Why Should Societies Embrace Open Access? An Editor's Perspective

October 24, 2017 Patricia Soranno

When I was asked to apply for the position of editor-in-chief of a new journal that my society was launching, my first thought was “Do we really need another journal?” The short answer is, perhaps surprisingly, YES. And that is because of the symbiotic relationship between open access journals and professional societies. The longer answer is as follows.

Why open access?


Let’s first consider the broader issue of open science--making the products of science accessible to all including data, code, and publications; and using transparent and reproducible methods. Open science is not a disruptor to the traditional way of doing science. Rather, the characteristics of ‘openness’ exist along a gradient that have evolved through the centuries as the practices and culture of science have grown and matured. Will science ever go back to individual scientists exchanging encoded letters back and forth between a few select individuals? Probably not. And, I wonder whether 100 years from now, scientists will look back on the early decades of this century as a time of rapid change related to ‘openness’ in science, or if it just feels that way because we have a tendency to inflate our experiences of the present.

Open access publishing is one component of open science that is currently well-established, although it still only makes up a small fraction of total publication output. However, it is an extremely valuable fraction. For example, key issues have emerged in recent years for which open-access publications are seen as part of the solution. These include funding agencies requiring public access to articles from publicly-funded research projects, an increase in inclusive practices that promote participation of under-represented scientists or countries by providing access to published works, and the recognition that science proceeds more quickly if publications are shared immediately, such as during public-health emergencies. Because these issues may reflect a shift in the underlying values of the scientific community, it makes sense that practices will continue to evolve to better align with these changing values. Societies and society journals are uniquely placed in the research community to not only recognize and embrace changing community needs, but also to help set the direction for change. Open Access journals also represent an opportunity for societies to help ensure their own financial sustainability for the future while supporting their mission to facilitate and disseminate research in their disciplines.

Symbiotic relationships between open access journals and societies

Most scholarly societies continue to publish traditional subscription-based journals. These journals are often very well-respected and an important part of the benefits that members get from their societies. The need for, and the value of, such journals are unquestionable. So rather than compare traditional journals to open access journals, weighing the relative merits of each, open access journals should be considered an addition to a society’s journal portfolio to meet the evolving needs of its members in two important areas. The first is to accommodate the emerging open science practices described above, which are easily met with fully open access journals. The second need relates to current journal offerings within a discipline and gaps in disciplinary content, article format, or similar.

Journals associated with societies are also much better positioned to serve the current and changing needs of their member communities because they can be designed with the needs of the community as the driving force in the journal format, policies and procedures. In fact, launching a new journal is potentially a very effective strategy for societies to meet emerging needs of the community that are not currently being met by existing journals. Making new journals open access also recognizes that science is likely to continue along a trajectory of increasingly open practices. Open access journals position professional societies well in this evolving landscape.

My experience editing a new open access society journal

L&O Letters, the new open access society journal that I helped to launch, filled a gap in existing journals in our discipline (i.e., a short-format letters-style journal focused on the aquatic sciences), while also meeting many open science goals related to access to publications and data. In practice, the partnership between the society and the publisher (Wiley) has provided me incredible support and expertise in publishing itself, as well as new author-centric approaches to publishing that I was interested in incorporating (such as relaxing formatting requirements, particularly at initial submission), and other trends in publishing that I was not previously aware of.

One concern that I had in launching a new journal was that we may not get many submissions from early career researchers because new journals do not have journal impact factors for at least 3 years post-launch.. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to see quite a large proportion of submissions come from lead authors who are early in their careers. Perhaps this new generation of scholars is less attached to journal impact factors than my generation and may be looking for different factors in deciding where to submit. In my opinion, this is yet another piece of evidence in support of open access, and I think both journals and scholarly societies should be engaging with these earlier career scientists to continue to adapt to emerging practices and cultures in science that they are shaping.

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