Today, Wiley-Blackwell has published the results of a survey undertaken earlier this year of ’47 officers from scholarly and professional societies ranging in size from less than 500 members to more than 25,000, and from a variety of subject disciplines,’ the majority of whom are ‘based in Europe and the United States’.
The press release does not state whether the data are to be published. In the interim, it is interesting to look at some of the results as they are presented, and also to extrapolate a few statistics from them in turn:
- 60% of the professional and scholarly societies polled believe that the global economic downturn might be a stimulus to introducing efficiencies within their organizations. Presumably, 40% of professional and scholarly societies do not believe the global economic downturn might be a stimulus to introducing efficiencies within their organizations.
- 57% of professional and scholarly societies polled think the global economic downturn might provide opportunities for launching new activities or services for their members. Presumably, 43% of professional and scholarly societies do not think the global economic downturn might provide opportunities for launching new activities or services for their members.
- 68% of professional and scholarly societies polled characterized the global economic downturn as moderately negative, while 17% stated that it will have minimal negative impact or may even be beneficial.
- Asked to rank the expected impact of the economic downturn on each category of their organization’s revenues or assets, more than 75% of society officers believed that there would be a very or slightly negative impact on their membership dues and conference income, with the most concern expressed about endowments and investments.
- 32% of the professional and scholarly societies polled did not anticipate any change in income from publishing, 47% percent believed it could be slightly affected, while 17% percent felt this area may be very affected.
- 41% of the professional and scholarly societies polled said that they would consider downsizing while a further 41% said they would consider expanding.
- 54% of the professional and scholarly societies polled felt that the way to navigate the recession was outsourcing some of their core activities, such as publishing.
- 66% of the professional and scholarly societies polled thought that their publishing needs would not change during the recession, while 33% thought they would.
The press release includes what it describes as ‘typical[...] feedback’ from respondents:
“Help us to weather the storm – you all have a lot more collective experience than we do individually”
“[We request] more guidance and monitoring of the economic climate and proactive recommendations”
Dr. Andrew Robinson, Vice President and Managing Director, Medicine at Wiley-Blackwell, comments that “it’s clear from the survey that many societies are looking to publishers for expert guidance in managing their costs and protecting and growing their revenues during these anxious times[...] We take a proactive approach and are working with our society partners on a range of strategies and actions which will ensure that they and their journals prosper”.
I for one would like to hear more about what those strategies and actions will consist of. This is a press release, after all: I clicked on a tweet featuring the upbeat summary ‘Survey shows scholarly societies see economic downturn as opportunity to intro new product and boost efficiencies’, and thought that I might hear at least a little more about what they could be.
That won’t necessarily be a concern to the 32% of respondents who trust their publisher to the point that they do not anticipate that there will be a change in the income they receive, who are doubtless also a subset of the stoic 66% who believe that their publishing needs will not be changing during the recession. All things considered, this is a novel stance to adopt, and perhaps one that has as much to do with the double-bluffing game of journal contract renewal as it does with the state of the economy.
However, for the 75% of society representatives polled who anticipate membership dues and conference incomes are going to take a dip, the clock is ticking. You simply have not got the time to wait for your publisher to get around to telling you what they may do. You need to act. Now.
Societies must back themselves to win this game in the long term. The glass is half-full, not half empty: they should be looking to side themselves with the 41% of the respondents who said that they did not think they were going to have to downsize, rather than the 41% who said that they may.
Societies should trust their brands, but in so doing acknowledge that they may have become too valuable to entrust to others.
If your publisher is reticent about sharing their ideas as to how they intend to support your publication, you may not unreasonably assume that they’re somewhat sketchy on the details themselves. If they are tardy in turning the next interminable PowerPoint presentation they inflict upon you into reality, you have every right to call them on what you may interpret as a delaying tactic intended to lull you into a sense of security until the next board meeting.
Remember: you are the expert scientists. Publishers are just expert publishers. Scientific societies can be publishers; publishers cannot be scientists. It is the societies that deliver the value; publishers merely value the delivery. Not only may their organizational immune system prevent them from ever adequately supporting the local optimum that your scientific reputation possesses, and they could also be holding you back from achieving the local optimum you may go on to attain as publishers in your own right.
Whilst new publication models are going to emerge over the coming years, I predict that not many of them are going to be driven by traditional scholarly publishers. The old models will break before the new ones are invented as the struggle for information heightens. Those of your members who are advocates of open access are already attempting to wrest control of the content they produce away from traditional scholarly publishers. There will be no middle ground, and there can be no question as to who you must side with.
Here are a few ideas for the 60% of societies that believe the economic downturn might be a stimulus to manage costs and introduce efficiencies within their organizations:
- Request that your publisher build a social networking microsite for your community. They are quick; they are cheap. If your publisher sucks air through their teeth and gives you a timeline of longer than a month, build your own; as Seth Godin wrote recently, neatness is for historians. Right now is the right time to be using social media to provide new ways for your membership to interact with each other and with you, to strengthen your existing relationships, heighten your profile, restate your enduring relevance, and demonstrate the value that you can contribute to your community in order to build brand advocacy among the next generation of members that you are hoping to recruit. It is also worth bearing in mind that if your society does not build this site, then this next generation of potential members will build something better for themselves; far better that they work with you to enhance the focal point that you have created. It is always better to lead than to try to catch up. If you stumble whilst you are out in front, you have time to pick yourself up and find your stride again. More to the point, you may then find that you have others around you who can support you. However, if you stumble when you’re lagging behind the pack, what are the chances of your community even noticing? How do you rate your chances of ever gaining lost ground?
- Whilst you are waiting for your publisher to reveal their recommendations to you with regards to new activities and services (and the longer you wait, the more you should be expecting), ask them when they are planning on launching a social media presence framework for your brands. If they say more than a month, build your own. It’s not as if there aren’t scores of excellent, free guides out there to help you get started with social networking and build an opportunity network for your society’s brands.
- Your society has the potential to play a clearly-defined role in expanding its core activity as the facilitator of community interactions between professional peers through the effective use of social media and social networking, as well as through your journal and conferences. Ask your publisher when they are going to give you something like the ACS‘s JACS Beta. Ask them when they are going to start promoting your brands in the same way that (to choose an adjacent example) the Mayo Clinic has promoted theirs (see slides 22-46) in order that your membership may begin to enjoy the same sort of exposure that their physicians, scientists and researchers now have. As you can see from this slidedeck, cost is not as issue; expertise is. Are you asking the right people for help?
In conclusion, whilst 54% of the professional and scholarly societies polled felt that the way to navigate the recession was ‘outsourcing some of their core activities such as publishing’, perhaps the other 46% are working on plans similar to those outlined above.
One will thrive. One may survive.
Of all the percentages thrown around in this piece, in this instance I am 100% sure I know which is which.