Challenges for learned societies in the transition to open access publishing

To the outside observer, the debate on open access to scientific publications seem to be all about a battle between the researcher groups and commercial publisher giants, fueled by anger at the greed, real or perceived, of commercial publishers. But the real world is more complex than that.

The important role of many scientific societies and organisations as publishers is often neglected in the debates. As not-for-profit bodies, they ensure revenues from publication activities flow back to science. The income from journal revenue constitutes between 30% to 95% of the budget of some of the most active and renowned societies. They provide a large variety of services to science communities, ranging from fellowships for young researchers and awards to science history programmes. Grants enable researchers from poorer countries and institutions to participate in conferences that are key to their professional development and scientific success. Other fields of activity of the learned societies include science policy, networking opportunities for young researchers, science education and scientific outreach.

These activities are endangered if income from journal subscriptions drains away. The smaller non-commercial publishers that will most likely suffer more strongly from abrupt changes in the system than the large commercial publishers that have a more solid financial backing to adapt to new situations.

This is why we believe that now is the right time to initiate a debate about this issue. In particular, we would like to hear your opinion on the following issues:

  • How will changes in the publication system impact the overall science system?
  • How can a sound financial basis for the activities of the learned societies and scientific organisations be ensured?
  • How can the learned society journals be supported in the transition phase to Open Access? Could, for example, an embargo period of 12 months as a rule (instead of 6 months) for the transition of 5 years be a good solution?
  • Should societies be supported by direct government grants? Is that a realistic scenario? Would the societies loose their independence?
  • Should membership in learned societies be an eligible cost in all PhD and postdoc fellowships programmes as part of their training expenses? Would that raise the numbers of society members, especially among the young researcher population and strengthen their financial and human capacity?

We are looking forward to your comments, either in the box below or by writing to the editor at

Wolfgang Eppenschwandtner (email: ise[at]

Executive Coordinator, Initiative for Science in Europe

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by biblioteekje

Go back to the Special Issue: Open Access

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

4 thoughts on “Challenges for learned societies in the transition to open access publishing”

  1. Journal subscriptions did make sense in pre-internet era, where all published works were accessible on paper. Now, with the advent of online databases, they should be a thing of the past. However, the money lost from lost subscriptions could be gained by other means.

    I would suggest the following:
    – Access to all papers in online databases to be free.
    – To compensate losses, publication fees for papers to be raised.

    This approach would have the following advantages:

    – Papers would be accessible to anyone, not just paid subscribers. This way, scientific awareness among curious public would be raised. I’m PhD student in computer science, but I often want to read an intriguing paper in physics or astronomy. I cannot do it because it is not freely accessible, and I cannot afford the cost. Free access to scientific papers is important also because many papers are referred from wikipedia, and many would like at least to skim them.
    – Publication fees are in most of the cases paid by universities, not by the authors themselves. Thus the increased cost would not impact the authors. Those fees account for just a small amount of research budget, and would go relatively unnoticed.

  2. The role of learned societies

    Learned societies exist in order to foster and disseminate knowledge about academic subject areas. Mission statements of learned societies tend to read along fairly similar lines. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s aim is “to foster and encourage the growth and application of science by the dissemination of chemical knowledge”, while the Society for Endocrinology aims to enable “the advancement of public education in endocrinology”. Societies work towards these aims in a variety of ways, including publishing journals, running conferences and seminars, subsidising research funding, providing travel bursaries and assistance, and funding student scholarships. In order to finance these activities a range of revenue sources are tapped, including journal subscriptions, conference delegate fees and re-investment of surplus funds.

  3. The problem is that politicians care only about the big funding
    for applied research, for example the EIT. Politicians don’t care about
    small conference grants. They don’t care about learned societies.
    They don’t know how the science world works.