Traditional academic publishing has been rumoured to be imperilled for decades now. Despite continued criticism over pricing and a growing open access movement, a number of recent reports point to the sector’s resilience. Francis Dodds suggests this is partly attributable to the adaptability of academic publishers but also highlights attitudes of researchers surprisingly committed to the status quo as another key factor. However, other aspects of researcher behaviour may prove more disruptive in the long term, with greater collaboration leading to the growing informal use and exchange of free material between researchers.

There have been repeated rumours of the imminent death of traditional academic publishing. Talk of a crisis in monograph publishing dates back to at least the 1990s and questions about the future of traditional journal publishing are at least a decade old. Are reports of imminent demise set to finally come true?

One of the key dynamics driving the sector has been the tension between the phenomenal growth in research output, on one hand, and the struggle, on the other, of university libraries, the biggest purchasers of this material, to afford to acquire it. Commercial publishers have been the intermediaries in this process, taking over publishing of research and then selling it on to university libraries. The last few decades have seen growing criticism of larger publishers such as Elsevier over the prices they charge. Attempts to resolve the problem, such as the “big deal” (in which publishers offered bundles of journal content to libraries at a discounted price), have themselves become a source of tension. These tensions have been a factor in a second key dynamic in the sector, the development of the open access (OA) movement, supported by a growing number of government and funding agencies, with its focus on making content freely available to users. OA strikes at the heart of traditional publication models based on journal subscription and monograph sales.

Image credit: Patrick Tomasso, via Unsplash. This work is licensed under a CC0 1.0 license.

So where have these developments left academic publishing? The most recent figures suggest the continuing resilience of the global scientific, technical and medical (STM) journal market, which grew from $8billion in 2008 to $10billion in 2013, an annual growth rate of 4.5%. A more recent snapshot is the performance of Elsevier, the largest journal publisher with a 16% share of the market. Elsevier was reported to have achieved sales of over £2billion in 2015, with revenue up 2% and operating profit up 3%.

Asking whether monograph publishing is still viable, a recent UK report on monograph publishing in the UK concluded: ‘‘we are pleased to report that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’”. Another quoted a survey of four leading UK monograph publishers which suggested a significant increase in output between 2004 and 2013. A survey of monograph output by American university presses between 2009 and 2013 also found no evidence of a decline in output.

This picture of the continuing strength of traditional academic publishing is reinforced by surveys of the impact of “gold” OA (where the author or – more usually – institution pays for publication). OA publication still only represents 5% of overall monograph output and 3% of the global STM journal market.  Looking at monograph publishing, a recent report concludes that “open access represents as yet a tiny proportion of all the academic books published each year, and there are real and significant barriers in the way of more widespread and rapid adoption, with no consensus on the way forward”. Another recent report on OA journals suggested that growth in the OA market has started to slow and highlighted the “failure to transition from subscriptions to open access”.

Two factors account for this continued strength of academic publishing. One has been the resilience and adaptability of academic publishers, for example in migrating income from traditional institutional subscriptions to article processing charges (APCs). A second key factor has been the attitudes of researchers themselves who have remained surprisingly committed to the status quo. One survey, for example, found that even early career researchers (under 35 years) seem to have limited support for OA, low awareness of open science initiatives, and do not see archiving in an institutional repository as a priority. A recent report on researcher attitudes to more open research concluded: “where the publishing of peer-reviewed papers is concerned, the key deciding factors that matter to researchers are journal reputation, journal audience, high-quality peer review, and journal impact factor. The ability to publish a paper as open access is less important in comparison”. There is a similar position in monograph publishing. In deciding where to publish, researchers still value factors such as dissemination to the right audience, quality of peer review, and publisher brand over whether their work will be made OA.

If academics still seem relatively conservative in their attitudes to publishing, other aspects of researcher behaviour may prove more disruptive in the long term. A rising trend noted by many observers is the move towards greater collaboration between researchers, most obviously seen in scholarly collaboration networks (SCNs) such as Academia.edu, Mendeley, and ResearchGate. The growing importance of academic search engines like Google Scholar has helped researchers gain access to a much wider range of material. One study found over 50% of journal article downloads by researchers were from free sources, including 20% from institutional repositories, 20% via colleagues, and 10% from social media sites. A recent survey of over 7,500 researchers found 57% of respondents uploaded copies of their work to SCNs and 66% used SCNs to access otherwise inaccessible content.

These studies suggest a growing informal use and exchange of free material between researchers (such as sharing of preprint versions of articles ahead of publication) which potentially reduces the need to access the final version of record funded by subscription or APCs. There appears to be a paradox at work here: researchers’ continued desire to contribute to leading journals, whilst also reserving the right to freely share results of their research with colleagues. In the long run, rather than policy changes by funding agencies or new open science initiatives, it is this that may do more to undermine the value of publishers’ content. It will be interesting to see how this paradox is resolved.

This blog post is based on the author’s article, “The future of academic publishing: Revolution or evolution?”, published in Learned Publishing (DOI: 10.1002/leap.1109).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Francis Dodds is Editorial Director at Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing, based in Cambridge. He was previously Editorial Director at Woodhead Publishing and has worked in publishing for over 30 years, mainly in academic publishing. He has a first-class degree in History from the University of Oxford.  His ORCID iD is: 0000-0002-9562-6713.

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