Blog Post

Why do we need academic journals in the first place?

It may not get as much attention as the disruption that is occurring in newspapers, e-books or other parts of the mainstream media industry, but there is a revolution of sorts going on in the academic publishing business. It has recently exploded into public view with the boycott of Elsevier — one of the largest publishers of academic journals — over legislation that would block researchers from sharing their work. And for some, it has raised a broader question about academic publishing: namely, in an era of democratized distribution of information, why do we need expensive paywalled journals in the first place?

The boycott of Elsevier (please see disclosure below) seems to have become the flashpoint for many in the academic publishing world, and much like the recent grassroots protest against supporters of proposed anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, the boycott is based on Elsevier’s support of a proposed law — in this case the Research Works Act. One of the main elements of the legislation that has sparked criticism is that it would prevent researchers who get federal funding from publishing their work anywhere other than a professional journal like the ones that Elsevier controls (Elsevier has published an open letter in response to the boycott, saying many of the issues raised have been distorted).

Traditional publishers are threatened by the “open access” movement

Researchers say the law is a direct attack on the “open access” movement, which supports the sharing of scientific research outside the paywalled silos of academic journals. Critics say the academic-publishing business is unfair because it takes research that scientists have in many cases created with public funding, gets other academics to do peer reviews of that research for free, and then publishes it in limited-access journals that are only available to institutions and in many cases cost thousands of dollars. In an opinion piece in The Guardian last year, author George Monbiot said:

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.

The open-access movement — which has been supported by many influential researchers, including sociologist Danah Boyd and Fields Medal-winning mathematician Tim Gowers — is part of a broader effort to encourage what some call “open science,” or the sharing of knowledge as a way of promoting collaboration. The Research Works Act would make this much more difficult: among other things, it would prevent the National Institutes of Health from allowing researchers it funds to publish their research anywhere other than a professional journal, something the NIH has allowed for several years.

Quantum physicist and open-science advocate Michael Nielsen recently published a book called Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, which describes how research in mathematics, astronomy and other disciplines has been accelerated by the open sharing of research through blogs and other forums. Some of those forums include the Public Library of Science or PLoS, the open-research archive called, and services such as Mendeley — a kind of social network for academics — as well as ResearchGate, which my colleague Bobbie Johnson has written about.

Why not get rid of academic journals altogether?

In a blog post at the ScienceBlogs network, Ph.D. student Kevin Bonham raised an interesting point: instead of just protesting Elsevier’s support for the Research Works Act, or boycotting its journals because they are too expensive, why not give up the entire practice of publishing in professional journals altogether? As Bonham puts it:

We don’t need any academic journal’s services anymore. If you publish in any journal, you are making it easier for them to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t… the truth is, journals add very little value to science, and impose huge monetary costs, as well as costs in terms of delayed publication and limited distribution.

But what about peer review, the professional oversight that academic journals are supposed to provide so that science doesn’t go astray? As Bonham notes, peer review is a relatively modern invention — and it has also failed rather spectacularly in many cases, with clearly bogus or questionable research being published after multiple reviews by other academics. Why couldn’t researchers review each other’s work on blogs and in forums like Mendeley or the Public Library of Science instead?

As Bonham and others have noted, the biggest obstacle to this happening — and to the spread of open access or open science as a whole — isn’t the control that publishers like Elsevier have over the professional publishing process. The biggest obstacle is the role that these journals play in academia itself, and how important publishing in a specific journal can be when it comes to promotions, granting of tenure, research grants and other aspects of academic life. Even some researchers who support the Elsevier boycott have said they will continue to publish in its journals because they feel that they have to.

Until that structure changes, or until enough researchers and academics decide they don’t care about the system and start to publish their work freely, the current system is unlikely to disappear any time soon. But just like the rest of traditional media industry, it is looking shakier and less stable all the time.

Disclosure: Reed Elsevier, the parent company of science publisher Elsevier, is an investor in GigaOmniMedia, the company that publishes GigaOM.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and View D’World

29 Responses to “Why do we need academic journals in the first place?”

  1. For the record, there are applications like Scholastica (, which was mentioned in a Tim Gowers post(, that are working to allow scholars to easily create peer reviewed journals, manage the editorial review process, and publish that work electronically. Much of the problem that is being described by the boycott, are the ridiculous costs that publishing companies are pushing upon libraries. The publishers are not providing a value that mirrors those costs. We are rapidly approaching a time where scholars are able to obviate the need for publishers as they are used today.

  2. I will put the scenario in other words … Bananas.
    I get money from public (government) to buy land and irrigate.
    I plant bananas and once I get fruits I go and give the fruits to a guy and pay him (again from public money) to display (publish) my fruits in his shop.

    He will scrutinize the fruits free of cost with some peer reviewers and put it on display for sale.

    I will ask all my family members to go and pay money (public money again) to buy the “bananas” the shop.

    Sounds like a good business model to reap the government money.

    I am happy I get paid for what i am doing and shop keeper is more happy that he gets paid for doing nothing. And even more happier that he screws me all-over for my own stuff.

    Stop IT.

    • That’s a completely false comparison, ridiculous in fact. For starters, the real value of scientific research is not the published papers, its the knowledge acquired from it. The cost of publication is peanuts compared to a) the other costs associated with running a an academic institution, and b) the economic and social benefits of the research itself. The Vice-chancellor of the university I am at earns £350k per year, while Nature charge the University under £10k a year to allow every student access to all the journal content. Does it still seem excessive? As another example, see the paper ‘The Anatomy of a Search Engine’. It would have cost money to publish, and does cite a number of peer reviewed articles, but directly let to a company currently worth approx. $200bn. A top university will spend less on securing access to around 5000 journals that a top banker will earn in a 8 weeks. Notice I am focussing on access costs. As for publication fees, its well known, open access does not lead to any significant savings for the author, in many scenarios in fact, it would lead to higher costs.

      • Deon Garrett

        > For starters, the real value of scientific research is not the published papers, its the knowledge acquired from it.

        That’s a somewhat controversial statement, to say the least. I suggest submitting your next NSF or NIH grant proposal with a blank section for “dissemination”. The reality is that the value for the funding agency lies in both — it is actually important that other scientists be able to access and understand your work. Otherwise, there’s no “standing on the shoulders of giants” to be found.

        > The Vice-chancellor of the university I am at earns £350k per year, while Nature charge the University under £10k a year to allow every student access to all the journal content. Does it still seem excessive?

        Yes, actually, but that isn’t really the best argument to make here — we can obviously quibble over how much a Nature subscription should cost and not really get anywhere. A better argument is to point out that the one has nothing to do with the other. You could have just as well said, “the Vice-chancellor of the university I am at earns £350k per year, while a parking permit for students costs under £100k a year to allow access to every parking spot on campus. Does it still seem excessive?”

        > A top university will spend less on securing access to around 5000 journals that a top banker will earn in a 8 weeks.

        Obviously, the bundling price structures render this somewhat meaningless, but if 5000 independent journals cost the same as Nature (£10k a year), then the 8-week cost of 5000 journals is about £8.3 million. Where does one drop off an employment application for this bank you speak of?

        > As for publication fees, its well known, open access does not lead to any significant savings for the author, in many scenarios in fact, it would lead to higher costs.

        This is generally true (although any open-access journals waive fees for authors without a funding source), but no one is arguing for open access to save money for the authors. Given the choice between open-access where the author pays or closed-access where readers must pay, most of the money is going to come from the government either way. In the latter, through the costs of running university libraries, and the former through funds set aside in grant awards to cover the page fees. The only difference is that with open-access, the money buys much more. Everyone on Earth can access the research, instead of the government paying the same fees over and over again so each institution can have their own gilded key to the gated community.

  3. This is altogether like suggesting that we should professional publications like the Financial Times should not exist – they are free, access is not universal, and that their editors sometimes have their own agenda. Its a very naive opinion I must say. Review is a remarkably important mechanism – can you imagine running a software company building a system around open source code from unknown sources (individuals I must say, not community sourced), with no verification structures in place? The whole idea of community review has been tried, and I must say, will not work the majority of the time. The simple reason for that, is that you need an expert to review the work, and with all due respect to the PhD student who cited above, experts are few and far between. It is already so difficult for journal editor’s to secure reviewers, because of how much time it takes to do the job properly. Surely if companies must hire auditors to provide some level of scrutiny over their financial records, why should academics, spending billions of public resources, not have to allocate a small percentage of that to a review process? You might argue that the auditors missed Enron, but it would be foolhardy to abandon the system altogether because of that, or to suggest that companies rely on ‘open-accounting’.

    The reality is, if every academic was Einstein re-incarnated, there would be no need for metrics such as publication and citation records. We all know that’s not the case.

  4. There is widespread agreement that the current economy around scholarly communications is not sustainable. Even the University of California has had to rethink their approach to database subscriptions because their campuses were each paying a mint for separate subscriptions to the same information. It’s ridiculous and I’m glad you shed light on this issue.

    However, I think it’s rather premature for Bonham to start talking about the death of the scholarly journal. Journals provide editorial focus and discipline, if nothing else. For researchers to suggest that peer review serves no purpose is to contradict the entire premise of modern scientific conventionalism itself.

    It’s far more likely that academic libraries will continue to broaden their mission by publishing research instead of just buying it. Many academic libraries have built websites to publish faculty and student research, using open software like Digital Commons from the awesome folks at Bepress. This is advantageous for the academic community because librarians are dedicated to intellectual freedom and “get” the value of open access to research.

  5. Gilbert Midonnet

    Larry Lessing of CERN gave a great talk about just this thing.

    Academics writes articles for professional advancement; reviewers are (usually) not paid for their work. AND yet try getting a subscription to peer-reviewed journals. They are very expensive. Once you leave academia it is close to impossible for someone on a modest budget to be able to read these articles.

    AND yet the authors of the work, and the reviewers aren’t paid for their contribution. Why is it so expensive? The printing and distribution of these journals are expensive.

    Hence – do we need academic journals or do we need peer-reviewed articles? The two used to be one and the same. No longer.

    • I disagree Gilbert, academics receive salaries for their work, and treat peer review as a social obligation. Don’t make them sound like slave labour when they clearly are not (I am an academic by the way). The reality is, if reviewers were paid for their work the price of publishing would more than double, and in the end no one would win.

      Just as importantly, journals are expensive because of how niche their readerships are, but there are many that allow free access, with the cost met by the authors. It’s wrong to say that it is ‘impossible’ for someone on a modest budget to be able to read them all.

  6. “The biggest obstacle is the role that these journals play in academia itself, and how important publishing in a specific journal can be when it comes to promotions, granting of tenure, research grants and other aspects of academic life.” Absolutely; as a working scientist (until fairly recently a postdoc in biology at Duke University), I can affirm this without qualification. Many of those who prattle on about the sacredness of peer review (let alone “Wouldn’t the world be lovely if everything were free.” – good grief) are oblivious to how many, probably most scientists now work. In the first place, we read manuscripts by people whose work we already know matters to us and with whom we’re in touch; by the time it finally appears in some journal, it’s old news. We also read publications to which those same people refer us or to which we find our way through our own research and writing; we don’t read or even skim journals from front to back. And when we read publications, we don’t rely on the fact that they’ve been peer reviewed to decide what we do or don’t believe; nothing is accepted on faith, everything is subject to skepticism. Formal peer review prior to publication keeps out the cranks, but that’s about all. The peer review that matters to the progress of science, rather than lazy tenure committees, deans, and such, happens when your colleagues read your work, whether before or after it’s printed in a journal.

  7. “The biggest obstacle is the role that these journals play in academia itself, and how important publishing in a specific journal can be when it comes to promotions, granting of tenure, research grants and other aspects of academic life.”

    That sounds like something that needs to change.

  8. Deon Garrett

    There are some very serious errors in this post.

    The RWA absolutely does NOT “prevent researchers who get federal funding from publishing their work anywhere other than a professional journal like the ones that Elsevier controls”.

    Currently, the NIH requires that all research funded in whole or in part by federal grants must be made accessible to the public within one year for free. The RWA would prevent the government from making such demands. It would not prevent the researchers from voluntarily choosing to publish in open access journals, nor would it prevent the publishers from doing what many already do, which is to allow authors to distribute preprints of their articles from their own personal web sites.

    Note that I’m a signatory to that Elsevier boycott, so I’m certainly not defending the status quo. I’m strongly opposed to the RWA, and strongly supportive of open access. But we need to speak accurately in our criticisms; otherwise, it just provides cover for the other side.

    • Thanks, that was badly worded on my part. You are correct that even under the RWA, researchers could publish their work wherever they wish. What I meant to say was that if they chose to publish it in a professional journal, the bill would prevent them from publishing it anywhere else — including releasing it online for free.

      • Deon Garrett

        Well, they don’t need the RWA (or anything, in fact) for that to happen. As part of the publication process, it’s nearly universal that the journal requires a transfer of copyright. It’s just ordinary copyright law that takes over from there.

        The access problem could be solved on its own. All that is needed is for scientists to refuse to publish in predatory journals. The problem is that the incentive structure is all wrong to encourage that to happen. That’s why the NIH policy is so good — it elegantly solves the problem with a minimum of legal manipulation. It’s just the government — who as the source of the money is entirely entitled to make conditions on receiving funding — forcing the incentives to align with the good of the public (and coincidentally the good of most researchers as well).

  9. Thanks for this, Mathew. I’m a chapter author in a book being published by an Reed Elsevier subsidiary (Morgan Kaufmann) — something that I did not know when I said “yes”. :-/ It’s a monopolistic enterprise, how else to explain profits of 36 percent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion last year? [your NYT link]

    You are spot on in your closing – until Universities change their hiring/promotion practices, academics who want jobs in research institutions will have little recourse other than publish in traditional peer-reviewed publications.

    Here’s another challenge: journals also represent a revenue stream for professional associations and help fund conferences where researchers share ideas and get to know one another. It’s ironic that these associations turned over their publishing arms to third parties just before publishing became dirt-cheap and no longer required monopolistic-creating infrastructure investment.

    In the U.S., research that is funded by NIH has to be made public within 12 months after publication. CRS describes this proposed bill as the antithesis of the current law because it *prohibits* making public research papers that have been funded with taxpayer money! WTH?

  10. Wouldn’t the world be lovely if everything were free. If years of hard work were just given away to everybody. If the tech writers and editors who help the scientists put together a coherent presentation didn’t have to eat or pay for a roof over their heads.

    Imagine the pace of science if information was disseminated though sloppily written blog posts and tweets. Where mistakes and typos became facts that further research was based on.

    Granted that there are leeches siphoning off money for information that you want to know. You go to a symposium, pay for the proceedings, and along the way you’re paying $50/hr for someone to set up the tables and chairs at the hotel. But you’re also paying for the folks you came to learn from. And if the latest information from leading folks in their arena is of value to you, you pay the price. That’s how it works when you are dealing with professionals. It’s the definition of the word.

    • Deon Garrett

      The problem is that you’re paying a lot of them twice. If you’re in the US, you’re paying real money that the NIH distributes to researchers to hopefully improve the state of health in the long run. The researcher takes that money and uses it to buy equipment, pay salaries, pay for travel, pay for access to literature, etc. He then publishes his own work (often paying for that as well, but if not, at least doing it without receiving payment). The publisher does some minimal work to facilitate this process, and then sells the result back to the taxpayer at enormous expense (perhaps $3000 a year for a not atypical four or six issue subscription). They also bundle subscriptions to force libraries and other institutions to pay for expensive journals they don’t want in order to get access to a few that they do.

      It’s disingenuous to try and present this as people wanting stuff for free. No one is asking for that. They’re asking to only pay the cost once.

      You’re right that peer review isn’t going to be replaced in the near future, but that’s really not central to the argument. As scientists, we’re already doing peer review with a pretty minimal amount of support from the publishers. We’re simply saying that we don’t need to trade such vast powers over to the publishers in return for such a small amount of support.

  11. There are many criticisms of the Research Works Act that could be made, but you do need to get the facts right. The Research Works Act protects academic freedom, rather than the opposite. In no sense would it “prevent researchers who get federal funding from publishing their work anywhere other than a professional journal like the ones that Elsevier controls.” All it would do is prevent the government from requiring authors to publish in an open access journal (which, btw, describes several journals published by Elsevier and other commercial publishers).

    Another important point is that open access journals, whether run by commercial interests, non-profit societies, or other organizations (i.e. PLoS), are not, in fact, free. They cost a similar amount of money, only funded by the author (or his or her funder), rather than on the reader’s side.

    The question about the operation of science, however, is a good one — how do we transform academia in the wake of the digital revolution? That’s something for the academics — not the government — to figure out.

    • Dear David (with no bona fides or disclosure):

      Here is the exact language from the CRS summary:


      Prohibits a federal agency from adopting, maintaining, continuing, or otherwise engaging in any policy, program, or other activity that: (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the author’s employer, assent to such network dissemination.

      Defines “private-sector research work” as an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the U.S. government, describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing, but does not include progress reports or raw data outputs routinely required to be created for and submitted directly to a funding agency in the course of research.


      It means that Reed Elsevier, a monopolist, can BLOCK sharing of papers published in Reed Elsevier journals EVEN if said research was funded by taxpayer money (whole or in part). This is the exact OPPOSITE of current law relating to NIH/health research and is probably written as a response to that law.

      How you can see this as a reflection of “academic freedom” is beyond my understanding. For certain, it’s not taxpayer freedom.

  12. rick gregory

    Eliminating peer review for review on blogs would be a disaster. Yes, it’s failed occasionally but those failures are news because they are the exception and, frankly, making the argument that something’s useless unless it’s perfect is silly. I’d hate to see science follow journalism into the ‘publish it and hey, we’ll work to get it right as a process….’ morass.

    However… peer review doesn’t necessitate academic journals. What does is the system of being published in the first place (publish or perish implies that you can produce work that exceeds a certain bar of quality and thus that you’re Good Enough and that you’re actually producing work of that quality on a regular basis). Too, some journals confer prestige… Nature, etc. Rightly or not, papers published in the best journals are more important to one’s career than those published in small, unknown journals.

    I can see a few ways to proceed. First, keep the model we have, but after, say, 6 months, the papers get published openly. Want immediate access? Thats money. But the knowledge eventually is opened up to everyone so the argument of science not being shared is mitigated if not eliminated.

    Another option would be to simply publish everything at once for free but to build tools around the publication that are pay only – citation explorers and other discovery tools that make a researcher’s job easier.

    Yet another option is to publish everything for free. I don’t think this is viable if one wants to keep peer review or any other editorial functions.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rick. I’m not sure peer review done out in the open through blogs or other forums would necessarily be a disaster at all — there are many flaws with peer review done behind closed doors, although obviously the process itself still has value.

      As for opening up articles and papers once they have been published in a journal, that’s exactly the kind of thing the Research Works Act is designed to prevent — and I can’t see many journal publishers like Elsevier agreeing to that either, since it would cut into their revenue from licensing to institutions.

      • rick gregory

        Real peer review done in the open would be fine. However, publishing something first and then having people ‘peer review’ it via blog comments and the like isn’t the same.

        As for the RWA… screw that. I’m completely on the side of openness if the choice becomes binary. My concern isn’t with the academic political cruft that’s built up around publishing either… My only worry in going fully open is that the quality of the papers will decrease if there’s no editorial function. it doesn’t HAVE to… I think GigaOM is as good a tech news source as any printed tech journal ever was… but you guys have editorial. The issue for me is keeping the quality bar high via peer review or other mechanisms. But, frankly, the revenue stream of Elsevier is the lowest item on my list of concerns.

    • “I’d hate to see science follow journalism into the ‘publish it and hey, we’ll work to get it right as a process….’ morass.”

      Rick, I generally feel your opinion is quite sensible, but I also think Wikipedia functions well.

    • Evan Bradley

      How are peer review and open access incompatible? reviewers already work for free, and existing open-access journals still employ review. Open access refers to readership, not entry for publishing. Of course, the newer open access journals haven’t reached the level of prestige of the established journals, but this will likely change with time.