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Advice for journal-publishing academic societies

August 2nd, 2015 | Posted by rmounce in Ecology | Open Access | Open Science | Publications

I read some sad news on Twitter recently. The Ecological Society of America has decided to publish its journals with Wiley:

Whilst I think the decision to move away from their old, unloved publishing platform is a good one. The move to publish their journals with Wiley is a strategically poor one. In this post I shall explain my reasoning and some of the widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of this change.

Society journals should not be a profit-driven business

The stated goals of The Ecological Society of America (ESA) are noble and I reproduce them here below to help you understand what the society in theory aims to do:

  • * promote ecological science by improving communication among ecologists;
  • * raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of ecological science;
  • * increase the resources available for the conduct of ecological science;
  • * ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communication between the ecological community and policy-makers


Reading those four bullet points, it strikes me that a society with this stated mission should be a vanguard of the open access movement. An efficient, well-implemented open access publishing system, supported (and thus empowered) by the ESA would positively address all four of those goals.

Do I need to explain how open access would improve communication among ecologists? It should be obvious to most. Some facts:

Universities around the world do not have access to all subscription journals, not even Harvard. Wiley’s big journal bundle of subscriptions is no exception to this rule. Brock University in Canada is one such notable example. ‘Ecology and Evolution’ is one of two “main themes” of Brock’s Biology Department yet it does not have access to the Wiley bundle of subscription journals.

Furthermore, as the above tweet demonstrates many ecologists are not based at universities. Not all uses or readership of ecology journals is by ecologists, it’s absolutely not sufficient to just provide access to ecologists (alone). It’s vital that policymakers and the public have access to the latest research, no embargoes. Want evidence that policymakers lack access to research? Look no further than this blog post from a recent intern at the UK Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST):

The level of access to journals was far lower than I had expected (it was actually shocking) – I ended up using my academic access throughout my placement.

Source: (2015-01-12)

If the ESA seriously wants to “ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communication between the ecological community and policy-makers” then making it easier for policymakers like those at POST to access research published in ESA journals would surely be a great way of doing that. How does the ESA expect to “raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of ecological science” if most of the science that they themselves publish in their own journals is behind an expensive paywall? $20 for 30 day access to one article? Admittedly that’s cheaper than many but it’s simply not supportive of ESA’s mission.

Does this help raise the awareness of ecological science?

Does this unnecessary paywall help raise the awareness of ecological science?


Lastly, with respect to increasing “resources available for the conduct of ecological science” the ESA urgently needs to consider the big picture here. Wiley, Springer Nature, Elsevier and other legacy publishers are a major drain on the financial resources available for research. With their big bundle deals they ransom/rent access to libraries for sums that can be up to many millions of dollars, every year, per institution. Money should instead be diverted into efficient, high-quality publishing systems like JMLR, Open Library of Humanities, PeerJ, Pensoft and Ubiquity Press to name but a few. All of these not only provide open access, but also high-quality publishing services at a significantly lower cost. Many provide added extras such as semantically-enhanced full-text XML which would make synthesis of ecological science easier. Wiley does not provide direct access to per article full-text XML even to its paying subscribers! They do half the job for thrice the price. Why would ESA want to help to sustain and enhance Wiley’s famous 42% profit margin? These legacy publishers are strategically merging, and acquiring journals in order to make it harder for libraries to cancel their dross-laden ‘big bundle’ subscription packages. It doesn’t seem like a logical decision to me or others.

Comparing this to other recent journal publishing changes

To put into context the ESA move to Wiley, let’s look at three other recent examples of academic societies changing publisher:

1.) Museum für Naturkunde Berlin journals (flipping to open access)

In 2014 all of their journals moved away from being published with Wiley. Their two zoological journals which have been around since before the ESA was even formed(!) transferred to open access publishing with Pensoft. Their Earth Science journal Fossil Record also moved away from Wiley, to open access publishing with Copernicus Publications. Guess what? The sky didn’t fall. I predict the articles in these journals will start being read, downloaded and cited more now that they are open access to everyone.

2.) Paleontology Society journals (switching to arguably a more benign, less profit-driven legacy publisher)

In 2015 PalSoc journals switched to be published with Cambridge University Press (CUP). I’m not super enthusiastic about CUP but if a society really wants to do legacy publishing, without worsening the stranglehold of the big publishing companies over libraries then CUP, or other university presses (Oxford, John Hopkins, Chicago) seem like safer custodians of academic intellectual property to me.

3.) American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (moving to Wiley)

To provide a fair comparison it’s important to look at what happens when a society journal joins Wiley. I know of one such case recently: ASLO journals. The transfer to Wiley was far from smooth or professional. In the few months that Wiley had the ASLO journals, they managed to ‘accidentally’ paywall thousands of articles that should have been available for free (as per ASLO’s wishes) and charged actual readers for reading these older should-be-free articles.  I paid $45.60 for access to one such ASLO article at Wiley – it should have been made available to all for free. Both Springer and Elsevier have also been caught doing this. The ESA currently makes some articles in its subscription journals ‘free to read’ to all, so I shall be closely monitoring the new Wiley-ESA journal websites when they launch, to see if they make the same conveniently profit-generating ‘mistakes’ again.

How did this happen? Who was consulted? Why was this choice made?

I for one was completely unaware that ESA were looking for a new publisher. I would have tried to help if I had known. I have many unanswered questions over the consultation process. For example, the ESA has an Open Science section and mailing list, its members are extremely knowledgeable about the academic publishing landscape and publishing technology.

Was the ESA membership in it’s entirety specifically and clearly asked which publisher they would like the ESA to publish with? Did they ask their membership what features they wanted from their new publishing platform? I would have requested a platform that provides access to semantically-enriched full text XML – Wiley does not provide this. Given a choice, and the vital context and information given above I think few ESA members, policymakers, or members of the public would choose Wiley as ESA’s new publisher.

I gather from Twitter that “any and all” were invited to submit a proposal to publish ESA journals and that Elsevier submitted a proposal. But having a lazy tendering process only biases decisions towards major conglomerates who have the time, energy and resources to make slick proposals – I wonder if smaller but high-quality publishing companies were pro-actively approached by ESA to submit a proposal? In the public interest, I think the ESA should publish the names of all organisations who submitted proposals to publish ESA journals – I think just that data alone might potentially reveal flaws in the tendering process. I’m finding it really hard to reconcile the goals of ESA and shareholder-profits motivation of Wiley. I genuinely think the leadership of ESA is out of touch with its membership and that they may not have been properly consulted about this major change to the society.

This is a long post, and I’ve said enough, so I’ll leave it to a professional scholarly communications expert (Kevin Smith, Duke University), to have the last word about Wiley, and the recent trend towards cancelling Wiley subscriptions:

I don’t know if Wiley is the worst offender amongst the large commercial publishers, or whether there is a real trend toward cancelling Wiley packages.  But I know the future of scholarship lies elsewhere than with these large legacy corporations.



But perhaps we can turn this negative into positive by creating resources and impartial educational guides for academic societies on how to negotiate better publishing deals, and how to start a tendering process with an eye towards the inevitable future of open access? If SPARC or SPARC Europe already provides these resources please do point me at them!