Publishing Revenue and the Learned Societies


A couple of days ago I posted a reaction to a shockingly dishonest article I saw in Physics World which has led me to resign my Fellowship of the Institute of Physics (IoP). I thought I would spend a bit of time now to raising some wider points (which I’ve raised before) about the extent that such organizations (including, in my field,  the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics) rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals and why this is not in the best interests of their disciplines.

Take IOP Publishing. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that has an annual turnover of around £60M generated from books and journals. This revenue is the largest contribution to the income that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which I have published quite a few papers in the past.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash and have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access some authorities are attempting to foist on the research community, rather than the far more sensible and sustainable approaches to Open Access employed, for example, by the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

There are two major reasons why I object to this approach, one practical and one ethical.

First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of  other forms of publishing. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that traditional journals are already virtually redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics where we have been using the arXiv for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.

The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its  building in King’s Cross and office in Dublin, will dry up unless these organizations find a way of defending it. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations their attempt to stem the tide. I think this move into Gold `Open Access’, paid for by ruinously expensive Article Processing Charges paid by authors (or their organizations) is unsustainable because the research community will see through it and refuse to pay. I can already see signs of this happening.

The other problematic aspect of the approach of these learned societies is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and other institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with that purpose. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed outstandingly good – but that does not give them the right to siphon off funds from their constituents by a sort of stealth levy.  Voluntary institutional affiliation, paid for by a fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

A couple of days ago I decided to cease paying the annual subscription to, and resign my Fellowship of, the Institute of Physics. I was reasonably comfortable spending some of my own money supporting physics, but don’t agree with  researchers having to fork out huge amounts of money in involuntary payment of APCs to the IOP. I will decide in the next few days whether or not to resign also from the Royal Astronomical Society for the same reason.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial, and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The commercial academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfills little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. I think the scientific community knows this very well, and hopefully the parasite will die a natural death.

The question for learned societies is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that isn’t reliant upon effectively purloining funds from research budgets. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

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