Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?

Harvard complaints roil the debate over publishing and profits.

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Most academic journals, at least in the scientific fields, are published by scientific societies, of which there are thousands across the world. But what at first glance looks like a highly diverse spread has, in recent history, become a largely homogenous one. That's because over the last few decades, commercial publishing houses have been rapidly acquiring these once-nonprofit journals, to a point where a few commercial houses now publish close to 50 percent of all academic journals ( Those who follow the industry say that scientific societies link up with the large publishers because of the guaranteed revenue stream. More than a decade ago, the big publishers secured what is often referred to as the "big deal," a form of bundling in which a large university library, instead of subscribing to individual journals, subscribes to hundreds at a time. In theory this drives down the per-journal cost but it also leads to the library paying for many journals it'll never use (the same way cable users are forced to pay for ESPN as part of the package even though they may not watch sports).

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About 80 percent of a journal publisher's subscription revenue comes from university libraries, and for the last decade librarians have complained of an unsustainable rise in journal pricing, which they've pegged to about 7 percent a year. They attribute this rise to just a few large publishers who they say have attained a monopoly-like stranglehold on the academic publishing world. Though not all revenue figures are public, it's common knowledge that some of these commercial houses command between a 30 and 40 percent profit margin, which is unheard of in most industries. Librarians feel they've been held hostage to these steep pricing increases because of the constant pressure to provide access to the most up-to-date research to their campus faculty and students.

This is why librarians have been some of the loudest advocates for open-access journals. But though they have clear financial motives for this advocacy, they have been joined by many academics in recent years, along with some in the federal government who allocate billions of dollars annually in taxpayer-funded research grants--grants that go toward the very research that ends up published by these journals.

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Though the business models vary, many open-access journals are able to dispense with the subscription revenue by charging upfront publication fees to the researcher submitting work. These fees are typically a few thousand dollars, and critics of open access (who often work for the traditional journals) say these publication charges merely shift the cost of production from the consumer to the producer of the content, and in the process create an inherent conflict of interest. After all, how can you expect a journal to reject sub-par manuscripts when it has a financial incentive to accept as many as possible? Martin Frank, the executive director of the American Physiological Society, which currently publishes 14 scientific journals, estimated the per-article cost in one of his journals at between $2,500 and $3,000. "I once said to a chair of a department of physiology, 'How many papers did you publish last year?'" Frank said. "And he said 16. And I asked, 'So at $3,000 a head a paper, you've got $48,000 from your research grant to pay for the publication?' And he replied that he wouldn't take it off his grant; that he has a slush fund in the department. But the thing is, most researchers don't have a slush fund. Most people would have to use the money from their research grants to pay for the publication." In some cases, Frank said, a researcher doesn't publish his research until years after his grant has ended, making the upfront open-access costs prohibitive.

But critics of this business model often sidestep the reality that many closed access journals charge processing fees as well. In fact, the entire publication structure of scholarly publishing would seem alien to those who work within the non-academic publishing world. Rather than paying the writer of the composition, he or she is often charged upward of a few thousand dollars to publish in the journal. The journals also don't pay the peer reviewers who first read and then provide significant editorial feedback in order to strengthen a manuscript. These peer reviewers are often made up of experts within the field of the paper's topic; many academics who publish are also called upon to read as a reviewer. "You devote your time to reviewing someone else's article because you want them to spend the same time on your articles," explained Fred Dylla, executive director at the American Institute of Physics, a scientific society that publishes several journals. Though the publishers say they bear the cost of managing the editorial process (polishing the final manuscript, formatting it for publication, and generating all the tables, charts, and graphics), these are all costs that are carried by any non-academic publisher--newspaper, magazine, or book--which also pays both the writers and editors of its products.