The future of scholarly journals publishing among social science and humanities associations

Social issues Academic publishing Open access Humanities Arts and Social Science (HASS) North America

This report set out to build and test some tools and methods to help address the lack of business information on scholarly journal publishing at a pivotal time when financial models are changing.


Executive summary

1. Within US based humanities and social science (HSS) societies and associations there is concern at the lack of current, comparable information on the similarities (and dissimilarities) between scientific, technical and medical (STM) and HSS journals at a time when STM journals are increasingly heading towards an Open Access business model. There is a lack of availability of benchmarks on publishing performance in HSS and a shortage of best practice guidelines for journal publishing within scholarly humanities and social science organizations large and small.

2. This initial “Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations” study involved collaboration by 8 leading US-based associations, and set out to build and test some tools and methods to help address the lack of business information on scholarly journal publishing at a pivotal time when financial models are changing.

3. The journals selected for this initial study cover a broad range of subject disciplines with “humanities” represented by modern languages, history and religion and “social sciences” by economics, sociology, anthropology, politics and statistics. Clearly this is not a homogenous group of scholarly journals. Information about the 8 journals is included within Section 1 and Section 2 of the report.

4. The journals included in this study were also different from most STM journals in a number of fundamental ways. Where appropriate, comparisons are made between this group of 8 HSS journals and the 13 STM journals included in the JISC1 (2005) report which used a similar method of analysis2.

5. Section 2 describes in some detail the methodology for developing the journal data inputs to the templates (see: Appendix 1 and Appendix 2) that are tools used for the business analysis. Information was collected for 3 complete years 2005-2007.

6. Circulation patterns over the 3 years are reviewed in Section 2. Member circulation is relatively flat overall. Total institutional subscription numbers reported increased by 1.8% with a fall in print subscription numbers more than compensated for by an increase in online, and print with online.

7. Journal costs analyzed on a per journal, and per page basis are summarized and indicate wide differences in the cost base for the group of journals in this study. Cost per page published in 2007 ranged from $184 to $825 (aver: $526). When the variable costs of print are removed these costs fall to a range from $90 to $652 (aver: $360).

8. Total costs increased by 6% ($370,000) over the 3 years under review. Print manufacturing and production costs fell slightly despite a small increase in the number of journal pages published (+5.4%) and a 1% increase in print circulation.

9. Despite these small cost increases the revenue increased as did the net margin per page because the average publishing cost/page remained remarkably stable.

10. The total number of articles published also seems stable for this group of journals.

11. Journal revenues are reviewed in Section 2 of the report and increased by $800,000 (+10%) the bulk of this increase coming from institutions. 12. Institutional subscription revenues including site licenses and consortia revenues provided 58% of total revenues and 72% of subscription revenue in 2007.

13. Total revenue from institutional subscribers increased by 12% in this period with the greatest increase from the bundled print and online subscription category. The drop in revenue from print only institutional subscriptions is noticeable. During the period, three publishers started to offer online only as an option to institutions and one additional association noted that they had started this option in 2008; pricing models and product offerings to institutions are clearly shifting.

14. Revenue from Member dues was allocated to 5 of the journals and accounted for 28% of the total subscription revenue received for these 5 journals. Three journals did not allocate Member dues to the journal. Member copies were over 85% of the total number of subscription copies fulfilled in 2007.

15. Revenue per institutional subscriber across all versions of 7 of the journals in 2007 was $225 and per Member $11.

16. Overall business performance of the journals within the section of the report on Surplus or deficit shows the surplus steadily increasing during the period as costs held steady and revenues grew.

17. The 8 journals are managed and used by the associations in quite different ways, at one end to generate income for association activities and at another as a community building tool for Members. Differences in business philosophy drive financial performance at the individual journal level.

18. Any exploration of an alternative business model for HSS journals which may permit broader access to the scholarly content must presume that model is, or will become, financially sustainable so that the association and the journal continue to thrive.

19. The Discussions and conclusions section of this report articulates the finding that a shift to an entirely new funding model in the pure form of Open Access (author/producer pays) in which the costs of publishing research articles in journals are paid for by authors or a funding agency, and readers have access free online, is not currently a sustainable option for any of this group of journals based on the costs provided. The sources of external funding required for such a model are also not clear and may not be available even as broadly as in STM disciplines.

20. There is only a small amount of primary data and information available about the publishing economics of journals within the humanities and social sciences, and with the exception of this report, much of it seems out of date.

21. Publishing costs are affected by a range of factors particular to a journal within a discipline such as submission and acceptance ratios, and amount of editorial work.

22. An assessment of non-cash costs was not within the scope of this study but at the workshop in December 2008 there was discussion among participants of the numerous in-kind contributions made by universities and by faculty to support the scholarly journals infrastructure and operations.

23. Institutional sales subsidize association Member copies. The publishers in this study felt quite strongly that a printed copy was an essential regular physical reminder to Members of the value and community of association membership.

24. Revenues from the print version deliver a considerable proportion of the surplus generated by the journals included in this study and a speculative assessment is made of the impact of removing print revenues and costs from the group of journals. The result would be a fall in net surplus.

25. For many of these publishers, online pricing does not yet reflect the broader usage and utility of the online version rather it is based on the original print version and so is undervalued.

26.Even this study which was focused on a small and committed group of associations ran into issues of the political and administrative will to provide all the data requested. In any future work it will be essential to require at the outset not only an explicit commitment to provide specific types of data by individual societies and associations but also their publishing partners.

27. All of the information requested is proprietary and was treated in utter confidence even within the context of meetings and exchanges between active members of the participating publishers. Such an approach is essential and of course leads to data quoted in the report that is built on ‘average’ and ‘mean’ numbers which often do not reflect the true differences and trends hidden within the primary data.

28. The section of the report that covers “Questions requiring fuller answers” includes a brief discussion of core issues that the results of this study have been unable to address adequately. Topics here include the differences between STM and HSS journals and which Open Access model(s) are sustainable for HSS publishers. At the heart of this section is the basic question– “Are the costs, revenues, and surplus from this broad group of 8 association journals typical?”

29. The needs for a Full Research Project are evident from the results of this study which deliberately focused in some depth on just 8 journals from associations in 8 distinctly different disciplines. The topics identified for further investigation through a multi-title and multi-publisher study of small, medium and large associations and societies include: • How are Humanities and Social Science journals different from each other and from STM journals? • Is the ‘gold’ Open Access model sustainable for a sub-set of existing HSS publishers? • Where would the money come from to support ‘gold’ OA in HSS journals? • Are other ‘non-gold’ Open Access models sustainable for HSS publishers and if so which and how? • If HSS articles are posted to OA repositories (‘green’ OA) how long should the embargo period be? • Are results from Open Access experiments helpful in the understanding of society and association publishers of HSS journals? • The use of case studies to articulate the particular aspects of the journal(s) within the context of the society or association and encourage study participation. • Are the costs, revenues and surplus from this broad group of 8 HSS association journals typical? Such a study should enable some meaningful segmentation and modeling by discipline and by features of the association or society publisher and the journal.

30. Gaining the trust of the society and association publishers involved and ensuring participation of a sufficiently wide sample to provide a broadly representative picture across types of publisher and journal as defined by the sampling framework will be a key success factors.

31. There is no universal answer to the issues faced in funding publication of the research literature but alternatives need to be explored collaboratively and based on sound information. Solutions are likely to emerge on a case by case, discipline by discipline and market by market basis.

Related article

American Historical Association article about this report, 1 September 2009

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