Disruptive forces in the “staggeringly profitable” business of academic publishing

There is an excellent long read in today’s Guardian: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

Learn how academic publishing became so profitable, the rapid increase in library subscription costs (the serials crisis) and the start of Big Deals, and the development of open access as an alternative to subscription publishing (see also my other posts on open access).

Sci-Hub, a different way of disrupting the subscription and paywall model, is in the news at the moment: US court grants Elsevier millions in damages from Sci-Hub – though it’s far from clear if or when they may receive any of it:

Meanwhile, Finnish researchers have launched a boycott against Elsevier: “The group behind Tiedonhinta.fi statement urges researchers to refrain from peer review and editorial duties for journals owned by publishing giant Elsevier.  The boycott is launched on a new website nodealnoreview.org. The site welcomes also signatures from international colleagues all around the world, who are worried about cost of and access to research literature in their own countries.”


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?