Scholarly publishing faces daunting challenges. Rising journal costs have seen many universities have to make strategic cuts to library collections. To Kyle Siler, the digital world has opened new niches and frontiers for academic publishing, offering many innovative and diverse possibilities. But opportunities must be grasped by scientific professional associations that have arguably lost sight of ideals of accessibility and affordability, and by members of faculty whose responses to the threat of journal cancellations can shape the outcome of negotiations with publishers.

Placing scientific articles behind paywalls is absurd. Paywalls are of no use to science, exclude people from easily accessing published research and are often ineffectual on the internet. However, subscription-based funding models are financially lucrative for publishers and are organisationally entrenched in academia. For-profit publishers derive billions of dollars of profits annually from scientific journals. Universities devote increasingly large portions of their budgets to maintain journal subscriptions that, aided by an oligopolistic market structure, have escalated in cost beyond the pace of inflation for years. Many universities have reached their breaking point with rising journal costs and have chosen – or been forced – to make strategic and sometimes painful cuts to library collections. Scholarly publishing is in a challenging, interstitial state. Universities continue to pay escalating costs for journal subscriptions, but are also faced with a growing imperative to support open access research. Three main issues are prominent in this challenging time in scholarly publishing:

New business models and scientific niches in publishing

Online publishing removes print costs and limitations on the size of articles and journals. This opens opportunities for new types of articles, such as with unusual lengths or formats. These innovations could be substitutes or complements for established journals. As Michèle Lamont argued, “the…cost of entry has been lowered, which may have a direct effect in democratising evaluation as well as access to such venues. With the proliferation may emerge a broader diversity of criteria of evaluation and a greater diversity of intellectual output, a heterarchy of sort.” Another consequence of online publishing is that rejection rates can be strategic for journals, as opposed to being wholly dictated by print page limits. For example, eLife’s acceptance rate hovers around 15%, indicative of a journal that is willing and financially able to incur the costs of rejecting most articles. In contrast, the online publishing world is also populated with “predatory” journals that will publish anything for a fee. Navigating these new scientific niches creatively and professionally (e.g. in regards to tenure and promotion) are important challenges in contemporary science.

Image credit: Horizon by Douglas Scortegagna. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Antagonism with scholarly associations

Scientific professional associations often have significant importance in the publishing landscape by virtue of ownership of scientifically vital association journals. In some cases, these journals also function as valuable “cash cows.” For example, the American Chemical Society is “well known in library circles for having aggressive year-to-year price increases.” In other cases, associations partner with a for-profit publisher, where the association derives revenues by licensing publishing rights. Since universities pay publishers for journal subscriptions, such professional associations are essentially getting universities and their various stakeholders to further subsidise their operations. Publishers function as a lucrative middleman to obfuscate this monetary transaction. Professional associations can be very protective of these rents. For example, a recent blog from the American Sociological Association expressed fears about Sci-Hub, arguing that eroding leverage for subscription income would harm the association, as well as its “rich” publishing partners. The American Chemical Society went even further and filed suit against Sci-Hub. The American Psychological Association invested resources in issuing takedown notices to authors sharing published articles online, although the initiative was cancelled after substantial backlash. Members of professional associations and journal editorial boards who place their own interests above scientific ideals of accessibility and affordability should be exposed. Scientists can and should use exit or voice to reform these institutions or establish better alternatives.

The role of faculty

As the most important consumers and producers of scientific publishing, faculty will play a vital role in mitigating – or exacerbating – access and cost problems in publishing. With continually rising journal costs, cuts are inevitable. Losing access to journals is unfortunate, and should be a cause for concern for all scientific stakeholders. There have been considerable differences in the responses of universities and faculty to the threat of journal cancellations. In some cases, the scientific community has responded forcefully. For example, the Université de Montréal has aggressively cut journals, arguing that the rising costs outweigh the benefits of the deals offered by publishers. In Germany, faculty at dozens of universities reported little disruption to their work routines after losing access to Elsevier journals during a negotiating stalemate. Interestingly, Elsevier restored access after 40 days as a sign of goodwill, even though a deal had not been struck, suggesting that publishers may have less leverage than often thought. When universities forcefully engage in negotiations with publishers, journal prices tend to fall. In other cases, faculty channelled their concerns about journal cuts with alarmist rhetoric. This kind of response only serves the myopic self-interest of faculty. Alarm and capitulation is exactly what gives publishers leverage; it would be in the longer-term interest of faculty to negotiate journal costs downward. It has been lamented that publishers profit from the free labour of academics via peer review. With catastrophising responses to journal cuts, such faculty are unwittingly performing free marketing for the likes of Elsevier and SAGE.

When negotiations and business models are fought over by tenured faculty and administrators on one side, and market-savvy publishers with concerns about quarterly earnings reports and annual bonuses on the other, it is little surprise that universities have continually been outflanked. This needs to change.

Final thoughts

Digital communication and open access publishing are changing the multi-billion dollar field of scientific publishing. These changes and innovations have the potential to disrupt or exacerbate current access and cost problems in publishing. The digital world opens new niches and frontiers for publishing; it is up to scientists to make the most of these opportunities. Scientific stakeholders should consider new economic and organisational models for publishing, although this may be difficult in an inertial and tradition-bound field such as academia. As a start, science would be well-served to develop the technical and institutional infrastructure (such as the Public Knowledge Project) to incentivise journals to flip from usurious corporate control, such as with Glossa and Sociologie du travail. If universities, governments and other stakeholders provide economic and social support, it may be more financially efficient to subsidise journals (perhaps even making them APC-free) than to incur deadweight losses in the form of high prices and profits of large publishers. Flipping or regaining control of journals is how scientists can disassemble the bricks and mortar of the “Big Deal” bundles of journals publishers sell to universities, comprised of a mixture of essential and (many) barely-used journals. By removing the right bricks, the entire Big Deal edifice can be toppled. For-profit publishers may have worthy roles in the present and future of scientific publishing. However, major publishers currently enjoy very high profit rates with little or no downside risk. These profits are largely deadweight losses which siphon resources away from scientific and educational pursuits. Science and scientists would benefit from altering market incentives and institutions in order to reclaim the substantial resources currently ceded to publishers.

Improving scholarly publishing will not be simple or easy. Savvy strategy and cooperation will be needed from disparate institutions, including from scientists, librarians and governments. However, the potential of more innovative, less costly, more accessible science is worth fighting for.

This blog post is based on the author’s article, “Future Challenges And Opportunities In Academic Publishing”, published in the Canadian Journal of Sociology.

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

Kyle Siler researches and teaches in the Innovation Studies Group at Utrecht University and is a fellow at the Université de Montréal École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information. Recent work on gatekeeping, gestation, and innovation in scientific peer review was published in PNAS and Science, Technology & Human Values. An earlier op-ed on scholarly publishing was published in University Affairs.

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