Evolving landscape for scientific publishing

Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke

January 4, 2019

Publishing research – sharing the methods and the findings of science – was a driving impetus for the formation of scientific societies. The Ecological Society of America launched in 1917 with the publication of its Bulletin and then in 1920 created the flagship journal Ecology. The economics of ESA producing these journals, of authors publishing in them, and of readers accessing their contents have all changed over time. Today’s business model would be virtually incomprehensible to the Society’s founding members. The changes continue, driven by technology and by economic pressures; it is urgent that our ESA members understand these changes and help shape the future of our journals.

Early in my career, one joined a society in large part to subscribe to its journal(s). We accumulated long runs of physical issues on shelves, and used reprint requests to build personal libraries of papers from other journals. Membership dues and institutional (library) subscriptions, plus page charges and reprint fees, paid for the production and mailing of the journals while also supporting the other activities of the society.

As societies began to diversify their offerings and publish more than one journal, many members had to become more selective about journal subscriptions. Meanwhile, the rise of journals owned by commercial publishers made the competitive landscape for institutional subscriptions more intense. Even large academic libraries started struggling with rising prices, and societies felt the threat to this important revenue stream.

JSTOR and the provision of electronic access to entire historical runs of ecological journals, plus the advent of technology for digital publishing, caused enormous disruption to the economics of publishing. Society members and individual subscribers started to feel that a subscription shouldn’t cost as much if it didn’t include a physical journal. Yet the costs to review, edit, lay out, and produce papers and issues still remain. Once most academic users could access articles through JSTOR or digital collections, they realized they need not be individual subscribers. Societies had to offer other services as the value of membership, while sustaining intense competition for institutional subscriptions.

ESA persisted in publishing its printed journals longer than many other societies, working from the Ithaca, NY office as its editorial home base and using the Allen Press for physical production. But through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Society watched print subscriptions dwindle while struggling with the costs of constantly evolving technology for managing both review and editorial production, and coping with the major anxieties of marketing to sustain institutional subscriptions. The importance of the journals as a crucial revenue stream for ESA led to a comprehensive review by a special committee of the Governing Board, and the decision was made in 2015 to enter into partnership with Wiley.  As of January 2016, all ESA journals are published through Wiley.

This partnership has brought ESA welcome assistance in marketing and dealing with the complexities of institutional subscriptions (such as bundling and pricing). ESA retains editorial control, with independent editors-in-chief and large editorial boards for each journal.  The Society retains ownership of its journals and holds ultimate responsibility for ensuring that quality remains excellent and the journals remain in high demand among both authors and readers.

Our “traditional” journals – Ecology, Ecological Monographs, Ecological Applications – generate revenue in two ways now. There are author page charges, coming directly to ESA, to support the costs of the editorial process – our editors-in-chief, the software to manage the peer review process, and our staff who manage the editorial process for accepted articles. (Page grants are available to ESA members who do not have funding to pay these charges.) Then, there are the revenues from Wiley that reflect the return on institutional subscriptions.

Furthermore, these three publications are considered “hybrid” journals. Authors who wish to publish their articles in these journals, but under an open-access agreement may do so – for a fee ($2500 for ESA members or $3300 for nonmembers).

Financially, this agreement provides much-needed stability for ESA. The royalty payment remains constant throughout the life of the agreement, so long as specific thresholds for subscriptions and on-line access of papers are met each year.

Electronic access to the complete run of all our journals remains a major benefit of membership, a benefit that is of exceptional value to individuals who don’t have access to an academic library. We probably haven’t done enough to promote this benefit of membership to those working in the private, public, and non-profit sectors, and can do more.

More recently, another major disruption has come from the regulatory and cultural expectations of public access to research results. Both in the US and in the European Union, there is an increased awareness that governmental investments in funding research should result in broad public access to the findings. Various models for this access have emerged, from NSF’s requirements for information management and data sharing, to open access through PubMed and similar portals. Initial models provided for delay in posting, in order to protect the investments of both researchers and publishers. However, we now have the model of true (or “gold”) open access journals, where all content is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. ESA’s Ecosphere is our gold open-access journal, and it has grown rapidly in submissions, readership, and impact factor since it was launched in 2010.

The revenues from an open access journal come solely from article processing charges (APCs) paid by authors (or the funders of their research). Typically these are more than page charges for a conventional journal, because there will never be any other revenues generated by these papers – no reprint sales, no access charges, no fees for permissions or re-use, and no revenues from institutional subscriptions. The APC for Ecosphere is at $1750 (just $1500 for ESA members, a major membership benefit); these are significantly lower rates than many other open-access ecological journals. Even so, it must be acknowledged that authors without funding would find this cost to be non-trivial. Such authors might be students, or those between jobs, or anyone whose grant funding has ended, or someone publishing the results of a synthesis of publicly-available data (among other possible cases).

Now Plan S presents another seismic shift in the publishing landscape. Governmental funders in Europe, and several prominent non-governmental funders (such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation) have agreed to require that (as of 2020) the results of research they fund must be published only in fully open-access journals (or journals that have promised to become fully open-access in the near future); “hybrid” journals are not considered fully open access. This requirement will shift the pattern of submissions and consequently the competitive landscape among journals for readership, impact factors, and institutional subscriptions. If other funders (e.g., North American government agencies) follow suit in requiring fully open access publication of results, the entire subscription-based model of journal production will be weakened or eliminated – and most professional societies, including the ESA, will lose their largest source of revenue for policy training, science advocacy, education, and other member services.

ESA’s Director of Publishing Steve Sayre says that our association with Wiley is definitely an asset at this point because Wiley is a proactive partner with ESA for all journal-related matters. “All the big publishers, including Wiley, have a seat at the Plan S table. They are advocates for society publishers and the subscription model and are actively involved in discussions with the [Plan S] coalition to influence their policy positions. We are fortunate that Wiley is in our corner for these discussions.” Both societies and publishers are trying hard to sustain at least partial viability of the subscription model – for example, some limited term of protection for a paper before moving to completely open access – for the foreseeable future. Wiley is constantly trying to position ESA journals to reach the broadest possible audience.

We are of course very interested in what our members think about this complex issue! Are you currently limited in your ability to access the literature – especially recent papers – and would you be in favor of a rapid shift to open access for ecological research publications? If you are active in submitting and publishing research papers – do you normally have the financial resources to cover the costs of article processing for fully open access journals? Do you have ideas about how to subsidize or afford the publication of papers in these OA journals from authors who cannot afford the processing charges?

ESA will assuredly be affected by continued evolution of the business model for scientific publishing. In order to understand the impact on our members’ professional lives, and not just on our revenues, it is important that we hear from you. I look forward to reading your thoughts. Email (gro.asenull@qhase), and use “publications” in the subject line. We will keep our members fully informed as Plan S and related developments move forward.




Laura F. Huenneke