Academia will eat itself*: the awkward love triangle of scholarly publishing

*With apologies to Pop Will Eat Itself, and thanks to my colleague Becky for the idea

The problem

There are three major stakeholder groups in scholarly publishing: publishers, academics, and libraries. The awkward love triangle arises because each of these groups needs one of the others, but this relationship is not symmetrical between any two parties. This reminded me of the German chemist Kekulé, who had a dream about a snake eating its own tail, which inspired him to propose a cyclic (ring) structure for benzene. Because of the asymmetrical love triangle, it’s difficult to reach agreement through negotiation, as none of the three stakeholder groups can bargain fairly with each other.  One party needs something from another, but it’s always the other who holds all the cards.


Publishers need academics, as without their research output, there would be no market for scholarly publications. Librarians need publishers, as this is the only way they can purchase access to academic materials for library collections (both print and online). Academics need to read, and to get their research published (both to advance their field and because of the prestige, specifically that which comes from publishing in journals with high impact factors).  They expect books to be on the shelves/articles to be available online, and are not usually interested in the financial/collection managements aspects of how they came to be there. Researchers need librarians to manage the library collection; and make it discoverable (cataloguing and metadata) and accessible (arrangement in physical buildings, technology behind online access, inter-library loan agreements).  However, as the balance of library collections shifts towards digital and away from physical media, this role is becoming less visible. Publishers argue that despite declining print publications and associated overheads, the cost of e-resources publication justifies their continued high prices and indeed annual price rises, in a time of budget cuts for many library services.  These cuts often mean that not only can we not afford any new subscriptions, but we often have to cut some existing titles just to be able to maintain core subscriptions, which are growing more expensive every year.  For acquisition teams purchasing materials in currencies other than British pounds sterling, this problem is exacerbated by fluctuating exchange rates.  And don’t get me started on VAT…

Where is the added value in academic publishing?

However, the key ingredient that makes scholarly publishing valuable is the peer review process.  The details and timeline vary between disciplines, but this is an outline of how the process work. Academics sit on editorial boards and review papers submitted for publication in a journal.  During this process, errors will be identified and suggestions made for clarification or extension of the work, so that by the time an academic article has been published, it will have undergone a rigorous review process. It is important to note that the publishers do not usually pay peer reviewers for their work.  So the core principle which makes this type of publishing “scholarly” is in fact not part of the financial mechanism.  And yet, where are all the profits going?

Access to knowledge

In order to protect their revenues, academic publishers host their content on platforms which are protected by a paywall, so you can only (legally) access the content if you are an authorised user – usually a current student or staff member at a university with a current subscription to the content you’re trying to access. Access to scholarly content is very difficult for those without a university affiliation, and is becoming harder as more content is available online rather than in print at university libraries, because the licencing restrictions for e-resources are generally less favourable to walk-in users than the rules for the same content in print format.  For example: switching from print books to ebooks limits access to content for walk-in users, who would otherwise have been entitled to come in and consult the print copy. What about access for researchers whose university library has a subscription to a particular platform, but not the specific content they wish to read?  Niche subjects are particularly vulnerable as pressures on budgets oblige libraries to focus on core, high-use subscriptions. Some researchers do not have university affiliations; for example, they may work on projects funded by charities or funding councils; and many will not have access to digital or print collections except as a walk-in user. Not everyone who is capable of making a valid contribution to our sum of knowledge is working as an academic, losing us the scholarly potential of all those who are in other forms of employment, or unemployed, or retired, or studying outside the HE system (e.g. at school, or independently). Questions:

  • As a society, what value do we place on universal access to knowledge, and how much money should we make available to pay for it?
  • Should the results of publicly-funded research should be freely available for all to read?
  • Does the current purchasing system in which scholarly articles can only be bought from one publisher amount to a monopoly on legal access to that knowledge?
  • What is an appropriate pricing strategy for access to knowledge (especially that which was not created or moderated by the seller)?
  • How will digital media affect our laws about copyright and copying?  These laws were originally developed for print media and are increasingly at odds with behaviour in a digital environment (e.g. format shifting).

Value and price

Despite the best efforts of a presenter at the UKSG conference last month, I am not convinced that publishers and librarians share the same values. For example, consider our beliefs about what happens to the value of knowledge once it is shared: for many information professionals, sharing knowledge increases its value; whereas to publishers, if this happens without money changing hands, it represents a lost revenue stream. Does knowledge depreciate?  This matters when it comes to the issue of embargoes in the Green OA model.  For example, a 12-month embargo on articles in literature or history will be much less of an obstacle in that field than the same embargo in medicine or financial mathematics.  The stats on article downloads show that the half-life of papers in the sciences is much shorter than in the humanities.

Open Access?

The problem with Open Access is that neither the gold nor the green options challenge the underlying publishers’ pricing model.  The Gold OA model, an article processing charge (APC) is payable when an article is submitted for publication, effectively shifting the cost from pay-to-access to pay-to-publish. We are currently living in the second information revolution – like the printing press before it, the availability of information via the internet is having wide-ranging effects on the way we live.  In both cases, the sudden change in how much it cost to make information available held great promise for a more democratic and inclusive culture, as well as a scramble for political and financial control of the new medium. The additional layer of social media, which allows us to connect with each other in a way that overcomes barriers of geography, time zones, and social hierarchy; allows us a second chance at a period of Enlightenment.  Perhaps our Twitter connections and special interest groups on LinkedIn are a modern version of the 18th-century coffeehouses where people met to discuss new ideas

Possible solutions

  • Organise a No Access Day to raise awareness of subscription resources and their costs (like a boycott)

However, this is rather negative and seems rather too much like going on strike. I think it’s key to get academics involved, as they are the only stakeholders who can put pressure on the publishers.  How about:

  • Encourage academics get involved in boycotts e.g. signing up to The Cost of Knowledge, a site where academics publicly sign up to a boycott of Elsevier
  • Encourage academics to make different choices about where they publish e.g. switching to true* open access journals such as Public Library of Science (PLOS)

*By “true” open access journals, I mean those of not-for-profit publishers rather than those from commercial publishers whose open access is funded by APCs.

  • Educate academics about how publishing with the Big Publishers often involves signing away their intellectual property rights – if this makes them angry, perhaps they will mobilise and act with us?
  • Appeal to academics’ sense of the value of universal education and the reduction of cost barriers to education for everyone

What do you think?  Could this be an opportunity for a wholesale review of the economics of scholarly publishing?



  1. Great column – love the insights into the parasitic relationships between researchers, publishers and libraries. But I wonder about your characterization of PLOS journals as truly open-access – you seem to be saying PLOS meets this criteria because it doesn’t charge author fees like commercial publishers. But in fact it does. Maybe some clarification is warranted? Also, publishing only with non-profit publishers would greatly narrow the pool of potential journals for an author. I don’t think there are really that many non-commercial OA publishers (but I could be wrong).

  2. This is well-intentioned, but misleading. Your analysis of Gold and Green and publishing models is flawed. Gold OA does _not_ mean pay to publish, and it’s really important to stress this, in the face of far too many assumptions (and consequent anxiety) that it does, and that it has to be a) expensive and b) dependent on APCs. Please read Peter Suber (section headed “OA journals (“gold OA”)”:

    “A common misunderstanding is that all OA journals use an “author pays” business model. There are two mistakes here. The first is to assume that there is only one business model for OA journals, when there are many. The second is to assume that charging an upfront fee is an “author pays” model. In fact, most OA journals (70%) charge no author-side fees at all. Moreover, most conventional or non-OA journals (75%) do charge author-side fees.”

    Gold OA means publishers deciding to release articles as open access. This _may_ be dependent on a fee.
    Green OA means authors deciding to release articles as open access. This _may_ involve an embargo.

    The debate has become polarised – Gold and APCs vs Green and embargoes. The reality is far more nuanced. Your definition of ‘true’ OA is simply Gold. It is often referred to as ‘pure Gold’, as journals like PLOS only offer Gold OA, not a choice of Gold or subscription (so-called ‘hybrid gold’).

    I think this means you support a move away from Hybrid Gold to Pure Gold. I’m entirely with you on that!

  3. I love how you paint a picture of the Awkward Love Triangle. Very clever, I’ll be sure to use that!
    I disagree with your assessment of the added value of traditional publishers. To quote Game of Thrones: “A man is what others say he is and no more.” A journal is what other academics think of it, and no more. The added value of a traditional journal is the reputation academics gain from publishing in them, a reputation that has been built over decades. Sounds simple, but it will take as long to dismantle the scholarly publishing regime built on reputation as it took to build it in the first place.
    Let’s continue to advocate open access publishing models and put pressure on publishers. SHERPA studies have shown that over the last 10 years publishers have increasingly granted Green OA rights to authors. I don’t see this trend subsiding.

  4. Great post! Was particularly interested in the mention of academics working for non-universities, I’m a charity Librarian and we have a number of academic researchers on staff, some of whom forcefully back up your point that they have less access to material as walk-in users of HE libraries than in the days of print journals. Also the fact that special, charity and non-university research libraries and academic s are affected just as much by journal price increases (sometimes more as smaller libraries have less impact when negotiating subscription costs), and by increasing need for OA to meet funding agreements/desire to make work accessible. Also non-university academics are usually as caught up in the awkward love triangle as those affiliated to universities – they review for free and submit work for free the same as any other peer-reviewed academic. This is often overlooked, so thanks for raising!

  5. Pingback: Around the Web: CHORUS & Share, Traditional librarian angst and more – Confessions of a Science Librarian

  6. Pingback: mid-week good reads | meta-meta-medieval

  7. Pingback: Open Access Week 2015 | Laura's Dark Archive

  8. Pingback: Putting Laura’s Dark Archive to bed | Laura's Dark Archive

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s