Journal publishers get what they don’t pay for – but not for long
Stone the crows! The rivers of gold are drying up in the way the world shares knowledge, so journal publishers are building a bigger dam to catch the revenue streams. But it isn’t going to work – like the music industry before it, people are pirating the research publishers’ products – and the only way to stop them is to make it easier to pay for them than steal.
Knowledge is perhaps the great raw material of the twenty-first century. There is something like 26,000 scholarly journals and articles in them drive the world’s research effort.[i] The growth and direction of knowledge is measured by what is published and cited in journals. [ii]
The biggest companies in the journal industry are commercial publishers who got into the game when publishing required typesetters and printers, packers and postage, as well as authors. But now just about all journals are produced and consumed electronically, with legacy print editions set to start disappearing in “significant numbers” in the next few years. [iii]
E-publishing also helps deliver big returns on huge sales, with margins of 35 per cent.[iv] In 2012, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) journal sales, the bulk of the business, were worth $4.6bn. [v]
But there is more to profitability than low costs, the big five have huge market share, publishing 50 per cent of scholarly journal papers in 2103. [vi] Reed Elsevier alone controls 25 per cent of the STEM journal market. [vii]
But not paying for content also helps. Journal publishers do not pay for the research that academics publish, nor do they pay the authors of articles or the reviewers who assess submitted copy.
Granted, the journals provide essential services for researchers at institutions, which subscribe to their journals, notably database search facilities.[viii] And academics who are published by the elite journals, which are owned by the for-profits in just about every field, like the status quo. Careers are built on where a scholar publishes and journal ranking is a very big deal indeed.
Even so, when profitable push comes to self-serving shove the journals get their intellectual content for free. This, plus the often slow pace of publication, upsets academics who demand peer reviewed research should be open to all as soon as it is available and jibe at the prices university libraries have to pay.[ix]
Funding agencies also require that the research taxpayers fund should be free to read. The Australian Research Council requires research it funds to be available in an open access repository within a year of publication date.[x] The result is university based research repositories and open access online journals published by scholarly association.
The journal publishers understandably abhor this “green” open access movement and have come up with a sort-of compromise, “gold” open access. They now publish free-to-read scholarly journals which (the Crows give them credit for gall) charge “processing fees” for articles. [xi] This strikes the Crows as a case of same strategy, different ticket-clipper.
Many in the academic establishment support the “gold model”, which was endorsed by the British Finch review and accepted by the UK Government. [xii] Recently David Price and Sarah Chaytor for the Higher Education Policy Institute proposed a national British licence for universal UK access to journals. [xiii]
The problem for the publishers is that gold only works for universities, and nations, rich enough to pay for the convenience of the existing system and with academics who do not care how many scholars can’t read their work. And the publishers’ dams to contain the golden streams of knowledge are starting to crumble.
For a start, the number of open access journals that do not charge readers or authors is significant – over 10 000.[xiv] And publishers are making strategic concessions. According to Mikael Laakso, they are “relatively liberal” in allowing access to submitted manuscripts. Some 81 per cent of these, as distinct from the final published versions, are available. [xv]
But the biggest publisher, Reed Elsevier, appears to have decided it is time to toughen up. A couple of weeks back, the company tightened the embargo period, generally 12 months but up to two years, before articles they publish can be accessed via authors’ university websites. Funding agencies and universities often include an out-clause in their open access policies that allows this, to suit senior scholars who want they work to appear in high prestige commercial journals. But the Confederation of Open Access Repositories responds by pointing out, “any delay in the open availability of research articles curtails scientific progress and places unnecessary constraints on delivering the benefits of research back to the public.” [xvi]
Last week, Reed Elsevier launched a court action against a pirate site which provides access to the publisher’s vast Science Direct database. According to RE’s statement to the US District Court in New York:
The ScienceDirect database is home to almost one-quarter of the world’s peer reviewed, full-text scientific, technical and medical content. The ScienceDirect service features sophisticated search and retrieval tools for students and professionals which facilitates access to over 10 million copyrighted publications. More than 15 million researchers, health care professionals, teachers, students, and information professionals around the globe rely on ScienceDirect as a trusted source of nearly 2,500 journals and more than 26,000 book titles. [xvii]
Why people want to access the site without paying a hefty journal subscription is obvious. So is why RE wants to protect its sales base – for a start its infrastructure is extensive and shareholders like the profits.
Remind you of any other industry? It reminds the Crows of the music business before it realised survival depended on making it easier to buy product on-line than it is cheaper to steal songs.
Like the music industry 15 years back, Reed Elsevier is surely right in law. The company owns copyright over the articles it publishes and the databases it incorporates them in, even though the publishers did not pay for the intellectual raw material.
But so what? Surely the music industry experience demonstrates what will happen when the market simply will not pay what an oligopoly expects. Global music industry revenues were US$25bn in 2002 and $15bn last year – and people were not consuming fewer songs. [xviii]
Producers, be they musicians or researchers, will publish themselves and consumers will steal the big companies’ backlists.
The way for publishers to stay in business is to change their models and their margins. Spotify, and as of last week Apple Music, point the way, renting access to music libraries. Ah, the publishers can say, we already sort-of do this, by selling single articles. If the Crows wanted to read the published version of Mikael Laakson’s research on green open access, publisher Springer will sell it, for $40US!
The journal publishers are still hugely profitable – and ratings agency Fitch judges Reed Elsevier’s outlook as stable.[xix] But it isn’t going to last. Perhaps gold open access, if publishers reduce author charges and open their archives and databases will work. This is certainly the path preferred by the adamantly open access Dutch. [xx] Perhaps the green push will reduce the for-profits market share.
The Crows have no clue exactly how research will become much more accessible at lower costs. But it will.
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[iv] The Economist, “Open sesame,” April 14 2012
[xv] Mikael Laakson, “Green open access policies of scholarly journal publishers: a study of what, when, and where self-archiving is allowed. ” Accepted manuscript version of an article in Scientometrics, 99 (2) May 2014 475-494