The vicious cycle of scholarly publishing

How publishing behemoths like Elsevier maintain their death grip on science

A look of incredulity creeps upon the face of whomever first learns about the enormous margins the scholarly publishing giants typically manage to extract from the academic world, without even having to pay for the content they publish. Often followed by a raft of questions:

Why do we allow that? What kind of value do those journals add? (…) Can someone justify what kind of work these guys are doing to be worth [their profit margins]?

So how come we’re still shelling over that much to academic publishers, often without even being able to read the research we pay for — even though almost everyone but the publishers thinks it’s ridiculous? Let’s take a look at all actors in the publishing process, what they can do to affect change, and why they don’t.


Academic publishing is “staggeringly profitable”, and most of those profits are earned through journal subscriptions. Thus, let’s start by looking at the ones actually paying those subscriptions: university libraries.

Theoretically, libraries should be able to terminate their subscriptions. However, their primary function is to provide academics with the research they need to do their work, and academics demand access to all research relevant to their area. Thus, publishers can keep launching new journals, and libraries will have to keep stretching their budgets to purchase all of it. With nothing to drive prices down, subscription costs have risen significantly.

It remains to be seen what happens when libraries actually start to cancel their subscriptions — especially now that pirate sites like Sci-Hub are available. German universities are currently negotiating with publishers together, with the hope of securing much better deals. As it doesn’t look like those negotiations are getting any closer to being resolved satisfactorily, we might start to see more and more libraries without access to many traditional journals. Then again, when push came to shove, that wasn’t considered doable in the UK either.


Researchers can’t do their work without funding, so can’t those funders simply demand that the results are published in Open Access journals?

To some extent, this is already happening. For example, all research funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme must have their articles published as Open Access. Likewise for research funded by the Gates Foundation.

There are some trade-offs though. For example, it can be difficult for researchers to comply with all the different policies by different funders, eating up precious time and energy that could otherwise be spent on research. The biggest disadvantage, however, is that this can get very costly. To see why, we’ll turn to the publishers.


If the traditional publishers would only provide subscription journals, new, non-profit Open Access publishers could arise to provide authors with an avenue to meet increasing funder demands for Open Access publishing. And they did: one very successful example is PLOS. The traditional publishers did not stand still either, however, and found a workaround to maintain their profit margins while technically complying with funder requirements. Rather than turning their journals Open Access, they simply provided authors with the option to pay for their individual articles to be made Open Access while keeping the rest of the articles locked behind a paywall.

But why are the profit margins they add to the price so high, even when cheaper publishing options are available? The reason for this can be found with the researchers.


Researchers could choose to publish their articles in Open Access journals that charge no or a low fee to publish. Unfortunately, such a choice would often negatively impact their career, since they are often evaluated by the reputation of the journals they publish in. Or rather, by a score that’s supposed to represent that reputation by looking at the number of citations articles in those journals receive. That score is called the Impact Factor,and it’s calculated by one of the largest scholarly publishers, Thomson Reuters.

A sense of focus by Christian Kaindl

In order not to harm their career, researchers tend to submit their articles to journals with a high Impact Factor. But since articles that attract many citations are also submitted there, that makes it hard for new journals to obtain a high score. This is a chicken-and-egg situation that maintains the status quo of traditional journals being the journals researchers mostly submit their work to, which allows those journals to practically name their price. Since researchers mainly care about satisfying their funders’ demands, they will simply pay the fees — using their funders’ money.

The Impact Factor is widely considered to be a flawed metric for evaluating researchers, and it strengthens the hold of the traditional publishers. So how come evaluation committees keep using them?

Evaluation committees

Grant and job applications are often reviewed by senior researchers. However, since grants and jobs are scarce and in high demand, these researchers might have to evaluate up to a hundred applicants. In an ideal world, they would consider each individual applicant, read the work they produced and evaluate it on its merits. Unfortunately, given that they have limited time and expertise, they fall back onto taking the Impact Factor of the journals they have published in into account.

So what can we do?

Given the above actors and their differing and sometimes conflicting interests, there are several knobs we can turn to try to bring about a change. The largest impact we’ve seen thus far in terms of increasing the amount of articles published as Open Access is by funders demanding it. Unfortunately, this comes with unintended consequences such as driving up the price for authors.

Another potential avenue is to encourage journals to move to publishers that do not rely on profits from subscription or publication fees. The quality of a journal is largely defined by who comprise its editorial board, so if they can be convinced to switch publishers, those journals can be good for both its authors’ careers and the adoption of Open Access. It will also pressure existing publishers to introduce more favourable terms for their journals. This is what organisations such as LingOA, MathOA, and PsyOA hope to achieve.

Researchers themselves might also be persuaded to avoid the traditional publishers. The project The Cost of Knowledge aims to achieve this by getting researchers to sign a declaration that they will not volunteer as an author, reviewer or editor of Elsevier journals. Since researchers often publish together, though, it might be too much to ask of researchers to convince their co-authors to take the potential career hit. Indeed, it appears that not all of the signatories of the declaration managed to keep themselves to it.

Finally, it might be worthwhile to try to change the way researchers are evaluated. If they were judged more directly by the quality of their work rather than where it was published, they would be free to publish it in proper Open Access journals. The most prominent of such initiatives is altmetrics, which aims to provide evaluation metrics independent of the journal such as the number of article downloads, comments, recommendations and citations. Several projects are now publishing altmetrics, but it remains to be seen whether it will actually be used when evaluating academics.

If we end up at a situation where all papers are published as Open Access without disproportionate publishing fees, we will probably get there through a combination of the above. What do you think is the most viable path towards Open Access? And how can technology — and by extension, I — help us get there?

Update January 2018

I’ve launched Flockademic, an initiative to support researchers to break this vicious cycle. Read all about it, give it a try, and let me know what you think!

I’m finding out how best to open up access to scientific articles. Sign up for the mailinglist or follow Flockademic on Twitter to join me on the journey.