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.”

Journals and platforms – a stable relationship? Neigh!

I’ve told this tail so often, it’s making me horse!

Some ejournals are published on one platform only, and all their content can be found in place.  However, some journals’ content is found across multiple platforms.  Note the routes and years covered in this example:

OJLS multiple access routes

OJLS – Oxford Journals Archive 1981-1995, HeinOnline 1981-1998, LexisLibrary 1999-present

To explain this, I’ve developed a story about racehorses and stables.  Journals are like racehorses, in that they are born in one stable (or publisher, or platform), and may be traded during their professional lives.

OJLS racehorseConsider the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (OJLS).  This racehorse started its career at the stable called Oxford Journals.  Some time later, a new racehorse owner called HeinOnline was interested in buying OJLS, and moved OJLS into a new stable*.  After a while, LexisNexis bought OJLS from HeinOnline and the journal moved again, this time to LexisLibrary.

Archive access travelled with OJLS in the move from Oxford Journals to HeinOnline, but not  in the move between HeinOnline and LexisLibrary (hence the lack of overlap in content).  This is due to differences in the contracts agreed at each sale.

When you look at one journal over the course of its history, its content may be hosted by a number of platforms.

OJLS stablesIf you consider any individual platform at a particular point in time, it will host a variety of journals, and this will change over time as its parent publisher buys and sells content.LexisLibrary stableE-resources software acts like a kaleidoscope for viewing our ejournal collection. There will be a way to view all our platforms (equivalent to the stable in the equestrian metaphor), another to see a list of all journal titles (the racehorses), and possibly a discovery layer which allows you to search all article records regardless of journal or platform (let’s call that the horseshoe level).

Here are these views for EBSCO and Ex Libris systems:

EBSCO and ExLibris interfacesLeave me a comment to let me know of others!

See also: Journals and matryoshka (Russian) dolls

*Update: Thanks to Terry Bucknell for his comment that in the OJLS example, some content was licensed to Hein and Lexis aggregators, but the title did not change ownership; and Damyanti Patel who revised this as a tale about what local access is available from various places and why, rather than the history of the journal.

Just goes to show what I can’t see because my access is limited by paywalls!

Journals and matryoshka (Russian) dolls

2014.12 2014 vol 77 Modern Law Review

Year – volume – issue – page numbers – months

The structure of a ejournal can appear very strange if, like many of my current students, you have never known the world of print journals.  I’ve found the following story useful in explaining to my students why online journals are structured in the way they are.

'Matrioska eyes' by _Zeta_ CC-BY (adapted) https://flic.kr/p/dRG7g

‘Matrioska eyes’ by _Zeta_ CC-BY (adapted) https://flic.kr/p/dRG7g

When an academic writes a document about their particular area of research, this document often takes the form of a short paper called an article.  In the pre-internet days of print publishing, academics would send their article to a publisher, who would then publish it together with other articles by other academics, in an issue.  An issue would be printed at intervals throughout the year: perhaps monthly or quarterly.Article IssueIn the library, issues were arranged in order on the shelves.  At the end of each year, they would be stitched together and given a hardback cover for protection, and this collection of issues was called a volume.  The volume may have been named after the year (e.g. 1997), or given a number (e.g. Vol. 40).Article Issue Volume JournalThe journal is thus made up of volumes, each containing a number of issues, each containing a number of articles.
Although many articles are now published electronically, rather than in print, the same structure is used for online journals.

See also: Journals and platforms – a stable relationship? Neigh!

Open Access – time for a review of the whole model of academic journal publishing?

So… hello again!  Sorry for being away from the blog for a while.  To celebrate the end of the first 4 months in my new post, I’d like to record some of my recent thoughts (personal, not those of my employer whether current or former) about open access (OA).

If you’re new to the discussion about OA, you might like to pause to read this summary about open access, including a description of gold and green routes.

Last week, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published their report on the implementation of open access.  In all the discussion about gold vs green routes to open access, including last year’s Finch Report; it seems to be taken for granted that the current business model for academic publishing will stay the same and it’s just the sources of funding that will change.  For example, universities may move funds away from library subscriptions for e-resources and use them instead to fund an author-pays model.


Wouldn’t this be a good moment to step back and see how profoundly the internet has changed the way we do (and could) distribute information in a global scholarly community?  And how this fresh look could allow us to build a completely new model for publishing and distributing knowledge?

Almost all the characteristics of the print publishing paradigm are no longer applicable: consider how the overheads, timescales, ease and cost of making copies, distribution logistics – and more – are completely different for PDFs from what they were for print journals.

So why aren’t we challenging the underlying pricing model?

I’ve heard of some libraries spending 80% of their acquisitions budget on e-resources, and only 20% on print materials.  The costs to libraries is on an unprecedented scale, especially when you consider that these hefty invoices are annually recurrent, and that under some circumstances, cancelling the subscription can incur cancellation fees (which are also recurrent) and a loss of access to the content previously paid for (unlike print journals, were you could at least hang on to the hard copies).

In my new job, I am seeing this problem from a slightly different angle too.  Consider a university which is primarily teaching-focused, but is trying to increase its research profile.  This costs money: researchers need funds for attending conferences and other academic events; if they are spending less time teaching in order to carry out their research, then someone else must be employed to ensure that the timetable is covered; and of course, they need access to a greater range of information resources to support their studies.

This isn’t just about budgets and prestige, it’s also about social mobility.  Imagine the difference between this scenario, in which many junior lecturers are pursuing their PhDs alongside a full teaching job, with that at other institutions at which there is funding to support PhD/DPhil students to study full-time.

I know that the situation for publishers is sensitive and they are trying to defend their subscription charges, but I don’t think it makes sense to apply a print-world-based pricing model and licence type directly to e-journals in a new format and a different medium.

There is no single agreed protocol for the article publishing process: peer review, impact factor, half-lives of articles (in terms of access stats), and other factors vary between disciplines; and what is true of the life sciences is not necessarily transferable to the humanities.

Furthermore, journal articles (in any format) play a different role in different disciplines: for example, original research articles in peer-reviewed journals are primary sources in the life sciences, but are often secondary sources in the humanities.  This means that journal articles occupy a different niche in the research ecology of different disciplines, and may need to be funded or administered differently.  The current publishing model and associated norms are based on practise in the sciences.

This could be an excellent opportunity to stand back and consider a new model for making available the products of research, operating a system of peer review, charging (to whom?) a proportionate fee (how much?) for hosting the content, and building in the functionality and possibilities of new information technologies.

How do we begin this conversation?