When good nonprofits collide: the battle between Open Access and Academic Societies

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Lenny Teytelman Mar 16, 2016

Many academic societies do wonderful things for science, scientists, and society. They advocate, educate, support trainees, organize productive conferences, act as publishers whose goal is to improve rather than reject any given paper. As a geneticist, I have attended many of the GSA’s yeast conferences since 2003, and they were always a highlight of my academic training. The GSA was and continues to be an early and key supporter of our protocols.io startup. I am a big fan of Stefano Bertuzzi, the head of the ASCB, and I worship ASCB’s career improvement workshops at the annual Cell Biology conference. I am also volunteering for the SSE’s diverse careers task force to bring ASCB-like career mentorship to the Evolution conference. I am a track chair for the 2017 SLAS conference.

I am a big fan of academic societies. I am also a big fan of PLOS and open access. As such, I find myself torn between entities that are fundamentally at odds with each other. The societies are threatened by open access and many senior scientists detest PLOS and PLOS ONE for “sucking up all oxygen and undermining society journals.” The problem is that for many societies, the majority of their revenue comes from subscription publishing, and PLOS and open access are a real threat to the financial sustainability of these societies.

As I converse with editors and executive members of these societies, we often start with a general argument over open access. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard “almost everyone who needs access has it; subscription paywalls really don’t hurt anyone.” I push back strongly against this, because this line is deeply flawed. And then, invariably, we end up at “But our society journal cannot go open access. We would need to charge $4,000-$5,000 for each paper, and we could never compete with PLOS ONE and the other PLOS journals in that case. But unlike PLOS, our society does a lot of good for scientists.”

I can write pages and pages on the good that PLOS has done for science and society. But instead, I want to focus on a simple argument – if scientists won’t pay $5,000 per paper to publish with you, you are charging too much. Open Access publishing model brings this cost to light, and scientist rebel. Subscriptions hide the cost to everyone except the librarians, propping up the 30%-40% profit margins that Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and many professional society journals enjoy.

I cannot accept the argument that because societies do a lot of good, charging $5,000 for a paper with a 40% profit margin, is somehow justified. Paywalls to research hurt scientists and non-scientists alike. They hurt patients, journalists, teachers, academics who are not at elite institutions. The Gates foundation is right to require OA-only publishing starting in 2017 from all scientists funded by its grants.

To argue that societies do good, hence we shouldn’t move to OA and we should continue to pay exorbitant fees to publish and access the research papers – that is like arguing that because medical schools do a lot of good in education, it’s acceptable for hospitals to overcharge patients. It is not. I worry about the academic societies because they do provide a valuable service. I worry that many of them might evaporate over the next 10-20 years because publishing will become entirely open access. I hope the societies can find alternative sustainable revenue sources. But I aggressively reject the argument that we need to prop up subscription publishing for the good of academic societies.

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Note: I am not making an argument that the society journals are not useful. Many of these journals are good communities that serve their fields well. They care deeply about improving science and they review to improve the papers and the science in them. As I recently wrote, there is a lot of important work that a good journal does. I do not want society journals to die. I want them to switch to open access and for their societies to figure out how to be sustainable without overcharging for the publishing work.

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