We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Why Scientists Should Care About Society Publishing

An eye peeking through a looped over journal paper page.
Credit: iStock
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 8 minutes

Most people in science are no strangers to scientific societies. A few years into an academic career, you’ve likely either attended a conference, symposium or workshop organized and/or sponsored by a society. You might have received funding from them, become a member of one or more to connect with others in your field, published a paper with one of their journals or maybe even been a reviewer yourself.

But where do society journals sit in our scientific publishing picture and how does publishing fit with societies?

An important role for societies in science

There are many scientific societies covering all disciplines, ranging from the very broad, global institutions, to the very specific and geographically focused groups. But irrespective of size or reach, they fulfil a number of important roles for the scientific community. “Learned societies bring researchers together for a wide variety of reasons; primarily to discuss the advances in their field,” Dr. Stuart Taylor, director of publishing at the Royal Society says. “They also reward excellence, organize and agree on the conduct of their disciplines, provide various types of grants and bursaries (especially to early career researchers), set standards and conventions, do public outreach and education, publish guidelines, policy reports and other outputs, engage in dialogue with universities, funders and government, etc.” In essence, societies are important to the scientific community because they are the community and are fundamental to the support, success and integrity of the research produced.

However, despite the voluntary support of many that help to make societies what they are, these typically charitable organizations still require the means and funds to be able to support core paid roles and the activities they organize and contribute to.

One way in which they do that is through their not-for-profit publishing activities.

A publishing dichotomy

Although the difference may not be immediately obvious to readers or submitting scientists, journals fall into two broad categories: the not-for-profit society journals and the for-profit commercial journals. “Learned society journals are distinct from commercial journals in an important respect. They use the surplus from their publishing to support the research community they serve (this support can take many forms). Commercial journals, on the other hand, are run as businesses and the profits are invested in the business and to provide shareholder value,” Taylor explains.

Dr. Sarah Tegen is the senior vice president and chief publishing officer in the Publications Division at the American Chemical Society (ACS), a not-for-profit publisher. “ACS Publications publishes more than 80 journals that span the breadth and depth of chemistry and related sciences, providing critical information and publishing venues to chemists of all types,” she says. “Our editors are practicing members of the community who have their fingers on the pulse of the latest research. Many of our professional staff are chemists, too, and we are committed to improving all people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.”

Although the profits are invested differently, that’s not to say that commercial journals are any less valuable. In fact, many high impact journals fall within the commercial category, but their model is different.

Differences between society and commercial journals may also be reflected in aspects such as payment (or not) of editors and the peer review process, with some commercial journals able to offer incentives to reviewers, a contentious subject in itself.

“Commercial publishers often operate on a scale that dwarfs not-for-profit journals. This gives the largest of them economies of scale and buying power that other publishers have a hard time matching. That said, as part of a mission-driven non-profit, ACS Publications is more closely aligned to our community and understanding their needs. The publishing ecosystem is more vibrant when all kinds of publishers can thrive,” Tegen says.

But there is no denying that publishing, be it not-for-profit or commercial, is changing.

The changing landscape of scientific publishing

Once we relied on print and a voyage into the stacks in the depths of the University library to find past research papers. Today we are very much in a digital age, where information is obtained at the click of a button. But while this might be a very obvious way in which changes touch our lives as scientists as well as away from the bench, the publishing landscape has been evolving in other ways too.

Open access articles are becoming ever more prevalent among journals. “Many funders and institutions are now mandating that their researchers publish open access or free to read. ACS has long supported open access, and we’re working to ensure that all authors who wish to publish open access can do so,” Tegen comments.

In Taylor’s mind, open access has been the “most significant change” in the publishing landscape over the last decade or two: “This has been partly as a result of the move from print to digital, but also the increasingly held view that research funded by the public purse should be freely available to the public.”

Studies have estimated that as many as 53.7% of scientific papers are now published with some form of open access, although these estimates vary widely depending on the data source used. While open access may be good news for readers, the removal of paywalls often comes at an increased publishing cost to the scientists. Some funding bodies, institutes or organizations make money available specifically for this purpose, however, concern has been raised that this practice will make publishing prohibitively expensive for scientist in developing countries.

While the choice between open access or not may be one governed by those holding the purse strings, there are so many other factors to consider when choosing who to publish with. But are scientists properly prepared for this decision-making process during their education?

Navigating the publishing minefield

A journal paper often represents the hard toils of months or even years, so the decision of where to publish is not one to be taken lightly. How do you choose; impact factor, familiarity, or because that’s where your colleagues and peers publish? There are so many factors to consider, yet this seems to be an area for which scientists are woefully prepared. There are plenty of courses available for PhD students and early career scientists around presentation skills and writing your first paper and even becoming a reviewer, but what about how to choose where to publish?

What is “impact factor”?

First introduced by Eugene Garfield, the impact factor of a scientific journal is a metric calculated by Clarivate that reflects the number of citations articles published in that journal have had over the previous two years. While it is often seen as a proxy of the journal’s prestige, it has been criticized as a flawed measure as it does not reflect important aspects such as the quality of the journal content or its peer review process.


“The most important aspects of a journal are how well it serves its disciplinary community, whether it is affordable and sustainable, whether the research it publishes is reliable and reproducible, whether it conducts rigorous peer review etc. These qualities can (and do) exist in both for profit and not for profit journals,” Taylor says.

“Scholars want to ensure their research reaches the most appropriate audience in the highest quality journals, and selecting the right journal can be overwhelming. ACS Publications has a digital journal selector to help authors find the best journal as they consider factors such as discipline and if they have funder mandates. We also utilize a robust manuscript transfer process within our journals to get a paper to the best home,” Tegen adds.

While transfer may be an option between journals such as those published by the ACS, this is often not the case. It also doesn’t facilitate transfer between unrelated publications, differing guidelines for which can often mean a significant overhaul of a manuscript. Therefore, making informed choices in the first instance is key.

This situation is not helped by the pressures placed on many scientists to keep manuscript output levels up to satisfy targets or attract continued funding, the notorious “publish or perish” paradigm. “Unfortunately, many authors are choosing to publish in poorly run journals with low editorial standards (so called ‘predatory journals’) because the immense pressure they are under to generate publications can lead them to find the easiest/cheapest route to publication,” says Taylor. “This is primarily a problem generated from within the research landscape itself, i.e., the incessant reliance on publication metrics such as impact factors and h-indices. Unscrupulous publishers may often take advantage of this ‘publish or perish’ culture, but it is not of their making.”

He continues, “The solution lies within academia itself, which must reform its entire process of research evaluation (see DORA and COARA). I applaud the ThinkCheckSubmit initiative as one way of educating researchers and helping them make batter choices.”

Serious consequences for a lack of support?

The choices we make when it comes to who we publish with can also have much broader knock-on impacts beyond our own CVs or funding opportunities. If journals fail to receive enough support, which importantly includes submissions, they risk becoming untenable and folding.

“There are many different measures of ‘success’ in journals,” Taylor explains. “For some, this will be based on citation metrics, for others this may be more related to the reliability of the articles, how open access the journal is, whether it has an open data policy, its profit margin, prestige, reach, downloads, availability to researchers in poorer nations etc. etc. The wide variety of journals available today mean that some are successful in some of these areas and others in other areas.”

“Some of the world’s most prestigious, profitable and highly regarded journals are published by learned societies, others are published by commercial entities,” he adds.

While the failure of a commercial journal may mean one less publishing option and a reduction in diversity, for society journals, the ramifications are wider reaching.

Loss of a journal means loss of income, and thus reduced funds available to support society activities and provide grants. Without subsidies, conference costs for attendees are likely to increase, making them less accessible to the scientific community and reducing the opportunities to meet and share ideas. Workshops supported by societies, often also heavily subsidized, too would be impacted, limiting the training opportunities for young researchers. Some researchers, as voiced during a recent panel discussion at the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) Congress 2023, also fear that the loss of society journals could mean increased publishing costs as a consequence of reduced competition.

“Many academics see this [not-for-profit versus commercial] as an important distinction, as they would rather see any proceeds from the journal go back into research, rather than to shareholders. For some researchers, this preference is strong enough to mean they will only publish in learned society journals and some may refuse to cooperate in any way with commercial journals (including peer reviewing for them),” says Taylor. “However, most researchers do not take such a hard line and so (presumably) do not find this distinction between commercial and non-profit quite so important. Indeed, in the sciences the journal Nature is considered one of the most (if not the most) sought after journals to publish in. Yet Nature is a commercial journal. This suggests that most researchers are more concerned with other factors than whether a journal is for profit or non-profit.”

Room for everyone

While some journals on both sides of the financial fence have struggled and been forced to close, in some cases with the worrying loss of scholarly knowledge, it would appear others are thriving. “Given the very long history of the Royal Society’s journals (we started publishing in the 17th century) there have inevitably been a great many new entrants (all the other publishers in fact!). Some have been commercial, and some have been other learned societies. Today, there are tens of thousands of academic journals. Our journals have continued to thrive over the last three and a half centuries. At the start of the 21st century, our article submissions were only one fifth of what they are today, and our publishing margins were very much lower,” commented Taylor.

The publishing landscape for scientists is changing and there is now a plethora of options available, whether commercial or society-associated, from which to choose. It is vital that all are represented so that scientists have a choice of where to publish, but that choice needs to be an informed one. Scientific societies are still as relevant and important today as they always have been. They create a community within which scientists can belong, feel a part of and supported by, and one way to facilitate the important work they do is by publishing within society journals, at least some of the time.

“The thought leadership in chemistry that ACS provides is unparalleled, and the scientific content that our publications put out are driving real advancements in the field. It is critical to have a voice at the table who is committed to the science and the scientist, and we are proud to play that role,” Tegen concludes.