In the previous post on journal publishing, I observed that sub-sub-specialty journals were an anachronism of the era prior to the establishment of nearly comprehensive search engines and databases like PubMed. In that era, dividing the monthly output of scientific papers into journals made sense. First of all, it would be pretty hard to pick up a monthly issue of "The Omnibus Journal of Biomedical Science". Second, it would be unduly laborious (and paper cut-y) to keep flipping around from some index or TOC to the abstracts you wanted to scan. So there were certain physical realities driving journal specialization.
Not to mention the fact that across the decades from 1886 to 1996 (PubMed established) there was a gradual and sustained addition of sub-specialty societies, narrower and narrower subfields of interest and an all around expansion of academic science. This came with a desire for yet another group of scientists to have selection of the studies they most wanted to read into a smaller number of journals.
I am not privy to all the details of the history of journals in academic science. Not even close. But what I do know is that a publisher such as Elsevier has a metric boatload of small sub-specialty journals at present time. Many of which are tied to an academic society. They continue to launch NEW ones. (Phew, I'm already link exhausted- Google "Official Journal Elsevier" and see what you get. The list is enormous.)
It is, or has been, in the interests of both Elsevier and the academic society to continue this arrangement. Occasionally societies will switch publishers. For example, Neuropsychopharmacology jumped from Elsevier to Nature Publishing Group in recent memory**. Occasionally you'll be looking at the online site for a journal and notice a truncation in the archive..and have to Google around to figure out who used to publish the journal. Nevertheless, it is clear that Elsevier thinks these arrangements are good ones. Presumably because they get good return from libraries when they bundle a bunch of journals into a fixed price menu.
[Sidebar: This is a bit of a fly in the ointment, btw. One thing I do laud the publishers for is when they've taken effort to PDF all of their back catalog...back to vol 1, issue 1 in the dark ages in some cases. When there's a shift in the publisher that took place prior to the online age it seems to me that their motivation for putting up a back catalog for a journal they no longer publish is not very high.]
What do the societies get in return?
I am, shall we say*, somewhat informed about moves by at least two society level journals to switch their default member subscription from print to online. The response seemed to be overwhelming approval and lack of opting-for-print amongst the memberships. No surprise, almost all of us are complete and total converts to the benefits of online access to journal articles and personal PDF archives on our computers. Yes, even the rapidly emeritizing cohort. Still, it is nice to see the data, so to speak. Nice to see that if a society stops sending print issues to clog up faculty bookshelves collecting dust, nobody objects.
But......ego. Somehow I bet the existing societies would get their backs up a little bit if there was a suggestion that they simply give up their journal. Neuropolarbear asked what could be done about the assy position being taken by some publishers on the Research Works Act issue. This is the one trying to reverse the law demanding the deposit of all NIH funded papers into PubMedCentral (in peer-reviewed, accepted, manuscript form).
One thing we could do is to demand our society journals stop working with the jerky publishers.
This thought is what brought up all the above blathering. It is very likely that each and every small journal couldn't make it on their own. Well, duh, of course not. As noted by the irrepressible Comrade Physioproffe
From what I understand, the other issue moneywise is that big publishers like Elsevier force institutions to pay subscription fees for shitteasse journals that no one reads by bundling them with their flagship journals. Those journals wouldn’t even exist if they had to survive on their own submission/publication fees.
But if all we're talking about is a sort of virtual journal...why can't some other umbrella journal publisher just kind of take up the slack? Why couldn't a PLoS ONE type of outfit agree to provide all the publishing services and put some sort of tag on the article to group by academic society?
*christ that was priggish, wasn't it?
**fascinating. In the case of Neuropsychopharmacology, the entire back catalog was transferred over to NPG so if you click on an article that your print copy insists was published by Elsevier, boom, you end up at NPG.