Learned societies turn against scholarship and join publishers for profit

Björn Brembs
6 min readJan 16, 2020


In a recent letter to the White House, a group of corporate publishers and scholarly organizations implore the president to leave intact the current arrangements between publicly funded researchers and the publishing industry. Their letter is the latest move in a decades-long struggle between researchers and publishers over who controls the fruits of the researchers’ labor.

Researchers today are caught like fish in a net of slow, overpriced, unethical and dysfunctional publishing practices. Trapped by academic employment rules, funding arrangements and copyright laws, we have long tried unsuccessfully to wrest control of scholarship from corporate publishers. The fight dates back to at least the 1980s, when physicists started circulating their findings via email to increase the speed of scholarly communication. It took on an ethical dimension when researchers began to demand that their publicly-funded research be made accessible to the public at no cost. This came to be called the “open access” movement. Because each new scholarly discovery is only published once and cannot be legally obtained elsewhere, the publisher holds a monopoly on it, allowing publishers to overcharge consumers (mainly academic libraries) by at least US$9 billion annually. As in other monopoly markets, there is little incentive for innovation or high-quality service in scholarly publishing. For instance, to fit the paper-derived format that publishers continue to insist on, we researchers must reduce our data visualizations to flat static pictures, sometimes even in black and white. What publishers provide today is not much more functional than paper, but it is much more expensive. They might as well be etching our research onto sheets of gold. The public suffers twice: First they are overcharged to read the results of science they themselves funded. Second, the system designed to protect publishers’ profits ends up slowing down scientific progress and lowering the quality of published research in myriad ways. For example, new chemical compounds could be identified much faster and more easily if the scientific literature was not balkanized and protected by publisher embargoes, preventing the information in the articles from being automatically aggregated. Such inefficiencies are bad for science and bad for the public. They benefit only the publishers, and yet they remain in place.

Many researchers, including the authors of this post, are members of learned societies whose mission is to support research and advance scholarly values. At the end of last year, we saw these values betrayed when over 100 societies joined with the Association of American Publishers in signing the letter to the White House. It is unsurprising that corporate publishers would resist reform. For them, any change to the rules threatens their profits. But why would learned societies purporting to represent researchers sign on? One reason is that some scholarly societies have come to depend on the lucrative business of journal publishing to subsidize their operations. In the case of one of the signatories, the American Psychological Association, publishing income accounts for ~80% of their revenue. Such learned societies face a dilemma: Their stated mission is to support scholarship, but the funds to do it come from a publishing system that has worked against scholarly values for more than three decades. We are saddened that these societies have decided to side with the publishers against the public interest.

Apparently concerned that an executive order might make scholarly articles more accessible, the publishers and societies argue that their monopoly gives the USA an advantage over the rest of the world. Such protectionist parochialism is the antithesis of scholarship. It represents a new low in a struggle where publishers have often employed questionable tactics. Science is global. Not only do scientific laws hold in any place on this planet regardless of the nationality of their discoverer, but the knowledge created by researchers benefits people all over the world, whether through medical breakthroughs, technical innovations, or simply because when more people have more knowledge, humanity as a whole is better off. Especially in this time of pressing global challenges such as mass extinctions, climate crisis, epidemic diseases, migration, surveillance capitalism, the rise of alternative facts, and cyberwarfare, we need science to serve humankind. The signatories of the AAP letter put profits before science, nationalism before enlightenment, and narrow-mindedness before openness. Their letter is concerned with the relatively narrow topic of who has access to scholarly works, but in fact the entire infrastructure of publicly funded science today is entwined with a publishing industry that hampers rather than facilitates science. In order to get jobs, get tenure, and get their research funded, scientists have to play ball. In joining with publishers, the learned societies side with overcharging the taxpayer, preventing the public from collecting the returns on their investments in research, and holding science back in order to squeeze out more profits for these middlemen. We now have an official and public list of opponents of scientific progress. We were heartened to see how many of our learned societies, large and small, did not sign the publishers’ letter.

Irrespective of whether any executive order is planned or what it may contain, one thing is for certain: Just as nations rely on their physical infrastructure, so does science rely on its digital infrastructure. At present, our efforts to modernize that infrastructure are impaired by the old system of scientific publishing, which prevents the flow of information and leeches funds from research and education.

At least one learned society is already reconsidering the issue. The Association for Computing Machinery released a statement on January 9, saying that it regretted signing onto the publishers’ letter and reiterating its commitment to open access. We hope that readers of this essay will contact the leaders of their own learned societies to express their support for open science and their opposition to continuing the current publishing model. In order to solve the challenges the world now faces, the public needs reliable, affordable science. Producing it will require scientific institutions — including systems of scientific publishing — that serve science instead of holding it for ransom.

Authors, in alphabetical order:

Dr. Juan Pablo Alperin, Assistant professor scholarly communications, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Dr. Simon Batterbury, associate professor of environmental studies, University of Melbourne and Lancaster University, Australia and United Kingdom

Dr. Sylvie Benzoni-Gavage, Professor of mathematics, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, France, Member of the academic advisory board of MathOA

Dr. Björn Brembs, Professor of neurogenetics, University of Regensburg, Germany, Open science practitioner

Dr. Pamela Davis-Kean, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Dr. Alex Holcombe, Professor of psychology, University of Sydney, Australia

Dr. Benoît R. Kloeckner, Professor of mathematics, Université Paris-Est Créteil, France, Founding member of MathOA

Dr. Richard Lucas, Professor of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

Dr. Maryann Martone, Professor emerita of neuroscience, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA, scholarly commons avantgarde

Dr. Erin McKiernan, Professor of biophysics, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico, open scholarship practitioner

Dr. Marcus Munafó, Professor of Biological Psychology, University of Bristol, United Kingdom, Meta-research

Dr. Brian Nosek, Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Open Science

Dr. Ahmed Ogunlaja, Medical Doctor, Open Access Nigeria, Nigeria

Dr. Johan Rooryck, Professor of French linguistics, Leiden University, Netherlands, OA Champion, cOAlition S

Dr. Barbara W. Sarnecka, Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California-Irvine, Irvine, CA, USA

Dr. Peter Suber, Director, Office for Scholarly Communication, Harvard University, Boston, MA, USA

Dr. Moin Syed, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

Dr. Alexa Tullett, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA

Dr. Simine Vazire, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA

Dr. Mark Wilson, Senior lecturer in computer science, University of Auckland, New Zealand, Founder Free Journal Network

Dr. Tal Yarkoni, Research Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, TX, USA