PLOS, open access and scientific societies

Several people have noted that, in my previous post dealing with PLOS’s business, I didn’t address a point that came up in a number of threads regarding the relative virtues of PLOS and scientific societies – the basic point being that people should publish in society journals because they do good things with the money (run meetings, support fellowships and grants) and that PLOS is to be shunned because it “doesn’t give back to the community”.


I agree that many societies do good things to build and support their communities. But sponsoring meeting and fellowships is not the only way to give back to the community. PLOS was founded to make science publishing work better for scientists and the public, and we are singularly devoted to that goal. This means publishing open access journals that succeed as journals. This means demonstrating to a skeptical publishing and funding community that it’s possible to run a successful and stable business that published exclusively open access journals. This means working to change the way peer review works and the ways scientists are assessed. This means lobbying to promote laws and policies that increase access to the scientific literature.

Because of PLOS and other open access pioneers, around 20% of new papers are immediately available for people around the world to access without paywalls. PLOS’s success as a publisher has served as a model for other publishers and journals to adopt open access. PLOS’s promotion of open access and our lobbying helped make funder “public access” policies that make millions of papers freely available a reality. And PLOS is now working to promote instant publication, open peer review and other publishing changes that not only will make science more open, but get science out more quickly and make the ways we evaluate papers and each other more effective. This is what we give back to science. People are, of course, free not to value these things, to question whether PLOS’s role in these things was significant, or that we’ve achieved our goals and are no longer essential. But it’s ridiculous to say that PLOS doesn’t give back to the community just because we don’t sponsor meetings.

Now none of this should be construed as my saying people shouldn’t publish in society journals, provided they are open access of course. One of the reasons we started PLOS was because, back in the late 1990’s, most scientific societies rejected the idea that they could take advantage of the Internet’s power to make their work more widely available by using a different business model. We felt they were wrong, and one of PLOS’s main goals has always been to demonstrate that an open access business model could work for them – and I’m thrilled that in many cases this has work – see open access society journals like G3 and mBio, journals that I wholeheartedly and unambiguously support.

However, a lot of society journals – most – are not open access. And no matter how many meetings and fellowships the revenue from paywalled journals support, they are not worth it – I’ve yet to see a society whose good works were so good that they outweighed the harm of paywalling the scientific literature – using meetings as an excuse to paywall the scientific literature is completely unacceptable.

The reliance of so many societies on journal revenues has often made it hard to distinguish them from commercial publishers in their public stance on important issues in science publishing. You would think that, on first principles, scientific societies would support improving access to the scientific literature. Indeed several societies recognized this early on and pioneered open access and other open publishing business models before PLOS came along. However they are the exception. The most powerful societies have for decades not only been trading meetings for access to the literature, they have been using the profits they get from their journals to openly fight open access. Opposition from scientific societies was one of the major reasons for the scuttling of Harold Varmus’s 1999 eBioMed proposal, which would have created an NIH managed pre-print server with a full system of post-publication peer review. And for years major scientific societies were THE loudest voices on Capitol Hill arguing AGAINST the NIH public access policy and other moves for better access to the scientific literature.

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I also have long wondered whether it’s good for societies in a more general sense when they are reliant on publishing revenues for their funding. Societies are supposed to be organizations that represent their members, and yet the concept of being a member of a society has been weakened by the fact that few people actively choose to become a member of a society to support their activities and have a voice in their policies. Rather people become society members because it gets them access to journals and/or discounts to meetings. I love the Genetics Society of America, but they and many other societies do this weird thing where, if you go to one of their meetings, the cost of attending the meeting as a non-member is greater than the cost of attending as a member plus the cost of membership, so of course everyone “joins” the society. But this kind of membership is weak. And I wonder whether people wouldn’t feel more engaged in their societies, and if societies wouldn’t be more responsive to their members, if they became true membership organizations once again.

Finally, I want to return to the issue of finances. One of the threads in Andy Kern’s series of Tweets about PLOS finances that triggered this series of posts was his surprise that PLOS had margins of ~20% and had ~$25m in assets. In response I encouraged him to look at the finances of scientific societies. I think it’s good that Andy has triggered a conversation about PLOS’s finances – most people are unaware of how the publishing business works – something that’s important if we’re going to change it for the better. And similarly I think it would be great to learn more about the finances of the scientific societies that people support – most of whom not only file required Form 990s, but also offer more detailed financial reports. Some of the stuff you find is disturbing (like the fact that the American Chemical Society, long one of the fiercest opponents of open access, is sitting on $1.5b in assets) but most of it is just enlightening. I’ve compiled a list of Form 990s from the member societies of FASEB, and will be adding more information in the coming days.


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