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What do societies do with their publishing surpluses?1

In view of the possible impact of Open Access (OA), the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) and Blackwell Publishing (BP) felt that there was a need to focus on the special role of learned society and professional association publishers, whether they do all their own publishing or contract with a third party. Although society and association publishers are obliged by their charitable constitutions to use what publishing surpluses2 they do make for the benefit of their communities, there was no source of factual information about the positive uses to which such publishers' surpluses, if any, are put (and which would suffer if surpluses were to diminish in future).

Learned society and professional association publishers around the world were approached3 and 68 (of 154) provided usable responses. They were almost equally divided between those who do their own publishing, and those who contract out their publishing to a third party; some do both. This figure is probably unrepresentative of the industry as a whole, since nearly one third (22) of the respondents were societies published by BP; given the location of the two organizations, the sample is also probably skewed towards the UK.

Not all made a surplus from their publishing - approximately one third said that they did not. Of those self-publishers that do make a surplus, the median surplus was just 15% of revenue. Self-publishers reported that publishing surpluses represented median 20% of the total society revenues; those who contracted out reported a higher median figure of 30%, although, somewhat surprisingly, some were receiving nothing at all from their publisher.

The purposes to which the money was applied could be classified into three distinct groups:

1. Support for the subject community as a whole (keeping conference fees low, providing bursaries for attendance at the organization's own and other meetings, offering research grants)

2. Public education

3. Support for the society and its membership in particular (providing free or reduced-price copies to members, keeping membership dues low, and generally supporting the running costs of the organization)

While responses about how much of the surplus was applied to different areas of activity may not be comparable, the figures are at least indicative. The percentage of the respondents who applied at least some money to each of the areas was a more meaningful finding (see Table).

Table : How learned societies spend thier surpluses


It follows that, if publishing surpluses were to be reduced (for example, by the continuing effect of being 'squeezed out' by larger publishers' Big Deals, or by a change of business model in response to market pressure), there would be a number of consequences:

  • The members themselves would suffer (they would pay more for membership, more for their copies of the journal)
  • Meetings and conferences that benefit the discipline as a whole would suffer (higher prices, fewer bursaries)
  • Research would suffer (fewer grants)
  • Societies themselves would suffer (less contribution to administrative costs, less contribution to reserves and endowments for future work)
  • Society publishing would suffer (less reinvestment)
  • The public would suffer (less public education, patient support and the like)

Whether library budgets (both academic - i.e. the taxpayer - and industrial) are the best way of serving these interests is a question that is currently being hotly debated.

Christine Baldwin Information Design and Management, Broom, Hinksey Hill, Oxford OX1 5BH, UK

Sally Morris Chief Executive, Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, South House, The Street, Clapham, Worthing, West Sussex BN13 3UU, UK


  1. This paper is based on a longer one available from ALPSP.

  2. By 'surplus' is meant the amount of journal subscription and other revenue that, after covering costs related to publishing the journal, the society or association is able to use for its other activities.

  3. Christine Baldwin of Information Design and Management was commissioned by ALPSP/BP to carry out the survey

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