The benefits of publishing in society-owned scientific journals

Prepared by Milan Chytrý, Valério D. Pillar, Jodi N. Price, Viktoria Wagner, Susan K. Wiser & David Zelený

This text has been published as part of the Editorial in Applied Vegetation Science on January 2023 (

When looking for a suitable journal in which to publish manuscripts, we usually consider how the topic of the study matches the journal’s scope, and how reputable the journal is, which is typically judged from the impact factor or a similar citation-based metric. However, we may pay little attention to who owns the journal. Does journal ownership really matter? Here we argue that it does, and it is one of the critical criteria that authors should consider.

Historically, scientific journals were founded to facilitate communication between scholars. Since this communication was in the interest of scholars, the first scientific journals that emerged in the 17th century were published by scientific societies and funded by their members or wealthy philanthropists (Guédon, 2001). Later, some journals were also sponsored by government-funded institutions, but until the mid-20th century, scientific journals generally did not create profit.

In the post-World War II period, the number of new scientific articles increased at an annual growth rate of 5.1% and a doubling time of 14 years (Bornmann et al. 2021). These numbers exceeded the capacity of scientific societies, whose members usually edited society journals on a voluntary basis. A publishing industry emerged with professional for-profit publishers to whom many societies turned over their journals. Subscription prices rose and became affordable only to large libraries and wealthy institutions, while many scientists lost direct access to publications. This was the case for Vegetatio, the journal founded in 1948 by the International Association for Vegetation Science (IAVS), and to some extent for Phytocoenologia, founded in 1974 by the same society. Disappointment with the publishers’ policies led to the resignation of entire editorial boards of these journals in 1990 and 2019.

To replace Vegetatio, the flagship journal of the IAVS, Eddy van der Maarel founded the Journal of Vegetation Science (JVS; van der Maarel et al., 1990) and Applied Vegetation Science (AVS; van der Maarel et al., 1998). Both journals were owned by the IAVS and published by Opulus Press, a small, low-profit publishing house founded for this purpose. However, various scientific publishers gradually merged into a few large companies that dominated the international market. It became clear that a small business could not compete with the large companies that offered subscription packages of hundreds of journals to universities and research institutions. Therefore, IAVS decided to move the publishing of both journals to Wiley-Blackwell Publishers (now Wiley) in 2009 (Wilson et al., 2009).

It is important to emphasize that both JVS and AVS are owned by the IAVS and published by Wiley based on periodically renewed contracts between the Society and the publisher. This means that our Society can change publisher if the contract becomes unfavourable. Similar contracts exist, for example, for the Ecological Society of America, the British Ecological Society, and the Nordic Society Oikos, which all have their society-owned journals published by Wiley. There are many other national or international botanical or ecological societies that publish their journals with other private publishers.

Scientific societies publish journals to facilitate communication among scientists using peer-based quality reviews and to advance their respective fields. Some universities, museums, research institutes and non-profit academic publishers also publish scientific literature with the same motivation. It is in their interest to keep costs as low as possible, both for authors in the case of open-access publishing and for readers in the case of subscription-based funding. In contrast, private companies publish journals for profit, and it is in their interest to keep article processing charges (APCs) or subscription fees as high as possible. When a society-owned journal is published by a private company, a compromise must be sought between these two conflicting interests, resulting in a model in which journals make a profit that is shared between the owner and the publisher. Such a compromise model is used between Wiley and the IAVS.

The IAVS currently receives more than 95% of its financial income from the profit generated by the publication of JVS and AVS. It receives it thanks to the academic service of the journal Editors, Editorial Review Board members, external reviewers, and also the authors who submit their best manuscripts to these journals. The Society uses these funds to support the development of vegetation science in a variety of ways, including early career supporting grants, travel grants to attend international scientific meetings for scientists with limited financial resources (many of whom come from developing countries), support for IAVS symposia and various activities of IAVS Working Groups and Regional Sections, awards for young scientists, publication of the IAVS Bulletin and the new journal Vegetation Classification and Survey, and last but not least, the services of the IAVS Secretariat.

By publishing in JVS, AVS or journals of other scientific societies, authors indirectly support membership and networking activities. In doing so, they provide two types of benefits to the scientific community: first, by advancing knowledge through the publication of new research, and second, by supporting numerous activities that strengthen the scientific community of their field.

In contrast, if an article is published in a journal owned by a private company, all the profits go into private hands, regardless of whether the journal charges open-access fees or subscription fees. Our take-home message is that authors should preferably publish in society-owned journals rather than in pro-profit private journals, and this also concerns high-quality private journals. In particular, authors should avoid private publishers with aggressive marketing strategies, which establish open-access journals with “friendly” and fast reviews and initially with low article processing charges. Impact factors of some of these journals may become relatively high and attractive for authors; however, they are not earned by the hard work of authors, reviewers and editors following strict editorial policies, but often by self-citations provided by other journals within the same publishing house (Ángeles Oviedo-García, 2021).

When looking for a publication venue for your next manuscript, please, check not only the scope of the journal and its impact factor but also who owns it.