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The Society Lady

It is often argued that Open Access publishing models are a threat to learned societies and will prevent them from performing their good work for their members and the scientific community. Elizabeth Marincola, of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), has a very different point of view. She talked to Open Access Now about the ASCB and Open Access.

It is immediately apparent what motivates Elizabeth Marincola - she is entirely committed to serving the ASCB's members. And ever since she became the Executive Director of the society in 1991, Marincola has worked tirelessly to make sure that ASCB members get the most for their money.

Serving the cell biology community

"The ASCB is a non-profit scientific society and briefly our aim is to promote cell biology," says Marincola. "We do this in a number of ways; we run meetings and journals, and we are very active in educating Congress about the importance of basic biomedical research. We do what it takes to promote the interests of our members."

The ASCB has over 10,000 members, 80% of whom work in the US. Membership comes fairly cheap - a fifth of the society's members are students who pay an annual fee of just US$35. Full membership for an independent research scientist is US$125. The majority of members are from university laboratories, but there are also significant numbers of researchers from government labs, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and even a sprinkling of members who are no longer practicing scientists.

A recent survey conducted by The Scientist magazine revealed that over 80% of scientists belong to at least one scholarly society (see issue March 10, 2003). When asked why they join professional societies, readers cited participation in meetings and conferences (67.4%), association with fellow scientists (65.6%), and subscriptions to research journals (60.1%) as their major motivations.

"People join the ASCB for a number of different reasons - direct and indirect," confirms Marincola. "There are direct reasons, such as discounts to attend our annual meeting, the privilege to sponsor abstracts for the annual meeting, and free electronic subscription to our journal Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBC) and to our newsletter. There are also other benefits, such as reduced car insurance, health insurance and so on."

"Then there are the indirect, or intangible, reasons why people join," she says. "Members want to feel part of the cell biology community, to feel they are making a contribution to advocacy for basic biomedical research, to support the good works of the society in terms of the advancement of the careers of under-represented minorities or women, or to make a contribution to our activities in science education."

Organizing meetings is seen as one of the key roles of learned societies. The ASCB annual meeting is a big event, attracting around 10,000 cell biologists. Publishing revenues are often used by societies to subsidize their meetings. "But that is not the case for the ASCB," says Marincola. "Our annual meeting produces a net revenue to the society. The single largest source of society revenue is the exhibit booth."

The fact that the ASCB makes money from its meeting has allowed the society to move towards Open Access publishing.

The two-month gamble

The ASCB director comments on the background of their flagship journal. "There are a number of premises on which MBC was established. The editors felt that the cell biology community needed a really good journal that was run 'by scientists for scientists'. Now it seems obvious, but at the time it was quite progressive. Our members resented the control exerted by commercial publishers and professional editors and there was a frustration with having to arbitrarily truncate their articles to fit the constrained limits of the high-prestige journals. Also there was no place to publish things like videos and large datasets. These needs converged to give birth to MBC." She adds that the journal was also influenced by the unique character of its founding editor, David Botstein.

"Societies shouldn't be dependent on revenue from journals"

Elizabeth Marincola

The ASCB was the very first publisher to join PubMed Central (see Open Access Now, July 28, 2003). MBC offers full free access with a delay of just two months, which is significantly shorter than the 6 or 12 month delay adopted by many other journals.

"There was unanimity within the society leadership to do this," recalls Marincola. "Our reasoning was that as long as we are not damaging ourselves financially, we want to get the science out there as quickly as possible, because it's going to benefit the field in general. We also felt that it will benefit the authors and therefore make the journal stronger because it's going to be a significant attraction to be submitting papers to Molecular Biology of the Cell if people know that their papers are getting more exposure."

"We took a gamble that protecting the two months of 'hotness' would allow us to retain our institutional subscriptions." In fact, subscriptions to MBC have steadily continued to grow since adopting the free access policy. The latest impact factor score for MBC is 7.599.

"No publication in the world can credibly argue that their revenues will be significantly affected if they release their content six months after publication"

Elizabeth Marincola

The ASCB had hoped that their experience would set an example for other society publishers. "I wish I could say that it has had a large impact on other publishers," says Marincola. "But I have not seen a huge rush on the part of other societies to release their journals with a two month delay. I think, however, that people are watching and are being influenced. And I like to think that some cell biology publishers who now offer [access after] a six-month delay were perhaps inspired by us. The fact that we took a very aggressive position on releasing MBC put pressure on other journals to follow."

Furthermore, the MBC author has the opportunity to have her/his accepted manuscript put up online before the article is ready for publication in its final form, although access at that stage is limited to subscribers. "The huge majority of authors choose that option - just to get it out there," says Marincola.


Keeping up the good work

"Has our generosity undermined our other good work?" asks Marincola. "In the case of the ASCB I say unequivocally 'no, it has not'. We are in the fortunate position that we are not dependent on our journal income to fund our other work, because we make significant revenue from our meeting. So the ASCB income is not significantly affected by making it free access. We put ourselves at risk when we began to provide MBC for free to members - but it's been a very good bet in our case. We have not lost subscription income, our submissions have gone up and our meeting programs have held strong. Financially we have been able to have our cake and eat it."

Marincola is perplexed as to why other large societies have not been encouraged to follow the ASCB example. "For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, and the American Society for Microbiology each have over 100,000 members, but neither of them are as generous as we are," she says. "One would think that they can afford to be. You look at organizations that are that well-established and enjoy that big a critical mass and you wonder why they cannot afford to risk some of their publishing income."

"I am disappointed that our two-month stand hasn't inspired more publishers to go with [free access after] two months," says Marincola. "Our experience has been entirely positive. When societies say that they can't take the risk, what they mean is that they are completely dependent on their publishing income."

The ASCB director compares herself with the CEO of a small business. When Marincola talks about diversified revenue streams one hears echoes of the lessons she learned studying for an MBA at Stanford. "When my colleagues come to me and say they couldn't possibly think of putting their publishing revenues at risk, I think 'why haven't you been diversifying your revenue sources all along and why haven't you been diversifying your products all along?' The ASCB offers a diverse range of products so that if publications were at risk financially, we wouldn't lose our membership base because there are lots of other reasons why people are members."

Marincola is adamant that journals shouldn't exist to keep scholarly societies alive. "I think the more dependent societies are on their publications, the farther away they are from the real needs of their members. If they were really doing good work and their members were aware of this, then they wouldn't be so fearful. It has had a very conservative influence on societies."

The ASCB has also run a campaign to educate its members about the advantages of Open Access. "We have been quite aggressive on this position," stresses Marincola. "We published quite a few things in our newsletter advocating Open Access." Marincola also served on the initial oversight board for PubMed Central.

"The Society passed a policy that went into effect this year regarding the discounts on other publications that we negotiate for our members. Our governing council decided that, regardless of what the financial benefits might be to the society or our members, we will not offer a subscription through the ASCB unless that journal is available for free access six months or less after publication." Marincola adds that the society has had quite a few enquiries from members asking why these journals are no longer on the dues notice. This has given her the chance to explain why ASCB adopted this policy and why they are not promoting, even indirectly, journals that refuse to release articles. "Member reaction has been fantastic - it's been very gratifying."

Marincola's position is clear. "We feel that there is really no publication in the world that can credibly argue that their revenues will be significantly affected if they release their content six months after publication. What library is going to stuff their subscription to Nature or Science because their faculty can get it six months later? We just don't believe that argument."

"The more dependent societies are on their publications the farther away they are from the real needs of their members"

Elizabeth Marincola

But the ASCB is not resting on its laurels and continues to move towards full Open Access. "We would love to be able to offer MBC for free immediately," says Marincola. "But we are cautious about what that would do to us financially. Our council has charged the staff with trying to develop a financial plan that will enable us to release MBC immediately for free. It's not easy - advertising revenues are going down everywhere and there are obvious reasons to be cautious about raising membership dues or annual meeting fees to offset it. We have been tasked with coming up with a plan to enable us to do this. It is the explicit goal of the society to try to find a way to release MBC without even a two-month delay while retaining our financial base."

Marincola has a concluding message for other society directors. "Scientific societies that do not offer a broad and deep range of services to their members are in trouble." She acknowledges the role that outspoken Open Access advocates have played. "No one can deny that, whether you like their tactics or not, they have put pressure on the whole community to open up publication and to get science out there more quickly." The ASCB has certainly taken a lead in responding to these calls for change and set a pioneering example for other societies about how to focus on serving their members best. Will it be bold enough to become the first society to have a truly Open Access journal, allowing immediate free access, letting authors retain copyright and allowing unimpeded dissemination of MBC's articles?




Open Access Now is published by BioMed Central
Editor: Jonathan B Weitzman