Scientific Literature #2 - The Unlikely Power of Big Publishers


When the world wide web was created in 1989, it presented itself as the perfect solution for universities to share their research. Academic publishing companies were inevitably going to lose their key role; collecting, printing, and distributing papers was bound to become a thing of the past. But although their functions have changed, they've kept a firm grip on the world of research. Budgets of researchers and libraries are shrinking and journals' subscription fees rising - and this while peers review the articles, and publishers get paid by researchers and readers. Should traditional publishers become a thing of the past?

The power structure in scientific publishing has other intrinsic issues (e.g. the focus on sensational subjects and the neglect of negative findings), but let's leave these aside and look strictly at the financial aspect. It's clear the big publishers aren't losing money, but it's hard to tell directly if their charges are unfair. It seems objectionable that the bulk of work is done by scientists (authors) and their peers (reviewers). The taxpayer often funds the research being conducted, and is later forced to pay the publishers again to access that research. (If you're wondering how we got here, The Guardian made a very good long read about the origins of the academic publishing industry.) So is the publishers' service worth all that money? And is that money being invested in the interest of research, or is it profit?

The costs publishers spend on personnel and resources are not made public, and prices for libraries are often buried under non-disclosure agreements. This lack of transparency doesn't breed trust, especially when the publisher (unsuccessfully) sues those who disclose contracts. So, what their true profits are, we can only guess. Other dubious practices include bundling unrelated journals in subscriptions, and charging wildly variable rates across universities. All of these things combined paint a picture of companies seeking profit at the expense of funding and distribution of research, despite their possibilities of debunking this.

The main reason researchers still stick with the big publishers is their reputation and impact in the sciences. The journals are important because the people in that science deem them important. In other words, the scientists make use of the elitist traits of journals to gain respect, advance their careers, and they thereby effectively keep the publishers in power. However, this dynamic has started to show cracks.


In 2012, sir William Timothy Gowers - mathematician at the University of Cambridge, UK - declared his boycott of Elsevier with this post. Gowers mentions Elsevier is not the only problematic publisher, but that it seems to be the worst. (Read his full statement here.) He proposed a public website where mathematicians could sign their names and pledge not to publish, refer, or edit with Elsevier. About seventeen thousand scientists have signed to this date, and the movement to oppose publishers' high prices has caught on in other countries and disciplines.

Universities and research institutes in Germany have been negotiating with Elsevier since 2016 to lower subscription prices. Institutes and universities in Finland and the Netherlands have made deals before with Elsevier for lower prices or limited open access, and a Dutch physicist involved in the German negotiations stated they could've achieved more if they'd pushed harder. Now, in 2018, the subscription contracts are ending, and Germany has refused to extend them. Dr Mittermaier, a member of the German negotiations team, stated: "If all countries paid to publish their own research but still had to subscribe to articles published by overseas authors, publishers would be paid twice for each article[.]" One doesn't need access to contracts or money-flows to follow this logic.

Finally, it seems inherently wrong for research to be hidden behind a paywall. Knowledge should be open access if we want to maximize progress in science. Publishing in open access journals is promising. It's not always free; their costs include administering, editing, managing and marketing, but it's much cheaper than traditional publishing, plus the results are free for anyone to access. (For a breakdown of costs in the different publisher types, check out this article.) Peer review will work just as well for open access journals as for commercial ones, so quality and impact needn't be impaired.

The choice to make this switch, or any other change, lies with the people who submit to publish, and those highly respected by their field of science. The academics and scientists can take back this power and reshape the world of research. And it looks like they're starting to.