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From the Executive Office

Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 13:57

The Society recently undertook an exercise meant to enable strategic thinking about the future of our scientific publishing enterprise. As you probably know, the Society owns and operates the Astrophysical Journal (including ApJ Letters and ApJ Supplement) and the Astronomical Journal, four of the most important publications in the astronomical and astrophysical sciences. Although we did not found these journals, we've been publishing them for more than 70 years. We operate them with the strategic goal of serving the scientific community by keeping costs down, maintaining a robust business model, and enhancing them technologically when necessary. For example, our journals were among the first to go online, and we were one of the first physical-science journal publishers to modify our proprietary period downward to 12 months, the de facto requirement recently imposed by OSTP.

The world of publishing, and the world of communication and entertainment generally, has undergone a revolution, and change remains rampant. Publishers are trying new experiments in providing and producing content. New business models are being tried, and some seem to be working. Even information consumers are switching to new modes of consumption, utilizing portable devices much more than was predicted to stay in touch with friends, access information, and facilitate their daily life activities.

By setting aside time to think about possible future scenarios and their impact on our journals, the participants in the Journals Futures Workshop, held in April in Dallas, Texas, produced an insightful report for the Publications Board and Council to consider. Although as an organization we have thought strategically — at least short term — about our publishing activities, we have never thought about them on a 10- to 20-year timeline. Doing so was a highly valuable activity, resulting in thoughtful new ideas, criticisms of our current status quo, and multiple visions for a bright future for our publishing activity.

Although we do not derive funds from our journals for ongoing Society activities like many organizations do, our journals do have to operate as a business, ensuring that the costs of their production are covered, that we have resources to ensure their long-term availability and technological enhancement, and that they have adequate reserves to weather challenges over time. I am happy to say that the journals are in great financial shape right now, with reserves of roughly 1.5 times annual operating expense and adequate additional reserves to ensure the curation of our archival resources. Costs of production have actually dropped and, as we are in good financial health, we are rolling these savings back out to our authors and to our members in 2014. If approved by Council, the author charges for text will drop by $5 per digital quantum (resulting in roughly $150 savings for a typical paper). Additionally, AAS members who renew before the end of the current calendar year will receive a one-time coupon for a discount on their personal share of author charges for a paper in the subsequent year. This coupon will represent a tangible benefit to our members and incentivize timely renewal of membership, which saves on administrative costs.

To ensure better service to our members and to expand our capabilities to achieve the goals set for the Society by Council, we have undertaken substantial staff training this past year. Beginning with communication and team-building exercises for the managers and now including all staff, these efforts are having a significant impact. We are operating more like a team and less like a group of aligned individuals. We have expanded our communication skills and ability to resolve conflicts and solve problems. Tooling up our staff capabilities is fundamental to our long-term success, as is making sure we have the right number of people and the right people on board.

Currently we are recruiting for three positions: the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, an additional IT staff member, and an abstract administrator. When these slots are filled, we will be fully staffed for the first time in a while, further enabling us to achieve our goals. With the growth of the number of AAS staff over the past seven years and presaged by our now retired Society secretary John Graham, we are moving into new office space. Thankfully, space was found in the same building we reside in now, reducing downtime, cost, and confused mail delivery. We will soon be located on the third floor of the AGU building, Suite 300. The buildout of the space will conclude in July, and we anticipate a smooth transition to our new space later this summer.

Finally, I am grateful to the Council for permission to take a short break from my duties, a kind of mini-sabbatical, beginning on July 1 of this year. Motivated by several recent studies in the non-profit sector, I will take six months to drop the day-to-day activities of my job and reconnect with the scientific community. I will teach a science policy course at the University of Arizona and a non-profit management course at New Mexico State University. I'll also spend time undertaking scientific research and fulfilling a life-long desire to craft a biography of the famous 19th-century astronomer F. W. A. Argelander, author and motivator of the Bonner Durchmusterung star catalog. I will be back in the saddle, happily, prior to the 223rd AAS meeting in Washington, DC, in January 2014.

Kevin B. Marvel
Executive Officer
American Astronomical Society
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