ESA and Scientific Publishing—Past, Present, and Pathways to the Future


  • Scott Collins,

  • Deborah Goldberg,

  • Josh Schimel,

  • Katherine McCarter


The world of scientific publishing is undergoing dramatic changes as technological advances alter the way in which we communicate and share information. Open access, preprint servers such as arXiv, and online reference networks like Mendeley are among the innovations borne of the Internet Age.

For nearly 100 years, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) has published some of the top journals in the fields of ecology and environmental sciences. Our journals have been and continue to be a core function of the Society and are integral to its operations and existence as the professional home for 10,000 ecologists.

The leadership of the Society recognizes the potential of new trends toward open access (OA) publishing and the value of having the papers published in ESA journals freely accessible to the widest possible audience. However, because fully OA journals do not charge for subscriptions, applying such a model to the ESA journals would require major changes in the financial basis and the operations both of the ESA journals and of the Society's activities more broadly. For most of our history, library subscriptions have paid for copyediting, typesetting, archiving, distribution, and other publication services, allowing us to keep charges to authors at a relatively low level. Subscription fees have also partially defrayed the costs of outreach, education, and scientific meetings, providing stable core funding to complement membership fees, the annual meeting, donations, and grants.

Over the last year or more, debates about OA for scholarly journals in general, and for ESA's journals more particularly, have become more vociferous and even, in some cases, acrimonious. ESA's leadership is aware of the opportunities OA brings, but is also paying careful attention to what some changes may mean for the Society and for authors. This article is intended as a candid and transparent assessment of ESA's current publications operations and where we might be headed. We've tasked a special working group to evaluate potential publishing options for ESA and how those options might affect our operations and the services the Society provides its members. We invite you to share your ideas and concerns regarding the future of publishing and ESA's role for the ecological community.

ESA's philosophy and history of publishing

ESA has been a nonprofit publisher for nearly 100 years. Our purpose is to sponsor communication among scholars and establish a stable record of scientific results—not to make large profits. ESA has policies currently in place that are intended to increase access while maintaining the value of subscriptions for libraries. For example, all authors are encouraged to post their work (the final published pdf) in a publicly accessible form on a personal or employer web site or in an institutional repository. Authors are also permitted to republish all or portions of their work elsewhere without further permission from ESA, and may submit papers for publication in ESA journals that have previously been posted to the preprint server arXiv.

A featured article in each issue of ESA's subscription journals is open access, as are all special issues of all ESA journals, supplements to Ecological Applications, the “Reports” section of Ecology, and the “Communications” section of Ecological Applications. In addition, all journal abstracts, the ESA Bulletin, Ecological Archives, and the publication series Issues in Ecology are freely available to the public online. ESA's newest peer-reviewed, rapid publication journal Ecosphere is open access (using the author-pays model). ESA also participates in OARE (Online Access to Research in the Environment), which distributes all ESA journals free of cost to developing countries.

In addition, the Society has long been dedicated to making its publications readily available for classroom and other educational uses, and does not charge for electronic or paper copying of journal articles or other materials for educational purposes. ESA also provides reporters and freelance science writers with free access to all of its journals, including its subscription publications.

ESA has been a leader among professional societies in promoting access to data associated with publications. The Society has hosted five National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored workshops promoting data sharing, operates a data registry where all authors are encouraged to describe their data, and makes supplemental data associated with publications freely available through Ecological Archives. ESA also requires data associated with papers published in Ecological Monographs to be made available in a public repository (for example, Dryad), and is a member node for DataONE, a NSF-sponsored cyberinfrastructure project dedicated to providing universal access to data about life on earth and the environment (see

Scientists around the world publish their research in ecology and environmental science in ESA's five journals, which provide high-quality outlets for the ecological community at affordable cost. Institutional prices charged by ESA are significantly less than those charged by commercially published journals in ecology and related fields. For example, a 2012 online-only institutional subscription to ESA's journal Ecology cost $812, while an online-only institutional subscription to Wiley-Blackwell's Ecology Letters cost $2610.

ESA journals are among the most highly rated in ecology and environmental science.

2012 Ecology category rankings, out of 131 journals:

Table 1. Thumbnail image of

In a 2011 ESA member survey, respondents said that they joined ESA to support the field of ecology and that they view ESA publications as one of its top services.

ESA publication and society finances

Currently, author fees cover about 24% of ESA journal production costs, with subscriptions covering the other 76%. Production costs include considerable investment in high-quality copyediting, printing, and online platform costs.

Our journals make up the single biggest portion of our revenue. In 2011, journal subscriptions and manuscript charges together accounted for 53% of ESA's revenue, while journal production accounted for 43% of expenses. That differential, which goes back into the organization, enables us to provide additional services to the ecological community. These include small conferences and workshops, education initiatives, policy engagement, and media outreach. Other Society revenue sources are the annual meeting, grants and contributions, and membership dues.

Figure 1.

ESA is proud of its long tradition as an independent scientific publisher of high-quality journals. But as library budgets and subscriptions decline, many scientific society publishers are re-evaluating their publishing programs. Many have opted to turn publication of their journals over to for-profit publishing houses. The American Geophysical Union recently took this step, selecting Wiley-Blackwell as its “publishing partner,” effective January 2013.

Current OA issues

Researchers, librarians and government officials are increasingly calling on publishers to enhance the ease of obtaining research publications and to do so without charging a fee to users. Publishers are responding in different ways, with some offering open access journals, some moving to hybrid journals that incorporate aspects of both subscription and author-pays business models, and some sticking to subscription-only models. ESA currently has four subscription journals and one (Ecosphere) that operates under the author-pays business model.

The research and library communities are interested in gaining access to research without the impediment and cost of subscription. Some OA advocates promote open access as primarily for public consumption, and maintain that taxpayers should not have to pay to access published results of research they helped support. But although the raw data may have been paid for, the services of review, layout, copyediting, and publishing have not, and are considerable. In other aspects of society, we see no conflict with asking users to pay for access services to properties they “own”; for example, the Association of American Publishers has noted that taxpayers must still pay to use tax-supported national parks and public transportation.

Although the research may be supported in part or in full by a government entity, as noted above, the review, copyediting, and publishing platform all come with a cost that must be paid by someone. In traditional publishing, those wishing to access material pay for access. In many current OA models, the cost is shifted to those wishing to make it available to users, usually authors. Open access makes taxpayer-funded research freely available, but it creates a concern in a potential loss of access to publishing outlets for scholars who do not have federal funding. This may be a particular concern for graduate students and other junior scholars, authors from small institutions, and those from developing countries.

An alternative to imposing high costs on authors is to decrease the cost of publishing. The current trend of reducing and even eliminating print journals contributed to this, as does continuing development of more efficient online manuscript handling and publication platforms. For ESA, a significant expense of our journals is the high quality of copyediting, which is viewed positively by members. The trend in author-pays journals is to automate the lay-out and copyediting process to reduce costs, but at the price of reducing production quality.

Not surprisingly, the OA movement has generated some tensions between publishers and authors and raised concerns from both. Authors, understandably, are keen to have their work widely accessible to fellow researchers, and also would like to easily access the research results of others. On the other hand, authors probably do not want to have to choose between paying much higher amounts for publications vs. directly funding research and supporting graduate students; a potential trade-off if page charges and publication fees continue to come from grants.

Meanwhile, many publishers—for profit and non-profit alike—have some concerns about possible consequences of open access mandates. In ESA's case, one issue is that the Society could suffer potentially severe consequences from laws that would force it to make significant changes to its business model within a limited time frame. If libraries decide that it's not worth subscribing to ESA journals that will be freely available within 6 or even 12 months, the future of ESA as currently operated would be very much in question. Large-scale publishers with more diverse portfolios, particularly those that include the biomedical sciences and its lucrative advertising market, would presumably be in a better position to absorb mandated changes to their business operations.

With the OA movement has come a flush of new OA journals, along with some concerns about quality, integrity, and ownership. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado-Denver, lays out some of the key concerns in a Nature column. Focusing primarily on “predatory publishers,” Beall notes how these publishers are corrupting open-access publishing by spamming researchers, soliciting manuscripts but omitting mention of a required authors fee which they then demand after publication (sometimes as high a fee as $1800).

Beall also writes about the risk of vanity publications. “Scholarly publishing's traditional role of vetting the best research is disappearing. Now there is a journal willing to accept almost every article, as long as the author is willing to pay the fee. Authors, rather than libraries, are the customers of open-access publishers, so a powerful incentive to maintain quality has been removed.”

Another component of OA is the push for a more liberal copyright license. Most publishers, including ESA, currently operate under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license for open-access publications, which allows others to freely copy, distribute, transmit, and adapt the work but not use it for commercial purposes without special permission from the copyright holder. A CC-BY license—required by the Research Council of the United Kingdom (RCUK) for pre-paid “gold” papers—would lift the commercial restriction, allowing for-profit companies to freely exploit published papers.

Rapid changes in information sharing bring with them great opportunities but also hazards. The benefits of greater and faster access are obvious, the potential intended or unintended consequences are more nuanced and in some cases difficult to predict. And, as is often the case, different groups have staked out different positions depending on their perspective, familiarity with, or personal stake in the issue.

As Oxford University Press senior editor and former biologist David Crotty points out, the “publishing landscape” is diverse. “A journal owned by a commercial publisher, such as Elsevier, generates profits that go to that publisher's shareholders.” In contrast, “A journal owned by a research society makes money that is then used to pay for the work that society does. If you submit articles to a society-owned journal, review for them, subscribe to the journal, or serve on their editorial board, you're directly supporting your own research community. Your author fees come right back to your own field and pay for your annual meeting, scholarship, education, lobbying and all the other things a society does on your behalf.”

Mandates overseas: UK and European commission OA policies

In July of 2012, the RCUK passed an open-access mandate that will go into effect on 1 April 2013. The RCUK mandate means that scholarly publishers, including ESA, need to decide how they will handle article submissions from the UK.

Shortly after the RCUK mandate, the European Commission announced that it would apply open access as a “general principle” to grants awarded through the $97.92 billion Horizon 2020 program for research and innovation. By 2014, scientists supported by Horizon 2020 would either have to pay to make their research immediately accessible or would have to place their research results into a free repository within six months of publication in a subscription journal. About 30% of ESA journal authors are European.

The RCUK offers both the green and gold open access options. The “green” option requires publishers to make articles open access after a 6-month embargo (with a 12-month embargo exception for the social sciences and humanities). The “gold” option requires authors to pay a fee to publishers for their articles to become immediately open access. The UK government plans to provide $16 million to help researchers defray the cost of publishing in open-access journals. It also requires that “gold” papers receive a liberal publishing license (Creative Commons CC-BY), making the work free to text-mine or reuse in other ways by all, including commercial entities.

ESA's European “sister society,” the British Ecological Society, while supportive of the UK's move toward open access, has expressed concern about the length of embargo periods, noting that while six months may be long enough for a fast-paced field such as molecular biology, motivating researchers to pay for immediate access, that outcome is far less likely in ecology: “… in which the body of knowledge tends to be augmented more slowly, researchers may be happy to wait for six months for a journal article to become available to them, with no profit therefore accruing to the learned society publisher.”

OA will likely bring with it both intended and unintended consequences and raises some significant policy questions. One of them is sorting out what “gold” OA will mean for publishers as well as authors. Will publishers need to invest heavily in their online platforms to meet gold requirements? Will the standard place additional burdens on unfunded authors—many of them graduate students and other junior scholars—authors from small institutions and those from developing countries?

Current (NIH) and pending OA policies in the United States

The NIH Public Access Policy (signed into law in 2008) requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication. The Policy requires that these papers be accessible on PubMed Central no later than 12 months after publication.

The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) would apply to all research funded by federal agencies with annual research budgets of more than $100 million. These 11 agencies include the National Science Foundation, which funds about 60% of all federally supported ecological research. The bill, sponsored by Senators Lieberman and Cornyn, would require these agencies to create online repositories of journal articles of the research supported by that agency and make them publicly available. The law would require the agencies to maintain and preserve the articles or for another repository that permits free and open access to be used. Articles would need to be available to users without charge within six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Senators Lieberman and Cornyn have introduced their bill three times, starting in 2006, and most recently in 2012. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Representatives Doyle, Foster, and others.

Universities, libraries, research charities, and some publishers support FRPAA. Others, including the Ecological Society of America, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and other scientific society publishers support open access initiatives but have expressed concerned about a government-imposed mandate to provide free access to journals within just six months. ESA has met with congressional offices and committees, requesting that the federal government allow publishers to continue to experiment with various models and noting the nuances among the sciences.

The Association of American Publishers opposes the bill on behalf of 81 scholarly publishing organizations. Among its concerns are that the bill would impose the same embargo deadline for all disciplines, limit the options of government-funded researchers, force a change in publishers' business models, and create a cost burden on federal agencies.

With both the UK and the European Commission unveiling OA mandates in the summer of 2012, and with the U.S. Congress and the White House also increasingly leaning towards broadening the OA mandate to other federal agencies, it may be only a matter of time before some sort of mandate is also set in the United States.

Next steps

ESA elected leaders and staff recognize that we are collectively at a major turning point in how research results are shared globally. These are exciting times, filled with great opportunity, but also with risks to scholarly integrity, authors, and to nonprofit publishers and professional societies. What may make sense for one field may not work so well for others. As previously noted, ecology differs from the fields of genetics and medicine. Journals of the latter fields draw significant revenue from advertisements, historically a very limited source of income for ecology. Also, the “shelf life” of ecology research tends to be much longer than for medically oriented sciences.

The Society recognizes that its publishing and business model will need to change, and it is currently taking steps to thoughtfully and carefully evaluate possible ways forward that enhance our role in this evolving stage of sharing research. We've heard from members who would like to see us enhance our online platform to include article abstracts in RSS feeds as well as more prominent links to appendices and other supplemental materials.

ESA President Scott Collins has appointed a special ESA ad hoc committee charged with exploring and evaluating options for the Society related to OA issues. The Ad Hoc Working Group on ESA Publications will assess various options that ESA might pursue to best serve the ecological community by continuing to offer excellent and affordable publication outlets, and the additional services of engagement in science policy and management, education, and media. Included in the committee's charge is exploring what ESA would do in the event of a U.S. mandated open access policy and further researching the potential impact of OA on journal subscriptions.

The specific charge to the ad hoc committee is:

Envision the future of scientific publishing and explore the implications of various open access scenarios (including the potential federal mandate for immediate open access) for the Society's publications and finances. Prepare a report for the Governing Board by May 2013.

Invitation for input

We invite you to contribute your ideas about ESA's publishing and other initiatives. What issues do you believe need to be on the table? What are your concerns and hopes for the changing dynamics of sharing scientific research results? In what ways do you think ESA can best continue to serve the community?

Current ESA programs that benefit from the Society's existing business model include its policy activities, such as bringing ecological information to policymakers through briefings, meetings, and letters, keeping members informed of relevant policy issues, broadly sharing ecology through press releases, podcasts, blog posts, and other social media, supporting young ecologists, ecology education and diversification of the discipline, and providing workshops and science conferences to address ecological and environmental issues.

What do you see as ESA's most important role? What areas do you see as less important and why? Do you have specific suggestions for other models that ESA could explore that would enable it to continue supporting existing programs that members value? What would be the best possible outcome for the ecological community in the face of changing publication modes and information sharing?

Please send comments to