Economics Of Corporate Scholarly Publishers

If you are an academic researcher, or a full-time scientist, you will be aware of the trend since 2005 for the emergence of a plethora of on-line open access journals. We have all become aware of this trend by the influx of emails we receive that invite us to submit manuscripts, but so conveniently omit the details of the eventual publication costs. Depending on the journal, publication costs can vary from a ~US$100 to ~US$3,000 per manuscript. As I will explain, such open access options, while starting in the late 1990's with the best of ethical intentions in being open access, are really now just another business model for companies to make profit in scholarly and/or scientific publishing. The term open access is now more of a marketing hook than a sincere attempt to improve the dissemination of knowledge and truth. Let me explain what my research has revealed regarding the topic of the economics of the scholarly publishing sector.

Albert has revealed the problems inherent with paper-based and commercial for-profit scholarly publication, and discussed the rise of open access journals. However, I find the oversight for critically challenging the economics of current trends in open access publication to be quite naive.

Anderson takes a different approach to this.  The new and large on-line open access journal publishers rake in the dollars by being able to publish large numbers of manuscripts, across large numbers of journal topics, and based on a per manuscript charge system can generate huge income with minimal publication expense. The risk here is of course the bias to volume rather than quality. Yet, as you will gain from my writing on this and related topics, I think the volume issue should always be the priority, as scientific post-publication scrutiny will dictate the impact of a manuscript. The important thing is to have a scholarly publication system that provides reasonable access to dissemination.  I am concerned that the "reasonable" notion is far from a reality in our current system!

Fisher details the problems with the more traditional forms of scholarly publication. The fact is that for-profit publishers have increased the purchase costs of their journals to an exorbitant degree. There is no logic to this, for scientists and their institutions, supported in many countries by tax dollars, are paying for this service.  What a rip off.  In summary, companies are making huge profits on work scholars hand over for free, then contribute to scrutinize in peer review for free, then assist in editorial duties for free, and then have access to the manuscripts constrained based on high prices for purchase or license. This is a ludicrous scenario.  Yes, open access is a better approach, but not if the same excessive cost to publish is retained, and not if the same bias in peer review simply side steps over to this avenue to publication.

My big question is, why do we tolerate scholarly publication based on a for-profit model in the first place?  As clear and concisely presented in the interview with  BioOne's Mark Kurtz, scholarly publication was not always like this.  In fact, it began with a shared understanding between scholars and non-profit publishers, and in the early years, the system was functional. Not today! Since the late 1990's, the scholarly publishing sector has undergone tremendous change. Retail print publishers became condensed into fewer publishers, and as this happened, the open access on-line alternatives began to appear. These changes have occurred with an increase in cost to users of this information. Central to this, and of convenience for access to scientific research, is the cost to university libraries for their journal subscriptions.  Though an old manuscript now, Houghton has examined the cost economics of library journal holdings in the Australian context in great detail, as well as many other aspects of the "current" retail publisher controlled sector. The fact remains that the cost of journal subscription, and the cost of manuscript submission (yes, some journals charge simply to submit a manuscript!) and publication, are escalating at rates far above that of inflation. Current data as of 2015 indicate that most for-profit publishers have a mark-up in excess of 30% above cost. Profit is clearly driving this enterprise, and as with capitalist open market economics, profit margins will continue to increase so long as companies (publishers) are left to do what they want and get away with it.

Shouldn't the quality of the science and dissemination be the hallmark of publishing?

Does the for-profit model pollute the integrity of science, and in doing so, harm and constrain the role of science in our advancing societies?