One of the biggest problems faced in the transition to a pure open access environment for journals is that learned societies have become dependent upon subscription revenue to subsidise their activities. This is not an a-historical phenomenon but has emerged most prominently since the 1960s when the societies outsourced their journal productions to either commercial publishers or to university presses. As a result, they now expect to receive funds back from their publishing operations which they then use to fund other parts of their outfit. Low-cost options for open access usually find it incredibly hard to give such revenues back to societies and so, as Janet Finch noted in her report, there is 'no doubt' that some learned societies will face 'some difficulty finding a business model that will work'. In this post, I want to explore what's happening here and propose one potential solution to a transition.
The academic journal serials market is unsustainable. Mostly due to an explosion in research output over the past 30 years or so, the cost of subscribing to all serials material published has risen by 300% above inflation since 1986. Conversely, from the same ARL statistics, total library budgets have only risen by 79%. Much of this comes from the scientific sphere, but the budgets within the library are apportioned according to this pricing. The crisis in serials, even if more acute in sciences, is everyone's problem in the university.
Learned societies are subject organisations that promote academic disciplines and professions, often awarding grants and subsidising various activities through their membership base. They sit as the backbone of intra-disciplinary conversations and are often extremely valued by their academic members. As noted, some learned societies supplement their revenues through surplus profit from publishing. This is certainly better than simply commercial publishers making profit. After all, the OAPEN-UK project found that only 20% of researcher respondents felt that it was acceptable for publishers to make a profit and to do with this what they wished, as opposed to supporting the discipline and/or future publication.
However, at the moment, the activities of learned societies are paid for by academic libraries. By bundling the costs of activities that are not publishing, within a budget that is meant to be for access to knowledge, societies contribute to the budgetary crisis of access to information. Furthermore, societies are claiming an unsustainable activity (the for-profit journal subscription market) as the basis of their sustainability. This is not to deprecate the claims that there may be financial challenges for associations and societies in any transition to open access. It is, rather, to note that calls to protect society revenue models are often inextricable from calls to protect publisher profits; the two are interwoven. This rhetoric of economy and sustainability, it must also not be forgotten, will always make one group's sustainability possible only at the expense of another: usually the library.
So, what is to be done? OA sits squarely with the mission of learned societies to further the spread of knowledge produced within their disciplines. However, models that require authors to pay are deemed unacceptable in most humanities disciplines. Models that create consortial intermediaries or otherwise cover the labour costs of publishing so as to avoid an author-facing service charge are usually doing so under tight budgetary constraints (that is, indeed, one of the benefits they pitch to libraries) that leaves no overhead to re-subsidise societies. This makes for a conflicted mess. Of course, as in all areas, money trumps other concerns. Societies find it hard to envisage how they will continue to undertake all of their activities while providing OA without extortionate author fees. It often seems easier to them to leave the surplus fee buried in a library budget (because, after all, this fee is still being paid!) and retain subscriptions.
I'd like to suggest an alternative. The Open Library of Humanities platform that I am currently building is (successfully!) gathering a moderate number of institutions to collaboratively cover the labour of publishing without author-facing charges. Existing journals can transfer onto the system subject to the approval of the library partners who financially support the platform. I can see the potential for a pact. At the moment, our model gives a large saving to libraries. By working together, an economy of scale is possible that would simply be impossible otherwise (see also: Knowledge Unlatched and arXiv). Let us imagine that a society journal wanted to move from a commercial publisher to our platform. This might very well result in subscription cancellations by libraries who are paying in to our model. If (and only IF) libraries paying in are sympathetic to the problem faced by learned societies (and only subject to the consent of those libraries), we could conceivably give the difference between the cancellation and the savings that we provide back to a society for a limited period.
I haven't done the sums in detail, so I don't know what the level of return would be. I also don't know whether libraries would support this and it is up to them, not me. It would almost certainly have to be an interim measure while societies found other sources of revenue (say, 5-7 years). It might, though, offer a compromise: APC-free OA for society journals with a period of revenue return. This is only possible, though, because of the logic I outlined earlier. Libraries are paying for learned societies right now. The savings that many librarians want from OA can, therefore, be conceived as a call for societies to stop using the crisis-struck library budget for cross-subsidy. How we get to that point in a way with which all parties agree is tricky, though.
Some of this material (the statistics and the observations on society revenue being linked to publisher profits) comes from my forthcoming book, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future (Cambridge University Press).