Academic publishers: The original enshittificationists

Matt Wall
5 min readApr 14, 2024


Profit margins at academic publishers are *insane*.

Cory Doctorow is a polymathic presence on the internet; as a novelist, journalist, tech-evangelist, and general all-round liberal good egg, his contribution to modern internet culture has been enormous. Perhaps his most important recent work though, has been developing and promoting the concept of ‘enshittification’. This is a life-cycle process whereby massive online platforms (Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) find initial success, exploit that success for profit, and then eventually decay and die. In Cory’s own words:

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die. I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market”, where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

(Cory also crossed over into my rough sphere of influence/expertise when he did an excellent episode of the Drug Science podcast, with David Nutt — check it out.)

This concept of enshittification is why Google search sucks now, why your Facebook feed is full of bullshit ads, why there are so many weird porn bots on Twitter, and so on. Once users are locked in, platforms are free to degrade their product, in order to extract more revenue from their advertising customers.

It occurred to me that academic publishers also fit this model quite well, and in fact have been playing the enshittification game for decades. A lot has been written about the evils of academic publishing, but for those readers who may not be aware the business model goes like this: Researchers (mostly funded by public money from government grants) do scientific research. The researchers then give the results of their work to academic journals for free. Other researchers then work (also, for free) to do peer reviews of the papers, which the publishers print in journals and sell back to universities and other organisations, at a massive profit. In fact in recent years, with the advent of ‘open-access’ journals, the researchers often pay (eye-wateringly high fees) to the journal to publish their research as well. It’s wittily summed-up in this video by the peerless @DrGlaucomFlecken:

So, public money ends up being spent up to three times (to do the research, to pay the journals to publish it, and then to buy the publications back from the journals again), and the publishers sit in the middle, and make massive profits; up to 40%. Some have argued that academic publishing is the most profitable business in the world. The history of how this came to be is quite fascinating, and there’s a really good long-read on the Guardian website about it all here, but essentially the modern industry was created by Elsevier in the 1970s.

In the pre-internet age, publishers obviously provided a valuable service in disseminating information. The only way scholars and researchers could stay up-to-date with developments in the field was to read actual paper journals that were delivered every month to their local academic library. However, once basically anyone could publish anything they wanted for a global audience on the internet, their actual basic utility or value is now pretty low. The business model persists because academics want to publish in high-impact journals and it turns out they will pay exorbitantly high fees to continue doing so.

So, I think the enshittification model works quite well here. First publishers were good to their users (the researchers). “We’ll publish your paper for free and all your peers and rivals can read it and be awed at your brilliance!” Sounds great. Then they exploit their users — in this case it’s for free labour in performing peer-review of other’s papers and in charging high open-access fees. Then they exploit their business customers (the universities and institutions that buy subscriptions to the journals) by massively hiking up prices to levels that the richest universities in the world say are no longer affordable.

There is resistance of course, from the academic world. The recent mass-resignation of the editorial staff from the Elsevier journal Neuroimage in protest at the high open-access fees is a good recent example. The rise of free-to-publish pre-print servers like the physics-focused arXiv have, to some extent, replaced traditional publishing models in some fields.

Here’s the thing though, the final part of Doctorow’s enshittification process as applied to online platforms is “then they die”. There currently seems to be little evidence of that. The outright profiteering and blatant exploitation of researchers has arguably shifted up a gear in the last couple of decades with the advent of open-access fees, but this process has been going on since the 1970s; academic publishers are the original enshittificationists (enshittifiers?). They have kept on re-inventing ways of enshittifying the process of disseminating scholarly information and maintaining their grossly-inflated profit margins, most notably by co-opting the open-access movement and using it as an excuse to charge ridiculous publication fees. They are a leech on the body of scholarly work, slowly sucking out the life-blood, but just never quite enough that researchers and institutions abandon them wholesale. My feeling is that they will continue doing so for many decades into the future.

I don’t think this is any particularly original set of insights. I also don’t think they’re particularly useful. Academic publishing is basically exploitative and evil; all researchers know this. I do think there is something of a question mark over the end stage of Doctorow’s enshittification cycle (“then they die”) though. Whether the modern industry titans (Google, Meta, Amazon) will ever actually die in any meaningful sense or not is still an open question. They may do, or they may (like academic publishing) re-invent themselves and find novel ways of enshittifying the internet, and all our lives, for decades to come.



Matt Wall

Psychologist and neuroscientist who works across both academic and commercial spheres. Cannabis, psychedelics, sex hormones, fMRI.