Who owns your favourite journal?

May 25, 2017

This is an important question, and one that is all too easy to overlook. No doubt the editorial board of Lingua assumed that they owned and controlled their journal, right up to the moment they decided to find a different publisher who would help them transition to reasonably priced open access. Only then did Elsevier flex their muscles and tell them “no”. Which is why the board left the journal en masse and started a new journal, Glossa, which is the continuation of the old one in everything but name.

An editorial board can influence a journal’s direction; but really, the board, or other representatives of the scholarly community, need to own a journal in order to be free to take it in the direction that best benefits that community.

This is the reason that I can’t quite be completely satisfied by what is unquestionably my favourite journal, PeerJ: it’s privately owned by its two founders, one personal investor and one corporate investor. Everything they have done so far indicates that they are genuinely running the journal in the best interests of the scholarly community: but what happens if Elsevier decides that PeerJ is a threat, and offers the founders $20M each to sell up? We can’t really tell.

This is one area where the older and more pedestrian PLOS ONE still scores over PeerJ, despite its antiquated numbered references and inflated APC: it’s owned by PLOS, which states on its very front page that “PLOS is a nonprofit publisher, innovator and advocacy organization.” The footer of every page on their site says “PLOS is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, #C2354500, and is based in San Francisco, California, US”.

(In the US, all 501(c)(3) entities — or charities, as we call them in Britain — must disclose their tax-exemption applications on demand, and the IRS can provide copies directly. Though PLOS could get some bonus openness points by putting the relevant documents right there on the site.)

As a palaeontologist, even though I no longer submit to non-open-access journals, I am concerned about ownership of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology and of Palaeontology. I know these journals were started by, and are run by, their Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Palaeontological Association respectively — but do these organisations own the journals, or do their publishers (Taylor & Francis and Wiley respectively)? It may turn out that it never matters — but it may turn out that it matters enormously. That’s the point, really: we can’t tell.

That’s why a whole section of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure — a third of the substance of that document — is dedicated to governance. It’s crucial for real, reliable and sustainable open access. Which leads me to …

Fair OA Principle 1. The journal has a transparent ownership structure, and is controlled by and responsive to the scholarly community.

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5 Responses to “Who owns your favourite journal?”

  1. Paul Barrett Says:

    Societies that collaborate with a commercial publisher usually do so following drafting of a contract that covers many of these ownership issues. For example, those journals that I have been most involved with clearly state that editorial control of content is controlled solely by the editorial board (appointed by the Society) and that the name of the journal remains with the Society – most contracts have clauses that allow the Society to retain the name etc. if they then decide to switch publishers. Palaeontology, for example, has switched from being self-published to CUP to Wiley, while the Pal. Ass. has retained full editorial control and the name. JVP is in a similar position with respect to T&F, as far as I remember – if the Society terminates the contract the name can be transferred as it belongs to the Society, not the publisher, who are effectively leasing the name from the Society. In most cases of Societies transferring from self-publication to a commercial publisher this was for the good reason of enabling the journal to survive. Printing, distribution and marketing costs are substantial (they really are – I’ve seen the budgets and countersigned the cheques) and are not always recoverable through society membership revenues (I know of balance sheets for journals that are propped up by Society investments rather than journal subscriptions). In cases like Palaeontology and JVP, the commercial publisher undertakes financial management, printing, distribution and marketing, while leaving the Society to worry about the science. I don’t know what happened in the example that’s caused you concern, but would suggest it might have been down to the original contractual negotiation in terms of what the Society decided to give away when it partnered with the publisher.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Paul, very helpful and reassuring regarding those two important journals.


  3. No joke, when I first skimmed through this, I mistakenly read “Lingua” as “Lethaia”, and I was like, “Wait, isn’t Lethaia owned by Wiley-Blackwell?”


  4. “Societies that collaborate with a commercial publisher usually do so following drafting of a contract that covers many of these ownership issues” Hmmm now I am wondering about the societies I am in too. I get the feeling the publishers are at a distinct advantage compared to small societies who can’t afford (or don’t know they should) afford lawyers etc to handle negotiations.

    As an aside Mike; has your view on the antiquated numbered references at PLOS changed at all since the newer system (the in text roll over that brings up the citation rather then takes you to the reference) came in? I can’t say I’d ever thought too much about it previously…I suspect it will annoy me now every time I read a paper with numbered references.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Happily for us in vertebrate palaeontology, the SVP is a mature and good-sized organisation with plenty of experience, and I am pretty confident that the will have done a good job in negotiation in a way that fulfils their goals well. (Whether those goals are what they should be is of course another matter — until JVP is open access, I can’t ever be fully onside with it, and I no longer submit there.)

    But you are right that smaller societies will be more vulnerable.

    PLOS’s rollover citations certainly make the numbered references less painful to deal with than they were before. But (A) they are still objectively inferior; (B) the rollovers are no use at all when you print a paper out; and (C) it’s 2017, we should have the choice at render-time what format we want the semantically marked up paper to appear in.


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