Hybrid journal publication supports structures essential for science: Q&A with Michael Spedding

Hybrid journals are a crucial source of income for many learned societies. But the Plan S initiative on scientific publishing excludes hybrid journals, which may constrain the other primary activities of societies such as capacity building.

Photo: Clint Adair on Unsplash
Lizzie Sayer

In the next part of our blog series on Plan S and scientific publishing, we speak to Michael Spedding about how learned societies may be affected by the proposed ban on cOAlition S-funded researchers publishing in hybrid journals, and hear more about why maintaining the structures supporting current models of scientific publishing is essential for pharmacology.

Michael Spedding has a long association with the International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology (IUPHAR), having served as its Secretary General, and as Secretary and Chair of the IUPHAR Nomenclature Committee.

How did you get involved in the debate around Open Access?

It goes back a long way – I’ve been a drug-discovering developer all my life. I was also Secretary and Chair of the Nomenclature Committee of the International Union of Basic & Clinical Pharmacology (NC-IUPHAR), which is a remarkable group that has structured modern pharmacology for over 30 years, producing a large number of publications. From five sub-committees it has grown to 90 sub-committees of 800 scientists in total, who guarantee the scientific background to databases regarding all the drug-binding sites in the human genome. UNESCO has described it as a great benefit to humanity.

That knowledge base has been built up by open publications in hybrid journals published by societies. There are now 125 publications with an H index of 80 (author: International Union of Pharmacology), so it’s a really major issue which is being supported by open publications in hybrid journals. The fact that all those papers were freely accessible in a hybrid journal also meant that they could be distributed worldwide, and so I’m very much involved in the distribution of science in China, India and Africa. I’ve been involved in open access – but through a hybrid model – all my life.

You’re a co-author of a recent letter in Science on the challenges that Plan S poses for society publishing, and ultimately for the activities of professional societies such as IUPHAR. Can you tell me more about the background to the letter?

It’s a big issue in pharmacology – there are many well organized hybrid journals run by the societies. IUPHAR don’t have a journal but we represent all the societies that do. For example, the pharmacology societies ensure that drug names in publications are all linked across the appropriate websites. Reviewing the names and having the infrastructure to link those names across to the data is costly, and it’s not within the realm of every single journal.

Could you tell me more?

In pharmacology, when you refer to specific drug names, or to suppliers, authors can add in the links of the drug names which then go off to either PubMed or another similar group, so that you can ensure that it relates to the right chemicals. The nomenclature is quite complicated and it’s difficult to do without the links. That means that ultimately your work – and the key issues of the paper – are hyper-connected. That requires a certain amount of background structures, but it’s key to ensuring the validity of those results.

Societies were sponsoring this work, and their ability to do so depends on their financial capacity. The hybrid journals are their main source of income, and this is redirected back into science and training. It’s a self-sustaining model that supports the structuring of scientific knowledge, and it provides a space for young scientists to grow into. Today some students and young scientists don’t benefit from the background work, training and education that I got, and so it’s a crucial aspect of the work of professional societies which needs funding. Where a professional society is involved in a journal, normally the people within the society are very motivated to maintain standards. I’ve been in professional societies all my life, and it’s been a major motor for me to be able to ensure standards of refereeing and training.

It’s the same for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which publishes the main journal for chemists. The journal provides some income for IUPAC and therefore IUPAC can continue to maintain scientific levels of nomenclature, which is a structure. Funding bodies don’t normally fund these structures in any way. The Wellcome Trust has supported NC-IUPHAR for the nomenclature issue but they don’t fund the long-term sustaining of the databases. That comes from the societies, such as the British Pharmacological Society, which funds two curators for which we are very grateful. As the ISC is the home for most of the scientific societies in the world it’s an important issue for the ISC as well.

How could the Plan S guidelines be amended to respond to these concerns?

Allowing hybrid journals would be a crucial modification. There are other models, but if open access through Plan S were to exclude hybrid journals – such as the journals of the societies – funding bodies would no longer meet the cost of publishing open access in such journals and so scientists would be excluded from publishing in those well refereed hybrid journals.

The main pharmacological and other societies are very willing to think of ways of going ahead – we must evolve, but the hybrid model has been working well for decades. To suddenly throw it in the bin in a year’s time would be a major shock and create huge difficulties for the societies and all of the benefits that they bring to the scientific world. There aren’t very many structuring organizations in science and to destroy the last ones would be very bad. The way one gets financed for structuring science is difficult, but it’s a crucial activity.

Earlier on in this series we heard from Robert-Jan Smits that cOAlition S was talking to societies that run hybrid journals to encourage them to switch to full Open Access. Have IUPHAR members have been involved in these discussions? What has been the outcome?

They wanted input by Feb 1; our letter came out around that time and we have not had direct contact. It is very important to take these concerns onboard, and so we’ve written to nearly all the main funding bodies.

Have you heard concerns from individual scientists?

I think there’s a general feeling of concern – the Plan S open letter has over 1500 scientists as signatories. There is a particular issue for people that have not been involved in this debate but should be, like many of my friends in the developing world, where open access is a critical issue. The World Health Organization has a programme called Research4Life (previously called Hinari), whereby the libraries in developing countries payed a lower amount of money for access to the journals. IUPHAR has spent a lot of time publicizing the benefits of being involved with Hinari in Africa and India. The problem for many of the scientists in the developing world is that if they’re not getting the funds to publish, the cost of publishing falls to the author.

The other issue, which I feel is underestimated, is the difficulty for people in the developing world to distinguish between predatory journals and good journals. It’s terrible for people who have spent their lives working in very difficult conditions to find they publish in a journal which is hardly regarded at all, at a cost. Differentiating between predatory journals and open journals is actually quite difficult, and society journals are one of the best ways of getting around that. Predatory journals are a worldwide issue, and it needs a closer look – it would be useful for the ISC to examine the issue.

The model of scientific publishing today seems to be based on a paper- or print-based model, which is costly. Couldn’t some of those costs be reduced? Do you see any opportunities for innovation?

The cost depends on the work that goes in – how much reviewing you do, how many experts you have, how much control you have over papers, and all the data access and access to links.

The issue is that the reviewing process and making the links (as described for pharmacology journals) is actually expensive. I am not an expert on the costs involved in publishing, but I think we could co-develop appropriate ways forward with societies and with cOAlition S. However, cutting out the hybrid journals at the very start would be like jumping into unknown waters, and would have major negative consequences for societies and in some situations for the developing world over the short- and long-term.

What do you think the future looks like for society journals? What do you hope to see?

I think that Plan S has a variety of positive points, and we are in agreement about many of the issues. What we should do is to sit down and work together with cOAlition S to better develop new ways forward. IUPHAR and ISC are key players but we have got to be very clear about maintaining our responsibility for ensuring scientific quality.