Yay! Bloomberg View Seems to Be On the Side of the Lowly Scientist!
Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.
Justin Fox at BloombergView had just published an article near and dear to the hearts of all those #openaccess scientists and those of us @Pharma_BI and @MozillaScience who feel strong about #openscience #opendata and the movement to make scientific discourse freely accessible.
His article “Academic Publishing Can’t Remain Such a Great Business” discusses the history of academic publishing and how consolidation of smaller publishers into large scientific publishing houses (Bigger publishers bought smaller ones) has produced a monopoly like environment in which prices for journal subscriptions are rising. He also discusses how the open access movement is challenging this model and may oneday replace the big publishing houses.
A few tidbits from his article:
Publishers of academic journals have a great thing going. They generally don’t pay for the articles they publish, or for the primary editing and peer reviewing essential to preparing them for publication (they do fork over some money for copy editing). Most of this gratis labor is performed by employees of academic institutions. Those institutions, along with government agencies and foundations, also fund all the research that these journal articles are based upon.
Yet the journal publishers are able to get authors to sign over copyright to this content, and sell it in the form of subscriptions to university libraries. Most journals are now delivered in electronic form, which you think would cut the cost, but no, the price has been going up and up:
This isn’t just inflation at work: in 1994, journal subscriptions accounted for 51 percent of all library spending on information resources. In 2012 it was 69 percent.
Who exactly is getting that money? The largest academic publisher is Elsevier, which is also the biggest, most profitable division of RELX, the Anglo-Dutch company that was known until February as Reed Elsevier.
RELX reports results in British pounds; I converted to dollars in part because the biggest piece of the company’s revenue comes from the U.S. And yes, those are pretty great operating-profit margins: 33 percent in 2014, 39 percent in 2013. The next biggest academic publisher is Springer Nature, which is closely held (by German publisher Holtzbrinck and U.K. private-equity firm BC Partners) but reportedly has annual revenue of about $1.75 billion. Other biggies that are part of publicly traded companies include Wiley-Blackwell, a division of John Wiley & Sons; Wolters Kluwer Health, a division of Wolters Kluwer; and Taylor & Francis, a division of Informa.
And gives a brief history of academic publishing:
The history here is that most early scholarly journals were the work of nonprofit scientific societies. The goal was to disseminate research as widely as possible, not to make money — a key reason why nobody involved got paid. After World War II, the explosion in both the production of and demand for academic research outstripped the capabilities of the scientific societies, and commercial publishers stepped into the breach. At a time when journals had to be printed and shipped all over the world, this made perfect sense.
Once it became possible to effortlessly copy and disseminate digital files, though, the economics changed. For many content producers, digital copying is a threat to their livelihoods. As Peter Suber, the director of Harvard University’s Office for Scholarly Communication, puts it in his wonderful little book, “Open Access”:
And while NIH Tried To Force These Houses To Accept Open Access:
About a decade ago, the universities and funding agencies began fighting back. The National Institutes of Health in the U.S., the world’s biggest funder of medical research, began requiring in 2008 that all recipients of its grants submit electronic versions of their final peer-reviewed manuscripts when they are accepted for publication in journals, to be posted a year later on the NIH’s open-access PubMed depository. Publishers grumbled, but didn’t want to turn down the articles.
Big publishers are making $ by either charging as much as they can or focus on new customers and services
For the big publishers, meanwhile, the choice is between positioning themselves for the open-access future or maximizing current returns. In its most recent annual report, RELX leans toward the latter while nodding toward the former:
Over the past 15 years alternative payment models for the dissemination of research such as “author-pays” or “author’s funder-pays” have emerged. While it is expected that paid subscription will remain the primary distribution model, Elsevier has long invested in alternative business models to address the needs of customers and researchers.
Elsevier’s extra services can add news avenues of revenue
but they may be seeing the light on OpenAccess (possibly due to online advocacy, an army of scientific curators and online scientific communities):
Indeed we recently put up an interesting authored paper “A Patient’s Perspective: On Open Heart Surgery from Diagnosis and Intervention to Recovery” (free of charge) letting the community of science freely peruse and comment, and generally well accepted by both author and community as a nice way to share academic discourse without the enormous fees, especially on opinion papers in which a rigorous peer review may not be necessary.
But it was very nice to see a major news outlet like Bloomberg View understand the lowly scientist’s aggravations.