First Monday

Publishing cooperatives: An alternative for non-profit publishers by Raym Crow

Publishing cooperatives — owned, controlled, and benefiting non–profit publishers — would provide an organizational and financial structure well suited to balancing society publishers’ twin imperatives of financial sustainability and mission fulfillment. Market challenges and structural constraints often render it difficult for small society publishers to compete individually. Publishing cooperatives would allow society publishers to remain independent while operating collectively to overcome both structural and strategic disadvantages and to address the inefficiencies in the market for academic journals. Publishing cooperatives can provide a scaleable publishing model that aligns with the values of the academy while providing a practical financial framework capable of sustaining society publishing programs.


Non–profit publishers in a mixed market
The market context for society publishers
Structural constraints of society publishers
Benefits of publishing cooperatives
Basic cooperative principles
Cooperative publishing services
Publishing cooperative structures
Financial issues for publishing cooperatives



Non–profit publishers in a mixed market

Non–profit publishers that compete effectively in the mixed market for academic journals typically display the same traits of effective business operation as for–profit publishers. These include an entrepreneurial approach, strategic awareness, competitive response, and attention to profitability. However, for society publishers, participating simultaneously in the market economy and the intellectual commons of the academy, profit–seeking business imperatives are neither wholly appropriate nor wholly irrelevant.

Society publishers must balance their distinctiveness as non–profits against the need to survive financially. Pursuit of a profit–maximizing strategy can result in pricing and market practices that compromise the society’s mission by limiting its ability to disseminate research broadly in its field. At the same time, competitive market pressures require society publishers to operate efficiently to ensure financial sustainability [1].

Publishing cooperatives — owned, controlled, and benefiting nonprofit publishers — would provide an organizational and financial structure well suited to balancing society publishers’ twin imperatives of financial sustainability and mission fulfillment. Market challenges and structural constraints often render it difficult for small society publishers to compete individually. Publishing cooperatives would allow society publishers to remain independent while operating collectively to overcome both structural and strategic disadvantages and to address the inefficiencies and imperfections in the market for academic journals.

For society publishers, cooperatives can offer significant benefits over conventional business models. While an efficient market would obviate the formation of cooperatives, the market power wielded by large commercial publishers, combined with the structural limitations of non–profit organizations, hinders non–profit publisher attempts to sustain their journal publishing programs. The collective power of cooperatives can help non–profit publishers counter these market constraints and imbalances [2].

Publishing cooperatives would allow society and other non–profit publishers to reconcile efficient market performance with serving the organizations’ missions. Publishing cooperatives assume that non–profit publishers seek a broad set of benefits, both tangible and intangible, not simply the highest possible return on their investment. These benefits might include production cost reductions, access to otherwise unavailable business management services and resources, increased market presence and greater access to markets, risk sharing and mitigation, and alignment with the society’s mission and non–profit ethos.



The market context for society publishers

Non–profit publishers operate in an increasingly competitive environment characterized by substantial ownership concentration, dominant commercial publisher market share, flat library acquisitions budgets, and aggressive commercial publisher pricing and demand leverage strategies (for example, bundling). These market factors make it increasingly difficult for small society publishers to compete successfully on their own:

Market consolidation
Commercial publishers now play a role in publishing over 60 percent of all peer–reviewed journals, owning 45 percent outright and publishing another 17 percent on behalf of non–profit organizations [3]. Further, commercial publishers control a disproportionate market share in terms of revenue. In the STM (scientific, technical, and medical) market, seven major commercial publishers, responsible for approximately 30 percent of all peer–reviewed titles, account for over 60 percent of the market’s total revenue [4].

Commercial publishers now play a role in publishing over 60 percent of all peer–reviewed journals, owning 45 percent outright and publishing another 17 percent on behalf of non–profit organizations.

While the for–profit segment comprises a relatively small number of large commercial publishers, the non–profit segment represents a large number of mostly small publishers. The consolidation of large commercial publishers, and the cumulative effect of their pricing and bundling practices, has led to decreased market access for small society publishers. Ownership concentration allows large publishers to bundle journals in aggregations that capture a disproportionate share of library budgets and reduce the funds available to purchase journals from smaller publishers with little market power.

Growth in market demand
Fueled by the expansion of scientific research, the number of scientific and scholarly journals continues to grow at a steady rate of approximately 3.25 percent per year [5]. On the current base of some 20,000 active peer–reviewed journals, this translates into a doubling in the number of journals approximately every 20 years.

The inability of non–profit publishers to accommodate the rapid increase in the overall scope and scale of scientific research is one reason behind the increasing participation of commercial publishers in the academic journal market over the past fifty years. Given the financial exposure of launching new journals, only well–funded societies can readily assume the financial risk. The ability of society publishers to capture a larger proportion of the growing journals market will depend, in part, on societies having access to adequate capital to launch new journals.

Aggressive pricing
The prices for commercially–owned journals average four to five times higher than for journals published by societies, and the prices for journals published by commercial publishers on behalf of societies average three times those of journals published by the societies themselves [6].

Flat library budgets
With college and university library serials budgets remaining essentially flat for the past 20 years, the rapid climb in academic journal prices has forced institutions of all types and sizes to cancel existing subscriptions and to forgo new titles [7]. Larger publishers have the market and pricing power to survive these market dynamics, while small non–profit publishers typically do not.

Migration to online distribution
Approximately 40 percent of peer–reviewed journals remain available only in–print editions. As most commercial publishers have already moved to online distribution, this suggests that several thousand society publishers have yet to move to online content distribution [8]. A variety of factors have slowed society publisher migration to online distribution, including cost issues, fear of losing society members by decreasing the perceived value of their publication benefit, and concern for cannibalizing existing print income streams.



Structural constraints of society publishers

Society publishers thus face considerable market hurdles in competing with large commercial publishers for available institutional budgets. Additionally, non–profit publishers exhibit inherent structural constraints that limit their ability to overcome the strategic market challenges outlined above:

Lack of scale economies and market presence

The vast majority of society and non–profit publishers run independent and very small journal publishing operations. Over 97 percent of society publishers publish three or fewer journals, with almost 90 percent publishing just one title [9]. The small size and limited capacity of these operations place them at a disadvantage relative to larger publishers, both commercial and non–profit, in terms of product portfolio, market leverage, business expertise, and access to capital.

Society publishers individually exert slight economic leverage when negotiating for printing and digital distribution services, marketing and sales agency relationships, and other publishing services. Some non–profit organizations — including university presses and society federations — provide scale economies for negotiating and purchasing not available to small publishers acting on their own. Other non–profit initiatives focus solely on providing online distribution services. Despite the best efforts of these current collective purchasing channels, however, many society publishers remain unserved.

Over 97 percent of society publishers publish three or fewer journals, with almost 90 percent publishing just one title.

Individually, small society publishers enjoy little market presence when disseminating their content, rendering it difficult for them to compete effectively in a highly competitive, subscription–driven market. A number of non–profit initiatives have been launched to redress this imbalance — including the ALPSP Learned Journals Collection, BioOne, and Project Muse — bringing together journals from multiple society publishers to afford a collective market presence. Many society publishers, however, continue to compete on their own or gain only a diluted market presence via large multi–subject online aggregations.


Unlike commercial publishers, non–profits do not have ready access to equity markets and other sources of capital. Although many societies have modest endowments or reserves, these are rarely of a scale sufficient to fund substantial investments in new publications or publishing technologies. Given the difficulties non–profit publishers face in raising capital, the investments required to meet the market demand for new journals and to keep pace with ever–evolving publishing technologies put society publishers at a strategic disadvantage relative to for–profit publishers [10].

The ongoing shift to digital dissemination, value–added content, and enhanced online service functionality has also put pressure on non–profit publishers to incorporate new technologies into their operations. Because such publishing technologies are resource intensive — they can entail significant initial development or acquisition costs, ongoing operating and staff training requirements, and frequent replacement and upgrade cycles — they have also given for–profit publishers another competitive advantage over non–profits. Large commercial publishers invest considerable sums to develop and maintain their electronic journal systems, and few non–profit publishers command the capital required to compete with this investment.

Thin staff resources

Publishing societies naturally devote more resources to their core competencies in the publishing value chain — acquiring content, certifying quality (typically via peer review), and adding editorial value — than to business planning and publishing support activities. This shortage of business management resources becomes especially critical as the transition to electronic dissemination accelerates and the efficacy of traditional subscription models declines for many small publishers.

Further, few small society publishers have the operational resources necessary to migrate confidently to online publishing. Such a transition requires that a society assess the implications of online access for its member base, implement a rational and equitable institutional pricing model, secure an appropriate marketing, sales, and support channel, and understand the direct and indirect returns on the new costs incurred.

Low tolerance for risk

Most societies — both by design and necessity — act as conservative stewardships, rather than as risk–taking entrepreneurial organizations. Due in large part to their non–profit cultures, volunteer leadership, and lack of capital reserves, publishing societies are often poorly positioned to assume risk, whether real or perceived. Coupled with the lack of business management resources already noted, this often amplifies the risk perceived in implementing change in response to market forces. Yet, a society that manages risk solely by avoiding or minimizing it may forgo opportunities to strengthen its publishing operations in the long–term by better positioning it to serve members, fulfill its mission, and remain financially self–sustaining.



Benefits of publishing cooperatives

The market challenges and structural constraints described above render it difficult for small society publishers to compete individually. Publishing cooperatives can provide society publishers a practical response to their shared set of economic issues, structural constraints, and strategic market challenges.

Federated publishing cooperatives — with shared services cooperatives supporting multiple subject–oriented satellite cooperatives — offer an alternative operating model for society publishers. Cooperatives can provide a scaleable publishing channel aligned with the ethos of learned societies and providing a financial framework capable of sustaining society publishing programs.

Cooperatives would allow societies to retain control of their respective editorial and publishing operations while benefiting from the reduced costs, greater income stability, and lowered risks attendant to collective action. Specific benefits would include:



Basic cooperative principles

Cooperatives, as a special type of corporation owned and controlled by the members that use their services, have existed formally since the industrial revolution [15]. Typically, cooperatives have formed to promote the shared economic welfare of individuals and groups that have determined that they can wield more market influence collectively than individually [16]. Cooperatives differ fundamentally from conventional enterprises in that they exist not to maximize their own profits, but to promote the economic success of their members. This economic linkage creates reciprocal incentives for the cooperative to serve its members and for the members to patronize the cooperative.

Several principles guide virtually all cooperatives [17]:



Cooperative publishing services

Publishing cooperatives can offer a range of services that address the needs of their members. These functions could include providing shared services; bargaining, negotiating, and purchasing on behalf of members; and, marketing, selling, and distributing publisher content. A federated cooperative structure would allow multiple cooperatives to collaborate to provide a wide range of capital-intensive services cost effectively.



Publishing cooperative structures

For a cooperative to succeed, its members must perceive it to be committed to their best interests and to be an effective agent acting on their behalf. Therefore, publishing cooperatives with relatively homogenous memberships would be more likely to succeed than cooperatives with heterogeneous memberships. These mutual interests would allow publisher cooperatives to develop strong economic linkages with their members — for example, via patronage refunds, cross–subsidies, and risk pooling — serving their members’ collective interests. The more closely coordinated and integrated the economic linkages of the publishers and the cooperative, the more efficient and useful the cooperative relationship would become.

Scalable publishing cooperative model

Figure 1: Scalable publishing cooperative model.

This suggests that cooperatives comprising publishers from cognate disciplines, and sharing similar editorial experiences and the same niche publishing environment, would experience greater member cohesion and generate stronger member commitment than cooperatives with members from disparate fields [20]. Defining a cooperative’s field of membership to maintain member compatibility would also support the cooperative’s marketing function by yielding coherent content aggregations and by supporting the manner in which researchers use online journal collections.

At the same time, individual discipline–specific cooperatives are unlikely to have sufficient scale to offer shared publishing services as cost effectively as larger organizations comprising multiple affiliated cooperatives. The need to accommodate publishers from multiple fields with discipline– or geographically–specific needs, to provide a comprehensive suite of publishing services, and to support a scaleable cooperative network, all combine to suggest a federated cooperative structure. Federated cooperatives are organizations whose membership comprises other cooperatives, rather than individual publishers. By supporting multiple affiliated or satellite cooperatives, federated cooperatives can facilitate intercooperative coordination to provide a greater range of services more cost effectively [21]. By providing a model that can be replicated across multiple disciplines, organization types, and geographic regions, federated cooperatives can create a network of publishing cooperatives, with individual satellite cooperatives within the network remaining autonomous.

Figure 1 illustrates how a federated structure can support an extensible network of interrelated cooperatives. Federated cooperatives could be extended by accreting multiple satellite cooperatives — for example, clusters of cooperatives representing cognate disciplines — further extending scale economies and market power. The satellite cooperatives would also provide a communication channel to the member publishers that would increase the transparency of the federated cooperative’s operations. A federated structure can thus support both local accountability and centralized operating efficiency, both of which are important to maintaining member commitment and loyalty.



Financial issues for publishing cooperatives

Depending on the jurisdiction in which it is incorporated, a cooperative can form as virtually any type of legal entity, including a non–profit corporation, a general business corporation, a limited liability corporation, or a general partnership [22]. In any event, a cooperative’s distinctive operating practices are governed by the cooperative’s articles of incorporation and by-laws, not the organization’s formal corporate structure [23].

A cooperative’s distinctive operating practices — which stem from the principles of member ownership and control — are intended to provide services to the cooperative’s members at the lowest possible cost, not to generate the highest return for the cooperative itself. At the same time, as with any self–sustaining business, a cooperative must generate sufficient revenue to meet its continuing expense and capital needs. To ensure that a cooperative remains sufficiently capitalized, while distributing ownership equitably based on member patronage, a number of cooperative equity generation and allocation models have evolved. These models can be applied to publishing cooperatives to generate capital, allocate equity amongst members, and return equity to participating publishers over time.

Sources of equity capital

Equity capital is that portion of the cooperative’s assets owned by the cooperative’s members. This equity capital represents a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, as patronage of the cooperative — which generates much of the member-publisher equity — creates the economic rationale for the cooperative’s existence in the first place. Equity capital is risk capital in that all or part of it can be lost if the cooperative’s operations are not profitable. Under most cooperative structures, however, member risk would be limited to the amount of capital invested in the cooperative. A publishing cooperative can obtain equity capital by combining any of the following:

A cooperative’s equity capital can also be categorized as either allocated or unallocated. The cooperative assigns allocated equity to members in proportion to their use of the cooperative. Allocated equity would include the publishers’ non–cash refunds and other equity assigned to an individual publisher’s equity account, including any direct investment in the cooperative.

Most of a publisher’s allocated equity would be generated via retained patronage refunds and/or per–unit capital retains. Patronage refunds would be returned to publishers either as cash or as written notices of allocation. Although written notices of allocation can eventually be redeemed by members for cash, redemption is at the board’s discretion to ensure that the cooperative remains adequately capitalized [26].

In contrast to allocated equity, unallocated equity is not credited to a specific publisher’s account, nor is it returned to the participating publishers unless the cooperative disbands. Because it does not need to be repaid to the publishers following a specific redemption schedule, unallocated equity provides a general capital reserve to fund development and to provide a cushion to offset potential operational exigencies.

Equity distribution

The cooperative’s board must manage the cooperative’s equity to ensure that the business has an adequate supply of capital and remains owned by those publishers patronizing it. A cooperative would be obligated to redeem each publisher’s allocated equity at some future date. This equity redemption acts as an ownership transfer process that keeps the cooperative financed, owned, and controlled by its current member–users. A well–designed equity redemption plan would help keep the interests of participating publishers aligned and strengthen the economic linkage between the cooperative and its members.

A cooperative can use a revolving equity redemption plan to return allocated equity to participating publishers [27]. Under a revolving fund plan, the cooperative holds allocated patronage refunds for a specified number of years, redeeming equity in the order in which it is allocated. The time frame in which the equity is redeemed would be determined by the cooperative’s board of directors and would be subject to the cooperative’s financial condition and need for operating capital [28].

In addition to equity redemption, revenue from publisher content would be allocated to publishers in a manner appropriate to the distribution medium and as determined by the cooperative’s members. For example, revenue from print subscriptions could be channeled directly to publishers, while revenue from participation in a cooperative’s online aggregation might be allocated to publishers based on an equitable value–contribution formula approved by the cooperative’s board.




Most society publishers face structural constraints — including insufficient market leverage, low tolerance for risk, undercapitalization, and lack of specialized business expertise — that prevent them from sustaining themselves effectively in an increasingly competitive market for academic journals. Publishing cooperatives have the potential — with scalable shared services and supporting multiple discipline–specific affiliates — to provide a powerful financial and organizational model that would allow society publishers to serve their dual imperatives of honoring their missions while remaining financially sustainable.

Owned and controlled by the nonprofit publishers themselves, cooperatives would respond to many of the common needs of society publishers. Publishing cooperatives would encourage societies to retain control of their publishing programs while increasing their efficiency, expanding their capacity, and strengthening their financial sustainability. End of article


About the author

Raym Crow has over twenty years’ experience in academic and business publishing, specializing in strategic business planning, product management, and market development. He is a Senior Consultant for the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and Managing Partner of Chain Bridge Group, an independent consulting firm providing publishing and business planning services to learned and professional societies, university presses, academic institutions, museums, and other non–profit and commercial organizations.
E–mail: crow [at] arl [dot] org



This article summarizes a discussion paper prepared under the auspices of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. The author thanks SPARC Director Heather Joseph for funding the research on which this article is based, and Karla Hahn, Howard Goldstein, John Willinsky, David Prosser, Brian Henehan, and Bruce Anderson for their insightful and substantive comments.



1. Weisbrod (1988 and 1998) describes the fundamental distinctions between non–profit and commercial enterprises and the dangers inherent in non–profit competition in a mixed market, and Salamon (2002) has emphasized the importance of the non–profit sector restoring the balance between distinctiveness and survival. With specific reference to journal publishing, Morris (2001) outlines some of the differences between commercial and non–profit publishers.

2. An efficient market would typically preclude the formation of cooperatives; where market dysfunctions exist, cooperative models emerge. For an introduction to the cooperative model, see Burt (2004). For cooperatives as a response to market dysfunctions, see Fulton (2001), pp. 5–6.

3. This assessment of the academic journal market used the online version of Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory, the most comprehensive single information source on scholarly serials literature and a useful proxy for the academic journals market. This research was performed on the Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory ( between 15 March and 29 April 2005. The author thanks James McGinty of Cambridge Information Group for generously extending access to Ulrich’s for the purpose of this analysis and to Laurie Kaplan of R.R. Bowker for providing guidance and support.

4. See House of Commons (2004), Volume 1, pp. 12–13.

5. Mabe’s analysis indicates that the growth rate for peer–reviewed journals has been an almost constant 3.46 percent per year for the last three hundred years. The growth rate increased slightly (to 4.35 percent) from 1945 to 1976, but has slowed to 3.26 percent per year since 1977. Mabe (2003), p. 193.

6. Several studies demonstrate the significant price differences between journals published by commercial and non–profit publishers and between self–published society journals and society–sponsored journals outsourced to for–profit publishers. See Bergstrom and Bergstrom (2001) and White and Creaser (2004).

7. Kyrillidou and Young (2005). For a review of library budgets and serials pricing, see Edlin and Rubinfeld (2004), pp. 122–126.

8. The figures on journal digital availability by field of science cited by Tenopir and King support the assumption that a much higher proportion of science journals are available electronically than for the social sciences and humanities. See Tenopir and King (2004), Table 9.4, p. 117.

9. See note 3 above.

10. See Salamon (2002), pp. 17–19.

11. For a discussion of the impact of online aggregations on journal publishers, see Cox (2004), pp. 11–18.

12. In the case of journals with publication fees, these savings might also be passed along to authors or their sponsors.

13. Additionally, in the U.S. and several other countries, cooperative banks exist that lend exclusively to cooperative organizations, often at a lower interest rate than charged by commercial banks.

14. For example, current expensing and/or funded or unfunded loss reserves. On risk retention and contractual transfer techniques, see Herman, et al. (2004), pp. 254ff.

15. Schroeder and Siegel (2006) provide an overview of the cooperative movement and its application to the publishing of academic research.

16. For a brief overview of the history of cooperatives, see Fairbairn (2004).

17. For a more detailed description of cooperative principles, see Barton (2000).

18. Most cooperatives operate on a one–member, one–vote basis, though some permit a limited proportional vote based on a member’s patronage level.

19. For shared–services cooperatives, see Crooks, et al., 1995.

20. Discipline clusters will typically reflect shared scholarly communication practices, common editorial and business policies, and shared niche market environments. Besides subject area or discipline, membership in satellite cooperatives could be defined in a variety of other ways, including national or regional groupings, organization types (e.g., non–governmental organizations or university presses), or other logical affiliations.

21. Federated publishing cooperatives could also lower operating costs by sharing digital publishing platforms and hosting services. Although a large federated cooperative might find it cost effective to manage its own digital publishing system, often the services would be more economically obtained through a fee–based agreement with a university–sponsored system.

22. Cooperative legal and corporate structures are described by Cropp (2002) and Barton (2000).

23. In the U.S., cooperatives typically enjoy a special federal and state tax status, as well. For example, cooperatives do not typically pay taxes on operating surpluses refunded to members, although these refunds represent taxable income to the members.

24. On cooperative capital structures and financing, see Peterson and Cobia (2000); Burt (2004); and, Cropp, et al. (1998). On good capitalization resulting from effective cooperative behavior and strong and transparent economic linkages, see Fairbairn (2003), pp.27 ff.

25. Some foundations make program–related investments to support non–profit activities that involve the potential return of capital within an established timeframe. PRIs include financing methods — such as loans, loan guarantees, and even equity investments — typically associated with private investors.

26. The cash refund is the percentage of allocated patronage refunds distributed to the publishers in cash. U.S. tax regulations require cooperatives to return at least 20 percent of their net income to participating publishers in cash, allowing cooperatives to retain up to 80 percent of their net income. As the member’s cash and non–cash equity allocations represent taxable income, this provides cooperative members with sufficient cash to pay their tax obligations for cooperative equity.

27. A variety of redemption methods exist. For detail on cooperative equity redemption practices and plans, see Cropp, et al. (1998).

28. A revolving fund plan will keep equity in proportion to patronage as long as the revolving period is relatively short. As the revolving period lengthens and equity becomes less proportional to use, the cooperative runs the risk of participating publishers having divergent interests.



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Editorial history

Paper received 11 April 2006; accepted 18 July 2006.

Contents Index

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Publishing cooperatives: An alternative for non–profit publishers by Raym Crow
First Monday, volume 11, number 9 (September 2006),