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Media Question the Practices of Large Journal Publishers and their Effect on Science

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Featured Image Credits: Wide-angle view of Minotaur V at NASA Wallops, June 17, 2012 | © Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Large publishers are assumed to stay the course on their business strategies despite adverse effects of closed access models on the scientific community.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

On June 27, 2017, The Guardian has published a long-read piece by Stephen Buranyi on the reported nefarious effects of the traditional publishing models on science by scrutinizing the business practices of Elsevier as a large journal exemplary of both the profitability of academic publishing and its attendant antinomies, such as the unpaid work of editors and reviewers that supports its fee-based model. Furthermore, Buranyi traces the historical development of the modern-day academic journal publishing business that has not only registered a steady rate of growth over the course of the twentieth century, but also monopolized the communication of scientific research results.

Furthermore, as early as the 1970s the business models of journal publishers have begun to affect editorial practices and scientific research, rather than being confined to the task of providing a business foundation to the operation of scientific journals. As publications in top-ranking scientific journals became increasingly important for scholarly appointments and careers, journal editors rather than scientific communities per se started to set the priorities of what manuscripts are accepted for publication and what empirical studies are performed as a consequence. In the academic publication system that subsequently emerged, university library subscriptions for journal packages represent a captive market, as most prestigious journals have been remaining behind the pay-wall.

The consolidation of the lucrative and largely unregulated journal publishing market has led to the creation of large publishers with thousands of journals under their control, such as over 2,500 in Elsevier‘s case. This concentration has translated into oligopolistic pricing strategies that ever since the early 1990s have led to unsuccessful attempts by universities and libraries to act against spectacular subscription price increases by trimming down their journal rosters. The Internet, digitization and cost-less information exchange have not shaken the near-monopoly market position of large publishers, as the continuing process of publisher agglomeration has made big market players, e.g., Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, ever more indispensable to the scholarly ecosystem, despite the widespread criticism of their business practices.

In this respect, despite the emergence of Open Access as a rival publishing model and its support by scientific and non-profit foundations, such as the Austrian Science Fund, Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation, scientific articles published in Open Access represent approximately 25% of all scholarly articles published. The implications of this are that large publishers are likely to be unwilling to change their highly profitable business practices, especially given their not infrequent further incorporation into financial holdings that are likely to favor the retention of existing business models as against the incorporation of Open Access models associated with lower profitability levels but higher long-term sustainability for the scientific community, e.g., the 37% profit margin of Elsevier in 2016.

For this reason, large journal publishers can be expected to marginally change rather than thoroughly alter their business practices, despite Open Access alternatives.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Wide-angle view of Minotaur V at NASA Wallops, June 17, 2012  | © Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

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