The Future of Journals in the Face of Open Access

Blogpost from ESA President Laura Huenneke


May 2, 2019

Previously in this space I wrote about Plan S, a commitment by some European research funders to require researchers to publish only in “Gold” open access journals. I relayed the concerns of some about how this could weaken the ability of ESA or other societies to publish journals under a conventional subscription model or hybrid business models (where a journal operates with subscriptions but also offers authors the chance to publish a specific article as immediately open access). Though few readers gave any feedback on Plan S specifically, we received numerous informative comments from ESA members about open access in general.


Responses from our members:

ESA members from diverse backgrounds and professional settings wrote in response to our previous column. Comments came from ecologists working in conventional research universities, undergraduate teaching institutions, the private sector/industry, and non-profit and non-governmental organizations. Feedback pertained chiefly to the economic impact of fees (especially open-access article processing charges, or APC) on authors, and of subscription or access costs to readers, but we also received thoughtful comments about the intellectual and scientific impact of open access on the dissemination and use of published research. Overall ESA commenters described a very positive view of open access and eagerness to have our community move closer to this being the universal standard. There were numerous positive comments about ease of access to papers (even for academics but especially for those working in NGO’s or other institutions without well-resourced libraries), and about the speed of publication for most open access journals.

Those with active, grant-funded research programs reported that they are sometimes but not always able to pay fees (such as hefty APC). Even with grants, academic researchers face tradeoffs between dollars for open access fees and the priorities of student support and research expenses. Several pointed out that grants often end before all publications are out, so funding may not be available for APC even if the work was supported by a grant. One member wrote eloquently of the steady (if small) stream of research publications produced by faculty and students in teaching-focused institutions; these individuals may never have sufficient grant funding to pay charges of several thousand dollars per paper, but play a critical role in providing crucial research and writing experiences for undergraduates (the seeds of our next generation of ecologists). If a move to open access endangered traditional journal venues for publication, such researchers might publish even more rarely.

Scientists working at non-profits, NGOs, and industry organizations or small business reported that their access to the subscription-based literature is seriously limited; they and their employers cannot afford subscriptions for multiple employees for multiple journals, so the advent of open access journals is very welcome. One prominent NGO has dropped its own program of publishing technical reports in favor of its employees publishing peer-reviewed papers in open access journals; apparently, even with APC costs, the move has been beneficial since they no longer print, disseminate, or serve as sole supplier of their own publications. One respondent from the policy world pointed out that a new federal agency requirement for public comments on proposed policies to include a PDF version of any cited reference is making it very costly to do thorough comments if papers are behind a paywall, so open access is more useful for applications to policy work. These scientists were generally willing to trade high APC for the numerous benefits of open access publication for the work they publish and the work they read.

Ecologists in every sector acknowledged the difficulty of securing funds for APC; they worry that substantial APC will pose major barriers to publication for scientists without grants or major organizational support. Some recognized the potential negative impact to certain kinds of work (e.g., conservation science, often funded by small grants). However, most respondents also acknowledged that publishing a research article does have necessary costs, especially when there is strong editorial support and review. Some worry that the push to keep costs low in open access will result in more variable and poorer editorial quality. Our commenters have no easy answers for the question of who should subsidize these costs or provide funds for waivers and discounts; at least one respondent noted that government grants or funding could be problematic in certain situations.


Discussion elsewhere:

Just how will scientific publishing evolve from our current subscription model (with a mix of for-profit and society publishers) to a future dominated by open access? An enjoyable and informative discussion has been taking place on the Dynamic Ecology blog – I should have referenced this in my earlier post on this topic. The original post and various comments provide a vivid description of the coming challenges—for libraries, for readers, and for researchers seeking to publish. (I noticed that there wasn’t much discussion about the potential impact to scientific societies that publish journals.)

News reports and letters to the editor appearing in Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) through early 2019 spoke more directly to the value added to society-published journals by rigorous editorial review, and the threat that Plan S would pose to the importance of journals as major revenue sources for society activity (e.g., Spedding et al. 2019 letter, news report in Science Jan 2019). In particular, this discussion has noted that in comparison to the giants of for-profit publishing, individual scientific societies have less volume (so far less economy of scale) in publishing and lower profit margins; it is the profit margin that societies have available to use for other activities benefiting their members and scientists in general. ESA staff have been tracking this discussion in great detail, and recommend the discussion on the Scholarly Kitchen blog  for current news and background discussions from the perspective of scientific publishers.


Recent happenings:

Just in the past couple of months there have been some intriguing developments—interesting in light of some of the intermediate steps envisioned in the “switching adaptive peaks” discussion referenced above. Some decisions being made about subscriptions show that we are on the verge of destabilizing the current system. As the home of funding entities originally driving Plan S, Europe has of course been at the center of developments. As far back as 2017, academic and research entities in Germany attempted to negotiate with publishers to establish “publish and read” agreements, in which universities, institutes, and libraries would pay a lump sum to cover publication costs of all papers authored by Germans in exchange for the publications being completely open access. This “Projekt DEAL” effort signed an agreement with Wiley this past winter; as a result, all papers by German authors in all Wiley journals will be freely available to any reader around the world while German readers can access all Wiley journal content without charge. Fees to Wiley annually are estimated to be about the same as the prior subscription costs that will now be unnecessary. Other European countries are trying to pursue same thing – e.g., Elsevier will be providing a portion of Netherlands-authored papers freely available in exchange for an annual payment by Dutch libraries.

It’s not easy to arrange these “publish and read” agreements, though. Notably, the University of California recently ended its attempts to negotiate with Elsevier for such an arrangement, and consequently dropped its $10 million annual subscription to Elsevier journals. While it is easy to feel scorn for huge “for-profit” publishers like Elsevier, it should also be remembered that partnerships with publishers like Wiley have actually allowed societies like ESA to continue publishing and marketing journals with the society controlling the editorial content and quality.

We still have no clear answers about key aspects of an open access future. Would a multitude of bilateral or multi-lateral “read and publish” arrangements eventually provide access for every author and every reader? Even for the main supporters of Plan S in Europe, there have not been decisions about what would be set as “reasonable” article-processing charges, what waivers or discounts for APC might be available for authors not funded by grants by Plan S funders, and whether the wider range of publishers worldwide would actually come to some consensus or consistent approach to processing charges. In the research community, some are beginning to push for researchers to prioritize publishing in society-published and edited journals. Some advocate sustaining a hybrid journal model so that scientists will retain multiple publication options. Of course, part of the justification for open access publication is that the tax-paying public has already paid for research results through the grant funding of government research agencies; some question whether research funded by the public should actually be published in a for-profit journal (whether open access or not). And some debate whether open access would require or motivate publishers to accept more and more papers in order to generate more fees, leading to a decrease in the quality of published work.

Steve Sayre, ESA’s Director of Publishing, said, “I’m relieved that multiple constituencies are now getting involved, and researchers/authors as well as societies are voicing their concerns in a very big way. My big thing with Plan S is that any movement that seeks to create a one-size-fits-all model is just not going to work. One of the beauties of the publishing world is that there are multiple models of delivering content, depending on the preferences of authors, researchers, readers, institutions … so monoculture is not a word that’s associated with publishing!” Reports from meetings with Wiley show that there is indeed progress in localized (national scale) and specific partnerships, not global uniform approaches such as that laid out in Plan S – Wiley at forefront (e.g. a signed deal with Germany).


What should we do as a scientific society?

ESA does offer its members a lower APC for publishing in Ecosphere than is true of most open access journals. Naturally, many of our respondents expressed support for major subsidy or waiver of APC for members, though some acknowledged that we might have to pursue external grant funds (from research agencies? private foundations or donors?) to fund this effort. One commenter who publishes and serves frequently as a peer reviewer suggested that the unpaid labor of peer reviewers could be rewarded by providing a discount for APC for each high-quality review performed for a journal, thus building loyalty to a journal and/or society publisher. Respondents urged us to pressure funding agencies to include resources for APC automatically in all grants and to create mechanisms for “banking” such funds for use in publication after a grant ends.

A few respondents took issue with ESA (or any scientific society) taking revenues from its journal operations to fund other activities; the concept is that journal operations could be lower in cost (and therefore APC could be reduced greatly) if the society membership supported the journals rather than the journals providing revenue for membership services. One blog post challenged us to consider what we might do to focus most resources on publication—eliminate the Washington, DC office and the policy and public affairs programs? Stop support for education or diversity programs? Ultimately, this is a question that strikes to the heart of the Society’s mission: Do members value ONLY our journals and the ability to publish in them? I’ll write next month about ESA’s annual budget and how revenues relate to the programs and services we offer. But for now I’ll just say that the Society includes ecologists working in many diverse settings and strives to extend our services to an even broader community of educators, practitioners, and communicators (in addition to researchers). I don’t foresee us shrinking our scope to become solely or primarily a publisher of journals.

Our challenge remains: How do we sustain our high-quality journals and the resources they provide to our members and our community, through and into the disruptive period of open access? Strengthened by our excellent publications staff, editors, and Publications Committee, as well as our partnership with Wiley, ESA will continue to review strategic options for our journals, our authors, and our readers.




Laura F. Huenneke