What makes a journal “for-profit”?

Last week, I drew a slightly strained, but I think useful, analogy between publication in for-profit journals and salmon: they’re both expensive, capitalist, products that some people purchase because (one presumes) they find them worth the price. I expected to make somebody angry with that analogy, and I was right – but it came with a twist I didn’t expect. I’d given the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecology as an example of a non-profit society journal in which one could publish, if one wanted to avoid the for-profits. And someone, with great indignation, protested that Ecology is published by Wiley, and therefore it’s a for-profit journal.

Is this true?

No, it isn’t – but it’s a bit complicated (as is the publishing ecosystem in general). It is true that Ecology is published by Wiley, in a partnership with the Ecological Society of America. (It’s not the only society journal like that – Wiley also publishes Journal of Ecology and other journals for the British Ecological Society, Evolution for the Society for the Study of Evolution, and so on.) It’s also true that Wiley is a for-exorbitant-profit company. But does that make Ecology a for-profit journal?

Not in my books. ESA could, of course, publish Ecology itself – it could set up a publishing arm and do all the specialized tasks needed to produce a journal in-house (or perhaps contract out some of those tasks piecemeal). That is, in fact, the way Ecology was published until 2015. Alternatively, it could contract with a large publisher to do all those specialized tasks – leaving the Society to worry about academic issues like reviewing and editing manuscripts. That’s what the ESA has done since 2016 (to my understanding; to be clear, I haven’t seen the contract). Since there are economies of scale in publishing, as there are in most things, this is presumably a much more efficient way for ESA to produce a journal.

Does Wiley make a profit from its contract with ESA? I assume so – I can’t imagine why they’d take the job otherwise. Does this make Ecology a for-profit journal? Of course not, unless a journal is for-profit if it buys paper from a for-profit papermaker, ink from a for-profit inkmaker, or server space from a for-profit web hosting company. If so, then every journal is a for-profit journal.

Now, it is possible that ESA pays too much for the services it’s getting from Wiley (or equivalently, is paid too little for the content Wiley gets from it)? Sure, of course it is; just as I may be paying too much for the apples I buy from the for-profit orchard down the road. I have no idea if ESA is overpaying or underpaying; but even if it were overpaying, that wouldn’t make Ecology a for-profit journal.

I guess there’s another sense in which you could call Ecology a for-profit journal: it presumably brings more money in to ESA than it costs to produce. Most society journals do, and journal revenues can then support other activities of the Society in question. I suppose you could call Ecology a for-profit journal in the sense that Girl Guide cookies are for-profit cookies – but that doesn’t seem like a very interesting way to think about things. Although it does make me hungry.

© Stephen Heard  March 28, 2023

UPDATE: Here’s an editorial explaining the history of, and rationale for, the society-Wiley partnership for Journal of Vegetation Science. Thanks to Valerio Pillar for alerting me to it!

Image: ka-ching, © Mary Crandall via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0




2 thoughts on “What makes a journal “for-profit”?

  1. gdgrossmangmailcom

    Well said. I think that most journals actually were subsidized by scientific societies up until say 2000 (just a wild guess) when charges for membership and journals were separated.



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