Last Updated: 2004, July 24

Scholarly Societies Project

Scholarly Societies and their Relationships with Commercial Publishers

There is a natural tension between scholarly societies and commercial publishers. This tension results from the fact that the primary goal of scholarly societies is to promote research, whilst the primary goal of commercial publishers is, of course, a commercial one. In some circumstances, this tension is so low that collaboration between a scholarly society and a commercial publisher is possible. In other circumstances, this tension is so high that disputes result.

Collaboration with Commercial Publishers

Until recently, most scholarly societies published their journals themselves.

But in the 1970's and 1980's, a significant number of scholarly societies transferred their publications to commercial publishers. Indeed, there is a small book from that time period by Alan Singleton entitled Societies and Publishers: hints on collaboration in journal publishing (Primary Communications Research Centre, University of Leicester, U.K.: 1980) suggesting that societies would do well to make arrangements with commercial publishers. See also the letter by Adrian Alexander in Responses to "Journal Pricing Crisis as a Systemic Problem" [link to issue NS 15, 1991 December 12 of Newsletter on Serials Pricing Issues; see article NS15.7 in which Alexander quotes a representative of one of the big commercial publishers as saying that a third of their journals list consisted of society publications.]

Although such arrangements undoubtedly save collaborating societies some work, they inevitably result in increases in subscription costs, causing financial hardship to the subscribers. An interesting case is that of the Annals of the History of Computing, originally published by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS) beginning in 1979. In 1986, AFIPS arranged for a commercial publisher, Springer Verlag, to publish the journal.

In 1991, or slightly before, AFIPS ceased to exist, although its constituent societies continued. In 1992, one of them, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) took over from Springer Verlag responsibility for publishing the journal. The editor notes in v.14, no.1, 1992 that "With a revised subscription rate table, we hope that we can attract back a number of our previous readers, especially those from outside the U.S. who were unable to pay the rates of our prior manifestation."

The situation seems to be changing again. With the rapid emergence of the Internet as a vehicle for information dissemination, there are strong indications that scholarly societies will be making some (perhaps much) of their information directly available to users via the Internet.


Disputes with Commercial Publishers

Perhaps the most celebrated dispute between scholarly societies and a commercial publisher in recent years involved a series of unsuccessful lawsuits brought by the publisher Gordon and Breach against Henry Barschall, the American Institute of Physics (AIP), and the American Physical Society (APS) over articles that Barschall wrote in Physics Today and in the Bulletin of the American Physical Society. The articles and letters to the editor are listed below.

In these articles, Barschall compared physics journals for cost-effectiveness, which he defined to mean the cost per printed character divided by the frequency with which articles are cited. Some time after the articles appeared, lawsuits in Switzerland, Germany and France were brought against Barschall, AIP, and APS by Gordon and Breach Science Publishers (whose journals ranked on the bottom). This was followed by a US lawsuit. All these lawsuits have been dismissed.

It also appears that Gordon & Breach threatened the American Mathematical Society (AMS) with lawsuits for publishing a survey of costs for mathematics research journals. According to an article by William Jaco (executive Director of AMS) on pp. 2 and 18 of Notices of the American Mathematical Society, v.37, no.1 (Jan. 1990), the first such survey was published November 1983 in the Notices. It compiled cost data for mathematical research journals. AMS was then contacted by Gordon & Breach and threatened with a libel suit. As a result, AMS excluded G&B titles in the second survey, published March 1986 in the Notices. In the third survey, published November 1989 in the Notices, AMS included G&B titles, and G&B demanded a retraction. Again G&B appear to have threatened a lawsuit, but it is not clear that whether court action was ever taken.

The news articles below give brief information on these disputes.



Jim Parrott
The Editor
Scholarly Societies Project
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last modified: 2009, December 27

NEWS/EDITORIAL 2009, December 27
Fifteen Years of the Scholarly Societies Project

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