TSPOA: What have we been up to?

In February of 2018, we founded Transitioning Society Publications to Open Access (TSPOA) to provide support, advocacy, and referral services for societies and publishers of society journals. Our overarching aim has been to assist learned societies in transitioning their publications to open access (OA). In our first year-and-a-half the world has grappled with public health, socio-political, and environmental crises that have only underscored the critical need for public access to research and scholarship. This has been an extraordinarily challenging period for everyone, both within and outside of scholarly publishing. We’d like to take the opportunity to highlight a few of our efforts that we believe are bringing some positive change and impact in such uncertain times.

Why have we gotten involved?

If you’re unfamiliar with TSPOA, some context about learned society publishing may help frame the work we’ve been doing. As global publishing shifts toward open access, learned societies are wrestling with new revenue streams and publishing strategies not only to ensure cost recovery, but also to sustain the many other society functions once supported by membership or library subscription spends. Academic libraries have contemplated how to begin supporting institutionally-affiliated society scholars and engage with societies more directly to support OA publishing, given often minimal interactions between libraries and societies in a subscription-based publishing landscape: Many society publications are bundled into large subscription packages with commercial publishers or content aggregators, rendering a society-library relationship unnecessary in those circumstances. 

Bridging connections between learned societies and libraries by positioning libraries as potential OA publishing funders is further complicated by libraries’ lack of visibility into ways in which societies utilize publishing income to cover editorial costs, staff, educational programs, outreach, and more. Conversely, societies may not be familiar with how shrinking library budgets mean that if libraries stop paying for large subscriptions, that money cannot always be repurposed in its entirety toward paying mission-driven publishers directly for OA publishing. This absence of crosswalks between libraries and societies has discouraged societies from moving forward with experimentation.

It can also be challenging for societies to understand what OA transition models to pursue. There are now more than two dozen financial models that societies can rely upon to transition their journals to OA. In some models: libraries provide societies with publishing services directly; societies adopt article processing charges; libraries form collectives or partnerships to invest in or “adopt” society journals as benefactors; libraries contribute on a tiered basis relative to their institutions’ publishing output; existing subscribers participate in a collective action offering (referred to as Subscribe to Open and pioneered by non-profit publisher Annual Reviews); and more. The propriety of any of these models as a possible path forward is further dependent upon whether the society self-publishes or has an existing contractual relationship with a third-party content aggregator or publisher.

The implications, opportunities, and challenges of these many emerging OA publishing models for societies are just beginning to be explored. Wellcome, UK Research and Innovation, and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers commissioned Information Power Ltd. to examine a range of business models supporting an OA transition for societies in a manner compliant with Plan S. In the meantime, there remains a relative dearth of use case data for societies about the financial implications and mechanics of implementing various transition models. There also are comparatively few community resources and little procedural guidance to support the substantial efforts societies must undertake to assess their own operations and finances and select a funding model to pilot.

Overall, given the pace of evolving publishing models, relatively limited use case data, and the onus of self-evaluation that societies must undertake, it is challenging to help libraries, societies, and non-profit publishers like university presses evaluate possible paths forward to OA. This is where TSPOA comes in: finding ways to support societies seeking to take next steps toward. 

What have we done?

In our first eighteen months, we have:

  • Engaged in approximately two dozen consultations with societies or non-profit publishers exploring open access publishing for society journals. This consultative work for journal transitions is extremely labor intensive, necessitating a wide variety of outreach and extensive conversations with relevant stakeholders, editorial teams, and advisory boards.
  • Co-created and delivered an international webinar series with the UK’s Society Publishers’ Coalition to elevate publishing stakeholders’ understanding of learned society publishing and operational needs, and empower stakeholders to make decisions about how to support society publishing. We also aimed to promote knowledge exchange and community-building between societies, universities, funders, and authors. the recorded webinars touched on all of the following:
    • UNDERSTANDING LEARNED SOCIETIES: This webinar offered a deep dive into the modern purposes, functions, and needs of scholarly societies—-with particular attention to the publishing opportunities and challenges they face within an evolving scholarly communication ecosystem.
    • FUNDING PATHWAYS FOR LEARNED SOCIETY OA PUBLISHING: We next overviewed a variety of funding models that scholarly societies may consider in transitioning to open access publishing. Our goal was to help societies begin to evaluate which funding strategies might work for them by examining the models’ associated implementation needs or partnership dependencies. Likewise, we aimed to help libraries and consortia understand their potential roles in supporting emerging OA funding models.
    • ENGAGING SOCIETIES AND SOCIETY JOURNALS IN TRANSITIONING TO OA PUBLISHING: The webinar series concluded with an exploration of how authors and libraries can work with and support society journals and publishers as they prepare for and undertake an OA transition. We examined the kinds of resources, consultations, and advocacy both needed and available for authors, libraries, and society journals. 

These efforts have borne other exciting fruit: We will soon be announcing a multi-stakeholder pilot with university presses and journals to support sustainable OA publishing through a crowd-sourced funding model and platform. We hope that data from this effort will help fill gaps in stakeholder understanding of OA transition needs for societies and publishing investors (like libraries, funders, and academic departments and centers). 


In many ways, the consultative sessions have sometimes been a bit of talk therapy. Often, societies are curious but approach the conversations skeptically but with gratitude for a community of supporters knowledgeable about emerging transition mechanisms. We’re in a period in which many of the consultations we have are exploratory, and many don’t always result in a society transitioning their journals just yet. That’s okay! The entire process of transitioning to open access takes time. A society can’t undertake everything it needs to do to transition overnight, nor could potential funders or publishers like libraries or academic departments build capacity for support overnight either. 

But these conversations help. They reaffirm stakeholders’ commitments and keep momentum going and have been a learning experience for both sides. So, we’ll keep talking and offering services while our society and library partners take their next steps along their journeys. We are encouraged when societies and non-profit publishers come away from our conversations better equipped to have substantive discussions with their board and members.

Another boon to the transition process has been when we, as individual TSPOA members and on behalf of our own libraries, are able to commit some resources to support a transition directly. This provides some necessary financial reassurance that libraries feel they do have skin in the game, and are committed to repurposing subscription spends when they can (of course, also providing publishing services directly if they can, too).All of our work invested in pilot development, consultative services, and presentations is offered pro bono, from our approximately 15 members each with full-time “regular” jobs! We also offer it objectively without inclination toward any particular OA publishing model.

If you are interested in learning more about the support available for society publications to transition to OA, we encourage you to reach out to us at contact-tspoa@googlegroups.com. And please stay tuned for more exciting developments in the year ahead.