Free the Science: One Scholarly Society’s Bold Vision for Open Access and Why It Matters Now More Than Ever

By: Ellen Finnie, In the Open

Free the ScienceThe Electrochemical Society, a small nonprofit scholarly society founded in 1902, has an important message for all of us who are concerned about access to science. Mary Yess, deputy executive director and chief content officer and publisher, could not be clearer about the increased urgency of ECS’ path: “We have got to move towards an open science environment. It has never been more important – especially in light of the recently announced ‘gag orders’ on several U.S. government agencies– to actively promote the principles of open science.” What they committed to in 2013 as an important open access initiative has become, against the current political backdrop, truly a quest to “free the science.”

ECS’s Free the Science program is designed to accelerate the ability of the research ECS publishes — for example, in sustainable clean energy, clean water, climate science, food safety, and medical care — to generate solutions to our planet’s biggest problems. It is a simple and yet powerful proposition, as ECS frames it:

“We believe that if this research were openly available to anyone who wished to read it, anywhere it the world, it would contribute to faster problem solving and technology development, accelerate the pace of scientific discovery, encourage innovation, enrich education, and even stimulate the economy.”

How this small society — which currently publishes just two journals — came to this conclusion, and how they plan to move to an entirely open access future, is, I believe, broadly instructive at a time when our political environment has only one solid state: uncertainty.

ECS’s awakening to open access was jump-started by the 2013 White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum on public access to research. It became clear to the ECS that while their technical audience had perhaps not at that time fully embraced open access, the OSTP memo represented a sea change. By spring of 2013, the board had resolved that ECS was heading towards open access, and they launched a hybrid open access option for their key journals in 2014.

And here’s where the story gets even more interesting. If you look only at their first offering in 2014 or even their current offerings, you won’t immediately see their deeper plan, which goes well beyond hybrid open access. For ECS, as Yess clearly indicates, “Gold open access is not the way to go.” In fact, ECS “doesn’t believe in gold open access,” seeing it as “just a shell game.”

As Yess explains it, “If we hit tipping point to all gold open access, the big commercial players will simply flip all their journals to open access, and the subscription money from library budgets will come out of author budgets, costs will spiral up and we’ll be in the same escalating price environment we’ve been suffering from for years.” So Yess is “skeptical about gold working. Given the size and market share of the large STM publishers, they will make gold open access work to their stakeholders’ benefit, and it will not benefit researchers and their communities.”

There is broad (though hopefully not divisive or overly distracting) debate about whether the article processing charge (APC) market will function well for research libraries, and what adjustments to this APC market might make it work. But meanwhile, what’s a society – the sole nonprofit society to still be publishing their own journals in the relevant disciplines — to do? ECS’s multi-pronged and contingency-based path is one we could all benefit from watching. What they envision is “a community of people supporting the content.” Their insight is to work in the same framework they have had since 1902 — community support– but to evolve what that community support looks like.

Under their subscription-based publishing model, they had relied on a combination of library subscriptions, the Society’s own coffers, and authors’ page charges. Competition from commercial publishers forced ECS to eliminate page charges and to rely on subscriptions and other revenue to support the publications program. This model has already shown signs of falling apart, with ECS, like many smaller societies, increasingly edged out by big deals from major publishers which preclude cancellations of their journals.

So ECS felt they needed to think differently. Starting with offering hybrid open access in their flagship journals (rather than launching new open access-specific titles) has allowed the ECS to “test the waters” and has introduced open access to their community of scholars, generating interest around all of the issues. They started with a two-year program offering generous numbers of APC waivers to members, meeting attendees, and all library subscribers. This has resulted, as they hoped, in raised awareness, good uptake, and recognition for their open access program.

Then in 2016 they introduced ECS Plus, through which libraries can opt to pay a bit more than the cost of single ECS APC (which is $800) to upgrade their subscription to the package of ECS journals, and as a result have all APCs waived for authors on their campuses who choose the open access option. Since its launch, ECS has seen a small but encouraging growth in this program. They now have about 800 subscribers, and “there is some evidence the library community feels this is a valuable program,” Yess says.

ECS aims to become “platinum open access” by 2024 – entirely open access, with no APCs, operating fully in what Yess calls an “open science environment.” They expect to take many roads to achieve this goal. One is reducing publication costs. Toward that end, they have entered an agreement with the Center for Open Science to build, at no cost to ECS, a new digital library platform which, once adopted, will reduce ECS’s publication costs.

In addition, this platform will allow ECS to fulfill the“need to move beyond the original concept of open access in standard journals, and beyond the idea of being a publisher in the old sense of journals, articles, issues – to get beyond containerized thinking,” Yess says.

Moving beyond those ‘containers’ will be more possible given their work with the Center for Open Science to offer a preprint server. The preprint server will be built on the same platform and framework as the preprint servers SocArXiv and PsyArXiv, and will integrate with preprint servers outside of the Open Science Framework such as bioRxiv and arXiv. ECS hopes to launch this preprint server in beta next month.

While reducing costs and breaking out of old containers, ECS will also need to generate non-subscription revenue if they want to balance the books. They want to work with the library community to obtain a commitment to pay some kind of cost, possibly looking at a model inspired by SCOAP3. They also plan to seek donations and endowments from organizations and research funders. And if the cost reductions and new revenue streams don’t provide a sufficient financial foundation, Yess says that APCs are “a contingency plan” for ECS.

Regardless of which of these roads the ECS takes, for Yess, the overall direction is clear: “Scholarly publishing has to change. Period.” Their solutions to the need for change are generated from their own context, and are certainly not one-size-fits-all. But regardless of whether the specific mechanisms work for other societies, what is instructive from the ECS approach is that they are embracing new realities, envisioning a new, open, scholarly sharing environment, and are building their future from their original base in a community of science and technology. They are finding a way to maximize the potential of the digital age to support their mission to “free the science” for the betterment of humanity.

In this time of tumult and doubt on our national stage, when the merits of science – and even the existence of facts — are questioned at the highest levels, ECS’s doubling down on open access and open science can help those of us committed to leveraging science and scholarship for all of humanity, everywhere, see a hopeful way forward, a way that keeps us moving toward our aim of democratized access to science.

Disclosure statement: I am a member of the ECS Group of Advisory Librarians (EGALs). ECS did not, however, suggest that I write about their program in this blog, and had no role in framing the questions I asked Mary. The MIT Libraries adopted the ECS Plus program in the first year it was available.

This article was originally posted on In the Open.


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