What's So Funny About Stability, Reliability, and Quality?

In the spirit of Elvis Costello, let's show some gratitude to the societies that keep science strong

Robert-Jan Smits’ now infamous quote about forcing scholarly societies to adopt Plan S is an exercise in high-handedness:

I talked a lot to scholarly societies. They are a noble group, but they will have to bite the bullet and go open access. We are quite flexible with regard to society journals, but they have to bite the bullet and go.

What Plan S would cause is an end to a significant portion of the stable, predictable revenues scholarly and professional societies have used to build themselves into potent social anchors and scientific centers, as well as an end to incentives that drive selectivity and quality among journals. As James Phimister noted in a recent LinkedIn posting:

Though draped in Open Access, Plan S is not about ensuring the research these funders fund can be Open Access (these venues already exist), it is about undermining the commercial viability of subscription journal publishing, and also, it turns out, limiting the commercial viability of Open Access publishing. There are a number of provisions in Plan S that are intended to do real harm to publishers. And Robert-Jan Smits, the European’s Special Envoy on Open Access, who leads Plan S, is unabashed in Plan S’s aspiration to undermine publishers.

Therefore, we must ask, in the spirit of Elvis Costello: What’s so funny about stability, reliability, and quality?

There is a history here that we can learn from. Scientific progress, sophisticated publication of results, and reliable revenues for societies based on a key member benefit — journals reporting interesting new findings — were at the heart of a century of scientific progress like no other. Innovations like blinded peer-review, abstracts and structured abstracts, take-home messages, and review articles were all developed based on meeting reader needs.

The subscription model aligned editors and publishers with readers and, in the case of societies, members. Societies could glean a number of revenue streams from their publishing activities, including subscriptions and advertising as direct revenues, and membership dues as indirect revenues associated with publications as member benefits.

Now, Smits is dismissive of the importance of recurring revenues to societies. It fits with a long history of OA advocates blaming the victim and making imperious claims that non-profit societies will just need to “reinvent themselves,” as if this is a trivial or even necessary task. First, it is not trivial. “Reinvention” is uncertain, costly, long-term, and did I mention uncertain? The chances of failure are high. Many are trying or have tried, only to find that their members actually prefer things as they are. Which gets to the second point — most of the professional and scientific non-profits who publish journals and books are doing well. They’ve invented themselves just fine, and are maintaining or increasing their value-add to members and their markets. People like and respect what they do.

What might happen if recurring revenues are taken away from these non-profits? In a recent interview, Kathleen Kelly Janus of Stanford, who has studied the non-profit space, painted this picture of the non-profit landscape:

Nonprofits are struggling. My research showed that this wall . . . [of] getting past $500,000 in revenue, is a real thing, that two-thirds of nonprofits in the United States are $500,000 in revenue and below. They are on this treadmill to constantly fundraise for payroll the next month, when they should be focused on their impact.

Imagine if we expected that of CEOs, right? Nonprofits who responded to my survey said that they spend 75% of their time on fundraising. Companies would never get anything done. So we’re basically expecting nonprofits to solve some of the hardest issues of our time — like climate change and increasing inequality — with one hand tied behind their back.

This overview of the non-profit space reminds us of how tenuous the financial situation of many societies can be. Without an engine of recurring revenues, they may fall onto the same fundraising treadmill Janus mentions. Their efforts to help improve the knowledge and skills of physicians, children, engineers, pharmacists, and a myriad other professions would be severely curtailed, all so funders could see more of their papers published.

So, with Thanksgiving in the United States upon us, and “The Geyser” taking a brief pause to indulge in family, travel, and food, I’d like to state for the record that I personally am grateful to have grown up in a culture where scientific and professional societies had stable, reliable revenues and could pursue quality over long periods of time. And I hope stability, reliability, and quality remain funded at societies and elsewhere via recurring revenues — for a long time to come.

Here’s to peace, love, and understanding.

Happy Thanksgiving!