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So why do society journals matter?

Where journals came from

The first scholarly publishers were learned societies. The origins of what we would consider to be an academic journal can be dated back to the mid-17th century when Henry Oldenburg, the first Secretary of the fledgling Royal Society, launched Philosophical Transactions in 1665. Before that, scholars communicated in person (if they were sufficiently nearby) or by correspondence. Oldenburg was one of the key players in this ‘republic of letters’ and he soon considered that there might be a more efficient way of organizing things and keeping the early scholars apprised of each others’ theorizing and discoveries. Thus, the world’s first science journal was born.

Oldenburg may have been the first person to make money from publishing a scientific journal – but his journal was also, for almost three centuries, the last. For the learned societies and national academies that sponsored the early journals, scholarly communication was a mission activity. It disseminated research findings and fostered the spread of knowledge. For instance, the royal patrons of European academies funded the publication of their research papers; while the Royal Society (with a different relationship to royalty) regularly devoted a substantial proportion of its annual income – from membership dues and investments – to support its publishing activities right through until the early 20th-century. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Royal Society sought to make its publishing activities cover their costs. But that's not to say that the previous 300 years had been a commercial failure. There had never been the intention to make journals commercial: they were just one of the many things the Society did - at its own expense - to further its mission. The same is true of many other learned societies around the world.

But isn’t a learned society old hat?

Learned societies are organizations of scholars which exist to support and promote their disciplinary communities. Some are large, international and cover a wide range of disciplines, but most are small and serve a specific group of researchers. The learned society of the past was an exclusive club that supported conversation, communication and networking between scholars. Money often flowed from members and benefactors (who were, most often, wealthy men) into the society.

While continuing to be a type of connective tissue for researchers, learned societies today also undertake, organize and support a range of additional activities as part of their missions. The activities of learned societies have broadened out to include organizing conferences, training and public-outreach events; funding travel for early career researchers; publishing reports, educational resources and guidelines; policy and advocacy work; awards; grant funding and providing expert advice to policymakers and educators. Today’s learned societies are setting the pace for equality and diversity in the academic world, providing career support at all stages. Societies fund or subsidize a range of benefits for their members, and provide tools and resources not just for their members but also the wider community.

Given that they are run by and for scholars, learned societies are, in fact, synonymous with groups of scholars and scholarly networks. In delivering activities, resources and opportunities for the communities they serve, and sometimes also for anyone who is interested in engaging with their discipline, learned societies enable groups of scholars to be more than the sum of their parts and to have real-world impact.

Societies today are also working in more inclusive and cross-disciplinary settings than before. For instance, in 2019, for the first time in its 108-year history, the Biochemical Society is funding a series of unique art and science exchange workshops1 to instigate the development of collaborative projects bridging the arts and molecular biosciences.

With such broadening of activities, audiences and reach comes the need for higher levels of funding – a need that has been met, for many societies by their publishing programmes in the last five or so decades. The STM 2018 report estimates there to be approximately 5,000 learned societies globally. For those societies that have a journal or book publishing programme (and in the UK that is reported to be well over half of the UK-based societies in existence2), their income – and hence their ability to carry out an entire spectrum of society activities – is today often heavily dependent on the surplus from publishing.

As one example, some 40 members of the Society Publishers’ Coalition (SocPC)3 own and publish >230 journals. About two-thirds of them report over 40% of their income as being driven by their publishing programmes (about a third of which are self-published by the societies themselves)4.

Trying new things

As well as establishing journals, learned societies and community publishers have been at the forefront of innovation in scholarly communication. The Royal Society’s journals were the first to introduce an ORCID iD requirement for authors5 and many society journals are introducing open peer review678. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was originally an initiative of the American Society for Cell Biology.

Many society journals are actively engaged with open scholarship and transparency. Learned societies have launched or flipped over 1,000 open access journals9 and some societies are looking at models to enable full open access without charging authors. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Gold for Gold experiment (that ran to the end of 2016), and the Institute of Physics’ past collaborations with SCOAP3 and CERN are good examples of learned societies’ willingness to experiment and trial new models.

A subset of self-publishing members within the SocPC with varying levels of experience of read-and-publish offerings are today exploring frameworks for transformative agreements that rewire subscription spend towards open access publishing. Such offerings have most often tended to be large deals agreed with consortia at national or regional levels. Going a step further, the Biochemical Society and Microbiology Society are also trialling variants of a new ‘transformative renewal’ model. This approach will offer 100s of individual subscribers the chance to flip to open access all 2020 articles from affiliated corresponding authors without the need for article publishing charges10.

Society journals, therefore, support an ecosystem that is rooted in community. They serve the dual purpose of being high-quality venues for publication of research and commentary, while at the same time supporting the charitable and mission-driven activities of their societies. Society journals also boost innovation and transformation in scholarly communications, and it is not surprising that these journals, existing to support their research communities in more ways than one, rank among the most trusted and well-respected in the world.

1 Four Art–Science Exchange workshops are planned, and here is a link to the first one held in August 2019.

2 Johnson and Fosci reported in 2015 that of ~550 societies registered in the UK over 275 published peer-reviewed publications; more here.

3 The Society Publishers’ Coalition (SocPC) is a group of likeminded, not-for-profit learned societies, community publishers and membership charities who publish as part of their charitable objectives, find out more about us.

4 Internal survey of SocPC membership; the survey also highlights that publishing income drives >70% of income for about a third of the SocPC members.

7 Open peer review at Company of Biologists,

8 Open peer review at The Royal Society

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Oct 14, 2019

I think the French would lay claims to the first ever learned journal by a few weeks. Journal des Sçavansçavans

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