The Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) is a not-for-profit learned society composed of 35,000 members from across the globe. It describes itself as ‘a charitable organization supporting research and education in molecular life sciences through its journals, fellowships, courses, congress and other activities’. Indeed, in 2017 FEBS awarded €1,375,486 in bursaries, travel grants and fellowships to its members (source). As a charitable organisation, it is understandably keen to avoid any perceived threats to its annual income, hence this article concerning Plan S. The authors write:

If Plan S was fully implemented this would have a dramatic effect upon the annual revenue income stream of FEBS. For instance, if we could maintain the current levels of papers published for each of our journals and charge the current article processing charge (APC) for each journal, then the annual income would likely be reduced to less than half, which would consequently cover less than half the current annual expenditure on our activities. Many of our current activities would need to be dramatically curtailed or even axed.

Despite the fact that FEBS publishes two APC-based open access journals, it also publishes two hybrid/subscription journals (with APCs of $3000 and $3800), all in partnership with Wiley. The FEBS editors claim that forcing these two journals to adopt an APC-only model would reduce annual income to ‘less than half’. Plan S, they argue, represents something of an existential threat to FEBS and its activities.

As a charity registered in the UK, FEBS is required to release its annual accounts into the public domain. From this document we can see that FEBS’ net income in 2017 was €6,269,136 — up from €5,234,426 in 2016 — and they have an overall balance of €62,241,920. The accounts also show that 94% of their ‘royalty income’ from journal publishing comes from the two flagship subscription journals (p. 11). If I had more time or inclination, I would look into the numbers in a bit more detail. A few assumptions need to be made to understand exactly how much money FEBS makes from publishing, how much they stand to lose from the move to APCs, and what Wiley gets out of the deal.

But that’s part of the point of this post: even with the numbers provided, it is still unclear why FEBS stands to lose half its annual income in the move to $3000 APCs (which aren’t exactly cheap). The terms of the agreement are completely opaque, no doubt in part due to non-disclosure agreements signed by both parties. The shortfall between APCs and subscriptions is likely down to Wiley setting APCs as ‘low’ as possible, while still preserving their sizeable profit margin, by cutting what they see as extraneous expenditure. When subscriptions dry up due to Plan S, this will mean less money for learned societies. You can see why the FEBS editors are worried.

None of this analysis is particularly new. Learned societies have been worried about the loss of subscription income for years. Nor am I claiming that FEBS (and their sizeable cash reserves) are representative of learned societies more generally. Instead, I am interested in the way the FEBS editors distance themselves from for-profit publishing, while simultaneously relying on it for its survival. For example, the editors claim that gold open access is ‘excellent news to the for-profit OA publishers’, as if they themselves are not just as dependent on the profits of journal publishing for their activities (even though many of these activities are charitable). If it were excellent news for Wiley, surely it would be excellent news for those societies who share Wiley’s revenue?

The FEBS/Wiley case represents the beginning of the end of the unholy alliance between large subscription publishers and not-for-profit learned societies. Previously, while subscription publishing was the norm and the Big Deal was the only game in town, learned societies were used to receiving large sums from their publishers, presumably as a way of keeping the research community on side. Now that Plan S looks likely to threaten this, I would expect to see publishers such as Wiley and Elsevier using funder mandates as an excuse to return increasingly less money to learned societies. But rather than blaming commercial publishers for this, learned societies instead point their fingers at the push for open access.

Open access was never about public access to research at all costs. Much of the OA movement was motivated in opposition to the practices of publishers who charge increasingly unsustainable amounts to libraries in the form of journal subscriptions. Although many learned societies benefitted massively from subscription publishing, this was only because commercial publishers were benefitting much more. Now that Plan S intends to change this, learned societies are rightly worried about their long-term survival. Commercial publishers still maintain their profit margins through expensive and exclusionary article-processing charges, but they cut learned societies out of the loop in the process. This is one messy consequence of funding charitable and scholarly activities through the unsustainable profits of academic publishers.

Hopefully Plan S will lead to more discussions (like this forthcoming report from Information Power) on how to sustain learned society activities through funding sources other than stretched library budgets. With cash reserves of €62 million, I assume FEBS will be OK for the time being.

[note: the stock image doesn’t really relate to the post. I had originally intended to display a handshake representing an alliance, but this popped up in the search results and I thought it was funny.]