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So when does academic publishing get disrupted?

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Anyone who has been following the travails of the publishing industry knows that the business is in the throes of widespread disruption, thanks to the rise of the web and digital publishing, and what Om has called the “democracy of distribution.” But as author and academic George Monbiot points out in a recent piece in The Guardian, there is one large publishing market that not only remains undisrupted but continues to produce huge returns for those who control it: the publishing of academic journals. Why has this market been able to resist the tide of change sweeping through the rest of the industry, and what will it take to finally disrupt it?

As Monbiot notes, while newspapers like the New York Times (s nyt) and Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times (s nws) have erected paywalls that are aimed at charging readers pennies per copy for their digital content, reading a single article in an academic journal published by a company such as Reed-Elsevier (s ruk) or Wiley (s jwa) can cost you as much as $40. And it’s not just the end reader who pays: the libraries that subscribe to these journals and magazines have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for access to each title — in some cases as much as $20,000 for a single journal.

Charging for access to free content

But the enormous prices charged for the content in these journals (which produce profit margins of more than 35 percent for the three major publishers who control the industry, according to Monbiot) aren’t the only thing about the journal business that draws fire from critics. One of the biggest issues is that the content in these publications is provided to these journals for free, and in many cases, the research that is being produced is publicly funded via government grants. So private corporations are raking in huge sums for access to research they get for nothing — and even the peer-editing of the articles in most journals is done for free by other researchers. Says Monbiot:

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

Some have taken matters into their own hands rather than wait for the academic-publishing business to be disrupted. Aaron Swartz, an early staffer at the link-sharing community Reddit and a Harvard Fellow at the Center for Ethics, was recently charged with downloading thousands of academic articles from the JSTOR archive by hacking into the Harvard computer network. According to the indictment, the attorney general believed that Swartz was planning to upload the documents to file-sharing networks — and within a few days someone did exactly that with more than 18,000 documents from JSTOR. The uploader said he was not affiliated with Swartz, but shared his desire to see this research provided to everyone free of charge, saying:

Academic publishing is an odd system — the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers. And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy…. As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models.

Why has academic publishing resisted disruption?

Any discussion of the transformation of the publishing business — whether it’s the publishing of books, newspapers or magazines — inevitably focuses on a number of factors. One is the explosion of new sources of content, whether it’s Twitter’s status as a distributed news network or the self-publishing phenomenon that has seen a growing number of authors bypass the traditional book-publishing business. And another factor is the decline in the cost of producing content that the web and other digital tools (such as Amazon’s Kindle (s amzn) platform) have created. As I outlined in a recent report for GigaOM Pro (sub required), these factors apply to virtually any publishing business.

So why has academic publishing been able to resist these changes? That has a lot to do with the structure of the market. Concentrated ownership is one aspect of it — since, as Monbiot notes, three companies control almost half the market for these journals. But the newspaper and book-publishing markets are fairly concentrated as well, and yet they are being disrupted. The biggest difference in the academic world is that there is a large player in between the creators of the content (i.e, researchers) and the audience for that content (other academics) that tends to distort the economics of the business, and that is the universities and institutions that control access.

There are ongoing attempts by some academics to promote “open access” to research, an effort that sociologist and Microsoft (s msft) researcher Danah Boyd has promoted — urging academics to boycott “locked down” journals that do not provide access except through expensive subscriptions paid for by university tuition fees. As Boyd and others note, the restrictions on such research ultimately mean that important scientific and academic insights are only available to a tiny number of readers. Says Boyd:

Academics are publishing to increasingly narrow audiences who will never read their material purely so that they can get the right credentials to keep their job. This is downright asinine.

Academic institutions reinforce the existing structure

Academics who have tried to open up their research or bypass the journal industry say they often run into resistance from a number of sources. Among other things, appearing in a specific journal or publication is a key criteria for advancement at most universities, which means publishing in open-access formats could be a career-limiting move for an academic. Many publish their papers on their own websites, but most also go through the usual journal process as well, which reinforces the existing system. And since universities pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them.

Some markets within the academic-research industry are better at providing access to research outside an expensive publication: the social sciences, for example, have the SSRN (Social Science Research Network), which provides free access to hundreds of papers that are written every year on a variety of topics. And there are also some open services that allow researchers to contribute papers, such as the network and the Public Library of Science. Some documents also make their way onto file-sharing networks the way the JSTOR papers did, but the demand is so small that this happens infrequently.

As Monbiot notes in his column, there are some agencies such as the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. that require researchers to provide their research for free if they get public funding, but these requirements carry little weight when the entire structure of the academic industry is focused on which papers appear in which specific printed journals — all of which are controlled by several major players. Until either one or both of those factors change, academic publishing will continue to be the market that digital disruption forgot.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Marya and Marcus Hansson and Jeremy Mates

26 Responses to “So when does academic publishing get disrupted?”

  1. usablelearning

    I think one of the factors that plays into it is the fact that academic paper are, by and large, unique. With a news article, if I can’t access the one on NYTimes site, I’ve got a number of other choices that will give me similar, if not identical content. If the NYTimes starts firewalling everything, I can switch to the Washington Post.

    But the academic publisher who controls access to a particular paper or journal is a monopoly. They have no competitors. In some areas of research, there might be a similar paper that someone could reference instead, but mostly not — if I can’t get access to a particular paper, I can’t just swap out a similar one.

    Uncontested and incontestable monopolies are naturally going to resist disruption. Consumers can’t vote with their feet, because there’s no place to walk to (unless you count piracy). We are left with government action from groups like the NIH or appeals to their better nature (and you need a LOT of better nature to offset a 36% profit margin).

    It’s getting worse, not better, too. I’m noticing a lot more stuff behind the paywall that didn’t used to be. I am happy to see the issue get more press though — maybe we can speed up the rate of change, or at least make a dent in the ridculousness of the pricing models (see for a rant on *that* topic).

    Thanks for the great article!

  2. You seem to miss the key element in all this – it is th unit of measure called impact factor.

    You are fighting a vicious cycle where authors need to publish in as high an impact factor journal as possible to both be promoted and to be funded. Thus new journals, regardless of medium, will always start with a low impact factor thus discouraging people from publishing there.

  3. scholastica

    “So private corporations are raking in huge sums for access to research they get for nothing — and even the peer-editing of the articles in most journals is done for free by other researchers.”

    That’s definitely something we’ve seen and heard ad-nauseum from people that we’ve talked to over here at Scholastica. There’s an interesting post at the Conversation( where publishers like Wiley and Elsevier enter the dialogue and justify why they exist and the value that they add.

    Although, as we know, the value they add is small in comparison to what’s being added by those actually doing the research. Can you believe that there are even journal subscriptions that are close to 30k USD?(

    These companies should definitely be uncomfortable since the time is ripe for a disruptive technology.

  4. jkdegen

    Is it possible the reason behind this relatively untouched model is the tenure system itself? It’s easy to say that research and scholarship should be free and sharable when the economic link between success in academic publishing and salary success is convoluted and not always obvious. Scholars may not be paid in cash or copyright royalties the way non-academic writers are, but their take-home pay does eventually come into the picture.

    The jury is still out on the viability of other disrupted information businesses because, in the end, you simply do not get professional quality anything without somehow paying a professional to create it.

    Before all academic publishing goes open access, the open access folks are going to have to figure out a way to present their “eventual monetary value” in a convincing way to the creators they hope to attract. So far the free culture “just sell t-shirts” pitch has found only a small number of takers in the world outside the academy. The open access folks better come up with something more convincing.

  5. Carolyn Thomas

    Interesting – and alarming! – perspective on this, Mathew.

    From a marketing perspective, the pharmaceutical industry not only supports publication of papers in medical journals (consider the recent furor over industry-funded medical ghostwriters covered in the New York Times and PLoS Medicine) but then turns around to order reprints of the very journal articles they have already bought and paid for to help sell even more of their drugs.

    Example: The New England Journal of Medicine sold 929,400 reprints of a single research article about the now-discredited painkiller Vioxx (most of these were sold to the drug’s manufacturer Merck). The company’s drug sales reps then distributed these reprints free to physicians as part of the Vioxx sales calls. Selling reprints of this one article brought in an additional $697,000 in revenue for the NEJM.

  6. Michael Steeleworthy

    I appreciate all the comments and links here: it’s nice to see that so much attention has been brought to a very costly, yet often hidden part of academia.

    I think it’s important that we (as in, people within academia) not point the finger too much at one another. This problem hasn’t been caused only by junior faculty or senior faculty or by librarians or by administrators or by publishers, and nor will only of these groups be able to correct it. What matters at this point is that people within our industry – yes, I mean to call it that – need to become more aware of the cost and value of our work, and we must become active players, all of us, in the administration of our work. We often pursue our teaching and research for the common good, and often, this work is funded with public dollars; it’s time we start taking a closer look at how those dollars are spent (or taken advantage of) by others and raise our voices when objectionable practices occur.

    As a librarian, it pains me to watch the research produced by my colleagues be ostensibly handed over to the big PublishingCo’s and then placed behind a moving paywall. Open Access will not solve everything, but it can be a big help, especially if we produce not only OA journals but also OA indexes. See Knowledge For All as a possible alternative to one big-name science index:

    n.b. for-profit publishers and vendors do play a large and vital role in academic knowledge dissemination; Elsevier should be commended for its decades of work publishing top-flight journals and content. The current model is not financially sustainable, though, and it must be reconsidered.

    Michael Steeleworthy, MLIS.

  7. The argument that there’s a mis-use of public goods here is a valid one.

    But, another way to look at it is to see what an impressive job academic publishers have done at not being disrupted.

    They have gone digital.

    They have made it strengthen their businesses when it could have weakened it.

    Why not praise them for that – rather than assume they have to be disrupted?

    There are iniquities with Academic publishing – but they are nothing new.

    The profit margins might be hefty. George Monbiot might not like them.

    But it’s nice to know there’s one bit of the knowledge market that has the ability to invest and grow, isn’t it?

  8. Martin Baku

    Hey, brilliant article, really good to see that more and more people are noticing this even in the public domain. I myself am a PhD student and can tell you that most my colleagues share your pains and would do anything to make the process more open, more efficient and more valuable.

    However, I think one of the biggest issues is something that has been mentioned by some people here, namely the peer-review process. In particular, the issue is how to attract the established and respected “old guard” to review articles in the “modern” open publications – that’s a direct conflict right there.

    With this in mind, we have thought that it would be a good idea to allow everyone to participate in the review process in order to provide some wiki-similar value to the scientific community and so have come up with the idea of an open review portal – introduced in more detail in – who knows, maybe with time this will revolutionize academic publishing :)

  9. And since universities pay large sums to subscribe to those journals, they often feel compelled to justify those costs by requiring that all research be published through them.

    There is more to it than the above, however. Quantifying academic performance is hard, and because beancounters and administrators control the purse strings, it can’t be left up to the academics to judge their own performance. So we end up with impact factors etc as the metric.

    In 2010, the university of california library system go upset that nature publishing group dramatically increased the price of a subscription to Nature (one of the two highest impact factor journals along with Science), and called on all UC academics to not publish in Nature until they charged a more reasonable price. Alas, this is all futile unless the UC system also agrees not include any Nature papers in performance reviews. Furthermore, your publication record is a significant factor when applying for funding, and again, impact factor of the journals in which you publish is a major metric.

    It is hard to see anything changing whilst the academic publishers control the primary metric for quantifying academic publishing performance.

  10. Right now the biggest problem is the tenuous nature of the peer-review process. Junior faculty have come up through the current system, planned their careers around the current system, and are terrified that any changes will retroactively make the tenure-maximizing strategy they’ve been implementing less effective. Until there is 80%-90% faculty support the system will be hard to change.

      • Alice Marwick

        It’s not really that simple. I’m a junior academic and I publish in both closed and open journals, and I put all my papers on my website regardless. I would LOVE to see the current situation change, but for now, if I want to get tenure, I do not have the privilege of publishing solely in open-access journals (there also aren’t that many of them in my field; most of the journals are closed). The impetus MUST come from tenured faculty, who edit the journals, make tenure decisions, and have the privilege to advocate for change.

  11. Noah Gray

    I think it is fairly short-sited to believe that academic publishing has been forgotten by the digital revolution. The rise of “mega-journals” embracing new technology, like PLoS ONE and others, completely changed the publishing landscape. Old-school publishing houses that don’t adapt will disappear, despite the perceived stranglehold it seemd they currently have. Those tetonic plates of academia are shifting and one must be nimble to avoid falling through the cracks. It you’re interested on additional context for this article, please see this —

  12. Nicely done, Mathew. Readers may be interested in my story on this that I ran at Wired, “Free Science: One Paper at a Time”: It describes all these issues in the context of the efforts of biologist Jonathan Eisen’s attempt to openly publish his late father’s 42 scientific papers (all concerning research he did as an NIH researcher).

    As I describe in the article, I think the various pressures on academic publishers, including media pressure, are pushing some change — though not fast enough yet, in my view.

  13. I believe the time has come to disrupt the market in this area. The author’s article does a nice job of summarizing the reasons why. Research and science should be shared and freely available to all so that progress can be made. I know of know better way for mankind to proceed into the future than through good science.