Do we still need publishers in Academia?

As any Ph.D. student, I spend significant amount of my time studying journal articles and books. A portion of that time is spent trying to access the content itself: Lengthy requests of inter-library loans for publications not available by my university, searching though a fragmented ecosystem of search engines and citations, using slow VPNs to get authenticated by the publishers. No wonder there is one simple question spinning in my mind:

“-Why do we need middlemen in Academia in the era of electronic publishing?”

To elaborate on the existing situation, academic institutions pay fees both to submit research articles for publication, as well as to gain access to them. How much? Well, as it seems a lot. The following figure shows how the journal prices for submitted articles vary with influence and business model.

Breakdown of publishing costs. Source: http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

The above prices are based on a for-profit model involving commercial publishers. Efforts to provide a non-profit, high-quality on-line only, open-access repository of journals (such as arxiv.org) have reported a vastly different cost (~$10 per article). Now why such a huge difference? Well, aside from costly functions that the publishers have to adhere to, a main cause is the huge influence of the big publishers that managed to form an oligopoly. The following charts show that more than 50% of the papers published in Natural and Medical Sciences are published by the 5 big publishers.

More than 50% of the papers in Natural and Medical Sciences are published by the 5 big publishers.
Percentage of papers published by the top 5 publishers. Source: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0127502

And as I mentioned, this covers only part of the cost that the academic institutions have to pay. The other part is the annual subscription cost that the institutions have to pay to access (even their own) research articles. The following graphic shows prices paid by various institutions, and it is interesting to see that the prices vary widely, mainly based on the number of graduate students of each institution.

Prices paid for academic publication bundles by universities. Source: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/06/how-much-did-your-university-pay-your-journals

Needless to say that for many universities this cost is prohibitive, and this comes from personal experience from the Greek Universities, where the measures of austerity impacted the access of universities to academic literature.

In Greece the measures of austerity impacted the access of universities to academic literature.

Another important issue is the limited access of the public to advances of science. This becomes even more outrageous, when even research funded by governments are not accessible to their citizens (the cost to access a single research article as an individual is typically more than $30). The recent debate on climate change shows that we need now more than ever free access to fundamental research articles. It is the only way that common sense and scientifically backed facts can prevail in the era of conspiracy theories, trolls and fake news.

The recent debate on climate change shows that we need now more than ever free access to fundamental research articles. It is the only way that common sense and scientifically backed facts can prevail in the era of conspiracy theories, trolls and fake news.

While the very existence of academic publishers had been historically necessitated due to technological limitations, modern advances in content distribution and typesetting open new possibilities. Combined with the fundamental fact that both the content creation itself and the peer review process is conducted by academics free of charge, should make the public availability a no brainer, right? And to address the elephant in the room of the financial incentives for the academics I would like to cite an (always sarcastic) professor from my department on the benefits of traditional book publishing:

“Publishing books is a great opportunity for us to make several hundreds of dollars.”

So, since we the academics create the content and we review our colleagues’ content without a financial incentive, why not make the transition to free access public repositories of academic articles / books? In the future I will try to investigate how our efforts can be consolidated and follow the success of the Open Source Software, by making Open Access research a viable reality for Academia.

So, since we the academics create the content and we review our colleagues’ content without a financial incentive, why not make the transition to free access public repositories of academic articles / books?