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Small - it may be beautiful, but is it viable?

Caxton's device

Publishing is undergoing a revolution comparable to the introduction of the printing press in the 15th Century. Melinda Kenneway* asks – will this new world need learned society publishers?

Geoscientist 18.3 March 2008

Perhaps you’re already accessing journals and e-book content online. You enjoy the searching, linking and alerting that the online experience offers – helping you explore your area of interest and keep up to date with new content immediately it's published. You are probably also making use of the increasing amount of historical content currently being digitised and made available online (like GSL's own Lyell Collection) – allowing easier communion with great minds of the past.

For professional practice, academic research, and of course teaching and learning – the Internet provides a platform for discovery that still feels nothing short of miraculous. But this is just the start. The Internet still has a lot of growing up to do. For the last 10 years or so, publishers have approached the Internet as a way of disseminating information that has been produced and sold as books and journals – a publishing model that has changed relatively little for centuries. Some of those models – such as peer-review for journals – are hardwired into our systems of author evaluation and reward - so changes may come more slowly. But come they will. Where will they leave learned society publishers?

Academic and technical journals and books began with learned societies, who originally published their members' discoveries in early journal forms generally known as ‘Proceedings’ or ‘Transactions’ – in effect, recording the ‘minutes of science’. These journals were sent to members for a modest fee, to cover costs; any profit was reinvested for the benefit of members. However it wasn’t too long before commercial publishers sprang up – taking advantage of a rapid increase in research output - and publishing both independently and in partnership with learned societies.

Today, STM (science, technology and medicine) publishing, as it is known, is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Many journals are owned and published by commercial publishers (estimates1 suggest in the region of 50-55%, 40% with just five large publishers). But learned societies and other not-for profit organisations like the university presses remain an influential force - owning the remaining 45-50% of titles. Not all learned societies have their own publishing house, as the Geological Society of London does. A significant number (c. 30% of learned society-owned journals; 17% of all available journals1) also have commercial partners, providing this service under contract.

Difference of scale

Until recently, commercial and non commercial publishers co-existed successfully, perhaps each bringing something of benefit to the other, and operating on a relatively level playing field in terms of competing for authors, readers and buyers. However, in recent years there has been a subtle tilt in the power balance in favour of large commercial publishers. New technology and changing markets are producing a new competitive environment, wherein benefits of scale increasingly accrue to larger concerns. Recent mergers and acquisitions have also led to the creation of ‘super-publishers’ – huge concerns with access to levels of resource of which small learned society publishers can only dream.

To give you an idea of the scale of this difference, a not-for-profit publisher publishes on average 2.32 journals1. The five largest commercial houses (Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis, Blackwell and Wiley – the last pair having recently merged) each publish on average 1154 journals! Small not-for-profit publishers cannot compete on the same terms for sales and marketing reach, nor investment in technology.

Does this matter? Does the world need learned society publishers? I believe passionately that it does. Learned societies have a fundamentally different mission. They are principally driven by quality and dissemination, not profit. They exist to serve the interests of their members and their discipline. They reinvest surpluses in the scientific community. By contrast commercial publishers serve their shareholders.

I don't mean to suggest that commercial competition isn’t a good thing – not-for-profit publishers and their customers benefit from the transfer of business skills typically associated with commercial organisations. However, if benefits of scale increasingly accrue towards large commercial organisations, with learned society publishers becoming less and less influential within scholarly communications, what might the knock-on effect be?

In 2002, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) undertook an informal consultation2 on the market for scientific, technical and medical (STM) journals. They concluded: “the market for STM journals may not be working well” and “many commercial journal prices appear high, at the expense of education and research institutions.” This report was followed (2004) by a Science and Technology Committee3 report. They concluded: “provision of STM journals in the UK is unsatisfactory’, pointing out that library budgets were struggling to keep up with rocketing subscriptions. In the same year, the European Commission investigated scientific publishing, stimulated by concern over eye-watering, inflation-busting subscription hikes of some 10% per annum over the past 10 years. A recent study1 found that the price-per-page for journals published by commercial organisations was on average five times higher than that of a not-for-profit publisher.

Academic research brings positive change to the world, and should be made as affordable as possible. The dissemination mission of societies clearly helps keep prices in check. Quality, too, is important. The same study1 also found that journals published by not-for-profit publishers attracted on average 1.6 times the number of citations per page achieved by commercially published journals.

I believe that a learned society publisher's peculiar mission is likely to grow in significance as publishing models change. The Geological Society of London has published the work of its community since 1811. Its Publishing House was founded in 1988 and has grown into a major international Earth science publisher, bringing out over 10,000 new, peer-reviewed pages every year. Its mission to serve scholarship and make geoscience knowledge useful in the world has resulted in several new initiatives, including the digitisation of the entire archive of journals and Special Publications within the Lyell Collection, made freely available to the developing world through collaboration with Schlumberger.

Learned societies take a holistic view of how publishing fits within the progress, exchange and application of knowledge as a whole. This, combined with a not-for-profit mission, serves science better in the long-term than short-term commercial interests.

The future

Several examples of innovation exist for learned society publishers to aim for, both from within and outside the industry. Outside we have the explosion in interactive technologies (generally grouped together under the banner of ‘web 2.0’) encompassing web-based communities (e.g. social networking sites), user –generated content (e.g. wikis) and other tools that facilitate communication and collaboration between users. How might these approaches be harnessed for the benefit of science and scientists? Perhaps publishing might becoming a more dynamic and integrated process within a web-based community environment provided by learned societies?

Such initiatives are already underway within the publishing industry, many led by societies. Take for example the recent announcement of a partnership between the American Medical Association (AMA) and Sermo (a website on which physicians can ask questions, share resources and locate colleagues with similar interests). The AMA aims to create a direct line of communication between the learned society and the community. They are also looking to stimulate more debate around the latest news and research by providing a ‘discuss on Sermo’ feature across their published content. The Royal Society of Chemistry is also pushing forward boundaries with their Project Prospect, which introduces semantics into chemical science publishing, creating a sophisticated environment for more effective searching, so adding value to individual articles.

So – will our brave new e-world need learned society publishers? Clearly,‘yes’. However, it is equally clear that learned societies need to find new and different ways to compete, by drawing on their unique strengths and connections with their communities, to create new and flexible interactive publishing models.

* Director TBI Communications,


  1. Morris S. October 2007. Mapping the journal publishing landscape: how much do we know? Learned Publishing, 20, 299-310
  2. The Market for Scientific, Technical and Medical Journals. A statement by the Office of Fair Trading, September 2002.
  3. Science and Technology Committee report on scientific publishing, July 2004. See report at: