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The future of academic publishing

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The first salvo in the Guardian’s recently published series of articles on academic publishing was delivered by veteran agitator George Monbiot.  Journals publish government funded research, written and often edited for free by academics says Monbiot.  “But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose” he says.

The monopolist practices of academic publishers make Walmart ‘look like a corner shop’ and Rupert Murdoch ‘look like a socialist’ he continues.

In a second article Ben Goldacre writes of Aaron Swartz, a digital activist.  Swartz is accused of downloading academic papers on a grand scale, intending to make them available for free on file sharing sites such as Pirate Bay.  Goldacre writes that in some respects this is a remarkable tale of “Robin Hood behaviour”.

Thirdly David Colquhoun writes of the enormous pressure on academics to publish research  papers.  He says this has lead to a proliferation of journals and a shortage of qualified peer reviewers.  As a result the quality of published research has nosedived.  “The only people who benefit from the intense pressure to publish are those in the publishing industry” he writes.

Profits for some academic publishers certainly are healthy.  Monbiot reports that Elsevier made £724m on revenues of £2bn during the last financial year.  This is a profit margin of about 40%.  Can this be justified?

In the past Reed Elsevier has defended their profits on the basis of their skilled staff, their support to authors and peer review panels, and their complex typesetting and distribution costs.

A 2005 report from Deutsche Bank disagreed:

“We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process.  We are not attempting to dismiss what 7,000 people at REL do for a living.  We are simply observing that if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.”

The industry does face major challenges.   Libraries are struggling to pay escalating subscription prices and electronic distribution of papers is making the established business model redundant.

Open access is an alternative paradigm, where authors pay a publishing fee to make  journal articles are free for anyone to access.

In 2008 the BMJ formally became an open access journal and all BMJ research articles are free to access immediately upon publication.   Authors are asked to pay a publication fee per accepted research article if their research grant covered open access publication fees.  Other ‘added value’ articles, such as clinical reviews or editorials, require a subscription.  In addition to the BMJ, BMJ Open is an online only open access journal also owned by the BMJ group. 

A discussion of the pros and cons of open access is available on the open access Wikipedia page

A further option is self archiving, where freely accessible copies of an article are placed on the web.    In his article Colquhoun favours a variety of this approach with peer review provided through anonymous reader comments. 

Newspaper models

With ten daily national newspapers, the UK has one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the world.  Since the 1980s sales have fallen but innovative business models are emerging which may have lessons for academic publishing.

The Guardian has long championed a comprehensive free online presence.  Although its website does provide a substantial income from advertising, the newspaper remains unprofitable and is famously underwritten by the less sophisticated Autotrader, a trading magazine for used vehicles, also owned by the Scott Trust.

By contrast the Times does not allow any of its articles to be read online for free.  When introduced this move lead to a drastic drop in online traffic.  Whist dismaying to columnists, News Corp may not be concerned about this drop as occasional visitors tend to ignore ads and add little value.  The Times has concentrated on maximizing business from loyal readers; the site is awash with advertisements for tie-ins such as wine clubs and holidays.

The Daily Mail has the world’s second biggest newspaper website, with 35m unique visitors per month.  Unlike the alarmist print edition, the online Mail focuses on the fashion choices of attractive female celebrities.

Innovation is not restricted to online approaches.  The Evening Standard print edition is now entirely free, and its circulation has doubled.  Distribution costs have also fallen.  The paper is handed out at Underground stations and each issue is read multiple times as abandoned copies are moved around London by Tube.  It’s still not in profit, but its losses have halved.

The Independent’s approach is arguably the most experimental.  It has introduced an abridged version called ‘i’, which is distributed alongside the full newspaper.  The greater combined distribution of these two offerings makes selling advertising easier.


The approaches of UK newspapers indicate that new business models for academic publishing can include both print and online innovation.  Approaches such as those of the Mail may of course not be compatible with the brand values of academic journals.  Allowing increased free access will appease critics such as Monbiot and augment readership, but may not encourage loyalty.  A closed model, like that of the Times, prevents bloggers linking to the research they discuss, potentially decreasing a paper’s impact.

It will be dangerous for academic publishers to do nothing.  In his article Goldacre suggests a grubby compromise may emerge.  Journals will stay afloat financially due to institutional subscriptions, whilst individuals will avoid excessive per article charges by downloading articles they wish to see from semi-legal content sharing sites. I expect that this is not a situation   most publishers would welcome.  “These are very interesting times for information” he writes.  I agree.

Also published on BMJ Blogs


Three archive articles from the BMJ suggest that these arguments are not new:

PubMed Central: creating an Aladdin’s cave of ideas

Scientific literature’s open sesame?

Open access publishing takes off


(June 2018 review – things have moved on quite a bit since I wrote this, although academic publishing is still going strong.  The Guardian no longer owns Auto Trader. The Independent Newspaper became online only in 2016.  Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013 aged 26.  Sci-hub allows academic papers to be accessed without a paywall and in 2015 was prosecuted by Elsevier.  )

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  1. I’m actually surprised that the pirating-papers-and-putting-them-on-fileshare has taken so long to get going. With music and movies it’s been true for years that you can get them free except when they’re extremely obscure. And papers are even easier to pirate. When people start doing this in earnest publishers will have to change, like it or not.

  2. There definitely is a tension between the need for university professors to “publish or perish” and the attempt to maintain high standards of scholarly publications.

    Furthermore, access to academic publications to the general public has decreased – before the advent of the Internet, anyone could go into a university library and find scholarly papers in the journals on the stacks. Now, with everything digitalized, there is no longer access to these journals unless you have a university password. Given that our taxes support the universities, it seems unfair to withhold access from those who do not pay their dues to the university (students) or receive a salary from them (faculty and others). There are other professionals not connected with universities who need to be able to keep up with current research.

    How will this be resolved?