Scholarly Societies, Scholarly Publishing, and the New Information Ecology

by | Nov 7, 2013 | 0 comments


Scholarly Societies Panel

Scholarly Societies Panel: (L-R) Robert Keift, Occidental College (Moderator); Steven Wheatley, American Council of Learned Societies; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Modern Language Association; Brandon Nordin, ACS Publications

This panel addressed changes as they affect scholarly societies in an environment in which every link in the publishing chain is undergoing change. Brandon Nordin opened with a talk entitled “More Than Chemistry” and noted that all markets are not moving at the same pace. He said that the new information economy breaks a logjam and embraces the research community directly.  We are in a boom economy for education and science funding.  No library’s budget has kept pace.  We have lived in a golden age when more people have more access to information than ever.  Open access (OA) has moved from a concept to a practice by many information users.  Publishers, users, and libraries are all in this environment together.  Here are the characteristics of the new economy:

New Information Economy

New Information Economy

We must understand our users more closely today.  Societies have tended to be bounded by their location or discipline, more so than commercial publishers.  Our identity as organizations must therefore become more global.  There is much information about users locked in different silos; we must learn how to manage it.  Societies must prepare for the new information economy by being global, offering increased collaboration, and obtaining more knowledge of their users.

Preparing For the New Information Economy

Preparing For the New Information Economy

The ACS experienced significant gains in discovery and usage after making their content available electronically. Technology improvement in the form of platform investments and back-office systems is responsible for this.  Here are some of the steps that ACS has taken to explore the new article economy.

Steps in the New Information Economy

Steps in the New Information Economy

ACS is launching a purely open journal, ACS Central Science, with no author or access fees.  This will help authors with limited budgets.

Steven Wheatley traced some of the history of scholarly publishing.  He said that modern learned societies in the humanities are confronting the changing climate in education.  Disciplinary societies are the ideal type of learned society.  They range from very large to quite small.  Most of them maintain the flagship journals in their field.  Interdisciplinary societies are best known for studies in geographic areas.  Most societies have journals; membership is voluntary.  They have executives who are generally elected because of their scholarly eminence and not their business acumen.  Societies have dues, conference income, and journal subscriptions for income.  Their income tends to be uncertain.  All societies are looking for new sources of revenue.

Most scholarly society journals have both pre- and post-publication peer review and most make a small amount of money (typically about $200,000 annually).  Subscription prices tend to be relatively low.  Revenues roughly equal the cost of production; almost all the surplus goes back to the society.

In this environment, the society executives are considering questions about OA: To what question is OA the answer?  They are experimenting with different implementations of OA, and most of them are adopting some form of “green OA”, allowing authors to post their works on their own websites.  If the “author pays” model were widely adopted, it would increase the inequality between authors at large versus small institutions.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick concluded the session, speaking about scholarly societies in the new ecology.  The MLA was the lone publisher to offer full support for a new model for scholarly communication.  Societies were originally created in the 1600s to facilitate communication, which took the form of journals and meetings.  Over time, the journals came to be regarded as authoritative sources of knowledge.  Research libraries therefore collected those journals for their users.  This was a system that originally worked.  Libraries and society members supported the societies and helped them fulfill their role of fostering scholarly communication.

Over the last several decades, new technologies have changed; scholars professional lives have become increasing precarious, so they are reluctant to support societies.  University library budgets are strained.  Societies are strained by decreasing membership and increasing publishing costs, so they have turned to commercial publishers.  The web was invented to support communication among researchers and permits any scholar to share his/her work immediately, further diminishing the role of societies.  Many scholars fear that OA will result in a chaos of publishing and publishers feel that OA is financially unsustainable.  Arguments around OA tend to results in a stalemate.  The MLA feels that this need not be so and that a viable path might be able to be established.  There is still value in the editorial work done by a society, but the shifts brought about by the internet may be moving the vallue proposition of a society to get one’s own work out to the world.  The value of joining a society may be in the ability to participate in that communication.  The MLA has recently launched MLA Commons, a forum for members to make their work available to the world, using new forms of peer review and publication.


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