In our latest What is a Publisher Now? interview, we talk to Audrey McCulloch, the Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). As the leader of one of the biggest and most influential membership and advisory bodies to the scholarly publishing industry, Audrey has an intimate and wide-ranging view of the challenges facing publishers of all sizes in the sector. In this interview we talk to Audrey about the difference between a profit and non-profit publishers, why organisations like ALPSP are good for the development of the industry, and whether Open Access will continue to be a hot topic for years to come.
PT: Tell us who you are and what you do
AM: My name is Audrey McCulloch and I’m the Chief Executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). ALPSP is the international membership trade body which works to support and represent not-for-profit organisations and institutions that publish scholarly and professional content around the world. Its membership also encompasses those that partner with and provide services to not-for-profit publishers. ALPSP’s has over 330 institutional members in 39 countries, who collectively publish over half the world’s total active journals as well books, databases and other products.
PT: ALPSP is an association set up to represent the interests of nonprofit publishers. How would you say these publishers differ from their equivalents in the for-profit sector?
AM: The obvious answer is that one makes ‘profits’ and the other makes a ‘surplus’. Commercial organisations are obviously driven by shareholders who have invested in their organisation. Non-profits are driven by a mandate to serve their communities. In reality, size, rather than commercial status makes the difference between publishers. Economies of scale that the larger organisations enjoy mean that their cost per page is much lower than smaller organisations, for example. There are some differences around what happens to the surplus/profit made. Non-profit publishers return their surplus to their community, normally via the activities of an association or society. Commercial organisations clearly have an obligation to provide profit to shareholders, but it’s incorrect to think that all profits leave the industry. They too return at least some of their ‘profit’ to scholarly and professional communities, in a variety of different ways.
PT: You also have associate members in ALPSP who are for profit publishers. What do they get out of engaging with ALPSP?
AM: It depends on the type of organisation, as our Associate Members are very different. Some are commercial publishers (of very different sizes), and they benefit from training, information, guidance and networking. All of the larger commercial publishers publish on behalf of non-profit societies and associations, therefore they benefit from being a part of that wider community.
We also have a wide variety of consultants, who also benefit from keeping up with what’s going on in the industry. ALPSP is regularly approached for help in identifying people to assist in various projects and in solving problems that a member may have. We suggest appropriate people from ALPSP member organisations, and make introductions, where appropriate.
There are also a number of suppliers, such as typesetters, distributors, subscription agents, software suppliers, hosting organisations, and as well as knowing what’s going on in scholarly and professional publishing around the world, they too benefit from being an ALPSP member via networking opportunities and introductions to members who are looking for the services they supply.
PT: You represent a wide variety of organisations, from database publishers to intergovernmental organisations. For many of these organisations publishing is just a small part of a wider set of operations. Do these ‘part-time publishers’ face a different set of challenges to other organisations whose core activity is developing and publishing content?
AM: Absolutely. The primary challenge is keeping up with developments in scholarly and professional publishing, from technology, to author demands, reader requirements and latterly, a lot of changes to legislation around the world. The is one service that ALPSP provides, to keep members up to date with what is going on, and ensure they are equipped to make the best decisions for their organisation. As a small organisation itself, ALPSP understands the challenge of wearing a large number of different hats, and having to try to keep up to date with everything is not an easy thing to do.
PT: And now that more organisations are getting into the situation where they publish content electronically – in the form of research, reports, statements etc – is the definition of what it means to be a publisher expanding?
AM: Publishers have always published a variety of different content types, but generally they publish a ‘document’, a whole piece. I think the challenge is tracking all the different content types, which are in a variety of different versions, in a multitude of locations. There are software tools to help, but for the very small publishers, implementing such tools is just one on a list of many things they’d love to do, budgets permitting. Potentially having to tag individual sections of a whole ‘document’ so that the portions can be accessed independently of the whole thing is something I think is coming. This will make workflows more complex and require a change in systems and will come at a cost.
PT: Over the past few years, ALPSP has been doing a lot of work with your members on the topic of Open Access. Do you think this is now a well understood phenomenon within your members, or is there still a long way to go?
AM: I think it very much depends on whom you talk to and what their communities feel about it. Societies are led by their communities, just as commercial publishers are led by market demand – it’s essentially the same thing. Our members do understand open access, but how much they need to engage with it is a very different question. For example, consider a small society who has 80% of its authorship outside the UK, and it’s not unreasonable to consider a similarly high percentage of subscriptions from outside the UK. This means that they are going to consider green OA the primary concern to them, not Gold, despite the fact that they are based in a country where guidance from Government and mandates from some of the research funders is in favour of gold OA. Subscriptions will still be at the heart of their business model, at least until their author or subscription-base changes.
PT: Do you think it’s easier or harder for a non-profit publisher to go Open Access with a new or existing journal?
AM: Again, I think we’re back to size, rather than profit-status. If publisher has only one journal, currently funded by subscriptions, it’s likely that there will be less financial backing in the system to experiment with a hybrid or full OA journals. Larger organisations will naturally have more diversified income, making it easy to subsidise new journal launches, or take the risk in converting a subscription journal to full OA.
PT: Another area where ALPSP is active is in providing good practice guidance for members. Are they any particular areas in which your members particularly need or request this advice, and why do you think that is?
AM: Advice requests generally go hand in hand with what’s happening in scholarly and professional publishing. Therefore in recent years we’ve seen plenty of questions around OA and copyright, and there are always questions around good publishing practice. Text and data mining (TDM) is an interesting one. Despite the fact that we are regularly told by some people that there is an incredible demand for access to content, and we`re told that publishers are not meeting that demand, relatively few publishers are actually being contacted about text and data mining. Obviously those with large databases of content are attracting interest, but the smaller publishers are yet to get involved. I’m sure this will change as more researchers become familiar with TDM software and techniques, and ALPSP will continue to provide support as it’s required.
PT: Let’s imagine we’ve travelled forward in time five years: is the hot topic still going to be the various flavours of open access, or will we have moved on to something else?
AM: I think we’ll still be talking about OA, because it seems we’re heading to a mixed economy, and that will not satisfy some who want the world to be completely OA, without subscriptions. Green OA needs some sort of support, and currently the primary business model that supports it is the subscription.
I think the effects of TDM will be something we may still be discussing – will human reading effectively be replaced by machine reading, and what effect does that have on publishing? Will research papers as we know them be consigned to nothing more than an archival record, will they change format, will researchers want to access only a paragraph of a paper with the relevant figure? How will we code and deliver that across the range of tech that will be available then? Will we regularly be accessing these snippets of research on our smart watches (glasses/other wearable tech), or will good old reliable print-outs from PDFs still be surprisingly popular…? Discuss.
In fifteen words or fewer: what is a publisher now?
A facilitator of scholarly communication to as wide an audience as possible.