Open Access and Scholarly Societies

This was written in response to a post over on Scholarly Kitchen titled “Open Access – What’s a Learned Society To Do?

Interestingly, I wrote a long email about this issue just yesterday to a professor at my institution. I’ll summarize my email in response to some points in the post:

“learned societies are “a critical part of the research environment,”… and, since many if not most learned societies rely largely on subscription income from their journals (up to 90% in some cases), they stand to lose out significantly if OA is widely adopted.”

I think we can all agree that the first part of the statement is true. The second half, however, gives cause for pause. Is it true that many learned societies rely on subscription income? What of member dues? And actually, I would argue that the claim that societies will “lose out significantly if OA is widely adopted” is false. If a scholarly societies’ purpose is to make money, than sure that makes sense. But isn’t the point of an Association is to represent the best interests of its members in the field, and to provide methods and means of communication (journals, listservs, conferences)? If so, migrating journals published by scholarly societies toward open access is very much a “critical part of the research environment” and that, in fact, broad, wide, open access offers greater impact of the works to the membership of the scholarly society. (See Citation Impact of Open Access). 

“numerous smaller societies – especially those in the humanities and social sciences – seem much less well-informed about the impending expansion of OA and the potential impact on their future viability, despite the fact that, as the recent ALPSP library survey showed, a move to OA is likely to result in many journals being canceled – especially in those very disciplines.”

Again, I can agree with the first portion of the statement here. It is well known that the humanities, social sciences (and I’d include the arts) are less well-informed about the principle of open access. However, the viability of a small scholarly society is not, and will not be, entirely contingent on how the research of its members is disseminated. Societies will have to adjust to new models of “doing what they do,” but what will cause a society to grow or fold will be the support of its membership, the vision of its leadership, and the adaptations they are willing to enact as academia grows and changes. And I’d like to point out that there are some reservations about the validity of the ALPSP report that should be reinterpreted, if at least acknowledged. (See Kevin Smith’s analysis here)

“There has definitely been some progress in the last year or two. The participation of learned societies in the Finch Group was significant, particularly in highlighting the dangers of OA for the social science and humanities communities.”

Yet again, we agree at the beginning. I’d like to raise the point that as significant as this involvement is, it should be equally as significant that the Modern Language Association, a stalwart in the humanities, very recently made the decision to alter their copyright policies for their journals, and to encourage self-archiving of articles published in their journals. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, head of MLA’s Scholarly Communications Office, make’s a point that echoes your language about the “dangers” facing the humanities specifically. She writes,

The problem, of course, is that the more we close our work away from the public, and the more we refuse to engage in dialogue across the boundaries of the academy, the more we undermine that public’s willingness to fund our research and our institutions…the major crisis facing the funding of higher education is an increasingly widespread conviction that education is a private responsibility rather than a public good; we wind up strengthening that conviction when we treat our work as private, by keeping it to ourselves. Closing our work away from non-scholarly readers, and keeping our conversations private, might protect us from public criticism, but it can’t protect us from public apathy, a condition that is, in the current economy, far more dangerous.

Migrating to open access will not be without it’s speed bumps (business models, credentialing systems, etc), but the greater concern and danger is the public’s total disinterest and ability to write off small, scholarly societies as vestiges of yesteryear. 

“But could – and should – societies be doing more to engage in the debate about OA? And, just as importantly, should they be working to educate and engage with their members about it?”

To your final questions, I wholeheartedly say, yes and yes. But the engagement should not begin from a place of fear, which is the tone I take from your piece, but from a place of opportunity; opportunity to continue to provide high quality service to members, and also to interact openly across disciplinary and access lines. This seems like a great time to be at the head of a small scholarly society. Limited access means limited use, limited impact, and limited benefits for scholarship and for society at large.


For more reading:

Open Access Self-Archiving (report)

What Should Society Journals do about Open Access? (blog post)

Open Access Journals from Society Publishers (report)

Economic Implications of Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the Costs and Benefits (report)

Why Open Access to Research and Scholarship? (Short article, must read.)


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