Thursday, March 17, 2016

Where does scientific society money go, and the future of open-access

There's been a bit of a storm on Twitter recently about PLoS, open access, and scientific societies. One underlying issue seems to be what the "return on investment" is from publishing in different venues.

I've held leadership positions in 3 major societies over the past 5 years (Society for the Study of Evolution, Genetics Society of America, and American Genetic Association), so I re-examined the reports I got from those societies to compare/ contrast. I won't present exact numbers here, since that's inappropriate and since I'm looking at a single year's report (2012 or 2014) for each society rather than a multi-year running average.

All three societies were (at least as of those reports) financially quite healthy, each with reserves well over $1 million that produce some investment income. All three, at least in those years, were saving more than spending. Much of society yearly income in all cases was from their flagship journal (and specifically institutional subscriptions of that journal). I should add-- while colleagues are often critical of price gouging by publishers like Wiley-Blackwell, well over half of the proceeds from publication may go to the scientific societies, so we scientists & scientific societies are the gougers. (The publishers are just our hit-men.) The annual conferences produced a very small net profit for two societies (SSE, and GSA, though the latter sometimes loses money in some specific organismal meetings in specific years) but a net loss for the third (AGA, which keeps an outlay for the conference in its yearly budget).

What do they spend their journal income on? Clearly some of it is used to keep publishing cheap for scientists. All societies have some other shared expenses like stipends for some editorial (or occasionally officer) positions, travel for the board/ council members, etc. In the year I examined, SSE spent a lot on student awards (over $100K on students alone) as well as some on other awards, various educational initiatives and annual meeting symposia. More recently, SSE has taken on large expenditures for funding outreach efforts and a workshop for trainees on preparing for diverse careers. GSA maintains multiple staff (some shared with other societies) so most of the expenses went there, but the staff work on their journals, spearhead education & outreach efforts, communications & policy activities, etc. GSA also gave out various awards both to distinguished established researchers as well as trainees, as well as funds for the diverse expenses mentioned above (e.g., board travel). AGA spends a ton on "special event awards" which fund workshops and symposia at other meetings, and also spends on its own annual conference. AGA also more recently started sizable "Ecological, Evolutionary and Conservation Genomics (EECG) Awards" for graduate students and postdocs.

The flagship journal from each of these three societies (Evolution, Genetics, and Journal of Heredity) is not open-access, but an open-access option can be purchased for a particular submission at the time of acceptance. Uptake on that is low-- I think under 20%. Each journal makes or will make their old issues freely available online (Evolution does not currently but will do this for issues >2 years old beginning in 2017). Publication costs are moderate (Genetics) or even waived for short papers in these journals (Evolution for members, J Heredity for everyone).

Here's what these journals and societies do now-- they get large sums of money from institutional journal subscriptions (which cost $500-$1200 annually) and use those funds both to make publication cheap to the scientific community and to provide several services (including grants) for the scientific community. Libraries pay in order to grant access to their communities. What this means, by definition, is that access is not "free", and if a reader does not use one of these libraries (e.g., they do not work for a big university), then they have to wait perhaps 2 years to see this published science or have to pay a one-time use fee.

The open-access movement argues this setup is unacceptable. Federal grant dollars often support the research (let's focus on federally funded USA-based scientists and USA-based readers for simplicity here), so as a citizen who "paid" for the research with their tax dollars does not get instant free access to the results of that research, but has to either wait 6 months to 2 years (depending on journal) or pay again to see sooner. Even that is not exactly true always, given the growth of preprint servers like arXiv or bioRxiv-- the core science may be available immediately and free, but the edits from the peer review process and copy-editing are not.

Could these society journals go full open-access? Sure, but it's non-trivial since the funding currently garnered from libraries would be cut. With such a great drop in income, there would be two choices: raise prices elsewhere (by hefty open-access fees for submissions and/ or making conferences more expensive so they are profit-generating) and/ or cut services (i.e., reducing student grants, education/ outreach activities, and/ or funding workshops for trainees). Some institutional libraries may still also support open-access publishing (e.g., my institution provides such funds), but these funds are often limited and run out (e.g., as of when I'm writing this in March 2016, my institution's open-access funds for fiscal year 2015-2016 are already depleted).

How does PLoS manage? PLoS doesn't provide all the same services to the community that a scientific society does. I say this not as a criticism of PLoS-- they function solely for publication (and do it extremely well) whereas societies now function for facilitating publication while also providing diverse other services. I'm thrilled PLoS is running a profit now-- they are providing a valuable vehicle for publication and have been leaders in the move toward openness in science. They are also a business, so they need to run a profit-- again, our scientific societies are all running profits, too.

Basically, we have set up a situation where any major move to open-access by a profitable society journal bears risk of a major reduction in other services to which the community has grown accustomed. Is this risk worth it? Here, I will go out on a limb and give a personal opinion rather than just an "option." I would argue yes with a caveat. I feel that societies have no greater obligation than to maximize the dissemination of science, even if that means accelerating access by 1-2 years. Giving out student grants or funding workshops & outreach events-- those are all very valuable, but their impact is typically limited to direct participants. The "potential" impact of accelerating access to all the literature (both inside and outside the scientific community) seems greater to me. Making science available immediately is the democratization of knowledge. Further, moving to open-access removes the community's reliance on libraries, which has always been a source of financial uncertainty-- it provides the opportunity to go to what I think may be a more stable model, even if less lucrative. The caveat I would add is that there would have to be support for publication costs for scientists with limited grants... I would hate for science to not be able to be published in X journal because the research team did not have (sufficient) funding. I realize the consequence may be some reduction of other society services (and certainly I would not advocate those going to zero), but I think the positives outweigh the negatives.

I realize not all will agree with my opinion above, and I respect that the other side is quite valid. I also do NOT argue that a move by society journals to open-access be taken hastily-- clearly, we need to assess the potential financial consequences and be prepared to react if there will be some losses. Nonetheless, I hope this stream of consciousness is useful or at least thought-provoking. Please feel free to disagree, but please be nice.