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.”

Megajournals and how to spot them in the wild

The first megajournal, PLOS One, launched in 2006.  Since then, the presence of megajournals in the Open Access (OA) landscape is growing, and it’s increasingly important to know how megajournals differ from traditional journals:

  • when considering a paper for publication, peer-reviewers consider only whether it is technically sound, whereas traditional peer-review also has requirements for novelty, importance, or interest to a particular community
  • megajournals accept papers from a broad range of subjects (look out for “full spectrum”, “all areas”, “multidisciplinary”)
  • many megajournals’ funding model is to charge fees for publication – article processing charges (APCs) – and they typically charge lower APCs than traditional (hybrid) journals (average APC for full OA journal £1,354 compared with £1,882 for hybrid – Jisc data from 2014-15)

These factors lower the bar for publication and may make these journals more attractive places for researchers to publish.  You can imagine the types of arguments that ensue about whether this sets the bar too low, or helps researchers with less funding to get published; and whether the different requirements at the peer review stage allow megajournals to be flooded with poorer-quality/lower-value articles or whether it breaks the stranglehold of academic hierarchies on what counts as valid research…

If megajournals don’t limit the number of articles in each issue, there is also the potential conflict of interest arising from money to be made from every article accepted for publication.  Traditional journals usually have a limit, which (hopefully) means their APC income generated from each issue published is constant, and papers submitted are judged purely on their own merits (but what happens if the supply of high-quality papers is greater than the journal can publish?).

Some things to consider:

  • The platform (or publisher’s name) has long been considered a proxy for the quality of the research it publishes.  To what extent is this still the case?
  • How are new publications to prove their worth?  To what extent are predatory publishing practices found?
  • How are we to assess the trustworthiness of a journal?  The reputation of the peer reviewers is often the best guide, and this requires good knowledge of the field and the people involved.  This is where discussions with academics in each department are essential in establishing the value of a megajournal to a given subject area.

Think.Check.Submit. is a campaign to help researchers identify trusted journals for their research – it’s a checklist researchers can use to assess the credentials of a journal or publisher.  It has some useful questions to use as a starting point for discussions with academics about judging journal quality.

Further reading

The Legal Academic’s Handbook – now available

The Legal Academic’s Handbook, edited by Chris Ashford, Jessica Guth, has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan.  It includes my chapter on Open Access Publishing (read my pre-print version) and I am thrilled to appear on this list of talented and experienced contributors – as Chris Newman said, “This book is our Woodstock!

Here is the complete list of chapters and contributors:

1. From Legal Practice to Academia; Karen Jones; University of South Wales, UK
2. Lectures; Anthony Bradney; Keele University, UK
3. Marking; Becky Huxley-Binns; University of Law, UK
4. Gender Issues in Teaching and Learning – difficult situations with students; Rachel Fenton; University of the West of England, UK
5. Research and Scholarship; Richard Mullender; Newcastle University, UK
6. Designing Research; Matthew Weait; Birkbeck, University of London, UK
7. Reference Writing; Gary Watt; University of Warwick, UK
8. PhD by Publication; Tim Connor; formerly of University of Bradford, UK
9. Work-Life Balance; Richard Collier; Newcastle University, UK
10. Wellbeing; Richard Collier; Newcastle University, UK
11. Managing Maternity, Paternity and Parental leave; Helen Stalford; University of Liverpool, UK
12. From Module Leadership to Course Leadership; Donna Whitehead; University of South Wales, UK
13. QAA and Validation; Graeme Broadbent; Kingston University, UK
14. Navigating University Management Committees and the Meeting Structures; Annabelle James; Teesside University, UK
15. Undertaking Peer Review; Nigel Duncan; City University London, UK
16. Open Access Publishing; Laura J. Wilkinson; University of Sunderland, UK
17. Taking on a Management Role (at another Institution); Mark O’Brien; Oxford Brookes University, UK
18. Gender Issues in HE Management; Rosemary Auchmuty; University of Reading, UK
19. Performance Review; Chris Gale; GSM London, UK
20. Being a Private University; Chris Maguire; BPP University, UK
21. Academic Dress; Jessica Guth; University of Bradford, UK
22. The Standardised Client and Clinic; Rory O’Boyle; Law Society of Ireland
23. Developing Clinic; Victoria Murray; Northumbria University, UK
24. Further Developing Street Law; Sarah Morse and Paul McKeown; Northumbria University, UK
25. Writing for a Professional Audience; John Hodgson; Nottingham Trent University, UK
26. Simulation and Legal Education; Karen Barton; University of Hertfordshire, UK
27. Large Group Teaching; Karen Devine; University of Kent, UK
28. Designing Out Plagiarism; Alison Bone; University of Brighton, UK
29. Student Feedback; Vera Bermingham; Kingston University, UK
30. Problem-Based Learning; Ben Fitzpatrick; University of Derby, UK
31. Reflection in Teaching, Learning and Practice; Richard Grimes; University of York, UK
32. Organising a Specialist Conference; Ben Livings; University of New England, Australia
33. Embedding Employability Skills (or helping graduates get jobs); Ben Middleton; University of Sunderland, UK
34. Teaching Distance Learning Students; Robert Hiscocks; BPP University, UK
35. Supporting Student Law Societies and Extra-curricular activities and students; Ed Mowlam; University of Bradford, UK
36. External Engagement – Enterprise; Christopher J. Newman; University of Sunderland, UK
37. External Examiners; Chris Gale; GSM London, UK
38. Facilitating Small Group Discussions; Francis King; University of Essex, UK
39. Innovation and the Use of Film in Legal Education; Hugo de Rijke; Plymouth University, UK
40. Approaches to Law (Socio-Legal, Black Letter etc); Kevin J. Brown; Queen’s University Belfast, UK
41. Teaching and Assessment can be Inclusive too; Jackie Lane; University of Huddersfield, UK
42. Using Animations with Students; Carol Withey; University of Greenwich, UK
43. Developing Students’ Legal Writing Skills; Lisa Webley; University of Westminster, UK
44. Working with the Library; Emily Allbon; City University London, UK
45. Engaging with Schools and Prospective Students; Jessica Guth; University of Bradford, UK
46. Building a Research Profile; Rosemary Hunter; Queen Mary University of London, UK
47. Post Graduate Certificates in Higher Education; Jessica Guth; University of Bradford, UK
48. The EdD Experience; Elizabeth Mytton; Southampton Solent University, UK
49. Social Media, Blogging and Tweeting; Paul Bernal; University of East Anglia, UK
50. Gaining Recognition For Teaching; Michael Bromby; Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
51. Legal Education Research; Fiona Cownie; Keele University, UK
52. Despite my Job or because of my Job: Impact and Research; Jane Ching; Nottingham Trent University, UK
53. Looking for an academic job? Wanting to develop your academic career?; Jon Reast; University of Bradford, UK
54. Applying for a move to a Research Intensive HEI; Jonathan Doak; Durham University, UK
55. Applying for Lectureship with PhD/Research Experience; Liz Oliver; University of Leeds, UK
56. Teaching from other people’s materials; Michael Jefferson; University of Sheffield, UK
57. Devising New Modules; David McArdle; University of Stirling, UK
58. Challenges of International Students; Deveral Capps; Leeds Beckett University, UK
59. Applying for Research Funding; Sally Wheeler; Queen’s University, Belfast, UK
60. Presenting at Conferences; Fiona Cownie; Keele University, UK
61. Preparing Journal Articles for submission; Philip A. Thomas; Cardiff University, UK
62. Book Proposals; Dave Cowan; University of Bristol, UK
63. Managing Research and Research Teams; Fiona de Londras; University of Birmingham, UK
64. Battling the Exclusive Research Culture; Chloë J. Wallace; University of Leeds, UK
65. Promotions in Higher Education; Jessica Guth; University of Bradford, UK
66. Editing Special Issues; Chris Ashford; Northumbria University, UK
67. Editorial Boards/Being an Editor; Chris Ashford; Northumbria University, UK
68. PhD supervision; Sally Wheeler; Queen’s University, Belfast, UK
69. The Law Subject Associations; Becky Huxley-Binns; University of Law, UK
70. Dealing with the Media; Paul Bernal; University of East Anglia, UK
71. Readerships/Professorships – How to Get There; Philip N.S. Rumney; University of the West of England, UK

Information on Open Access for (cycling) advocacy groups

In late 2015 I attended the ESRC Academia & Advocacy debate about cycling – an excellent day conference to “bring together researchers and advocacy groups to provide space, time and room for discussing the redefinition of the role of academic research as the interface between advocacy and activism and policy making.”

A Storify Twitter summary, slides, and recordings are available from the event’s dissemination page – as well as my contribution, Information on Open Access for cycling advocacy groups.  I wrote this in order to help people who aren’t involved in academia to search for and read Open Access research outputs.  Although written with the transport cycling interest in mind, the contents are broadly applicable.

It’s CC-licenced, so you may download, read, and reuse it as you wish, with attribution:

    • Information on Open Access for cycling advocacy groups – Word (for better text-mining)


    • Information on Open Access for cycling advocacy groups – PDF (if you don’t have MS-Word-friendly software)


Open Access Week 2015

It’s International Open Access Week (19-25 October 2015).  You can get involved by learning about OA, teaching someone else about OA, and helping out on a project.

Things to read

Things to discuss

  1. What is OA?  A simple definition is “unrestricted online access to research outputs”. There are many others. Think about why this variability exists.
  2. What does this definition mean?  Consider defining the main terms: unrestricted, online, access, research, output.
  3. Notice the absence of the word “free” from the definition. Learn about the two meanings of free – gratis, and libre.  If access is to be free, who is going to pay for it?  How much should be paid?  How much does scholarly publishing cost?  And how much is it worth?
  4. If the definition above were adopted, what barriers might still exist? Which people and what materials might be excluded?
  5. If the definition above were adopted, what would be the effects on the following? Publishers’ revenue, subscriptions contracts for libraries, inter-library loans, copyright, the role of trust in scholarly publishing, peer review, institutional repositories, resource discovery systems…

Things to do

  • Participate in the SPARC & Wikipedia Library Open Access Week Edit-a-thon – the goals are (1) to improve already existing Open Access-related pages, (2) to create new content where it needs to be added, and (3) to translate Open Access-related pages into languages where they don’t yet exist. No previous experience is required.  Get started here!
  • Find people and organisations involved in Open Access to follow on Twitter.
  • Join GOKb and add information about OA status of journals – GOKb is a “knowledge base that will describe electronic journals and books, publisher packages, and platforms… [its] enhanced data model will track changes over time, including publisher take-overs and bibliographic changes, and an expanded set of identifiers”. Thank you to Owen Stephens for this suggestion.
  • Contribute to Wikidata (thanks again to Owen for the idea) – Wikidata is “a free linked database that can be read and edited by both humans and machines”.  Find out how you can contribute, take an interactive tutorial and make your first edits, improve a random item, and organise or attend an event.

An introduction to Open Access for academics

This is a draft of my chapter on Open Access for the Legal Academics’ Handbook, which is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.  I would be grateful for any feedback, either via commenting below, or by email.

How does academic publishing work?

Academics are employed by universities, and as part of their job, they read each others’ scholarly writings and produce research outputs of their own.  Scholarly works in the form of journal articles or books are published by commercial publishers.   In this chapter, I will often refer to articles, but the principles apply to a range of formats.  Commercial publishers provide an editorial process and meet costs of production, and then make journals and books available to read for payment: typically a one-off cost for books and individual articles, or a subscription for journals.  The work of the academics in writing research outputs and providing peer review is not paid by the commercial publisher, but is considered part of their salaried employment at their university.

This is the traditional (or legacy) model of academic publishing.  For some time, it has been challenged on the following points:

  1. Costs of production are falling as academic publishing moves online.
  2. Costs of library subscriptions to academic journals have been increasing well above the rate of inflation (this is referred to as the serials crisis)
  3. The traditional model usually involves academics signing over their intellectual property rights to the commercial publisher, which means that they no longer own the copyright in their work, and cannot legally distribute copies of their own work outside the publisher’s framework, e.g. by placing a PDF of their paper on their own website
  4. Pressure to include re-usable datasets in scientific papers, allowing the methodology to be scrutinised and tested.
  5. The pay-to-access model excludes many potential readers.  Even those with university affiliations and access to their university’s print and electronic journal collection find that they do not have access to every article in their field (as the serials crisis grows, libraries have to cut subscriptions as costs escalate and budgets shrink).  Other disenfranchised potential readers include researchers in developing economies, researchers in the UK who do not have a university connection, retired academics, staff and students in schools and/or further education, and other interested lay persons.
  6. Increasing demand for the products of publicly-funded research (in the form of UK HE academics’ salaries) to be freely available to be read by taxpayers who funded the research activity in the first place.

The Open Access (OA) movement challenges this traditional academic publishing model.  An article that is OA can be freely accessed, shared and reused by anyone in the world via the internet, with a subscription or login.  Open Access removes barriers of cost (subscriptions or pay-per-view fees) and barriers of permission (copyright, licencing restrictions).

What is OA?

The traditional publishing model relies on denying access to knowledge.  At the heart of OA is the idea that the scholarly research outputs should be available to read online without payment (gratis open access) and that the outputs are licensed to share and re-use, with attribution (libre open access).

Here is the definition from the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

Gratis open access addresses the challenge of pay-to-read publishing.  Just as important, the libre element of OA means that the intellectual property rights of the document remain with the author (rather than being signed away to the commercial publisher); that the work can be indexed by computers (allowing the full text to be used by an internet search engine or research database); and that users can legally link to, download, and share the document.

OA is possible via two routes: gold, in which the published edition of a work is available from the publisher’s website; and green, in which the final copy of the published work is available under OA licence from a repository.  A repository is a database of research outputs, typically organised by institution (e.g. a university), or by subject (e.g. bepress Legal Repository).

The difference between the gold and green routes is whether OA is provided by the journal itself, or by a repository.  It is not a measure of quality.

As the model of academic publishing changes, new funding streams are being explored, including:

  1. institutional support
  2. research centre & society partnerships
  3. research funding subsidy
  4. library expenditure
  5. direct publication charges such as article processing charges (APCs)

Some of these also challenge the for-profit business model of commercial publishers.

Drivers for OA

The main driver for open access is the 2012 Finch Report, which mandated that all UK publicly-funded research outputs be free to access, with gold OA as the preferred route.

Post-REF2014, research outputs submitted to the research assessments process must be accessible from the author’s institutional repository.

Furthermore, universities are increasingly developing their own OA policies.

Therefore, authors are likely to find that they are obliged to publish OA by their research funder, the demands of the REF, and their institution.

Commercial publishers understand that academics are under pressure to publish OA, and are providing OA options.  However, the Finch Report did not specify that OA had to be libre as well as gratis.  The Finch Report favoured gold over green as the preferred route to OA, and recommended that this would be funded by APCs.  The Finch Panel involved a number of representatives from the world of commercial publishing.

The major difference between these and “born-OA” methods is that commercial publishers seek to maintain their revenue (for example, Elsevier reported a 36 percent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion in 2010), and so are charging for OA in the form of article processing charges or APCs.  The author pays the APC – this may be handled by their institution, often the library; or by their funding body – and their work becomes gratis OA.  It is worth noting that this usually isn’t libre OA, as the author still signs away their copyright and the article isn’t licensed for sharing and re-use.  Another option offered by commercial publishers is to allow green OA after an embargo period.  This achieves the letter of gratis OA, but not the spirit; as current access to the article is only for those with subscriptions, leaving the rest to wait until the embargo has passed before being able to read the content.

It is foreseen that there will be a transitional period as traditional publishers move from subscriptions revenue to an APC-funded model.

During this time, university libraries will have to pay journal subscriptions as well as APCs, putting yet more pressure on already-squeezed budgets.  Commercial publishers will benefit, as they will receive income from both subscriptions and APCs.  Some have promised to reduce subscriptions in proportion to APC revenue, but nonetheless it seems likely that a “double-dipping” dual revenue will develop during the transitional period.

Additional APC funding is being provided to research-intensive institutions from central public funds, reinforcing a cycle of research success and making it even harder to develop new research nuclei (at newer universities, for example).

The value of a journal is often measured by impact factor (particularly in the fields of sciences and medicine).  Impact factor is a metric which is itself the product of a commercial body, Thomson Reuters.  Impact factor is a measure of a journal’s readership and frequency of citation of its articles.  Impact factor is coming under increasing criticism for its reliability, susceptibility to manipulation, and competition from alternative measurements such as Article-Level Metrics (ALMs).

Having a paper published in a high-profile, big brand journal is still an attractive prospect for academics (and is perceived to be necessary to gain tenure or REF status) and this is a powerful factor keeping academics tied into commercial publishers.

OA journals are sometimes criticised for having poor peer review processes.  However, problems with peer review are found in both OA and traditional journals, and the peer review process is not related to whether a journal is OA or not.

As well as the pressure to publish OA, there are also more positive reasons for authors to embrace OA:

  • OA allows you a broader readership, including input from non-academics.  This is particularly useful in Law, a discipline which naturally intersects with many fields of public interest and policy.
  • making your research OA maximises the impact of your work, and gives you a citation advantage, as no-one is prevented by a paywall from reading it, and therefore citing it in their research.
  • reader interaction – a libre OA licence allows you to track sharing of and commenting on your work by others, and the opportunity to respond and engage.  Born-OA journals are particularly good at building in this functionality, which is completely absent from traditional journal publishing.
  • born-OA journal platforms allow you greater use of web technology in your writing, such as embedding multimedia and links to other articles, statistics, and reports.
  • using libre OA articles allows you to easily re-use (with automatic attribution) and cite the work of others in your writing.
  • libre OA allows you to retain the intellectual property rights in your own work.
  • OA brings the linking and indexing power of the internet to your research.  It is in effect the Electronic Enlightenment for knowledge.

Find out what (if any) are your obligations to your institution and your funding body (if different from your institution); and your involvement in next REF (2020, at the time of writing).

Most UK HE institutions now have a repository.  Find out who manages yours – they will be an excellent source of information and advice.

Once your obligations have been met, other decisions about OA publication are yours.  Access to, licensing of, and funding for scholarly research and its outputs is largely determined by academics, whose decisions about where to publish their work, and which works to include in reading lists for students, are without doubt the strongest drivers in this field.

Links/further reading