Scientific journals – new rules apply

Like everyone else, academic publishing has been affected by the internet. The proliferation of online publishing opportunities has meant that the academic community now has less reason to trudge through the rain to their local library in order to access the latest research and this has had a detrimental effect on library subscriptions. The Institute of Physics’ Tony O’Rourke looks at this and other challenges facing this sector.

By Tony O'Rourke

The scientific journals market is truly global. Scientific research takes place in virtually every country worldwide. 18-20,000 journals are published annually by approximately 2,000 publishers, the majority (70%+) of which are not-for-profit. Although figures vary, the journals market is worth between $4bn and $6bn worldwide and is dominated by a small number of commercial publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Taylor & Francis, etc) who publish more than one quarter of journals between them.

The role of the journal

The journal itself provides four important functions:

1. Certification – establishes the priorities for the science (the scope).
2. Evaluation – quality controlling the science through peer review.
3. Dissemination of the science.
4. Archive – ensuring that the scientific findings are recorded and preserved for future scientists.

Change is happening

There has been a not-so-quiet revolution going on in the world of academic journal publishing in the past few years! The traditional model of publishing, which has existed pretty much unchanged since Henry Oldenbourg, then secretary of the Royal Society, launched the first scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions in 1665, is rapidly being undone. After 300 years of comparative peace and tranquillity, operating as a society publisher has become a politically charged battlefield where the normal rules of publishing no longer apply.

The rules and players

The basic rules for the average society publisher go rather like this:

The author: A member of the society wants to communicate with other like-minded individuals and share research results and submits a paper to his/her society for publication.
The referee: To ensure that the submitted work is accurate and relevant, the work is sent to referees who will be asked to judge the quality of the work.
The publisher: Responsible for bringing the author and referee together to produce a printed article, bound in a journal to be circulated to the community, then widely distribute that journal to promote the science and aims of the society.
The library: Responsible for providing access to the journals required to support their users’ research.

But rules have always been made to be broken and society publishers now face a myriad of challenges that must be overcome if they are to continue to play a central role in scientific communication.

Challenges facing the society publisher

Thanks to the advent of the internet, scientists are discovering alternatives to traditional journals in order to communicate scientific findings. Search engines like Google Scholar and e-print archives (such as arXiv) have made it easier to locate research papers on the internet, so researchers no longer rely on their libraries to buy journals in order to read articles. In most cases, a version will be available somewhere on the internet; it’s just a question of a) finding it and b) making sure that it is as close as possible to the final published paper and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The response of the society publisher

For a society publisher to survive and prosper, they must follow some new rules:

1. Catch 22: the serials pricing crisis

When the scientist wants a journal, their library complains that they don’t have money to buy everything they need. For as long as libraries have been buying journals, library budgets have, in general, not kept pace with price increases, which leads to cancellations, which leads to publishers trying to maintain their income by introducing further price increases and more cancellations. Society publishers have to put in place imaginative alternative strategies to combat this catch 22 situation.

2. Investment in electronic publishing

Investment in providing a comprehensive, electronic publishing service (to include electronic paper submission, online peer review as well as the electronic and print dissemination of the journal) is vital to attract and retain authors and referees who expect the easiest possible publication.

It’s not enough for a publisher to simply send out the print copy and expect the scientist to go the library and read it. Scientists want the research on their desktop. Sadly, they may never enter a library as they can obtain all the information they need without leaving their offices! Society (as well as commercial) publishers invest time and money in offering their journals online, to attract authors and readers – their community.

Many society publishers do not have the scale to publish their own printed editions, let alone develop an online journals service. Publishers such as Blackwell Publishing, Elsevier Science as well as IOP offer publishing services for smaller societies, which includes the supply of print and an electronic journals service. Organisations such as Highwire Press, Ingenta and MetaPress and others exist primarily to offer "hosting" services for electronic journals. Larger society publishers, such as IOP, enjoy the economy of scale to be able to provide their own hosting service. Either way, making a journal available electronically comes at a price which you have to pay if you want to stay in the game!

3. Content is king

It’s not important to be the oldest, established or even the biggest journal in your field. The journal needs to be the one which will give the scientist the greatest chance of being seen by his / her peer group, one which is more likely to be read and cited. Recruitment decisions for scientific posts are often based on where the candidate has published their research. Society publishers have to strive to constantly improve quality thresholds, speed of publication as well as author service.

4. Falling yields, increasing visibility

Society publishers face the challenge of maintaining and increasing global visibility in an environment of decreasing library budgets. It is not surprising that, with ever reducing funds, libraries combine their purchasing power in order to save money. Most publishers have cautiously welcomed sales consortia licensing as a means of acquiring journals but also see it as a double-edged sword. It is a defensive sales strategy. A consortium agreement protects the level of publishers’ subscriptions against possible future cancellations. However, publishers tend to receive relatively small additional payments in order to provide access to more content to considerably more institutions previously not subscribing to the journals. As a result, the overall usage of the journal increases but the subscription yield (average price per subscription per institution) falls dramatically.

A traditional print journal may be considered successful with a circulation of less than 1,000 units. Indeed, it is not uncommon for society publishers to consider a circulation of less than 500 to be worthy. With electronic licensing this can increase three-fold or more, with rising infrastructure costs (servers, bandwidth, etc) without a comparable increase in income. To continue to grow, society publishers must develop alternative revenue streams in order to reduce the reliance on the traditional print subscription model.

5. Open access

One serious challenge / opportunity facing journal publishers, both learned society as well as commercial, is the concept of open access (OA) publishing. With OA, it is expected that every author will send a version of their paper to either a local institutional/subject repository (eg www.arxiv.org) or pay to publish in an open access journal (eg New Journal of Physics and BioMed Central journals). This makes the paper freely available to the world. Google Scholar and other search engines then identify all the possible different locations for the paper. Funding agencies and research councils in Europe and North America are already starting to put their collective weights behind policies which will encourage their researchers only to publish in OA journals and to deposit their articles on institutional or other freely accessible repositories.

IOP pioneered one model for OA publishing by launching the New Journal of Physics in 2000, together with the German Physical Society. NJP was one of the first truly OA journals – free at the point of use. The author pays a modest fee to have the paper published in the journal. This model is being used increasingly by other commercial and society publishers keen to experiment with OA and to offer the service to authors in their respective communities.

6. Costs of professional marketing

To remain competitive in the changing market place, the society publisher also needs to understand the market in which they operate. The days of "publish and they (subscribers) will come" are long gone. There is now a much larger cost of marketing (people and processes) than ever before, due to the requirement for more professional expertise. Sales professionals have to be appointed to represent their interests worldwide. Although several of the larger learned societies in the USA have run sales operations for some time, this is a relatively recent phenomenon in the rest of the world.

7. The society publisher / the commercial publisher

Journal publishers, regardless of their legal or charitable/commercial status want to do the same thing – to publish the best quality, peer-reviewed articles which are read and cited by their communities. Society publishers have the advantage of having relationships with their community which the commercial publishers may look upon with (possible) envy. More often than not, authors are members of the very society which publishes their scientific output and will remain members for their entire career. They may also be journal editors, referees, book series editors as well as represent their society at a scientific and regional level.


Although society publishers face some enormous challenges, it is certainly not all doom and gloom. There are still opportunities as long as the society publisher can embrace market change. The good news is that journals are used more than ever. Consortia and site licences present enormous opportunities for increased visibility and a better service for the author. As long as society publishers learn the new rules they will continue to survive and grow and play a vital role in the communication of scientific information. The journal is an important element in the life of the scientist. It will be a long, long time before the journal disappears.