by Dan Strempel
July 11, 2018
Newspapers, magazines, directories, books, music, network television, films — the list of mass media channels beaten into submission by the advent information superhighway is long and sad.
These industries are mere shadows of what they once were, but one of the great ironies of the digital revolution is that the relatively staid business of academic journal publishing continues to roll along with stable growth and healthy profits.
In 1995, Forbes magazine predicted that Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific journals, would be “the internet’s first victim”. Twenty years later the Financial Times has dubbed Elsevier “the business the internet could not kill”.
It’s not for lack of trying. Doom and gloom predictions were predicated on the idea that instant digital distribution would enable research scientists to share their work for free. The idea eventually coalesced into a movement known as open access, which is the subject of Simba Information’s latest report, Open Access Journal Publishing 2018-2022.
Market leaders Elsevier, Springer Nature, John Wiley & Sons and Informa have fended off the advent of preprint article repositories, open access journals, funder mandates, boycotts and big deal library subscription cancellations.
With this stiff opposition to its basic business model from the community that creates and ultimately uses its content, these publishers continue to endure. Here are five reasons why.
Mass cancellations of large subscription packages could destroy publishers, but nothing like that has taken place thus far. Most libraries are out to find sustainable agreements with publishers, because the idea of losing a large journal collection creates hardship for librarians who have to scramble to find new ways of helping patrons find alternative access.
Some libraries seek to cancel their big deal and choose to subscribe only to the titles the institution needs the most, only to find little to no cost savings.
Which brings us to the No. 2 reason scholarly journal publishers endure: prestige matters.
As long as universities make decisions about tenor and advancement based on where a faculty member publishes, commercial publishers will continue to be able to charge a premium for demonstrated impact or prestige. Publishers worked to acquire control of the most prestigious titles years ago and are laser focused on building and maintain impact factors (a measure of how often articles in a given journal are cited by other authors) across their portfolios.
Efforts to mobilize against a publisher, such as British mathematician Timothy Gowers’ 2012 mass boycott of Elsevier over its pricing policies, have been largely symbolic.
Yes, more than 15,000 academic signed a petition stating that they would snub the Elsevier journals that failed to “radically change how they operate”. The protest brought plenty of bad publicity, but failed to gain enough support to hurt the company in a way that would have triggered the desired change. The flow of article submissions continued to swell, editors and reviewers were quickly replaced without any perceived loss of quality at the journals, sales and profits rolled on.
Academics know that choosing to boycott publication in high impact journals will hurt their careers advancement before it hurts Elsevier.
Issues of prestige and competitiveness among researchers have kept the simplest form of open access from proliferating. The idea that all scientists would just use the internet to share their work for free never materialized.
Preprint servers have been around since the early 1990s, but the results have been mixed. Researchers in some fields think nothing of sharing their draft papers in an open archive, but there are many others who will not. The reasons why range from norms within the filed (the traditions passed on by colleagues and teachers), the overall level of competiveness in the field, and the potential for commercialization of the new results.
The most recent threat is emerging from universities launching their own open access platforms.
This model is working in specific fields or with targeted audiences, but it’s not likely that we will see every institution accept the challenge of setting up its own open access publishing system. Publishing quality science is difficult and expensive. It takes many talented people to launch a journal, find the right articles, vet them, and build a reputation and an impact factor over time.
Publishing a journal article is only the baseline for what successful publishers need to do. The next line of demarcation is being able to support the journals with research tools. This requires investment, experimentation and the acceptance of high levels of risk that universities, research funding bodies and academic societies may not be able to stomach.
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