Sustaining scholarly societies and society publishers: key challenges for open access transition

A recent editorial by Diane Scott-Lichter in Learned Publishing summarizes nicely some of the primary challenges for scholarly societies to transition to open access that many have written about over the years.

I argue that if we want to see a successful and sustainable transition to open access that prioritizes the public good and scholarship per se it is timely to address some of these challenges. Society publishers have a track record of high quality publishing at relatively low cost. Many scholarly societies rely on publishing revenue to sustain the societies themselves and the important work they do, including support for scholars and advocacy in the public interest. The generally modest surpluses of scholarly society publishers that are used to advance scholarship are not the same as the money that flows through commercial publishers to private parties solely for their private profit.

How can these challenges be addressed? This needs a lot of work – comments, suggestions and research are needed and welcome. Here is one thought: if libraries and other open access activists were to engage faculty in the question of whether the high profit margins of a few large commercial scholarly publishers might be re-directed to more direct means of support for scholarly societies and journals, would this facilitate broadening support for open access – and possibly more radical transformation of scholarly communication – at our institutions? If as a faculty member I had a small fund to spend with spending options including article processing charges or things like society memberships, the benefits to myself and my colleagues of a lowest-possible-cost peer-review overlay publishing system using the institutional repository in order to direct as much money as possible to things like awards, grants, and public advocacy, I could see this being a powerful incentive towards this kind of radical change.


One argument is that scholarly journals have a superior track record for quality in scholarly publishing at an average fraction of the cost of commercial scholarly publishing. As Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2006) reported:

For example, in the fields of economics and ecology, the average institutional subscription price per page charged by commercial journals is about 5 times that charged by non-profit journals. These price differences do not reflect differences in quality as measured by number of recorded citations to a journal. For commercial journals the average price per citation is about 15 times that for non-profit journals. Similar price differentials are found across a wide variety of scientific disciplines.

Many scholarly societies rely on revenue from their publications and sometimes other sources such as meeting / conference revenue and grants to fund the work of the society. The work of these not-for-profit organizations that is supported by publication revenue includes (from Scott-Lichter):

Learned societies are advocates for their disciplines, and its members keep government bodies, funders,and the public aware of the issues relative to their fields. Advocacy areas often focus on funding, policy reform, education, and the workforce”


“Society grants, awards, scholarships, and internships supplement the work of funding bodies and schools. Grants support a range of activities from basic research to studying and documenting a discipline’s history. Awards recognize achievements and encourage advancement. They range from student travel awards to attend scholarly meetings to honoring public service or teaching to lifetime achievement for contributions to the discipline. Scholarships and internships support the development of students and faculty and aim both to cultivate qualified individuals working in the discipline and uphold the quality of the discipline. Again, the benefits go beyond the discipline”.

Like open access itself, these benefits from society publishing are in the public interest. We need to figure out how to support both scholarly societies and open access.


Bergstrom, T. C., & Bergstrom, C. (2006). The economics of scholarly journal publishing. Seattle: Retrieved August 28, 2011 from

Scott-Lichter, D. (2014) Learned societies: Resilience not reliance required (2014). Learned Publishing 27:2, p. 83-84. doi:10.1087/20140201

This post is part of the resource requirements project.

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