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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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There’s an article out in The Times Higher Education Science Magazine (edit 11:38am) about Learned Societies and open access. As usual, it points out the thorny problem that Learned Societies derive revenue from subscriptions that they fear will be lost under an OA model. A few points spring to mind on this. 1. There is no guarantee that moving to an OA model will cause a loss of revenue; 2. zero-embargo green OA would be compliant with Plan S and does not seem to lead to loss of revenue; 3. I have written previously on how Learned Societies could manage this transition.

What I really wanted to write on here, though, briefly, was how this is really a problem of value, transparency, and distributed financing of disciplinary activities. When people say ‘Learned Societies fund their activities through subscription revenues’ what I hear is ‘academic library budgets are used to fund disciplinary activities’ (yes, I know that there are private subscriptions, membership fees, and other revenue streams etc., but the majority of the money is, nonetheless, coming from library budgets). These are also the budgets that have lagged by several hundred percent behind the total cost of ownership of all subscription journals worldwide. The subscription model does, at least, distribute this cost among many libraries (as opposed to APC-based models, which concentrate the costs at fewer points). But the truth of the matter is that Learned Societies are funded by academic library budgets. If they rely on a subscription model, they are also reliant on excluding people who cannot pay, for the claimed good of the Society.

I happen to think that a mission of a Learned Society should include getting its research as far under the nose of any interested constituent as possible, regardless of whether that person can pay. At the end of the day, what’s the point of funding a Ph.D. studentship if, when that student graduates and likely does not get an academic job, she/he/they is/are unable to continue to read research in the field? Regardless of this, though, I think that what sits at the heart of this dilemma for Learned Societies is a crisis and anxiety of value.

To explain: at the moment, Learned Society funding is pretty stable. It comes from those academic libraries who buy subscriptions, worldwide. So the money is there in universities. So why not simply transfer this money out of the academic library budget and into a special ‘Learned Society Funding’ pot? The simple answer is trust, or lack of it. University budgets are under enormous pressure, worldwide. And without the stick of withdrawing access, Learned Societies believe that they would have no way of coercing universities into funding their activities. They also believe that without coercion, they will not be funded.

This does not speak very well for Societies’ belief in their own value. The essential line of argument here is: if universities knew, transparently and clearly, that they were paying for Learned Societies to exist and conduct intra-disciplinary activities, universities would not fund them. This could be true, for reasons that might not be the Societies’ faults. One could also imagine systems in which academics were given a ‘society budget’ that they could spend as they see fit (some universities will already allow an annual research budget to be spent on memberships in this way). This would then open up a competitive system between societies for academics’ budgets, which may or may not be a positive thing. But if I were a Learned Society, I would not trust universities to reallocate the budget from the library. I think they would just mop it up to avoid increasing deficits.

This budgetary cross-subsidy is also the case elsewhere in the academy. Consider the case of humanities’ teaching and research funding being used to cross-subsidise expensive natural science laboratories. This is why proposals in the UK to offer a lower level of fee grant to students of the humanities has attracted widespread condemnation; because it has huge implications not just for these disciplines but for elsewhere in the university.

So what is the answer? I do not know. But if I were a Learned Society, right now, I would be urgently experimenting with zero-embargo green OA as a stop-gap measure. I would also be considering the transition strategy to a consortial model that I mentioned above. I would also be firming up every single argument that could justify the Society’s existence. Because it seems clear to me that the era of bundled subsidies is slowly melting into air.