Lobbying and disciplinary infighting – learned societies of old

Learned societies and professional organisations have some very interesting histories written up on their websites – and sometimes these can be quite insightful (as well as providing me with something to chuckle at).

Tonight I have been reading about the history of the ‘Institution of Structural Engineers‘, set up in 1897 as ‘The Concrete Institute’. And I’ve found two quotes in the official history they publish online that I want to share, as they touch on interesting issues I’ve been thinking about.

Disciplinary infighting

Sir Henry Tanner in his presidential address made the first proposal for the Institute to broaden its scope and become the Institution of Structural Engineers but through its editorial Concrete and Constructional Engineering responded by stating it regarded the term “structural engineer” as one which described steel contractors and failed civil engineers

There is no obvious citation, so I’ve not (yet) checked the veracity of this apparent retort from the journal – but I find it interesting to see some suggestion that even back in the early 20th century there was disagreement over disciplinary boundaries and what was/wasn’t an ‘acceptable’ discipline.

Lobbying

There is a lot I want to consider about modern learned societies/professional organisations and their role in lobbying – but there is much in the research literature that discusses their role in finding public funding in the 19th/20th centuries. However, this quote from the Institute of Structural Engineers is the first I’ve come across which boasts of pushing for specific laws/regulations. While, again, I’ve not (yet) checked any original resources, at present the Institution publishes this on their website:

On 22nd February 1909, the Institute was incorporated under The Companies Act (1862-1907) and much of the time and energy of the new body was spent on ensuring reinforced concrete was accepted by the London County Council Regulations and the London Building Acts.

.

I mean, I’m sure the ‘Concrete Institute’ would have no vested interest in making sure concrete was accepted by Council Regulations and Building Acts, and that it was specifically done for ‘the good of all of London’.

Right…?

How will I know if it’s a learned society?

For a while I’ve been thinking about academic publishing and the problems faced by learned societies as a transition is being made away from libraries buying journal subscriptions. And this has started me off down lines of thinking about the activities carried out by learned societies (which will be the subject of later blog posts), accountability and the role or function of learned societies in a broader research landscape. But I’ve come up against a very fundamental question:

What actually is a learned society?

I’ve been doing some research into these organisations, and I’ve spent a few days staring at at various websites and documents.

But one thing I still don’t know is what a learned society actually *is*.

Organisations which either claim, or which others claim, to be learned societies vary wildly in many attributes.

Many are charities, but others are not. I’ve found several which have fewer than 100 members in total, many which provide you with no information about membership size, and one which claims to be over 80,000 in size – which seems to be the result of adding of the total size of each of their member organisations together, while not in any way accounting for the fact that people may be members of multiple organisations (In fairness I should add that this number seems to only exist now in past consultation responses they’ve written, and they seem to have removed it from their website).

And membership models also vary significantly. In some instances, you may only become a member after being nominated (which must be an *excellent* way to develop diversity in your organisation, and I’m sure organisations like this are the societies least filled with white, middle class, university educated, grey haired men), and in one case I’ve seen, your nomination is then put up to a membership vote in which you must achieve a 4:1 ratio of yes to no votes.

The research I’ve done seems to suggest that in the sciences, seconding by multiple existing members is fairly typical – which seems another great way to specifically exclude the ‘wrong sort’ from your group. Many societies specifically state they welcome anyone with an interest but require you to state your institution (which is not something many people outside of students/academia will have) or have membership options specifically defining job roles/experience which are only found within academia.

There are surprisingly few societies who seem to have fully thought through the idea of opening membership to even all those with a professional interest, let alone those with an amateur interest – despite the fact that almost every learned society I’ve looked at specifically talking about ‘educating the public’ somewhere in their charter or aims. There are some who clearly have thought this through, for instance the British Society of Soil Science, and I was also really impressed with their commitment to reduced fees for those in countries considered low-income by the World Bank. It’s not perfect – but much better than many societies I’ve looked at, where membership costs often increase for all countries outside the UK or EU.

Some learned societies are large, professional organisations with slick and shiny websites (like this one), with professional staff, amazing looking libraries and venues which may be rented out. Others are run by a group of volunteers, often academics working in their ‘spare time’, and are decidedly less professional in their appearance (I love this website – you can just imagine someone saying “we need a background image that will make people think of the cold”), and have no physical facilities. And there seems to be almost everything in between.

There are organisations which randomly have pictures of Harrison Ford on their front page (leading me to ask if there are perhaps no glycobiologists they are willing to show off), and others which are incredibly succinct in the history of their organisation.

I’ve seen societies which are focused on very specific sub disciplines (eg. the Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism), and societies that are much more umbrella organisations (the Institute of Physics or Royal Society spring to mind here). There are even societies which focus on specific counties, such as the Devonshire Association dedicated to “the study and appreciation of all matters relating to Devon” – although I am slightly surprised to have not found an equivalent for Cornwall.

The sheer number of learned societies and scholarly societies is mind-numbing. My current list (which I’ll publish when I’ve done a bit more tidying up) consists of about 500 associations and organisations. And this is in no way complete, and mostly focuses *just* on organisations based in the UK. And the societies are not in any way obviously distinct organisations. For some reason, people feel the existence of both a British Mycological Society and a British Society for Medical Mycology to be necessary. And for there to be a British Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics and a British Society for Immunology. And there are many, many other examples of overlapping societies with very similar remits and only slightly different names – reminding me of the People’s Front of Judea.

And for almost every UK based learned society, there is an equivalent in most other European countries and in the US (I’ve not yet looked at countries outside of this, although I intended to). And then there are also organisations covering the same or similar disciplines which operate at both the European and international levels. And all of these organisations fund and help support each others in a a really fascinating and intricate fashion.

One thing I can say for certain about learned and scholarly societies is quite how varied they are. But despite a few days exploring various UK based learned societies, I’m still no closer to what a ‘learned society’ or ‘scholarly society’ actually is. Wikipedia states that a learned society is “an organization that exists to promote an academic discipline or profession”, but it is incredibly easy to justify almost any activity as ‘promotion’ of a discipline – especially if organisations don’t step back to evaluate the effectiveness of these activities.

Many learned societies I’ve explored provide grants and bursaries, especially to early career researchers, in their specific sub-discipline, and many (although by no means all) seem to run some form of regular conference or have an ‘official journal’. But again how the journal is produced varies significantly: it may be published by the society or external/commercial publishers. It may be produced online only, or may be published in hard copy as well.

And the reason why I want to think about these activities and learned societies is that they have often been used to justify the retention of subscription based journal models or to justify a very slow progression away from them, with advocates from these societies and publishers making clearly stated, but often untested, beliefs about the value these organisations provide to the academic community. And I believe it’s important that we start to think about that.

So at present, I’ve been using a definition of a learned society/scholarly society as ‘any organisation that has been defined as being a learned society by either themselves or another organisation’, but that’s not very robust. Especially as anyone can define their own organisation or another organisation as one.

One possibility is to only include learned societies which make money from publishing – but as I want to explore business models that don’t necessarily rely upon this, that seems to negate part of the point. How do I separate a ‘learned society’ away from an amateur society, which may also have a published, peer reviewed journal? (For instance does the Amateur Entomologists Society count as a learned society or not?).

I don’t want to focus on whether or not an organisation is only open to academic members, as I’m the type of open minded individual who would like to see these societies open up to include non professional researchers and interested individuals.

And similarly, I don’t want to define a society by a specific section of activities, as that again seems to make some assumptions about what such a body ‘should’ do.

So many people say learned societies and scholarly societies are incredibly valued by academics, and a crucial part of the research landscape. But does anyone know what one actually is? Any thoughts below the line please!(*)

(*) This is not a rhetorical device – please do put any ideas you have below in the comments section below. I would love to know what I should be using as a working definition for learned societies as I continue exploring this area.

On wombling…

Stourbridge Common – Image by Prisoner 5413 on Flickr and shared under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

“What a great idea. I’m going to do something similar.”

“Do you have OCD or something?”

“You do it for free?!?”

“Thank you”

I get a wide range of comments from people for my “wombling” (as one friend affectionately refers to it). Every day I go for a 30 minute to 1 hour walk as part of ongoing therapy to regain strength in my legs and ankles, and while I started just walking (while listening to various audiobooks of Charles Dickens novels narrated by Martin Jarvis), I soon found myself wanting to do more with my time.

I live in a gorgeous area of Cambridge (not far from Stourbridge Common and near a lovely stretch of the the River Cam), but the area is often covered in litter – including obvious items such as sweet wrappers, alcohol bottles and newspapers, but also more random items such as shoes. I like green spaces, and I like shared spaces, but this litter detracts from them and makes them less pleasurable for everyone.

So on almost every walk I take two plastic bags and a pair of rubber gloves, and spend 15 minutes or so picking up litter (sorting it into recyclable material and rubbish), before disposing of it in one of the many bins around the area. I then continue with my walk and lose myself in the dulcet tones of Martin Jarvis.

The reactions I receive for this litter picking are varied. Some people stare at me like I’m an alien, and others stop to chat – with conversations ranging from the ideas of communal spaces to Charles Dickens and my preference for hearing his books spoken than reading them myself.

I’ve not made much of my wombling before; after all I do this partially to make the space more pleasant for me, but it ties into a broader narrative that I’ve been seeing in the media and on social media.

There have been a number of reports about people who are doing similar on beaches (See this news story, or this hashtag) – something I’m very fond of originally coming from Cornwall.

However, it’s not just the beaches that are shared spaces, rich in wildlife, and contain ecosystems that suffer from litter. Spaces such as greens, parks and woods are also in this category, and it would be great to see people who live in these spaces also helping to tackle the problem of litter.

Be The Change Cambridge – looking forwards

This weekend saw the first conversation cafe organised by ‘Be The Change Cambridge’, a project headed up by Anne Bailey, Anthony Carpen, David Cleevely and Alessandra Caggiano.

The event was very well attended, although billed as being a smaller gathering. Around 50 people choose to spend a Saturday afternoon discussing how we can make Cambridge an even better place to live in – with many attendees representing organisations based in the city.

It was great to see so many organisations brought together in such a fashion, and its not something that happens enough in the city. A number of broad themes emerged from the initial exercise:

  • Community
  • Arts and culture
  • Transport
  • Housing
  • Green spaces
  • Growing up in Cambridge
  • Improving local government (was has evolved from the topic ‘developing a unitary authority’ which I think is much improved and contains fewer assumptions)

We broke out into small groups to discuss these themes and to start identifying issues we’d like to see addressed by the project, before each group presented back to politicians who had joined us specifically for this purposes. It was great to see Vicky Ford (Conservative MEP for the East of England), Julian Huppert (Lib Dem MP for Cambridge) and Lewis Herbert (Labour leader of Cambridge Council) all attending, and all listening to people.

But I’m going to throw down two challenges, as Be The Change moves forwards.

Firstly a challenge to the organisers and other attendees. Can you make sure such events engage a wider number of interested citizens and residents of Cambridge? While it’s an incredible feat to bring together so many of the organisations in the city, the project has the potential to reach beyond that to others. Many of those who were attending the first event already have their own specific campaigns or activities they’d like to see improved in Cambridge, but it would be incredibly valuable to hear more from individuals who don’t already have these ideas, who also use the facilities, live in the space and would be impacted by any ideas created from Be The Change Cambridge. Similarly it would also be good to have better representation from businesses. It might be a question of messaging, focussing on specifically reaching those who aren’t already engaged locally, or perhaps running smaller events in specific locations (conversations in cafes just after the school run?).

My second challenge is to all the politicians who attended. To reach the projects full potential will require a commitment from politicians from all the political parties representing Cambridge. Will Cambridge’s politicians work together on many of the issues raised, and to be willing to not just listen to citizens,but to also take their thoughts on board? And it would be great to hear such commitments from political figures who were present. This isn’t limited to Vicky. Julian and Lewis (although certainly includes them), but also all the parliamentary candidates and councillors who also joined us. The project will likely generate some thought provoking, and indeed challenging, ideas and questions. I don’t know if anyone yet can see what the specific outcomes or requests of the project might be, but having the politicians clearly stating intent to work together will be nothing but beneficial.

With 6 substantive issues and an underlying process theme, it was a productive afternoon. Whether the politicians and other organisations in Cambridge are able to address the challenges that came out of it, and each work to help make Cambridge greater than the sum of its parts on an ongoing basis remains to be seen. But I certainly hope they can.

The sheer scale of hybrid journal publishing

The last few years have seen a significant rise in what are termed ‘hybrid open access journals’, where only some of the articles are freely available to read and a subscription is still required to read the remainder. As many journals require payment from authors to publish in this fashion, then university libraries need to pay subscriptions to read the remaining articles, publishers are in effect being paid twice for the same work.

With recently published data from the Wellcome Trust, the scale of this double charging has become much more clear.

In Oct 2012 – Sept 2013, academics spent £3.88 million to publish articles in journals with immediate online access – of which £3.17 million (82 % of costs, 74 % of papers) was paying for publications that Universities would then be charged again for. For perspective, this is a figure slightly larger than the Wellcome Trust paid in 2012/2013 on their Society & Ethics portfolio.

Only £0.70 million of the charity’s £3.88m didn’t have any form of double charging (ie, was published in a “Pure Open Access” journal) – with this total being dominated by articles published in PLOS and BioMed Central journals (68 % of total ‘pure’ hybrid journal costs, 80 % of paper total).

Top 5 publishers by total cost to Wellcome Trust

Publisher

No. of articles

Maximum Cost

Average Cost

Total Cost (nearest £1000)

Elsevier (inc. Cell Press)

418

£5,760

£2,448.158

£1,036,000

Wiley-Blackwell

271

£3,078.92

£2,009.632

£545,000

PLOS

307

£3,600

£1,139.286

£350,000

Oxford University Press

167

£3,177.60

£1,850.099

£300,000

Nature Publishing Group (not inc. Frontiers)

80

£3,780

£2,696.396

£216,000

Top 5 publishers by total cost to Wellcome Trust – separated into money spent on author charges for articles appearing in hybrid and pure open access journals

Publisher

Journal Type

No. of articles

Max Cost

Average Cost

 Total Cost (nearest £)

Elsevier

Hybrid

402

£5,760

2,443.28

£982,199

Pure OA

21

£3,996

2,541.48

£53,371

Wiley-Blackwell

Hybrid

263

£3,026

2,010.88

£528,862

Pure OA

8

£3,079

1,968.60

£15,749

PLOS

Hybrid

0

£0

£0

£0

Pure OA

307

£3,600

1,139.29

£349,761

Oxford University Press

Hybrid

135

£3,177.6

2,004.14

£270,558

Pure OA

32

£2,184

1,200.25

£38,408

Nature Publishing Group

Hybrid

67

£3,780

2,867.82

192,143.71

Pure OA

13

£2,880

1,812.923

23,568

Wellcome Trust pays nearly £1 million to Elsevier, and pays over £500,000 to Wiley-Blackwell to make articles freely available on point of publication, in journals that a university library will also be trying to find money to also pay subscription fees to. These are outrageously high sums of money! Especially given a recent explosion in the number of journals, and an increase in journal prices, means even well-funded libraries can no longer afford the cost of subscribing to many journals!

Journal articles should be published in a way that means they are freely available – and not just to academics, but also to wider public audiences. And I’m not critical of article processing charges. However, I’m unsure how any publisher can justify charging an academic an average cost of £2,443 to publish in a journal that is already being supported by library subscriptions from not just one university, but many universities around the world. And surely no cost based model should charge more for publication in a hybrid journal with multiple funding streams than in one supported purely on author charges (as appears to be the case with Wiley-Blackwell).

Data

Data source found here

Original data: Kiley, Robert (2014): Wellcome Trust APC spend 2012-13: data file. figsharehttp://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.963054

Enhancements on original data made by Cameron Neylon: https://github.com/cameronneylon/apcs

Wiley-Blackwell open access licenses – clarity needed

Update - the Vice-President & Director of Open Access from Wiley has responded below.

Alongside the awesome Theo Andrew, I’ve been leading the crowd sourcing effort to explore the Wellcome Trust Article Processing Charge data (Original data found here). This effort is still on-going, so please do have a look if you have even a few minutes to spare.

I’ve found an interesting case when looking at the licenses of work published in Wiley-Blackwell journals.

Every Wiley-Blackwell article I’ve looked at so far makes the statement: “Re-use of this article is permitted in accordance with the Creative Commons Deed, Attribution 2.5, which does not permit commercial exploitation.” (For an example, see the image below).

This isn’t my understanding of ‘Creative Commons Deed, Attribution 2.5′ at all.

CC BY (as it is otherwise known), allows for any use, including commercial use, as long as you “give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.” (Text taken from Creative Commons CC BY 2.5 human readable summary).

Creative Commons have spent a lot of time ensuring that the licenses are incredibly easy to understand, but it seems the license statement here from the publishers is deliberately difficult to understand and contradicting the actual meaning of CC BY licenses.

Have I gotten confused about Creative Commons licenses? Or have Wiley-Blackwell?

If it’s not clear to me – someone who spends a lot of time thinking about open access and licensing – it’s hardly going to be clear to other academics and professionals who should be able to spend time focusing on research, rather than spending time talking to lawyers.

Open Access in Europe

I’ve just got back from Guimarães, Portugal where I attended the kick off meeting for PASTEUR4OA (Open Access Policy Alignment Strategy for European Union Research). PASTEUR4OA is a multi-partner European project aiming to help EU Member States develop and implement policies to ensure Open Access to all outputs from publicly funded research, helping to develop (or reinforce) open access strategies and policies at national level. Part of this work will involve mapping existing policies at national and institutional levels, and part of this will be directly engaging policy makers, and helping to develop national centers of expertise.

It was a great opportunity to meet (and remeet) many people from across the EU interested in Open Acccess, including representatives of SPARC Europe, Jisc and the Open University.

I’m involved in this work as part of my role at the Open Knowledge Foundation. One key aspect of this project will be strengthening the existing Open Access community at the Open Knowledge Foundation, and increasing engagement between our community and policy makers across the EU.

Another key aim will be pushing hard to ensure that when people talk about ‘open access’ as part of this project, they are using the term as defined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative and in agreement with the Open Definition, considering the right to reuse and not just the right to view.

Often when people talk about Open Access they are just thinking about the right to view, and the need for free access to research. Within Europe policy makers are largely on board with the idea of research being ‘free to view’, and Horizon 2020 also has a requirement for journal articles resulting from funding to be published in a manner that is free to view. However, the research articles are not *required* to be free to reuse – and I think it’s important that we try and convince policy makers about this requirement.

I’m going to put my thinking cap on over the next few weeks about good case studies about content mining and other benefits of reuse. If you have any bright ideas about case studies – please do contact me! These examples can either be possible scenarios, or examples taking place right now. I want to get a collection together as soon as possible and provide them to advocates talking to policy makers!