group working with Wellcome Trust to examine how learned societies become sustainable in a Plan S environment (project overviews on cOAlition S and ALPSP websites). A consultant, Information Power, was appointed and a consultation document to be sent to learned societies [see Information Power discussion document]. The consultation will close in August 2019 and feed into the UKRI review of its OA policy. Note that Plan S is an input to the review, not an output.
It therefore makes sense to start planning for transition. Deborah explained strategies that OUP is proposing to learned societies to help their decision-making and financial planning for moves from hybrid to fully OA:
- Flip to OA. Know your ‘flip’ position. OUP provides a ‘flip’ tool so societies can judge how close/far they are from flipping a hybrid journal (subscription journal with a paid ‘gold’ OA option) to fully OA.
- Publish more. Economics of the OA model are such that the more you publish the more income comes in – but it’s also imperative to avoid compromising quality.
- Reduce costs, eg move to online only. There is less and less appetite for print journals.
- Launch new fully OA journals.
- Explore new business models (eg ALPSP project).
Society journals can be Plan S compliant via the green route by making the Author Accepted Manuscript (AAM) immediately available with a CC-BY licence. This could be a good solution in cases where there are only a small number of Plan S funded authors.
The open discussion was wide-ranging, and raised some familiar themes and concerns:
1. Plan S and international collaborations. One academic who is an editor of a society journal published by a major publisher, commented that Plan S is a European initiative, whereas his society journal has a US/international focus, and he is concerned about the implications. For example, the scenario where a collaborator has to be told that by working with the Oxford team who have to comply with their funder, they won’t be able to publish in certain key journals, which could hamper collaborative associations.
2. The global scale of Plan S. It was felt that momentum is not yet at tipping point, although there are some key interested parties beyond Europe eg India and a Chinese funding agency, although mixed support from the US (Gates Foundation has signed but not NIH).
3. OA Books and monographs for humanities are a serious issue. The demand for a printed monograph is likely to remain, and OA with print on demand may be a solution.
4. Costs and publisher deals. In the US, libraries are taking a consortium approach to negotiating publisher deals. In the UK, JISC negotiates at national level and its deals with publishers include an OA element, but the UK is different to countries like Germany as British universities can choose whether to take JISC deals or not.
5. The effect of Plan S on the careers of young academics/ECRs. It was acknowledged that there is a general unhealthy relationship with impact factors, that other alternative metrics could be a driver to help change, but unless they were REF returnable most researchers would revert back to journal prestige as a measure of quality. Books don’t have an impact factor. Could rejection rate act as a metric? [Note: the REF does not use impact factors and favours ‘responsible’ research metrics. Oxford University has signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, DORA, which also calls for research to be assessed on its own merits not the journal impact factor. Many funders inc UKRI and Wellcome also support DORA.]
6. Preprint servers – a new disrupter. In some areas of biological science the majority of papers now go on bioRxiv first. The result is that most publishers now accept manuscripts that have been disseminated as a preprint. It was felt that preprint servers will remain a part of the final OA landscape, though not widespread in humanities at present. One person commented that there is too much out there to read and they don’t want to read preprint versions. Others noted that it avoids the scoop problem because the research is certified in the preprint first, but that there may be a problem with double blind reviewing if the paper is disseminated as a preprint. Funders such as Wellcome Trust now consider preprints for grant or fellowship applications.
The Company of Biologists began its preLights initiative (https://prelights.biologists.com/) in 2018, where selectors choose preprint papers, produce a digest and give it a seal of approval. This experiment has proved to be highly successful. A token fee is paid to reviewers, who can record their involvement on their CV. In this way preLights is providing something the community wants, is a way to support ECRs and an example of new mechanisms supporting innovation.
7. Learned society finances. There was discussion around whether it is better to plough journal subscription excess into support for individual researchers (eg post-doc fellowships) or to reduce the price of APCs which helps everyone. It was felt by one to be easier to start a new OA journal than convert an existing title to OA. A society journal shares the income with the publisher and could opt to have lower APC rates for society members compared with non-members, in a model designed to encourage people to take up membership. Another society reported putting any journal surpluses back into the community via a number of schemes.
OUP was asked about the level of minimum profit margin needed and the publisher’s role in the operation of the learned society journal. OUP responded that in their case much of the profit goes back to the society, and the Press share will cover its own staff and infrastructure.
8. Flipping to OA. OUP was asked whether there are patterns in types of journals that are flipping. Examples: journals without big subscriptions or with high take-up of hybrid; the proportion of research funding tied up in the journal can also affect the decision (related to the funding profile of the discipline, differing scales from humanities to science).
Prof Freeman closed the event by drawing together the main themes discussed:
- Agreement that the move to OA is broadly a good thing, but challenges persist in how we go about it.
- The economics of OA remain a major issue, especially around very small societies and publishers. There are opportunities for action within the community of forming consortia to reduce costs and benefit from economies of scale. The matter of ‘not for profits’ making surpluses and where those surpluses are used is a topic for societies to consider. Open Access is not the same as ‘free.’
- The sociology, history and structure of disciplines differ, for example in the scale of their funding/grants.
Many thanks to all involved in this excellent discussion which, we hope, helped participants’ appreciation of differing and common disciplinary challenges for small societies.