27 September 2017

Scientific societies need to compete on services

There’s an editorial in the journal mBio asking members to publish in society journals.

The editorial contain some nice data outlining the changes in the publishing scene. But the argument the editorial advances sound like special pleading.

Just as the prefixes “Nature” and “Cell” seem to bring gravitas to many journal titles for some scientists and represent implied signals for authors and readers about the quality of the papers that they publish, journals published by professional scientific societies should carry the same authority. After all, they have a long tradition of authoritative leadership and management and are edited by some of the most accomplished scientists in their fields. Professional societies provide legitimacy to the journals they publish. When an author submits a paper to a scientific society journal, or when someone reads a paper published in a scientific society journal, they can be assured that the journal is legitimate and has a decades-long track record of quality.

This paragraph may be right that journals from societies “should” have authority. But you cannot assert authority or credibility. Credibility is determined by what other people say or do. The editors should be asking themselves the hard question of why they lost that credibility.

For instance, my reaction is similar to one I had for Evolution Letters. Let’s do a price check. It costs at least twice as much publish in the society journal mBio ($2,250-$3,000) as PeerJ ($1,095). It’s not clear to me what that I get shelling out all that extra cash.

The editorial tries to claim societies offer superior editorial services.

Scientific society journals are managed and edited by scientists actively working in the fields covered by the journals. ... Although there are certain challenges in using academic editors (12), they bring the experience, expertise, and authority that enables professional societies to refine their missions and set the standards of their fields as they evolve.

This one is tough, because all I can say is that I have published with many journals, and I have not seen consistent differences in the editorial services between those run by scientific societies and those that are not. A Twitter poll suggests society journals may have a very slight edge.

The editorial ends with a very generic one that publishing in a society journal “helps the society.” That may be, but people will only stick with sub-par services out of sentiment for so long.

Society journals are carriage makers that see the Model Ts on the road. And they don’t know how to adapt. Their only argument is, “But the horse is a noble animal. You like horses, right?” If scientific societies don’t figure this out quickly, they will be relegated to a tiny little niche in the academic publishing industry.

Related posts

The problem is scientists, not publishers


Schloss PD, Johnston M, Casadevall A. 2017. Support science by publishing in scientific society journals. mBio 8(5): e01633-17. https://doi.org/10.1128/mBio.01633-17

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